For owners, small Cleveland Park cottage was something to build on

June 22, 2012

The Greek Revival cottage stood for more than eight decades as one of the smallest dwellings in Cleveland Park. But its diminutive stature didn’t deter Cynthia Ferranto and John Welsh from buying the 700-square-foot home, originally intended as a schoolhouse, and eventually expanding it with a three-level addition.

“It was like a little Greek temple, an odd house,” said Welsh, who works for a nonprofit developer of affordable housing. “We knew there was a lot of potential here and decided to sacrifice size to live in this neighborhood.”

Realizing the potential of the unusual property, however, was not an easy process for the homeowners. After about five years of fits and starts, they settled on the addition’s design and secured the required approvals from the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board for the construction permit.

Like many buyers attracted to fixer-uppers, the couple managed to snag the house in 2000 for a great price, $200,000, but soon discovered widespread problems.

“The bathtub was falling through the floor, the kitchen had no refrigerator, the plaster walls were crumbling and the bedroom was cut into two,” recalled Ferranto, a landscape architect who runs her business from home.

So before moving in, the homeowners undertook some basic remodeling to improve the interiors. They started by upgrading the bathroom, reinforcing the floors and replacing the tub with a shower stall. Welsh did most of the work, installing the sink, faucets, toilet and black-and-white tile.

In the kitchen, the couple replaced an oven with a small refrigerator, and they demolished an internal wall in the bedroom to enlarge the space.

“We made all the plaster repairs on the walls ourselves, repaired broken window panes and painted the entire interior of the house,” Welsh said.

From those renovations, the homeowners eventually built a wing at the rear. It took three designs and a lot of patience on their part to win over the city’s exacting preservation review boards.

The couple’s first step in adding on was to ask an architect friend to develop a solution, only to be disappointed with his idea.

“We rejected his conceptual design on its face and decided it was not worth following up,” Welsh said. “He took a contemporary approach, which was not in keeping with the house or neighborhood.”

About a year later, the homeowners turned to another architect and presented her proposal to the Cleveland Park Historical Society’s Architectural Review Committee.

The group rejected the design.

“The facade was too contemporary and heavy,” Welsh recalled. The review committee, he said, “noted the improper use of stone.”

“As a result, we moved ahead slowly,” Ferranto said. “We abandoned the project for two years.”

Historic experience

The homeowners eventually went looking for a new architect to develop a design more respectful of their little “temple.” They turned to District firm Treacy & Eagleburger Architects, based on its experience renovating and expanding historic houses in the neighborhood.

Architects Jane Treacy and Phil Eagleburger are married and live and work in Cleveland Park. Eagleburger has been a member of the neighborhood’s architectural review committee for about a dozen years. His design of the Ferranto/Welsh addition was approved in 2005 by the committee (Eagleburger recused himself from the proceedings), the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission and the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board.

“It is critical [for homeowners living in historic districts] to hire a local architect who has successfully completed a project submitted to the local historic review committee and the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board,” Welsh said.

By the time the homeowners selected Treacy & Eagleburger, they had researched the history of their house and discovered an unusual provenance. One of their finds is a 1928 letter from the District government to the property owner at the time. It notes that the building permit for the original structure was issued in 1921 for a “one-story frame primary school,” not a house.

“We’re not sure it was ever used for that purpose,” Ferranto said.

The letter urges the owner to move the structure back from the street “because of its illegal projection [nearly three feet] beyond the building restriction line.”

Standing on the front porch of their home, Ferranto and Welsh point out the quirky solution to this problem. In being pushed back, the front of the house now slants to be parallel with the street rather than being set at right angles to its side walls. The couple assumes the facade was skewed to allow for more space in the living room just inside the front door.

Other documents collected by the homeowners show that a rear addition was constructed in 1928 and an enclosed porch extended from that back wing around the 1950s.

“We thought it was in the spirit of the house to keep adding on,” Ferranto said.

Eagleburger responded by designing a three-story addition to the small structure that is similarly clad in German lap siding.

Such a combination of a one-story house and taller rear wing, the architect says, is similar to the camelback shotgun houses built on the narrow lots of New Orleans.

Like the homes in that city, the Cleveland Park cottage was originally one room wide with doors lined up down the center of the house. This arrangement is called a “shotgun” because a bullet fired through the front door could go straight through the house and out the back door.

Rising behind the 1920s house, the camelback addition provides a kitchen, a family room and a master suite within a compact wing that is visually sympathetic to the one-story cottage. From the street, it appears to be only one story taller than the main part of the house; the architect set the structure into the slope of the site so its full three stories are revealed at the back. New windows look similar to the tall openings in the main part of the house, and a pyramidal roof repeats the peaked shape of the old pediment and roof gable.

“The primary goal was to be efficient and rational in providing the necessary functions while still maintaining a sense of the nice, open rooms,” Eagleburger said.

What’s inside

Inside the original structure, the architect preserved the living room, bathroom and bedroom and created a hallway on one side leading to the rear wing. The staircase connecting the main level to the walk-out basement and upper-floor bedroom suite forms a transitional space between the old and new parts of the house.

Just behind the stairs, the added kitchen opens to a small porch overlooking the back yard. Butcher-block tables for prepping and dining are arranged in the center of the room, and a leather club chair nests next to the fireplace.

“We spend a lot of time here, but also in the living-dining room for the winter months and holidays,” said Welsh, pointing to the original fireplace near the front door.

Upstairs, the new master bedroom and bathroom are reached from a hallway extending along the front of the addition. The bedroom has its own balcony, but the owners said they prefer the porch downstairs.

At the basement level, the addition provides a walk-out family room by being set into the lowest point of the site. The new space connects to an office for Ferranto, a guest room and a utility space extending under the original house. Like the kitchen, it centers on a fireplace and provides access to the outdoors. Sliding doors across the back wall open to a lush garden.

Ferranto designed the landscape around a circle of grass bordered by granite cobblestones.

“It’s a geometric shape that contrasts with the woods beyond,” she said while gesturing to the trees of Melvin C. Hazen Park just behind the property.

Clustered around the lawn are shade-tolerant plants and a grouping of Adirondack chairs.

Even though it has grown by about 1,500 square feet, the home still feels cozy and eccentric. Furnishings are a mix of antiques, some from family, and newer sofas and chairs.

“Since the house is small, most of the furniture doubles as vessels of some sort for storage,” Ferranto said.

Wherever possible, the couple reused elements from the original home to maintain its historic character. Tall, built-in shelving next to the side entrance was reoriented on the living-room wall facing the front door. A section of a window from the 1950s porch addition was recycled into a clerestory in the master bathroom to bring in daylight from the hallway. Plaster brackets from original doorways now ornament the archways in the family room

Ferranto said, “I like the patina of old things and keeping the connection to history.”

Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.

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