Part modern, part farmhouse, Alexandria home is testament to architect Goodman

The late mid-20th century architect Charles M. Goodman melded the old and new parts of a farmhouse and wound up with something unique.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2011; 1:29 PM

Back in 1952 there was a 100-year-old farmhouse for sale atop a ridge on North Quaker Lane in Alexandria. It sat near the edge of seven acres and, it is said, could boast a view of the Potomac River.

Those who looked at buying the old frame dwelling probably thought of two courses of action: Either lovingly restore the simple two-story house or tear it down and use the lot for something new and less modest. But the buyer turned out to be Charles M. Goodman, well on his way to becoming the hottest modern architect of the period in Washington, and he found a third way: He lived with his family in the farmhouse for a while, then gutted it, preserving the shell, and in 1954 attached a long, modern glass pavilion to it.

Today, the view of the Potomac is long gone, obscured by the past 60 years of development. Six and a half of the seven acres are gone, too, sold to developers years ago. Gone, too, are Goodman, who died in 1992 at 85, and his widow, Dorothy, who sold the house about a decade ago and lives in a nearby condominium.

But the midcentury-modern Goodman House still stands, sheltered by trees, its perimeter marked by about 2,000 square feet of stone patios and walkways that divide the garden areas and offer places for relaxation or entertaining.

Maybe it's those interconnected walkways or maybe it's just the architecture buffs the house attracts now that it's on the market again, but Long & Foster real estate agent Susan Walters said she has never seen anything like it: "At open houses, [prospective buyers] walk all the way around the house before they come inside. I've just never seen that before." And, she adds, "I've been selling houses for 39 years."

Of course, a lot of the lookers are not prospective buyers; they're midcentury-modern enthusiasts who've come to genuflect at the altar of Goodman's modernist vision. There's a lot to bow down to. Goodman, who designed the Deco-touched terminal for the new National Airport (1938-40) and later the famous midcentury houses of Hollin Hills in Fairfax County, melded the old and new parts of the house and wound up with something unique.

Where the scale of the houses in Hollin Hills is modest - a modernist attempt to reach first-time homebuyers in the post-war boom - the glass pavilion here has space and volume to spare: It forms a living room 20 feet wide by 34 feet long with 10-foot ceilings. At one end of the room, near the front door, a cantilevered concrete fireplace and ledge are anchored in a massive stone wall that rises to meet the ceiling, which is sheathed in hardwood planking that lends the potentially austere room some warmth. And for real warmth, the slate floor underfoot has radiant heat.

On three sides of the living room pavilion there is nothing between the occupant and the surrounding trees but floor-to-ceiling glass. The fourth wall is something else: Three wide, wood stairs lead to the rear of the house, the two-story farmhouse portion, including Goodman's library, its custom wood credenza and flat-file drawers still in place, and a family/TV room, both with standard-looking walls and old-fashioned windows. The two rooms come off a 38-foot-long gallery that stretches moodily from the library at the eastern end to a blaze of light from the glass walls of a contemporary 23-by-15-foot dining room on the west.

The juxtaposition of light and dark suited Goodman's idea of what people wanted. The late Robert C. Lautman, Goodman's official photographer for 20 years, told Washington City Paper staff reporter David Morton in 2003: "Sometimes you want to be in a room that is one with the outside. And sometimes you want to be in a cave."

The current owners of Goodman House are Jemal and Berna Omidvar. Both pediatricians, he's of Turkish descent from Iran, and she's from Nicaragua.

"The minute we walked in the house, we loved it," Berna Omidvar said. "All the light and all that space! The architect must have had parties in mind when he designed it - it's wonderful for entertaining."

Although purists may balk, the house may be better for entertaining now than it was originally. Floorplans from 1998, when Mrs. Goodman allowed the place to be used as the Alexandria Decorator Showhouse, clearly show a solid wall between the living room and the kitchen, which is on the same level as the gallery. At that time, it could be reached only from the dining room. But at some point in the past decade, someone punched an entry from the kitchen to the living room. Now, three wide wood stairs, mimicking the ones to the rear gallery, allow for quick nips to the kitchen from the living room, greatly improving the traffic flow.

Despite the change, the kitchen keeps its original steel St. Charles cabinets (the same kind of cabinets Frank Lloyd Wright used at Fallingwater), although they were reconfigured to allow for the new doorway. A more contemporary addition to the room: a kitchen island topped with the same stainless-steel countertop as the original cabinets.

For all her enthusiasm about entertaining in Goodman House, Omidvar concedes that two hyper-busy doctors are less than likely to make time for cooking and entertaining at home. And that's why she and her husband reluctantly put the house on the market, for $1.3 million. In fact, the Omidvars have already moved into a townhouse where the gardens are taken care of, the snow is plowed and the house size is more manageable.

Walters hopes a new set of owners will "take the house to the next level." The Omidvars made needed upgrades to the roof and the heating and cooling systems. But Walters thinks a new owner might want to replace those glass walls with double-glazing. She also is bothered by the fact that some post-Goodman owner changed the configuration of the bedrooms upstairs. "The bathrooms used to be big, and now they're small," she said. "They wanted to get a fourth bedroom up there, I guess."

Her desire to put the place back in its original configuration explains why Walters is e-mailing midcentury-modern groups, inviting members to see the house. Somewhere out there, she hopes, is the person or persons with the means to take the house all the way back to what the architect had in mind. And if that means that hundreds of design buffs promenade through the house on viewing days, well, that's all right with the Omidvars and with her.

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