Doris Gordon and Jim Martin weren't looking for love when it found them. Nor were they seeking to make a dramatic architectural statement when they traded two apartments for a larger one in the Northumberland, a historic cooperative on New Hampshire just off 16th Street NW. But life's sweetest moments are often steeped in serendipity, and great design has frequently been more than the sum of anyone's first intentions.
"I had to remodel the apartment to make her stay," Martin explains as he pours prosecco in their fifth-floor aerie.
Classical acanthus leaf motifs still flourish in the ground-floor lobby of this 1909 landmark apartment building, a legacy of developer Harry Wardman. But upstairs, the Gordon-Martin apartment has been stripped of virtually all of its moldings and freed from tradition. Sheets of industrial hot-rolled steel cover partitions and cabinetry. Wardman's architect, Albert H. Beers, would not recognize the floor plan. To achieve the living space the couple wanted, their designer, Robert Cole, took down every interior wall and started over.
Gordon and Martin did much the same with their lives, jettisoning possessions as they started a new life together. "We began our married life here," she says. "Literally from our wedding, we came up here."
Their story of romance and rehab began 11 years ago, when Gordon went before the co-op board seeking permission to rent. She is a Philadelphia native with the flaxen-haired elegance of a Grace Kelly and had studied cooking in London and Paris before abandoning New York for a job here in health care. The Northumberland's Beaux-Arts architecture and the burgeoning U Street neighborhood resonated with her urban sensibilities. And the rental unit came with a modern kitchen.
Martin had arrived here from Miami eight years earlier to work as an astronomer for the Naval Observatory. He was retired, widowed and serving on the co-op board, when Gordon made her appeal.
"I cast the deciding vote," he says.
Before long, the two were sharing his passions for stargazing and poetry, and sampling her Le Cordon Bleu-trained talent for pastry. It is worth noting that Whole Foods had yet to open on P Street NW, and Gordon was still pining for artisanal cheeses, when a rare three-bedroom unit came up for sale in 2000. The take-it-or-leave-it proposition required twin commitments of marriage and renovation. The tiny, outdated kitchen was forbidding to a would-be chef who dreamed of teaching master classes from home, so Martin promised Gordon a new one. It became the ultimate wedding gift.
"She makes a really wonderful flourless chocolate cake," Martin points out.
In the beginning, a kitchen was all the couple asked of Cole, an award-winning architect who works with his wife, Sophie Prevost. But after viewing the 1,850-square-foot apartment, with its 10-foot ceilings and seven 6-foot-by-6-foot windows on three exposures, Cole suggested catapulting the rest of the space into the 21st century, too.
"He was willing to show us what could happen," Martin says. "It was more than we had expected to do, but it blew us away."
"It was exciting," Gordon remembers. "He approached it as a whole."