Back to the Future: Could a 1970s house be made modern again?

By Holly E. Thomas
Sunday, April 25, 2010; W24

When Kara Heitz, 34, and her husband David Sylvester, 31, decided to leave their Watergate condo after four years and look for a house in greener, more suburban pastures, their primary search terms were "modern" and "contemporary." But their quest turned up rancher after boring rancher -- nothing that inspired the couple to abandon their contemporary oasis overlooking the Potomac. That is, until they stumbled across a gem of 1970s modern architecture in McLean, tucked away from the bustle of Tysons Corner in the shade of towering, leafy trees.

For Heitz and Sylvester, it was modern love at first sight. Designed by Hugh Newell Jacobsen, a Washington icon and one of the country's most acclaimed architects, the three-level pavilion-style structure was their dream home. "From the day we saw it to the day we closed, it was maybe two and half months," Heitz says. "We saw it and knew we wanted it."

But like so many dreams, this one was accompanied by a dose of reality. Originally designed for a renowned Georgetown cardiologist and his family, the home had fallen into disrepair as the owners aged, and certain hallmarks of the era -- large swaths of carpeting -- had lost their charm by the time Heitz and Sylvester took ownership in December 2007. But two things were certain: This house had a history, and the couple saw their future in it.

The new homeowners' to-do list was short but daunting: Return the house to its original form and honor Jacobsen's vision, while adapting it to their lifestyle and injecting a sense of vibrancy and utility. To do so, they appealed to the talents of Douglas Burton and Christopher Ralston, owners of high-end furniture outpost Apartment Zero. For consumers who, like Heitz and Sylvester, embraced the clean lines and elegant restraint of modernism, the store served as a downtown mecca for more than a decade. After registering there for their 2005 wedding, the couple became regular customers and developed a friendship with the owners, who offered interior design services alongside their retail business. Soon after closing on their new home, Heitz and Sylvester enlisted Burton and Ralston to renovate and refurbish it.

The home, which won eight design awards in its heyday, is built in Jacobsen's trademark pavilion style, divided into three rectilinear segments. The entryway opens into an airy living space with a vaulted ceiling that showcases the full height of the structure. The central space flows into a kitchen and dining area on the right side and a master bedroom suite on the left. The left and right portions of the house are each split into two levels, creating private second-story spaces. The rear of the house faces a wooded area, and floor-to-ceiling windows showcase a wall of lush foliage most of the year.

Four decades after it was built, Jacobsen's segmented design feels like the right fit for the couple's lives. "For David and I, our dream house was always modern, with an open kitchen, dining area, living room -- just one large living space," Heitz says. "And even though this place has a more cut-up layout, it flows so well that it still feels very modern. A lot of that is just done through Jacobsen's architecture."

The key to uniting the architect's ideals with those of Heitz and Sylvester lay in the almighty power of light. Jacobsen, 80, who runs an architecture firm in Washington with his son Simon, notes that his work on this home coincided with the period where he began to understand what light was all about and started dabbling in minimalism -- two qualities that would become hallmarks of his work.

"Every site in the world has a specific kind of light," Hugh Jacobsen says. "To let light in that doesn't bleach out the space or make you need sunglasses, you need to reach up and get reflected light." He achieved this by installing long, horizontal slits of glass in the sides of the home, allowing light to enter continuously as the sun moves. A series of windows in the upper reaches of the house creates a free-flowing source of illumination, and throughout the space, there is a near-constant presence of light, sky and trees, and little need for interior lights during the day.

Stumbling on an architectural treasure that melded easily with their lifestyle was a stroke of luck for the couple, considering that the home's design isn't one that can be tweaked easily to fit a new owner's whim. "A house like this is so unique, it would be really hard to change it without impinging on the integrity of it," says Chrysanthe Broikos, a curator at the National Building Museum. "You mess with one thing, and it can really unravel the whole house."

But although the house didn't require structural changes, extensive interior renovations took more than a year and a half and left no surface untouched. Apartment Zero's team of four designers -- Burton, Ralston, Raed Alawadhi and Kristen Paradies -- started by ripping up stained, yellowed carpet in the living room and replacing it with sleek, white marble tiles. The designers moved on to the dining room, where they repaired the footworn hardwood floors. Then the team reverted to a clean, stark palette, reapplying two to three coats of pure white paint throughout to give the walls a pristine, Jacobsen-approved finish.

"We wanted to respect Jacobsen's white interiors -- one of his trademarks," Heitz says. "But [David and I] both like color, as well. We thought of the all-white room as sort of a canvas and added color in the right places to make it pop."

The Apartment Zero designers proposed incorporating one color in each of the main rooms, and they began by injecting jolts of true red into the dining room. Local artist Mike Weber's take on a portrait of Florence Nightingale hangs on one wall, and gazes out over an expansive oval dining table and molded plastic Vitra chairs. On another, 20 acoustic panels, typically used in theaters and commercial spaces to absorb sound, add a simple yet unexpected sculptural element.

The kitchen, awash in white and illuminated by a long horizontal slice of windows between the countertop and cabinets, underwent minimal changes. The team designed a new wall of storage and brought the kitchen's functionality up to date with a new refrigerator, double oven, dishwasher and gas cooktop and vent. A vintage Saarinen tulip table -- a prized find from an estate sale -- and chairs turn a corner flooded with natural light into a serene breakfast nook, and the kitchen boasts the original ultra-minimal white formica cabinetry and steel hardware.

To add warmth and energy to the central living area, the couple and the designers agreed on vibrant golden yellow, which bounces off the glossy white marble floors like errant rays of late-summer sun. "I think [Jacobsen] wanted every house to have a 'Jesus Christ!' moment, and this room is it," Heitz says with a nod to the room's lofty, cathedral-esque ceiling. A custom gray-and-yellow rug connects the room's L-shaped sofa and glass-topped coffee table to a trio of key period pieces that the designers found: two Groovy chairs by Artifort, designed by Pierre Paulin in 1973, and Sylvester's favorite yellow-and-white fiberglass Ball chair, designed by Eero Aarnio in 1966.

As they weighed decor options, the couple emphasized pieces with a distinctly Pop vibe, favoring designs dating back to the 1960s and '70s and supplementing with more recent pieces with the same aesthetic. Heitz and Sylvester added their own touches along the way, scooping up pieces of art glass and sculpture from estate sales or during trips.

While the designers selected nearly all the furnishings, Burton notes that the bright, colorful aesthetic is decidedly not in the firm's wheelhouse. "Apartment Zero's style was very up-to-date, neutral color palettes, minimal," he says. "The challenge was to design something outside of our comfort zone -- something funky. I wouldn't say it's our typical style, but it does show that we can work outside the box."

A new, spacious master bedroom suite is the most significant change to Jacobsen's floor plan. The designers combined the original master and guest bedrooms and two guest bathrooms to create a 680-square-foot retreat decorated in soothing shades of gray and grass green. A built-in custom headboard, throw pillows and a vintage Kartell stool are covered in Maharam fabric, contributing to the color palette in spare, subtle strokes. A silkscreen of a surfer by local artist Glenn Fry hangs above the bed, which faces a wall of windows. To accommodate guests, the basement level of the home is equipped with two bedrooms and a den.

In the renovation, the second floor on the right side of the house was kept as an office but was spruced up with a new hardwood floor. The original spiral staircase provides access as well as an energizing splash of bold orange. Heitz, a graduate student pursuing a doctorate in politics and American studies, spends much of her day here surrounded by stacks of leatherbound books. On the opposite side of the house, the designers converted an unfinished attic into an office for Sylvester, adding hardwood floors, recessed lighting and shelving, and a custom-made spiral staircase that mimics Jacobsen's original. Sylvester, a project manager for Boeing who previously owned a smart-home company, wired the house so that the couple can control the TV and stereo systems, window blinds, temperature, lighting and more with an iPhone application.

As a final modern flourish, the Apartment Zero team swapped old-fashioned electrical outlets for minimalist flat versions from Bocci. Simple, streamlined landscape and hardscape designs were implemented by Vienna-based Wheat's Landscape, with patio furniture, plants and pots chosen by the designers.

Near the front entrance, a bold, larger-than-life metal sculpture greets visitors. A California artist created the work specifically for the house and drove it across the country, painting it upon arrival in an eye-popping shade of tangerine to match the spiral staircase leading to Heitz's office. In a composition of green, gray and slate, this burst of orange is the only indication of the vibrant variation on modernism that lives inside.

In February 2009, when roughly three-quarters of the renovation was complete, Heitz and Sylvester sold their Watergate condo and moved into the basement. The Apartment Zero team continued working for another two months, making the project the firm's longest-running to date. Last July, Burton and Ralston shuttered their retail store and launched a full-service interior design firm in November. "When the lease on the store was up after 10 years, we saw it as an opportunity to do the part of the business that's the most enjoyable and also the most profitable," Burton says. "When someone comes in to buy a candle, it's a minute-long interaction. When you get the chance to really work with people, you get to come up with ideas, work out challenges. And in the end, you get to look at what you created together, and that's a great feeling."

After more than a year's worth of collaboration, the designers and home-owners think that they have restored the home to its glory days. The sleek original light fixtures cast the same futuristic glow they did in the 1970s. Rain collects in Jacobsen's hidden gutters and, instead of pouring through a downspout, travels down sections of chain -- inspired by traditional Japanese design -- to a dry well under the foundation. A thorough cleaning sufficiently restored the three exterior patio areas into breezy refuges from summer heat. And natural light once again plays a starring role. Sparkling and refracting off white walls, broad panes of glass and gleaming floors, ample sunlight bathes the house in a sort of cool, dignified radiance that suits its storied past.

"The aesthetic has always appealed to me and David, as well -- it was one of the first things we had in common," Heitz says. "There's a functional simplicity in it, and it integrates into any environment. We were in the city before, and now we're in the middle of the woods, and it still works."

Holly E. Thomas is a staff writer for the Magazine. She can be reached at

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