Dream House

On the Riverfront

An Alexandria couple renovated their brick ranch to make the most of its rear view: the Potomac River.
By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008

Kirsten Madison and Matthew Dyckman bought their Alexandria brick ranch house in 2002 because of its rear vista: The Potomac River runs through it.

But inside the unremarkable, 1959 two-story tract home high above the George Washington Memorial Parkway, the view wasn't so terrific. Three tiny bedrooms chopped up the first floor, the pine paneling was lame, the lower level was dark and used mainly for storage, and the house had no relationship to the outdoors.

The couple knew an interior gut job was in order. But they were not interested in blowing out the home's comfortable 2,500-square-foot footprint that felt just roomy enough for them and their two dogs. They just wanted to love the inside as much as the panorama outside. In 2005, they put in a call to architect Andreas Charalambous of Washington's Forma Design, whose work they had seen in this newspaper.

"The house wasn't working for them, but they knew the potential was there," says Charalambous, whose open-plan renovation simplified the space in a clean, modern way.

Now, the ever-changing river view is a part of almost every corner of the house. On the top floor, three tiny bedrooms morphed into one large master bedroom suite with a luxurious bathroom and walls of closets. The rest of the main floor became a spacious living, cooking and entertaining area. The house has one story in front and two in the back, but the previous occupants had used the lower level more like a basement, so the renovation reworked it into a family room and snug library with an adjoining guest bedroom and bath.

Dyckman, 39, and Madison, 40, had bought the house after a real-estate search that focused on property by the water not far beyond the Capital Beltway. The couple, who started dating in high school, grew up in Naples, Fla., and enjoy sailing. "D.C. is very frenetic," Madison says. "People are going, going, going. There is something about looking out at the water that is soothing."

Dyckman, a lawyer, and Madison, a State Department deputy assistant secretary, wrote an essay for Charalambous about their dreams for the place. The one-page e-mail discussed jazzing up the entry, bringing in natural light, adding color and creating a kitchen with lots of counter space. Although they wanted openness, they didn't want to lose little places to retreat to.

They wrote to the architect, "You seemed to specialize in freeing a more modern home from the confines of inappropriate traditional fixtures." Translation: Dump the mint green bathroom tiles, chair rails, louvered doors and Colonial fireplace surrounds.

They lived in the house for four years before the renovation began, relishing the sunrises and sunsets, the kayakers and the occasional eagle. "It was like an ever-changing landscape painting outside our windows," Madison says.

They moved out for 10 months in fall 2006 for the construction. In July 2007, they returned to a changed indoor landscape brimming with modern materials including bamboo floors, stainless-steel backsplashes and concrete fireplaces. Accent walls popped with the colors of celadon, midnight blue and sun-dried tomato.

Madison wanted her kitchen to be contemporary and functional, yet reflect the warmth she felt cooking with her Italian grandmother. She got one dramatic entertaining zone containing an open kitchen with lots of stone counters, a dining area with a glass table that expands to seat 12 and a living area with a balcony out to the water view. The arrangement is perfect for a group of friends or just the two of them for a Sunday supper of homemade manicotti and hanging out with dogs Travis and Bear.

The airy master bedroom suite became a place to sleep or lounge on two chaises with a view of the water on one side. The bathroom has a playful watery theme: sea-foam green glass wall tiles, frosted glass panels and river-stone floor tiles. The two sinks face the water. At the couple's 5 a.m. wake-up call, they look out on orange and pink skies.

The dark and drab entry hall has been replaced with a well-lit foyer. "There was no place to arrive," Charalambous recalls. "It was just a corridor." Instead of walls cut up by clunky closets and doorways, a series of paintings on either side of the hall dead-ends in a bright green wall. As you turn right or left, the Potomac hits you in the face.

"We love the fact that when you walk in, there is an element of surprise," Dyckman says. "But we also love the fact that outside, the place still looks like a 1959 ranch house."

Design 101: Accent Walls

Painting one wall in a room a different color from the other three helps define a space and creates a focal point. Three bold accent walls are part of the sleek new interior that architect Andreas Charalambous created for the Dyckman-Madison ranch house in Alexandria.

The entry hall was painted Benjamin Moore Chartreuse to greet guests and then guide them around the corner and down to the lower level. This hot green wall pops out when the front door is opened.

The living-dining area's midnight blue accent wall (Benjamin Moore Deep Mulberry) provides a backdrop for the concrete fireplace and sets off the white Artichoke pendant lamp (a 1958 Danish modern classic) over the dining table.

A Benjamin Moore Navajo Red accent wall divides the family room and study. Even the pocket doors that pull out from each side are red.

Jura Koncius

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