A Victorian Home Gets the Modern Touch

Washington architect Todd DeGarmo bought a Victorian house on Capitol Hill and styled the interior for modern living, keeping many of the historical details.
By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 2009

Architect Todd DeGarmo, who is known for his modern designs, never envisioned his dream house as a Victorian. "I think people expect to come to my house and see it's some sleek cube of glass," he says.

But a decade ago, DeGarmo, whose portfolio includes the New York headquarters of Bloomberg and renovation of four wedges of the Pentagon, fell for an 1882 former parsonage on a quiet block of Capitol Hill.

"It was one of those houses you walked by all the time and thought, 'Wow, that would make a great house,' " he says of the then-run-down rowhouse chopped into four apartments. "When the broker unlocked the front door, it was full of light and you could see all the way back to the garden. I had never had a reaction like this, but I could not breathe."

He discovered the two-story brick house was four rooms deep, had original heart-of-pine floors and was built on a double lot. The 12-foot ceilings and generous proportions of the 3,000-square-foot home suited the 6-foot-4 DeGarmo. It was meant to be: The house had gone on the market that day. He phoned his partner, Bill Sales, who works for Amtrak, to ask him to come by. They wrote a check for $50,000 on the spot.

"I'm not an impulsive person," says DeGarmo, chief executive of Studios Architecture, an international design and architecture firm with a D.C. office. "I'm used to making site decisions quickly for hundreds of millions of dollars. I knew this place could be a great urban house."

In four months, DeGarmo drew up a restoration that took the house back to its original one-family mode using a modern approach. He incorporated elements of the original architecture that he found around doorways and behind closets. He created a large living room, dining room, kitchen and den downstairs. At the back, a screened porch opens to the garden. Upstairs, four bedrooms and two spacious baths replaced cut-up rental units. Fourteen dumpsters of debris were hauled out when work began in September 1999; by spring, the completed house was dressed for a party.

And a good thing, too, because this house came with a legacy, what you might call a pre-existing annual bash. For more than 40 years through various owners, 100 neighbors have shown up, dips and desserts in hand, on the day of the Kentucky Derby to savor mint juleps in the garden. "We think it started in the 1960s, and we thought it was a wonderful community tradition," says DeGarmo.

DeGarmo, 53, grew up in Cleveland in a house full of blond Danish furniture. Since the age of 5, he had wanted to be an architect. He has an architecture degree from the University of Cincinnati and began his career in New York at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, honing a specialty in the design of modern corporate interiors. In 1989, he moved to Washington to join Studios Architecture; he still keeps an apartment in Greenwich Village filled with mid-century modern furnishings. Among his projects are the District's environmental education center on Kingman Island and Barry Diller's InterActiveCorp headquarters in New York.

DeGarmo and Sales have lived on the Hill for 20 years and had renovated a rowhouse four blocks away when DeGarmo came upon the new place. The original semi-detached rowhouse had been converted into apartments in 1942 during the Roosevelt administration when large numbers of people flocked to Washington. Over the years, the property had become run-down. "The place had a sort of Grey Gardens quality to it," says DeGarmo.

When the last tenant moved out, DeGarmo was ready to begin. He had assembled building materials and most of the 38 different light fixtures the house would need. He chose the least froufrou Victorian-style chandeliers he could find. "I took from the period what I liked, usually the simplest version of something," he says.

"The house had great flow," says DeGarmo. Having the luxury of so much space, DeGarmo designed lots of generous storage cabinets, built-in bookcases and walk-in closets. He copied the original crown moldings and door casings. He replaced old wiring, plumbing and roofing and added central air conditioning. The Brass Knob and Brass Knob Back Doors Warehouse provided period hinges, doors and radiators. To tone down the orange in the pine floors, DeGarmo painted each room in either a green or beige from Donald Kaufman Color; he chose Kaufman's DKC-4 for the woodwork because it has a touch of yellow.

The kitchen was a crucial project. DeGarmo and Sales wanted room for several people to cook together. The new kitchen has a large granite-top center island and counters 38 inches high to accommodate the two tall residents. DeGarmo is often on the road in Mumbai or Shanghai (or at LaGuardia Airport), so when he's home, he often prefers grilling fresh fish picked up at Eastern Market to going out. They like to entertain, and DeGarmo enjoys telling stories about his late great-uncle Hector Boardi, a chef at the Plaza Hotel in New York and the Greenbrier resort, who was the original Chef Boyardee. They still use his lasagna recipe.

The rooms are arranged with modern furniture mixed with period pieces. The interiors have the look of an elegant 19th-century townhouse in London decorated by someone with a refined 21st-century eye. "The idea of Victorian furniture is horrifying to me," says DeGarmo. In the living room, which has a floor-to-ceiling bay window and an original fireplace with marble mantel, he juxtaposed an 1820s English cane-and-leather chair with a wood-and-glass coffee table of his own design and a George Smith suede club chair.

He sought out vintage-looking wicker and old-fashioned canvas awnings for the screened porch, combining them with tables by Christian Liaigre (wood) and Pottery Barn (metal). He used sea grass rugs throughout. DeGarmo and Sales have a collection of black-and-white photography, some depicting scenes of railroad stations and ocean liners. "It marries Bill's interest in transportation with my interest in art and architecture," says DeGarmo.

There are clues harking back to DeGarmo's corporate clients. The home office has a tall mahogany work desk originally created for the Washington law office of Arnold & Porter. He started his own collection of American baskets and turned-wood bowls in the 1990s while working with a Renwick Gallery curator assembling crafts for MCI's downtown Washington headquarters.

A few weeks after DeGarmo and Sales finished the renovation, it was time to head to the D.C. Farmers Market in Northeast to buy mint for the juleps. "About 150 people showed up for the Derby Day party that year," says DeGarmo. "I think they went into every room."

Another Washington tradition saved.

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