The ‘anti-McMansion’ house in Silver Spring
By Nancy McKeon,
Attention, all HGTV “House Hunters” fans who aspire to open-plan living, granite-and-stainless-steel kitchens and master bathrooms the size of the Verizon Center: Meet Chantal Courieut and Mike Fletcher.
This couple — she’s French, he’s a fifth-generation Washingtonian — chose small, separate rooms over wide-open spaces and warm materials over sleek ones. And where the reigning Pottery Barn/Restoration Hardware aesthetic calls for marrying six or seven shades of beige and gray, Courieut and Fletcher splashed saturated color — marigold, sienna, brilliant blue — everywhere in their Silver Spring Cape Cod.
There are comfy sofas and loveseats all over the house, but as for the scale of Restoration Hardware furniture, well, it would dwarf these rooms.
Courieut and Fletcher liked the 1938 house when they bought it in 2002 — it had a living room, kitchen, dining room, two bedrooms and a bath on the main floor and a large unfinished attic space, enough for the couple and their son, Teofan, then 5 — but that’s not to say they weren’t soon bitten by the renovation bug, something of an infectious disease in the Washington area. The infection was transmitted, so to speak, by their next-door neighbor, Martin Bell, now 83 and a retired horticulturist.
“The size of the house was fine,” Fletcher remembers, “and it had a great backyard.” He had no thoughts of adding on. Not that long after they moved in, though, “I came home and Chantal said Mr. Bell told her I could dig footings behind the living room and add a room back there. Chantal and I didn’t know what footings were, but we thought, well, okay.”
As Fletcher and Courieut were to learn, their neighbor had lots of good ideas, and what started as a simple home purchase turned into a nine-year odyssey into construction and interior decoration, encompassing an eclectic collection of folk art, paintings, large French armoires and often fanciful sculptures. But the journey did not end in a big house with rooms of baronial proportions: “The anti-McMansion trend is alive and well in Silver Spring,” Fletcher says. Everything they did, Courieut adds, was true to the original scale and spirit of a little cottage.
In 2002, Fletcher, then a Secret Service agent and now retired, had flown home alone from his posting in Paris in preparation for moving back to Washington. He landed right in the middle of the housing bubble.
“I wanted to live in town, but I was a government worker and I couldn’t afford it,” Fletcher says — nor could he afford Chevy Chase or Bethesda or Kensington. But he could afford the leafy Woodmoor neighborhood in Silver Spring.
Outside, the house was a riot of spring bulbs and flowering shrubs. Inside, though, the place looked like the 1960s.
They purchased the house — for about $400,000 — from a 93-year-old widow who had lived in it since 1939, the year after it was built. Small surprise, then, that the new owners felt the need to update.
“Mr. Bell” pointed out that all around the neighborhood homeowners were busting out the backs of their modest houses and adding “big boxes.” Big spaces were where it was at. Courieut says, “Everybody said, Oh, you can take down this wall” — she points to the wall where the refrigerator stands, just as it did in the room’s earlier incarnation — “and make a big kitchen. But I don’t like a big kitchen.” Hence the kitchen has a new color scheme and 16 sets of vintage canisters — and, yes, a modest amount of granite. But the kitchen maintains the same 10-by-12 footprint it has had since 1938. Next door to the kitchen is the sunny, separate 12-by-12 breakfast room that Courieut and Fletcher resisted incorporating into the kitchen, making room for a mellow old Norman farm table — 23 enameled coffeepots displayed around the room.
The next year they tackled the basement, in part to eke out some play and TV space — there’s no television in the main sitting rooms — for Teo, now 14. They also carved out a separate laundry room.
But all of that was just a run-up to the main act: kicking the car out of the garage and incorporating that space into the house. Today the old garage is the 12-by-18 living room. (The old living room is now the dining room, and the old dining room is the breakfast room. Two rooms for meals allows them to have two antique farm tables, Courieut says happily.)
“No one around here puts their car in the garage anyway,” Fletcher says. “They use the garage for storage.”
The living room, just inside the repositioned front door, now has a double-height gabled ceiling paneled with wood, the height giving the illusion of a larger room. It leads to the following year’s project, the 12-by-15-foot extension to the living room that the Courieut and Fletcher call the “petit salon,” where the gable runs in the opposite direction and is also paneled.
Fletcher did a lot of the work himself — jackhammering the garage slab to make way for footers and a new slab, tiling floors, drywalling and paneling — but he turned to experts, in addition to Mr. Bell, who was always at hand, when he needed to. (All told, the couple estimates they have put about $150,000 into the home, which recently appraised for $648,000.)
They brought in a structural engineer, for instance, to tell them the correct way to tie the new garage roof to the original house. When it came time to add electrical wiring to the new space and upgrade the rest of the house, Fletcher took the course offered by Montgomery County. “You study the electrical code,” he explains, “and if you pass the [county’s Homeowners Electrical Exam], a homeowner can get a permit to do their own electrical work.”
Again Mr. Bell stepped in. “He knew how to wire, and I had the permit, so together we upgraded the whole house,” Fletcher says.
In Fletcher’s life, good things have come from taking courses: You get a permit to wire your own house, you meet the woman who will become your wife. Courieut and Fletcher met back when Fletcher was in president’ Bill Clinton’s Secret Service detail and wanted to be posted abroad. The agency sent him to French classes at the Department of Agriculture graduate school taught by ... of course, Courieut.
Washington led to a New York posting (and their wedding in Normandy), then Paris, then Washington again.
Although Courieut is unapologetic about her insistence on a “closed plan” layout (“I make rooms to be rooms; I want a living room to be a living room”), she had her fling with sprawling spaces in their grandly proportioned government-owned apartment in Paris. Teo learned to ride a two-wheeler in the hallways and interconnected rooms there. (Today, Teo enjoys the largest room in the Silver Spring house: the gabled attic space, which is all navy blue and red and modern Ikea furniture.)
The sun-drenched color palette of the main living level seems not to stem from Courieut’s days in “gray, gray Normandy,” but from years of living in apartments owned by others. The Cape Cod is the first freestanding house either Courieut or Fletcher has lived in since they were kids. And if the abundance of color and sofas (four of them) and armoires (four of those too) and knickknacks betrays their enthusiasm at finding a permanent home, they stand by their home, their hard work and certainly by their neighbor.