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How to soften the transition from sidewalk to front door

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.

"You never know how you'll affect others," Raven said.

"Once you start to clean up a space, the space tells you what it wants to be," she added. Simplicity is key. "Small gardens are very endearing, because you can just tuck things in." "We braced ours with green," Raven added, "for then the color stands out rather than being too much of a kaleidoscope." A fountain was added as an "eye tickle."

When looking for ideas, don't overlook the entryways to commercial establishments also opening onto sidewalks, for many of those techniques can be adapted to residences.

Casey Purpos, who lives above his fitness business in Alexandria, said, "Work with the structure you have, so as not to detract from it."

Practical considerations

l Local ordinances: In many areas such as Georgetown, Capitol Hill and Old Town Alexandria, the public right of way extends to the face of the townhouse, with a four-foot easement, extending outward, allotted for a stoop and steps. Access for city maintenance and repair must be maintained along the rest of the house parallel to the sidewalk.

District homeowners have considerable flexibility since Congress's Parking Act of 1870. (Given the vintage of the law, you may have guessed correctly that it applies to maintaining parkland, rather than automobile parking.) Under that law, the public space immediately adjacent to private property is to be maintained and landscaped by the property owner. Gardens, low fencing and other adornments are encouraged. In Old Town Alexandria, permanent improvements to the exterior of houses abutting the public sidewalk need to conform to historical guidelines to preserve the original character of the house.

Regardless of jurisdiction, personal touches and plantings must not impede public egress for pedestrians, wheelchairs or strollers.

l Maintenance: That's the implied obligation when your front door is an arm's length from passersby. Every little flaw looms. Chipped paint, tarnished hardware, spent blossoms, embedded cobwebs and smudged glass seem to telegraph: "No one lives here."

"It's got to be maintained," said Paul Anderson, an agent with McEnearney Associates in Alexandria.

It's better to do nothing than let plantings in urns and window boxes wither. Anderson's wife, Ana, a garden designer, said that because container gardens dry out quickly, she prefers water-wise plants such as English broom, alyssum, sedum or thyme.

l Balance: "You're not in the country," Huntley cautioned. In other words, don't overwhelm the front of your house with greenery. Think vertically instead of just horizontally, but remember that small shrubs quickly become right-of-way hazards if allowed to spread unchecked. Trim plantings regularly.

Steve Morris, a retired Navy officer, marvels at how well mandevilla vertically complements the color and scale of his gray stucco townhouse in Old Town Alexandria. With only a couple of feet available for plants, "pots are really the way to go," he said. That, and using a good drip system for when you're away.

l Privacy:If supreme privacy was your goal, you'd never have purchased a house butting up against a public sidewalk. You can't sit out on your carefully chosen bench, tend to your small patches of greenery or do basic outdoor maintenance without someone stopping to chat. That's part of the deal; it's also part of the attraction.

Softening your facade

l Window boxes: Well-maintained window boxes may conjure up images of cottages, but remember that dirt and water render window boxes quite heavy. In fact, they can be deadly if they topple onto someone below. First priority, said Cox, the historic-preservation manager in Alexandria, is to make sure they are anchored securely.

Judy McVay, former president of the Old Town Civic Association, has window boxes on her Alexandria townhouse. She said she found that asparagus ferns added light and airy greenery and were just prickly enough to discourage squirrels.

Purpos said he replaces his window box plantings several times a year to meet seasonal challenges and keep them looking fresh.

l Planters: These come in all shapes and sizes but need to fit the size and style of your house. If they're too big, they will dwarf your entryway. If they're too small, they could look like dollhouse accessories.

In Old Town Alexandria, any planters in the public right of way must be able to be moved by two people in case the city needs to repair or replace sidewalks.

l Benches: Karen Ialongo, a 25-year resident of Alexandria, added fluffy cushions to her wrought-iron bench.

"I'm amazed at how many people use it," she said. "It's very inviting. I particularly love it when little kids sit there, taking a break while walking with their parents."

Seating also needs to fit the size and setting available. Raven and Hanton recently added a concrete bench with an aged patina to their Old Town entryway. It created a settled-in look, rather than a just-acquired one.

"It looks like it's been there forever," Raven said.

l Tree boxes: Bare dirt around city trees can look rather dismal, but if you decide to plant ornamental grasses or flowers there, Cox cautions about using so much soil or mulch that you smother the tree's roots.

Urban challenges

l Utility meters: Often mounted beside the front door, meters can be unsightly. Some people paint them to blend into the background. Others hide them behind shrubbery or decorative objects. Reuben Rodriguez, a spokesman for Washington Gas, cautioned homeowners to remember that the meter is owned by the utility company. "If you choose to try to camouflage it, make sure it is accessible for maintenance or replacement," he said. Anything hampering easy access by utility crews "is coming down," he said. And the utility is under no obligation to put it back as found.

l Dogs, or, more precisely, dog owners: The phrase "curb your dog" means just that, McVay said. Use the curb, not the grasses homeowners have carefully planted near their entrances or in tree boxes. McVay is seeking a reminder sign - "Nothing that comes out of your dog is good for our plants" - to try to preserve the greenery on her block.

l Theft: Unfortunately, theft is a reality in urban living. Anchoring planters, statuary and benches with bolts or cables necessitates some creative thinking to camouflage the hardware, so as not to destroy the welcoming look that you were trying to create in the first place.

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