The ubiquitous townhouse began populating Washington's streets, first in Georgetown, as far back as the late 18th century, when it was called, less elegently, a row house. The city saw its biggest townhouse building boom in the post-Civil War era with another major spurt that ran from around 1910 to the late 1920s. The result is a 1980 city filled with homeowners and renters struggling to adapt spaces to today's needs.
Many Washington architects cut their professional teeth on area townhouses. And some have made a specialty of it. The challenges are clear: how to bring more light into homes with shared walls, how to minimize cluttered floor plans and open up the flow of spaces; and finally, how to achieve maxumum efficiiency in every part of the house.
"I think the first challenge most townhouses present is how to recapture more space," says Harry Montague, architect of the Northwest Washington townhouse owned by James and Sandi Risser.
Montaguw estimates he has reshaped interiors and put on additions to about 25 Washington townhouse in his 10-year career. In the Risser home, Montague took a dramatic approach to the need for more space -- he removed the wall dividing the living and dining rooms and cut out most of the dining room floor to make room for a spiral staircase leading down into the old basement. And while it doesn't sound like such dramatic surgery would create more space, it does.
The old kitchen became an attractive study, reachable by a narrow walkway fashioned from what was left of the dinning room floor. Bookcase are set into a three-foot wall that fences the open side of the walkway, making a convenient home for the Rissers' considerable library.
Downstairs is a spacious combination dining room and kitchen with a nook under the stairs for watching television.
The room is bright and sunny because of the alterations made in the grading outside.
Aside from gaining previously unusable space in the basement and direct access to the back yard, another important dividend of the remodeling was the additional light from what had been the dining room. Light now pours into the living room and down the two-story space into the kitchen. Sitting in the living room, one can see out the back windows of the house, a view that gives the room a tremendous sense of openness even though the acutal floor space is no greater.
Downstairs, Montague created a cooking island so that a stove and set of base cabinets are the only division between the cooking and eating areas. the kitchen is straightforward and uncomplicated.
"It works very well for us," says Jim Risser Washington bureau chief for the Des Moines Register. "It's a sunfilled, comfortable room."
Although Sandi Risser added a number of tasteful interior design touches on the second floor, that level of the house remains untouched by architectural alterations. The third floor, however, has seen dramatic transformation. In a later effort, Sandi came up with a plan for efficiently finishing the attic. They added a bath by extending existing pipes up the sloping roofline, a small bedroom now filled with a son's beer can collection, and a large playroom/guest room. The angels of the ceiling are dicated by the roof supports to which the drywall is attached. Light enters not only through windows of the original house but also through a skylignt. The Rissers carpeted the rooms with a inexpensive ("virtually indestructible," says Jim Risser) carpet to avoid installing an expensive wood floor. Sandi Risser guesses the finishing of the attic, including the full bath, cost around $6,000 in 1974 giving them full use of all four floors of the townhouse.
An intesive use of space characterizes the alterations made to Judith and Jay Turim's two-bedroom Burleith home. Because he is also an artist, Dickson Carroll seemed the perfect architect for painter Judith Turim. One of her key priorities in the renovation was an at-home studio, with ample daylight.
Unlike the Risser alterations, which did little to change the exterior of their house, Carroll transformed the Orginal brick colonial facade to make it contemporary. He then carried the contemporary motif on inside.
Aside from the studio, the couple's other demands were more typical of the problems faced by many Washington townhouse owners. They wanted a better kitchen more first-floor living and storage space, a foyer and a master bath.
The orginal townhouse was entered through the living room. A staircase ran parallel to the front wall, dividing teh kitchen and dining room from the living room. Upstairs were two bedrooms, a bath and an enclosed sleeping porch over a downstairs unenclosed back porch. An earlier renovation had divided the sleeping porch into two small bedrooms. The original second bedroom became a playroom off the two small bedrooms. All the upstairs rooms shared a single upstairs bath.
Downstairs, eschewing a more traditional entryway, ycarroll created a sculptural foyer with a ceiling partly of glass that spills light into the new space. The Turims gain both drama and, more practically, closet space for outdoor garb and a way to prevent tracking mud, rain and snow onto the living room carpet.
The old kitchen wall was removed to make a larger new combined kitchen and dining room. A large work island separates the two spaces. In the wall parallel to the stairs, the refrigerator appears to be recessed, but in fact, closets are built out on either side to provide additional, and much needed, first-floor storage space.
The downstairs proch was enclosed -- barely -- to create a comfortable first-floor family area and a place for a desk, television and sofa. The exterior walls are large floor-to-ceiling sliding insulated glass doors opening onto a lovely small garden and a parking pad. The changes were simple, but in their details the architect showed his ingenuity.
To improve the flow from the living room to the midsection of the house and to allow light from the new, contemporary windows, Carroll opened an entrance to the kitchen work area as wel as a larger entrance into the dining room on the other side of the stairs. The storage space buffers the noise of the kitchen from people sitting in the living room.
Upstairs, creating a second bathroom in the master bedroom proved one of the biggest challenges. Not only was the bedroom small, but an additional problem was caused by the fact that the new bathroom was located directly above the living room instead of the kitchen or another bath. There seemed no way to hide the peipes in the room below until Carroll came up with the idea of enclosing them in the space reserved for the chimney stack.
To get more daylight into the basement work area, Carroll dug out a space in the front of the house and repeated the fenestration of the living room above. The furnace, hot water heater and other mechanical equipment were moved to make room for a studio. There is ample daylight space for the artist to work; by night illumination if available from fluorescent lights tucked into the rafters.
Making a townhouse more livable and better suited to your needs doesn't always require an architect. Two suburban townhouse owners turned to interior designers to help them create environments suited to their lives.
For Bob and Joyce Ellwanger, Edgar McElroy of McElroy and Fawcett took a Potomac townhouse and gave it a warm, sophisticated look without dramatically altering the existing colonial house. The most inviting aspect of the townhouse is the combination living room and dining area. Entry is into the dining area, which is separated from the living room by a colonial railing and a step down. The living room runs the full width of the back of the house, and to emphasize this breadth, McElroy installed softly textured vertical blinds which obscure the small, multipaned colonial double-hung windows. The light filters in, but the blinds diffuse it and splay it onto camel-colored walls. The delicately quilted white couch is set cater-cornered in the living room, with a decorative screen behind to give it accent. The other end of the room is a secondary seating area with art work on the walls.
Sometimes it's the little things that make the difference in personalizing spaces. One of the important alterations made to the house by the couple was the addition of crown molding. "It just added the right touch to the room," says Joyce Ellwanger, who sees a lot of houses in her work as a real estate agent for Shannon & Luchs. The key to the room is the warmth conveyed through the use of subtle neutral tones. It is a sunny, daytime room.
In contrast to the sunny atmosphere of the Ellwanger house is the home of Richard and Beverly Tunis in Rockville's Georgetown Village, done by C. Larry Horne of W & J Sloane. The Tunis combination living/dining room is a nighttime room. The Mylar vertical blinds provide a shiny, bronzed wall which, when open, reveals mirrors which increase the spaciousness of the room.
The house was designed for active people whose children no longer live at home -- the Tunises commute between Washington and a second home in Florida. h"We moved from a very traditional home in Chevy Chase to this because Dick didn't want an apartment -- he's a house person," says Beverly Tunis. She retained a single period chair in her upstairs bedroom from what she calls "another part of our lives" -- their traditional period.
Despite its colonial face, the interior has an upbeat and contemporary feeling. It is a spacious and Southwestern look, largely because of the use of rust tones, terra cotta tile on the living and dining room floors and rich bronze-tone walls. The house is designed for easy maintenance with plastic-laminated built-in cabinets on either side of a glass extension table in the dining area.
"I love this new environment -- I'm busy collecting art for the house, and it's wonderful," says Beverly Tunis. She also likes the fact that the living room is designed to be apart from it all: "I just sit in here at night, all by myself, and collect my thoughts. The room has a calming effect."
The townhouses shown here offer ideas for others living in similar environments. In a town filled with like homes, there is a wealth of information and ideas available through the city's architects, most of whom have at one time or another tried their hands at reshaping the omnipresent townhouse.
Harry Montague suggests that the first step should be to convert existing unused and underused spaces like attics and basements. "It's the least expensive alternative, and there's a lot of space there," says the architect, who teaches a short course on additions for Open University. His next suggestion, naturally enough, is to build on small additions, even bay windows.
One of Montague's standard solutions for the townhouse with a jagged back wall is to enclose the recessed space to even it up with the wall which extends into the yard. "The dining room in many of these townhouses opens onto a court and the kitchen wall extends beyond it into the back yard," says the architect. Montague has used this small space, usually eight-fee-square, for multistoried additions, enclosed it to add a downstairs powder room or a large light well with a skylight above.
One of the biggest problems in adding onto the back of most Washington townhouses is that the center room is then trapped without adequate light or ventilation. In the Risser home, Montague solved the problem by opening up the living space so that light from the back of the house spills into the center. In the Turim home, the solution was the glassed-in ceiling in the foyer and the openings to the kitchen and dining room which allow the flow of light from the glass walls of the enclosed porch.
In the preenergy-conscious days, several area architects, including Montague, tacked on prefabricated one-story greenhouses to the back of townhouses to create larger kitchens and/or family rooms. A similar solution, with the addition of solar heating if the orinentation of the house is right,is still a possibility for many area homes.
Dickson Carroll brought a feeling of openness and light to a Georgetown home by staggering levels. "We gutted a small home and put in a skylight at the top and allowed a light well to filter light throughout the house." To make sure that light from the front of the house reached the center, Carroll put a plexiglass partition, extending three feet down from the ceiling, to separate a front kitchen from a combination dining room and study. "You get the light from the kitchen without the view of the clutter in it," Carroll says.
Another Washington architect, Margaret Axtell, secrificed second- and third-story floor space in her own townhouse for a skylight-capped light well. To capture some of the light from the main skylight, Axtell cut into the sloping ceiling of a second-floor master bedroom two large light scoops which jut into the light well without seeming to do so. "it's wonderful to see the moon while lying in bed," says the architect. The scoops are not visible as you gaze up from the first floor because the area beneath the scoops has been used to osbcure light fixtures for the living room below.
In another sacrifice of space for light, architect Richard Ridley has taken out a second-floor bedroom to make the dining room below a two-story space. In another house Ridley added light to a basement apartment by designing a sloped window seat in front of a large first-floor window. The light from the window then spilled through tinted glass (which obscured the edge of the new raised floor) into a slightly raised basement ceiling. All this was done without having to alter the grade at street level.
Much of what can be done in the long and narrow spaces of a townhouse falls into the category of architectural magic -- giving the illusion of more space than exists. For several years, Margaret Axtell has been trying to get clients to buy the idea of putting mirrors above eye level to live the ullustion of a room beyond, but "none of my clients like the idea of a wall of mirrors, even above eye level, so I've decided to do it in my own home to show people how effective it can be," says Axtell.
Richard Ridley points out that simple changes in the geometry of interior spaces in townhouses give one the sense of greater space. "A curved or diagonal wall can direct you away from the predictable, parallel walls of a townhouse, away from the railroad-flat feeling of room after room," notes the architect. He is quick to point out, however, that gutting a room to make one larger space is not always an answer; sometimes it is the rhythm of a series of spaces that gives the illusion of more space.
Openings in interior walls can do a great deal to open up spaces by allowing someone in one room to see beyond the space they occupy. A solution that is becoming increasingly common in townhouses and other homes with windowless interior halls is to top a stairwell with a skylight. The new twist to the skylit stairwell is to cut a window up high from a contiguous bedroom to allow light to spill into the bedroom and give it yet another dimension without sacrificing privacy.
In cutting out windows and openings within a house, Ridley points out the need to "exploit the eccentricities of the existing house." But he cautions remodelers, "If there are arches in the house, use that shape in cutting interior openings -- respect the finer details and keep them."
A man whose work shows a genuine respect for older homes is William Creager, a real estate entrepreneur who has lived in and rehabilitated some 30 Capitol Hill houses in the past decade.
"The tendency has been to gut many of the older homes and make them modern on the inside," says Creager, a self-described architecture school dropout who earned a marketing degree instead. "I prefer to gut, add first-class mechanical systems, and then reconstruct the house as it was and enhance it," says the rehabilitation specialist. Creager usually installs all-new kitchens but tries to retain (and in some cases even to add) period molding to his homes for the proper finish. In one recent Capitol Hill job, Creager installed wainscoting on the ceilings and walls of two bathrooms. The floor tiles are duplicates of the old hexagonal black-and-white bath tiles, and the fixtures are new. The effect in all the rooms, except the kitchen, is to reinforce the feeling of being in a fine old townhouse.
"When you pay that much money for a house in the city, you don't want to forget where you are," he concludes.
One of the biggest problems in the older townhouse is storage -- they simply weren't made with space to store all the possessions that contemporary families seem to accumulate.
Closets in most Washington-area townhouses are small. One solution is to use wooden pegs in classic Shaker style. Another is to add a storage wall as was done in the Turim kitchen. Anyone living in a small space leans heavily to captain's beds, "wall systems," and lots and lots of bookcases, but sometimes all that is not enough.
Margaret Axtell suggests fitting shallow closets into the 6- to 8-inch interior walls of most townhouses. You can't hang a hanger in them, but "with some hooks, you can fit in a lot of coats and keep them out of sight," says Axtell.
Richard Ridley suggests taking advantage of the 10- and 12-foot ceilings found in many townhouses to create platforms and lofts for storage.
Axtell points to the bathroom as unexploited storage space. By installing a bathtub away from the wall a few inches and putting in a shelf, she says, one gives the illusion of a fancier tub. In the unused space above (the height of the average adult), Axtell has put an enclosed shelf with sliding doors. The shelf has a built-in "can" light to shed light on the tub below and is designed with adequate vevtilation for the light. "It's a wonderful place for extra blankets and other odds and ends," she says.
Built-in window seats or banquettes with storage beneath are tried and true spacesavers. Divider walls which doulbe as storage are a favorite of most architects because the wall creates a sound buffer and does not protrude into the room.
But whatever the solutions to problems of space, light or style, the most successful renovations, the architects agree, are those which take advantage of cues provided by the house itself.