I TRIED to design a Georgetown home, but a carriage house rather than a mansion," explained architect Sam Reid Dunn.This was Dunn's solution to get Fine Arts Commission permission to build a house on R Street, on land originally part of the Scott-Grant estate, Ulysses S. Grant's summer White House.
"It took me five sets of plans, before the Commission would approve it," Dunn said. "The idea that worked was a house that looked like a carriage house, in keeping with the original buildings on the estate. I thought about it and I decided that people today live a lot more like the servants did back then, since we have to do things for ourselves, so the more casual, rustic style seemed appropriate to today as well as to the other buildings of the estate."
The house is one of the handful of contemporary houses in historic Georgetown -- a house that was quite a cause celebre when it was built about four years or so ago on the sidegarden of the 1858 Scott-Grant mansion. aThe neighbors and historic preservationists objected that the new house would ruin the setting of the older structure. There was even a bill introduced in Congress to ban the building of the new house.
"The Fine Arts Commission at first couldn't accept that you could build something appropriate to the setting," Dunn said.
So Dunn made a design that "showed to the street a garden wall with green things on it. The bulk of the house is hidden behind. It's all to give the impression of a non-assertive dependent structure to the mansion.
"In the early stages, before I bought it, I wanted to build two houses, but that was abandoned after my first meeting with the Fine Arts Commission. bI must have gone through five schemes -- at least -- before I got one that flew.
"I bought the Scott-Grant house with three buildings, including the mansion. The three had been used since the 1940s as separate houses. So the act of subdividing the three-quarters or so of an acre actually formalized or so of an acre actually formalized a situation that had existed for a long time. I sold the three houses separately and carved out a new lot where I built my house. Even as it stands the houses are on lots generous for Georgetown."
Even so, Dunn isn't convinced that all the neighbors were won over. The new owners, Michael and Sharon Blasgen, think the neighbors have become come reconciled. "We've even had people come into the house and say, 'Oh, you certainly did do an extensive remodeling' -- they don't even realize it's a new house. And the crowds who came on the Georgetown House Tour last spring seemed to enjoy finding a modern house in Georgetown," Sharon Blasgen said.
The Blasgens bought the house for $375,000 in June 1979. They and 2-year-old Alexandra came to Washington from "the Lotus Land of the West," as they describe Northern California. "So we were looking for a traditional house, three or four stories high, 14-feet wide -- the usual. Something very urban," as Blasgen put it.
"We didn't stop to think about solar heat when we bought the house," said Blasgen, giving us the grand tour of the house on a sunny afternoon. "But we did realize that all that glass facing south into the garden let in a lot of light and sun. In the summer, the trees block the sun and keep it cool."
Blasgen is a computer scientist with IBM. He can walk to work. His wife is a lawyer who works with IBM in Bethesda, but the commute is worth it to her to live in Georgetown in this house.
From the street, we could hardly see the house at all. It really looks more like a high retaining wall than anything else. Actually it's the storage wall. Above the wall, we saw a rather ordinary looking brick house with white trim. The entrance is equally low key, up a brick driveway, and then a walk across slate to brick-paved porch. The porch, sheltered by a deep slanted roof, looks for all the world like a Southwestern ranch gallery, though Dunn denies fiercely he had any such thing in mind. "I just wanted to use warm, natural materials," he said. The look carries through the house: all the ceilings are wood, some floors are tile, others are brick.
The big glass front door faces into the gallery, so the casual visitor passing doesn't see into the house.
Inside the house, you can see that Dunn succeeded in his plan "not to make any room have a specific purpose -- you can use each in what ever way you like."
At the entry is a good-looking old English clerk's desk with a high wall of pockets.
To the right is the dining room. A tiled seating area next to the glass garden wall has an inset of glass roof over the sliding doors. The tile floor is great for plants. The dining table is glass (better to see the Oriental rug through it) with Marcel Breuer's familiar can and chrome chairs. On the walls are some of the Blasgens' extensive modern painting collection.
Next door is used as the family room. The fireplace is raised so that the hearth can be a sitting area. There's a comfortable sofa and two Breurer chrome and leather chairs. "We bought the international style furniture when we had a modern house before, a wonderful house in Westchester county."
The kitchen is divided from this room only by a counter with a Jenn-Air cooking top set into it. Most of the cabinets are open, but the ones that aren't have varying kinds of wood set in a surprising herringbone pattern. The floor is that handsome irregular large square Mexican tile with a practical dark grout. The counters are butcherblock. A pantry helps take care of storage. There's also room to eat in the kitchen. Sliding glass doors lead to a brickwalled garden, very private, very nice.
The small north and east facing garden can also be entered through the house's third big living space, a few steps below the front entry. The brick room, as you'd have to call it, has brick walls and a brick floor and a large bookcase across one wall. A slanted wall of glass lets in light on one side. On the other, you go up three steps to a wall of glass doors into the north garden.
The room is dominated by an immense pool table with the appropriate pool hall light. "A poolroom in Brooklyn was closing down," said Blasgen, "and we saw this 1911-17 billard table in it. We had to have it when we saw those rosewood rails."
Downstairs is a pleasant, small apartment with another sliding glass wall and a fireplace and a housekeeper's quarters, for the invaluable Carmen Smith, formerly of Jamaica.
On the top floor are three more bedrooms, all with wonderful cathedral ceilings, following the steep roof line. The master bedroom is sybaric: a fireplace, glass doors opening onto a deck, a velvet sofa and a huge European style feather duvet or comforter. The master bath has a tiled enclosure for the tub and a separate glass-doored shower, all topped with a huge skylight.
Alexandra's room is full of animals: stuffed, applied to the walls and in some other surprising places.
Despite its controversial past, the house seems to have settled nicely into the hillside. And if that's the way the servants live, we should all go out to work.