How to soften the transition from sidewalk to front door

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By Ann Cameron Siegal
Friday, October 15, 2010; 8:14 PM

Harriet and Dick Melmer don't have a front porch or yard. They step from their 1782 townhouse immediately into the public right of way, a brick sidewalk belonging to the city of Alexandria and heavily used by pedestrians.

Like many homeowners who live in urban settings, the Melmers face the challenge of blending private and public spaces when there is minimal distance between the two.

"The sidewalk becomes the public living room in front of the house," said Al Cox, Alexandria's manager of historic preservation.

To soften that transition and create a sense of welcome, some urban homeowners rely on small flourishes of design.

The Melmers brightened their home's exterior by repainting the black shutters and door in a cheerful shade of periwinkle blue. They added gas lights on either side of the door. Some pedestal urns, lush with seasonal plantings, soften the harshness of the brick walk.

"I'm not a master gardener," Harriet said. "I just buy what I like."

She favors perennials over more labor-intensive annuals, she said.

Her attention to detail not only turns heads as people walk past but helps build neighborhood interaction. A touch of humor - a fresh dog biscuit tucked between the paws of a concrete Great Dane lounging on the stoop - elicits a smile from some passersby and offers some lucky canine a treat.

"There really is only so much you can do to separate yourself from the street outside," said Tricia Huntley, an interior designer and Georgetown resident. "Most people move here because they like urban living, so they accept that fact. However, making just a few tweaks to your entry can help create a transition for a homeowner psychologically if not physically."

She added, "There seem to be three approaches to creating a facade with privacy and intimacy in a very public location such as Georgetown: architecturally, through landscaping and with personal touches."

Architectural changes, such as the addition of a portico, can be expensive, of course. Often they're just not allowed, especially in historic districts. Many homeowners prefer to work with what they have.

Margot Raven, a children's-book author, recalled how neighbors became part of her home's exterior transformation. As she and her fiance, Tom Hanton, delineated garden space with pavers, a wrought-iron fence, plants and a two-tiered water fountain, a camaraderie developed among people who had barely spoken before. One family came over to admire the work, and soon they were bringing other neighbors. One passerby, apparently moved by the improvements, paused, pulled out a small dog-eared notebook, and read them a poem he had written about dignity and respect.


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