The couple’s desire to remain in the family home where they raised their two sons is common among the nation’s 77 million baby boomers. According to a 2010 survey conducted by AARP, about 75 percent of adults 45 and older want to live in their current homes for as long as possible.
For Gittens, 68, and Lawson, 66, staying put meant modernizing the kitchen and living spaces without losing the home’s historic details. The 1909 rowhouse was designed by architect Nicholas R. Grimm, who helped shape such District neighborhoods as Bloomingdale, Foggy Bottom and Mount Pleasant.
“This is the reason we bought the house in the first place,” says Lawson, pointing to the living room’s framed doorways and ornate mantel.
While making the changes, the couple purged many of their belongings, so much so that some of the rooms resemble an empty nest. To say the kitchen and living spaces are clutter-free is an understatement.
“We wanted a streamlined design without a lot of useless stuff,” says Gittens, the founder and director of FilmFest D.C., the annual movie festival, now in its 27th year. “I’m not interested in living in a furniture gallery.”
The back of the house, where most of the recent remodeling took place, is now a minimalist’s delight. All-white finishes in the kitchen are designed to maximize daylight from tall windows in the long, narrow space. Snowy, German-made laminate countertops are left bare, and cabinets have no visible hardware to interfere with their clean lines.
The ultra-modern kitchen and adjacent seating area also showcase two of six televisions in the home. “I actually need to watch ‘Downton Abbey’ — it’s my professional responsibility,” says Lawson with a laugh.
Gittens often uses the flat-screen TVs to preview movies for FilmFest D.C., scheduled this year for April 11-21. “I have even taken advantage of dinner guests to show them films we are considering and get their opinion,” he says. The couple often entertains at the dining table built into the kitchen island — all in white, including the chairs.
In renovating, the homeowners initially thought they would have to add onto the house to get the subtractive look. “We started with the idea of a bigger kitchen and expanding outward,” says Gittens. “We wanted to be able to have large dinner parties,” adds Lawson.
A search of local design talent led them to Reena Racki, a South African-born architect, who insisted on making better use of the existing space rather extending it.
“The house was very long and dark,” says Racki, whose D.C. office is in the Chevy Chase Arcade. “An addition would have made it even longer and darker. We decided to strategically erase walls to open the space to light.”
At the back of the main level, the original kitchen, a staircase leading to the basement and a small bathroom were demolished to open a large area for the new kitchen and “family room” — a seating nook for watching TV. A powder room was created off the foyer.
The rear wall of the kitchen was punctured to accommodate floor-to-ceiling glass and allow more sunshine to reach the interior. A glass door on one side opens to the back yard where a brick patio is bordered by a tiny garden planted with a holly tree.
Racki says part of her job was making the most of the budget supplied by the homeowners, who spent about $200,000 on the renovation. “We thought about cutting holes through the roof and floors to bring light into the center of the house, but that was too costly,” says the architect. “We decided on a simple space with light maple floors and white surfaces to amplify and reflect the light.”
Helping to brighten the kitchen are new windows above the sink, next to the refrigerator and on the side of the TV-watching space. Instead of shading the glass with curtains or blinds, Racki placed pots of bamboo in front them to act as screens.
On the long side of the kitchen, a new wall was constructed at a slight angle to direct the light from the windows deeper into the interior. It is thick enough to conceal structural columns, an electrical panel and pantry cupboards.
Small niches fitted with lights and painted in pops of different colors animate the wall. This design treatment extends outdoors in white cement-board fencing punctuated with a single orange niche.
“They remind me of the sprocket holes in film or the openings for movie projectors,” says Lawson of the wall niches.
Racki sees the bright recesses as another way to bring light into the center of the room and establish visual counterpoints to the media equipment on the wall. “They act to balance the presence of the TV so they don’t become the primary focus,” she says.
On the second floor, the back bedroom over the kitchen was remodeled into an office for Gittens with a built-in desk, shelving and flooring of recycled oak.
A custom-designed Murphy bed on one wall can be pulled down for guests. New floor-to-ceiling glass, an extension of the kitchen window wall, provides a wide view of a nearby apartment building like a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.”
The homeowners had remodeled their second-level master and guest bathrooms in the mid-2000s and were able to add heated floors to these spaces while ceilings on the first floor were opened to fix structural problems.
During the most disruptive phases of the six-month renovation during 2011, Gittens and Lawson traveled to the Middle East for three weeks before subletting an apartment in Columbia Heights for two months. “That helped us understand we didn’t need all our things,” says Lawson.
While remodeling, the homeowners jettisoned furniture, oriental rugs, African masks, copper pots and other stuff collected over decades. “For me, the minimalizing isn’t quite done,” admits Lawson, on a tour of her “woman cave,” a cozy, third-floor bedroom where some possessions are stored.
On the main level, the homeowners redecorated to create a modern look even in spaces framed in old woodwork. The front living room, one of the few spaces in the house without a TV, is updated with low-slung Scandinavian sofas and chairs, and an acrylic coffee table from CB2.
In the sitting area off the kitchen, reproductions of 1960s chairs and midcentury coffee table by Danish designer Hans Wegner are paired with a contemporary sofa and a shag rug from Bo Concept in Georgetown.
Lining the wall separating the remodeled kitchen from the stair hall is built-in Ikea shelving to display what is left of the couple’s book collection. No artwork or personal memorabilia decorates the walls of the main-floor rooms.
Gittens says maintaining the clean surfaces in the spartan rooms “has almost become a spiritual discipline” for him. “Removing from our space what does not belong there allows us to better appreciate what does belong there.”
Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.