Mad about Mod: The house was classic mid-century modern. Could it be updated without losing its heritage?

The house was classic mid-century modern. Could it be updated without losing its heritage?
By Annie Groer
Sunday, February 21, 2010

Usually it's the doctor, not the decorator, who vows, "First do no harm."

But when the 1965 home of the late modern architect David Condon went on the market a few years ago, designer Susan Vallon knew that updating it would require considerable restraint.

Although incongruously filled with the Victorian and Queen Anne furniture, Persian rugs and knickknacks beloved by Condon's widow, Sylvia, the great bones of the house on the Maryland side of Chevy Chase shone through.

Vallon had come to scope out the property for Susan Toffler, a longtime friend and client who loved it on sight but wanted a second opinion. "We recognized immediately it was a very cool space," recalls Vallon, who, after one visit, invoked a far earthier version of the Hippocratic oath: "We cannot [expletive] this up." They didn't.

Condon's $65,000 dwelling had been so creatively sited, planned and built on its $30,000 lot that it won a 1966 award from the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The new owner paid $1.35 million, plus another $300,000 to upgrade, update and furnish it in ways that would honor Condon's innovation.

The house is a thoughtful example of mid-century modern design, which after World War II made only limited inroads in Washington, where traditional homes ruled. Those who got modern, however, really got it: open spaces, large windows, the use of natural and industrial materials and an organic traffic flow.

At Toffler's reimagined home, recessed ceiling lights on dimmer switches now illuminate every room. The predominant color is soft gray, in varying shades depending on the space. The dark oak living room floor has been lightened; worn kitchen linoleum has been replaced with a hip metallic vinyl; and many of the original surfaces -- including a dramatic oak slat ceiling and steel kitchen cabinets -- have been painstakingly cleaned and polished. For visual continuity, Vallon used the same new French limestone in the kitchen, master bedroom and bath.

The decor is eclectic. It includes Chinese and European antiques and art collected by Toffler's late husband; pieces the couple acquired while traveling; custom rugs, chairs and a sofa made for this house; and a few stock items from mass retailers Design Within Reach, BoConcept and West Elm.

Vallon's objective was to keep things simple, comfortable and largely free of embellishment. "You don't want to obscure the architecture. This house is the architecture." Today Toffler calls the home "my sanctuary, a place of calm beauty. I think of it like cashmere. It all feels so nice, you just want to wrap yourself in it."

It took a lot of dirty, gritty construction to bring that tactile metaphor to life. About 1,300 square feet of raw basement space -- where much of the original woodwork, ceilings, cabinetry and trim were crafted -- became a stylish, sturdy play cave for Toffler's sons, Alex, 14, and Simon, 11. Toffler also added a guest room and bath, a tarted-up laundry room, lots of new closets and energy-saving heating, cooling and electrical systems.

Then came the fun part.

Relying on a shared aesthetic embracing recessed lighting, a hushed palette and lush textures, Toffler and Vallon tackled the main level and top floor.

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