washingtonpost.com
Urban restorations

By Jennifer Barger
Express
Thursday, January 21, 2010; LZ04

For some aspiring homeowners, phrases like "as is" or "fixer-upper" sound as ominous as "termite infestation" or "nuclear power plant views." Still, there are many nesters itching to rehab a Queen Anne on the Hill or a Federal rowhouse in Old Town Alexandria, creaky floors, tiny closets and decrepit bathrooms be damned. In the book "Restoring a House in the City" (Artisan, 2009), journalist and former House & Garden editor Ingrid Abramovitch shows that older homes can be livable and lovely, and provides ideas for making them so. We chatted with Abramovitch about the book, which chronicles 21 renovations from the District to Brooklyn, where she lives.

What's the siren call of owning an older home?

People recognize that they just don't build houses like these anymore. These places were made by hand, by craftsmen who used exquisite materials, like first-growth wood paneling. They're gorgeous. It's so shortsighted when people remove things like that due to current fashion.

How can you update an old house without destroying its soul?

It's a question everyone who undertakes a restoration needs to ask. But I don't think there's a cardinal sin when restoring a house, except thinking that older houses are museum pieces and that they can't be relevant to modern life.

When do you know that a house is too "as is" to fix up?

Well, if the house speaks to you, go for it. But get a really good inspection done before committing. Try to find out what the budget will be for the things that'll need fixing. But you have to realize it isn't easy to renovate! I didn't even renovate my house, but it has constant issues: We've repointed the bricks, replaced the front door and done the floors.

What areas do people update?

Everyone wants a new kitchen and bathroom. I don't think people feel as guilty about doing these renovations, because some of these houses never had bathrooms to begin with. Choices people make are interesting. One homeowner put in a bathroom in what used to be a bedroom; some people return houses to the original layout and put the kitchen on the main floor.

What sort of design challenges do townhouses present?

So many! I live in one now, and like everyone who does, I think about light issues. These houses are often tall and skinny with windows on the front and back, so you have this whole core that doesn't get light. You have to bring it in by building an addition with glass walls, or by using artificial light. [See a past Home story on how four rowhouse owners addressed these issues, "Straight and narrow," at http://www.washingtonpost.com/home.]

Any other challenges when furnishing older rowhouses?

In rooms with high ceilings, I think scale is always a huge issue. Those rooms can take really big pieces, because if the furniture is too small there, it'll be dwarfed.

You feature one D.C. home in the book, the Embassy Row mansion of interior designer Darryl Carter. What drew you to it?

It was the whole story of Embassy Row, which was emblematic of many neighborhoods in the book. It's full of all these houses that would've been torn down if they hadn't been taken over by embassies. And now some people are turning them back into private homes, which is pretty glorious.

Does the decor have to match the period of the house?

No, I think you can have a contrast between old and new. They bring out the best in each other. Still, I think design is moving in a direction where we're embracing a turn-of-the-last-century style. And I've seen gorgeous houses that stay true to their period. You learn a lot by seeing how the house would've felt originally. For instance, I love that Carter furnishes his house with antiques, but it doesn't look like a museum. He lightens it up, so it's traditional without being cobwebby.

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