Narrow Thinking

By Jill Hudson Neal
Sunday, April 23, 2006

How Jack Sammis turned the skinniest house in Alexandria into a place where he and his guests could stretch out and relax

Virginia businessman Jack Sammis is an expert on living large in small spaces. As the president of an international meeting company, the 61-year-old -- who grew up in a narrow Baltimore rowhouse -- can afford expansive quarters, but chooses to keep his homes pint-size: He lives in a North Arlington townhouse, owns a cozy cottage in the South of France and is eyeing a tiny place in a historic Charleston, S.C., neighborhood as his next pied-a-terre.

But the prize in his burgeoning crown is a slip of a house on Queen Street in Alexandria. At just 350 square feet, the two-story, seven-foot-wide abode is a charming curiosity: Standing in the living room, many adults can nearly touch both opposite brick walls simply by stretching out their arms. "I don't know why, but there's just something about a small house," Sammis says. "They're really cozy, and, for a single guy, they work out pretty good."

In the mid-1980s, Sammis worked two blocks from the house and would pass by almost daily en route to lunch or business appointments in Old Town. "I always walked that way just to look at the house because I was just intrigued by it," says Sammis, who is divorced. "One Sunday, I saw a small ad in the paper that described this little house, and I knew which one it was immediately. I got in my car and went down there to the open house and bought it that day."

At first, "I didn't know what I wanted to do with it," Sammis says of the property, which cost him $135,000 in 1990. "I knew I wouldn't live in it full time. It just seemed like too good of an opportunity to pass up." The house now sees more of out-of-town guests and business associates than of Sammis himself, who stays there during holidays and weekends with his 15-year-old son, Jake.

Built in 1830, the brick structure has been used off-and-on as a family home and a school. It was originally constructed by a frustrated bricklayer named John Hollensbury, who wanted to keep carriages and loiterers out of the narrow alley next to his rowhouse. Sammis began a major renovation soon after his purchase, calling in a local contractor who knew how to update the space while preserving its 19th-century character.

He also hired family friend Matt Hannan, 43, an interior design consultant based in Quicksburg, Va., to transform the postage stamp-size back yard into a garden. That small project quickly expanded to include the house's interior, with the goal of developing the warm vibe of a country house in France, one of Sammis's favorite destinations. To oversee the work, Hannan himself lived in the house during the year-long project, frequenting nearby shops and entertaining curious friends and neighbors.

Living in such a confined area was a challenge, "but it didn't bother me at first," Hannan says. After a year, though, he realized, "you're always picking up after yourself . . . once you start messing things up, you have no place to hide it."

Before the renovation, the home's lack of storage space was a big concern, so Sammis had new wood cabinets built in the kitchen and the upstairs hall, which also hide a hot water heater and stacked washer/dryer combo. The original moldings and oak floors were preserved, and finishing touches such as paint color and trim work were kept true to the pre-Civil War era. But there were also contemporary additions, namely central air conditioning and a TV cabinet in the bedroom.

Bulky furniture could not fit through the narrow front door, so Hannan shopped at local antique stores for small, all-purpose pieces suitable for Sammis's frequent cocktail and dinner parties.

The lack of space also gave a leading role to the outdoor area. "It's a living space that increases the square footage of the house," Hannan says of the 12-foot-long brick patio. "It's a great place to have a glass of wine and read a book. And when the weather's nice, you can keep that door open all the time." Today, Sammis entertains regularly in the patio garden, even hosting small, catered lunches for business clients.

With the renovation complete, the house is a featured stop for tour buses creeping through Old Town Alexandria's historic residential district. The worn brick sidewalk outside often teems with tourists who stop to take pictures and even knock on the front door to request a look inside.

"People are so curious about the house and just want to see how anyone would be able to live here," Sammis says. "So if they knock, I let 'em in. Well, sometimes."

Jill Hudson Neal is the Magazine's design editor.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company