LLOYD TRENT's great-grandfather was one of a group of blacks who came (in his case from Baltimore) to New York in the last century and made a fortune -- first in catering, then in restaurants in the Wall Street district and finally in real estate.
Trent has reversed the system. He has come to Washington from New York to make his fortune in real estate. As for catering, well, he does do all the cooking in the house, according to his wife Brooke Trent, budget and planning director of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.
One of the occupational hazards of real estate is coming across a house you just have to have yourself. And that's what happened to the Trents.
They found this house on 12th Street SE that needed updating, but it was just about the right size for the two of them, on a street that was on its way up. "We'd seen the house architect Hector Alvarez did for himself, not so far away," Trent said. "We thought he could make our house look as good."
Alvarez said the Trents gave him such a free hand with the plans "that I really got scared. I felt it had to be just perfect when I finished."
The Trents moved in late August, before it was really quite finished. They still are working frantically on the garden in time for the Capitol Hill Restoration Society house and garden tour on May 11.
Alvarez flipped the house around to make it conform to the current thinking on row houses: kitchen in front, living room at the back. He used a series of triangles as a design motif through the house to divert the eye from the smallness of the space.
We came in the front door. The first thing we saw was a triangular coat closet set at an angle to act as a shield to the kitchen. There's no door on the kitchen (but Trent never burns things), and the closet forms a screen to direct your vision to the pleasant bay at one end of the kitchen. Two chairs and a table make it an agreeable place to look out the window at people going by on the sidewalk. Both hall and kitchen are covered with a glazed tile made in Germany. A rack above the sink holds pots. The kitchen was the original living room.
Straight ahead the eye is stopped again by another object set at an angle, a bronze-colored sheet of plexiglas hanging from the ceiling in front of a wood sculpture.
"The idea was to repeat the same shape," said Alvarez, "and lead the eye down to the next angular triangle." On this level is a dining area, with a low wall set at an angle, making a seat. The Trents have an elaborately carved Victorian sideboard here, from his grandmother. A remarkable wood carving probably once was a wallpaper woodblock. The dining table has two plexiglas bases, made in New York, with a heavy glass top from Miles Glass Co. here.
A few steps down is another triangular closet that holds a bar sink and, according to Trent, two cases of liquor. This level is the living room. It's only 10 feet wide but there's a fireplace and French doors (from Galliher and Huguely) onto the garden. Four fat modular units in front of the fire offer a pleasant place to sit. A coffee table and a big basket for wood are all the rooms needs.
"Originally this area was the kitchen, on the same level as the dining room," Alvarez said. "A set of steps led to the garden, with a basement under. I dropped the floor to the garden level, taking the upper part of the basement leaving just a crawl space under. The wall jutted out a bit on this side, so I made that a shelf that continues along the wall, over the fireplace, where it becomes a mantel."
As in most people's houses, the Trent's still have a few things yet to do. A triptych is due from an artist friend on Fire Island, where the Trents have a vacation house. And, while the Trents and Alvarez were waiting for us to come see the house the other day, they redesigned the garden.
One clever idea has already worked out in the garden. The Trents went to a sewer tile company in Baltimore and bought circles of precast concrete, called "well rings" in the business. They sank them halfway into the ground, and filled them up with good soil. Flagstones pave around them. A board fence goes around three sides, screening off the parking place.
Back in the house, we went upstairs, by the high triangular planter that reaches up toward the skylight. The stairs are the original ones.
Upstairs is the sitting room the Trents use most often, the large room at the front of the house. Brooke Trent's piano, a wonderful one with inlaid marquetry, sits in the bay. One side is full of books. The other wall is a family history, showing fascinating family pictures of Lloyd Trent's family and Brooke Trent's grandfather's citizenship certificate when he exchanged his Romanian nationality for American and his certificate as president of his temple.
An ornately carved American renaissance table, originally Lloyd Trent's grandmother's, serves as a desk here. The sofa performs for guests. The oriental rug with an orange background was abandoned in a house Trent's company bought. The Trents liked it and had it re-fringed by Nazarian Bros. Inc.
Down the hall are two baths, a closet full of laundry equipment, another with the gas furnace and air conditioning. The master bedroom, with a fur throw on the bed, overlooks the garden. A large clothes closet works as a headboard for the bed and a screen as you enter.
A basement under two-thirds of the house is a neat rental apartment.
It isn't the spacious Victorian house Trent's family owned in New York back when. But by Washington Capitol Hill Standards, it's a pleasure.