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By Jeff Turrentine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 30, 2004; Page H01

Here's a fun experiment: Ask a typical Washingtonian whether she'd rather live in a modernist house or a traditionalist house. Note how often words such as "chilly" and "soulless" are used to describe the former, and how often terms such as "warm" and "inviting" are invoked to characterize the latter.

Then ask how she'd like to live in a house with windows that maximize light and effectively obliterate the line between indoors and out, with an open floor plan that encourages family interaction, and with uncluttered furnishings designed not only to look nice, but also to perform with the greatest efficiency. Watch her nod approvingly as she ratifies, one after another, the same modernist tenets that guided the 20th century's greatest architects, from Le Corbusier to Mies van der Rohe to Philip Johnson.

An award-winning Meditch Murphey design in Millbrook, N.Y. (Max Mackenzie)

Husband-and-wife architects John Murphey and Marcie Meditch are modernists -- but they're also pragmatists. The pair, based in Chevy Chase, know that homeowners around here are fond of their center-hall Colonials, Cape Cods and Victorian rowhouses. But they also know that when commissioning a renovation or an addition, these same people invariably ask for the light, airiness and openness that are modernism's gifts to home design.

Since 2002 -- when they quietly set up shop as Meditch Murphey after years of winning awards and acclaim at other firms -- the couple has received several commissions to build from the ground up. More often, though, they're asked to create generously proportioned yet harmonious additions, or to open up the warrenlike interiors that define so many of the area's traditional homes, "taking down walls and creating larger spaces, or sometimes making one large space," says Meditch. Her husband and partner seems mystified that people in this day and age will still tolerate houses that are "so chopped up. Nobody lives like that anymore."

Though their practice is young, their combined experience is extensive -- and already filled with enviable triumphs. As a project architect at Quinn Evans Architects during the mid-1990s, Meditch led a team overseeing the renovation of the dilapidated Pope-Leighey House in Alexandria, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1939. The project entailed the structure's dismantling, repair and cleaning of its component parts, then its careful relocation and reassembly on firmer ground.

"We took that house apart brick by brick, nail by nail, and surveyed every piece of it," says Meditch, who describes the total immersion in Wright's idiosyncratic genius as "exhilarating. The longer I worked on it, the more my respect for him grew. I felt like I came to understand what he was thinking." Her work netted an award from the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

By that point, Murphey had signed on with Hugh Newell Jacobsen, the dean of Washington architects, and helped him win a national AIA award for a house in the Dominican Republic. Later, after joining SmithGroup, he won plaudits for his design of the Residences at Terrell Place, a loft-style condominium complex in downtown Washington.

After their long apprenticeships, Meditch and Murphey are now parlaying their experience into a small but busy practice that reflects their affinity for what Meditch calls "warm modernism" -- and allows them total freedom.

"It just seemed like the natural next step," says Meditch, 53. They relish the challenge of grafting the new onto the old. Showing a reporter the model for a project in Takoma Park -- a sleek, streamlined rear addition for a standard-issue, red-brick Cape Cod -- Murphey, 52, proffers his theory of elevation through juxtaposition.

Putting these two seemingly incongruous styles next to each other "makes each one look a little bit better," he says. The new addition will "make the older building seem more literal -- it will read more. It's like exhibiting a nice piece of Biedermeier furniture in an empty, white-walled museum space."

Another addition, near downtown Bethesda, was inspired by the work of Richard Neutra, the California architect whose innovations with glass, steel and cantilever technology helped define the entire notion of mid-century modern. Just outside Washington, Va., the pair is erecting a contemporary link between two older barnlike buildings, creating a single residence that will bridge structures, materials and eras.

Last month the two brought home their first jointly earned AIA/DC Award of Excellence, for a guesthouse built for clients in New York's Hudson Valley.

Luck has played a big part in getting the pair started in Washington. Murphey was given his first job on an airplane, over drinks with an architect next to whom he'd serendipitously been seated. Meditch could never have worked on the Pope-Leighey House, a career-making commission, had she not been in the right place at the right time.

Now, says Murphey, "we feel lucky to be able do our own thing. We love our work -- we can't wait to get here in the morning."

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