11-Foot-Wide Georgetown House Can't Contain Architect's Ingenuity

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff writer
Thursday, January 1, 2009

For years, Marilyn Stern was obsessed with an 11-foot-wide 1877 house in Georgetown. It wasn't roomy, but it packed a lot of charm on its three floors and had a treetop vista of the Potomac River from the cozy master bedroom on the top floor.

"I'd been eyeing the house for years. I knew it had wonderful light and a fantastic view," says Stern, a Washington architect and inventor. "I measured it years before I bought it. I always imagined myself living there."

Two years ago, Stern was able to buy the diminutive house when, by a stroke of luck, it turned out one of her friends knew the owners, who had decided to sell. Now her dream house has become a laboratory for her many innovative design ideas.

Stern's challenge was to make the most of the historical details of the rooms in a budget-conscious renovation. The biggest job was moving the kitchen from the second floor to the first, so it would be near the dining room. "I had to make sure each floor didn't end up looking like a tunnel, because the house is 55 feet long," Stern says. She banished the 1970s magenta and lime on the walls and had the basement dug out. Cursed with the unusual problem of two large fireplaces in awkward locations, she had them removed to make more room for sleeping accommodations for her three grown daughters when they visit.

The house basically has two good-size rooms per floor with a hallway in between. The first floor has the dining room and kitchen, the second floor the living room and library/guest room, and the third floor the master bedroom and a design studio for her firm, Myres/Stern Architecture/Design, which overlooks her leafy Georgetown street.

Stern had a special vision for the kitchen, which is part of a new facet of her design business. "I want to make over kitchens that bridge the gap between Home Depot and Poggenpohl," she says. "I want to create a custom look at not a custom price." She talks of standard cabinetry with unusual doors and hardware, such as drilled geodes, which are mineral chunks. For her own kitchen, she used Ikea cabinets faced with antique Chinese fruitwood court doors she had bought at an auction years ago. She installed stainless-steel-fronted kitchen drawers, again Ikea, and found carved yak bones on eBay to turn into drawer pulls. The room is sophisticated, yet exotic.

Stern also used off-the-rack Ikea cabinets and shelves in her dining room and library and had them installed by her carpenter to look like more-expensive custom built-ins. "I have a dish problem," says Stern, laughing as she opens one of her built-in storage cabinets to show the neatly stacked collections of opalescent Italian dinner plates, white-and-gold Limoges services and Fornasetti china.

Creative details are among Stern's specialties, and she has tucked delightful ones throughout her house. She is very proud of her invention of a hardware assembly for curtains that involved no sewing. Cream panels in the bedroom and the Palladian blue living room curtains from Restoration Hardware look elegant hanging from her invention. In the library/guest room, she has retrofitted two tiny spotlights to make it more efficient for reading in bed, using a small round mirror on a wire. An antique wood-block print in a heavy medieval-style frame hangs by means of a sleek counterweight system she devised.

On the western face of the house, the double porches are small but ideal for festive lunches under the trees.

"When I got the call that I could buy the house, I realized that I was much more comfortable with it as a dream rather than a reality," she recalls. "But now, I would love to stay here forever. I really love being up high. It's like my little nest in the sky."

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