For Chinatown townhouse, D.C. architect Robert Gurney creates bright, eclectic space

May 20, 2011

Perhaps it’s unusual to look at an example of modern architecture and think of it as a “confection,” a term more commonly used for Queen Anne Victorians. But that’s what residences designed by architect Robert M. Gurney so often are: elegant assemblages of materials — concrete, steel, glass, exotic wood — that play nicely together. 

In the case of the townhouse Gurney designed for Max and Katharine Brown, it’s a confection that also serves as a soccer field for the Browns’ two lively young boys and as a downtown coffee shop. And, this townhouse didn’t start out as a townhouse.

On a block in D.C.’s Chinatown, the three-story commercial building has a sober limestone facade interrupted at street level by a glass storefront that looks in on Chinatown Coffee Co. A discreet door on one side leads to the family home upstairs. The pastiche of color and materials that defines the family floors can’t be guessed at by just walking past.

When the Browns bought the building in 2005, moving from a traditional rowhouse in Georgetown, it was in part to get their sons, now 9 and 10, downtown to a “more diverse, urban” setting, Max Brown says. “We can walk a few blocks to the Verizon Center.”

Brown, who worked in D.C. government in former mayor Anthony A. Williams’s administration, wanted the downstairs as an office for a new business; the family would live “above the store.”

But Brown’s businesses, Bravery Corp. (Web development and advertising) and Group 360 (strategizing for firms such as Zipcar, Medstar and CSX), outgrew the space even before it was ready. So now the Browns — Katharine is a lawyer by training — have three businesses, including the coffee shop downstairs.

The city does not have a rich tradition of manufacturing, but it has its share of old commercial buildings. Once home to a nonprofit group, the structure is 18 feet wide and almost 100 feet deep, basically taking up its entire lot: three full floors of dark, empty space.

Tall and narrow townhouses have depended on skylights for natural light since, well, forever, with the skylight generally situated over an interior staircase, allowing light to spill down onto lower living levels. To turn the building from a commercial space to one that would incorporate light and air, the Browns’ architect had to practically reinvent the skylight.

First he removed a 12-by-18-foot section of the floor above the main living level, allowing for a broad staircase and creating front and back living spaces on the bedroom level, linked by a catwalk. Then he peeled back a similar-size chunk of the roof directly above the staircase, replacing it with a glass ceiling, or mega-skylight. At the rear of the upper floor there’s a staircase that leads to a new roof deck, and that opening lets in even more light. Gurney also opened up the rear facade of the building; it now is an orderly march of handsome, industrial-style windows, bringing in yet more light.

Up on the roof deck level is what the Brown boys call their “up yard,” terraces front and back accessed by window walls that fold up a little like garage doors.

“In nice weather,” Brown says, “this is where we hang out.”

When the weather is not so nice, the family can be found on the main living level, often in front of a gas fireplace toward the front of the building. It’s an airy space with a sofa and chairs, and it segues seamlessly into a dining area defined by one long table and a clutch of red dining chairs. Then comes the very modern kitchen, with appliances ranged along one wall and a stainless-steel island parallel to them. In a cube at the back are a pantry, a powder room and a small den. Upstairs are three bedrooms, two baths and, above that, the “up yard.”

The retrofitting of the building for the Brown family won Gurney an American Housing Award for 2011 from the American Institute of Architects. But when the Browns engaged him for the job, they took away two of the design elements from his usual vocabulary.

“They didn’t want any wood,” the architect says. “And they didn’t want any drywall.”

That left Gurney to devise a new set of materials to play with. One exposed-brick wall is painted white. But the facing wall on the main living level, stretching the length of the house, is covered by rectangular sheets of galvanized steel. The rectangles stand away from the wall just enough that the eye can discern the lime green paint that peeks out between the sheets. 

That green, as subtle as it is, stands in contrast to the main-level floor, which is  covered with a brilliant blue epoxy paint, a commercial product from the Netherlands. Given the stainless-steel wallcovering, the blue is reflected up into the rest of the house, giving it a kind of glow. It also has to stand up to the bright yellow that clads the wall that leads down to the street.

To keep the light shining down from above, Gurney employed some standard dark-townhouse tools: wide stairs without risers, letting the light flow through; minimalist stair handrails of steel cable; and an open-grid catwalk that leads to the master bedroom. Light pours into the master bath, too, but that’s because the wall that separates it from the bedroom, with its big windows, is a sheet of glass, floor to ceiling.

Sitting downstairs in Chinatown Coffee Co. on a recent weekday morning, Brown looks around at the people sipping coffee while working on their laptops. He spots “a GAO lawyer, a Booz Allen consultant, a law student. It’s old Washington and new Washington all together,” he says.

Upstairs is definitely new Washington.

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