Order in the Courtyard
A rowhouse renovation restores style to a city landscape

By Adrian Higgins
Sunday, September 21, 2008

In an age when domestic landscapes have become petrified shrines to "outdoor living," Jennifer McCarthy's new garden offers proof that a space can be highly structured without being hard-edged.

From the rear door of her 1915 brick rowhouse in Columbia Heights, an entirely different experience awaits the 38-year-old lawyer than the one of just a few months ago. Until recently, the view was of a yard framed in dull wooden privacy fencing and, beyond, of the skyline of the apartment block across the alley.

Today, the journey out the back door is down elegantly light stairs of iron and exotic wood into an inviting terrace embraced by masonry walls stuccoed an ocher color tinged with orange.

Outdoor furniture centers a space given form by plant beds, seat walls and a delicate, open iron pergola that creates a dramatic grid against the sky.

A stand of black bamboo, named for its dark slender stems, grows through the pergola, and beds of ground covers hide the bases of the walls. In time, these plantings will thicken, and the walls will be softened by a fine-leafed creeping fig, but this is essentially an architectural room in which the flora plays a supporting role.

A key part of the brief for the landscape architect, Katia Goffin, was a space where McCarthy and her housemates, her sisters Meg and Johannah, could relax and entertain. "You don't have a lot of space," said Goffin, "and if you're going to entertain, you can minimize the green and still have it feel cozy."

Success relied on attention to scale and detail, and a client who played an active role in the design. For McCarthy, who has lived in the house for three years, there is another, less apparent thrill to the makeover: fresh memories of what it replaced.

The original deck was a plodding structure of pressure-treated wood, twice the size of its successor, and with stairs that ran almost the entire length of the lot. Above it, a second-story door was a reminder of an upper deck that had been removed. As part of the new garden renovation, the door to nowhere was replaced with a window.

The new, custom-designed deck is a refined pairing of black iron -- strong but light -- and Brazilian ipe wood in a honeyed brown color. Ipe is elegant but tough, and it plays to the color schemes in the terrace below. The garage at the end of the lot was rebuilt and its wall moved back a little to enlarge the rear garden.

Goffin, who works for Scott Brinitzer Design Associates in Arlington, played with the space back in the design studio. "When you start drawing, it's almost instinctual, how open or closed it should be. You get the proportion right, and then you fill in the blanks. Is it a planter, a bench? It all comes together like a beautiful puzzle."

Two features considered but rejected were broad stairs down to the basement apartment (changed to a set of steps attached to the house) and a pond and waterfall along one wall. Instead, Goffin and McCarthy settled on a panel of stone on the west-facing stucco wall. It suggests a waterfall, and it darkens and glistens in the rain or when water is played on it for effect.

The water feature, McCarthy figured, while cooling and soothing, would need more maintenance than she could provide. She is a lawyer for a San Diego-based telecommunications company and splits her time between Washington and Southern California, where she has another house.

She and Goffin worked closely on the masonry fabric of the garden and its adjoining structures. The patio is paved with rectangular bluestone flags chosen for their near-uniform color, at a premium. The seat walls and feature wall are faced in a quartz stone in sparkling shades of gray, blue and golden brown, and all the walls are topped with a thick, creamy tan cap of Tennessee sandstone. The house is painted a harmonious shade of orange that is darker than the stuccoed walls. The earth tones also change with the light.

Complementary hues of subtle oranges and blues, and the smoothness of the textures, save this space from the brooding heaviness of so many of today's constructed gardens, where tons of stacked fieldstone become the defining feature and impose a grating rustic character on a city setting. Here, the sense of contemporary, high design honors the urban edginess of a reborn neighborhood. And the modern features don't clash with the period architecture of the house.

Goffin said another vital aspect of a successful urban garden is attention to detail, and she points out a grout line that aligns from an outside corner of a seat wall to the cheek wall of the stairs to the basement several feet away.

Another effective element is the pergola, which acts as a stake for the bamboo stems growing through it. The bamboo veils the neighboring apartment building without trying to obliterate it. It also screens the otherwise unsettling pitch of the garage roof against the new straight walls on either side of it.

"It's amazing how you can sometimes fix things without going overboard," Goffin said, "and treating it with a light touch."

McCarthy's new front garden is much less edgy, more in keeping with a neighborhood that is going through the same journey of revitalization that other areas of Northwest have witnessed over the past decade.

The front is edged with yew hedging and 17 Knock Out rosebushes, and replaces a yard marked by an overgrown plum and a dogwood tree. A young crape myrtle tree will become a specimen to balance the house when viewed from across the street. This subdued public garden plays a supporting role to the facade of the house. McCarthy replaced the front porch's dated ironwork pillars with wooden posts and then painted the exterior trim of the house in an eye-catching medley of five colors. Most of the facade is a dark brick red, but it is highlighted with cream and three harmonious shades of green. She painted much of it herself, sometimes perched from the garret window.

McCarthy said she brought the same analytical approach to the project as she does to her work as a government affairs lawyer. "I wanted to understand both the idea behind the design and the construction methodology behind it," she said. In renovating her San Diego house, she insisted on working closely with the contractor. "Understanding what you're doing and trying to accomplish and how it goes together helps you make better decisions about the design."

"She asks you the questions as a designer that allow you to give her a better design," said Goffin.

"I'm not a control freak," said McCarthy, bursting into laughter. "I'm addicted to progress."

In her secluded rear garden, she likes to sit and watch the west-facing wall glow with the late-day sun. It reminds her, she says, of the light on the stucco houses of San Diego, far off in distance but now much closer in spirit.

Adrian Higgins is the gardening columnist for The Post's Home section. He can be reached at higginsa@washpost.com.

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