The English basement -- name an aspiring politician, a graduate student, a new arrival to Washington who has not crossed the threshold of one of these tiny, underground spaces as a first apartment. They offer convenience, since they are usually located in the heart of the city -- minutes from Congress, med school or at least Metro. And they are often blessed with lower than average rents and more than tolerant landlords. But they are also an obvious attraction to those who shun the impersonal nature of large apartment buildings and who gravitate to the basement for a snug little place with their own private entrance.
For Cecile Newburg, moving into her son and daughter-in-law's English basement solved an all-too- common problem. Recently widowed and rattling around in the three-bedroom Capitol Hill house she'd lived in for 20 years, she wanted a change, a way to pare down her possessions and be closer to her only son and grandchildren. Seven years ago she moved in, after a 11/2-year renovation job that involved architect Mark McInturff, her son, Steven Newburg-Rinn, who helped oversee the project, and lots of patience.
"I thought it would never come to pass. It was just a bunch of mud," says Cecile Newburg. "I didn't have enough courage and just didn't think it was possible. But that was before I knew Mark and Steven's determination."
Turning the Newburg-Rinns' mud pile into a spacious, English basement apartment involved major construction work.
"It was a major project in terms of what people normally put into a basement," says McInturff. The entire basement was dug out and the formerly low ceiling underpinned. Air conditioning and heating ducts and machinery (for both the basement and the Newburg-Rinns' upstairs town house) were cleverly hidden in the hall's vaulted ceiling. French doors that open onto a small patio at the back of the apartment were installed. And a fireplace was added, part of the inglenook -- by definition a "chimney corner" -- and the apartment's glowing focal point.
"We tried to use that light well that all row houses have," says McInturff, referring to the narrow alley between the Newburg-Rinns' house and the house next door. "We pushed the kitchen and the inglenook into it, as well as an upstairs dining room bay window. We tried to make this unlike a basement apartment in every way."
Key to this goal was building in an abundance of natural light capabilities. The inglenook wedged into the alleyway was topped with skylights and side windows to let sunlight stream into the living room. Using another part of the untapped alley space McInturff also fashioned a small atrium off the apartment's kitchen. And where artificial light was necessary, in the long hallway for example, McInturff installed subtle recessed lighting in the vaulted ceiling.
Cecile Newburg, a former economist with the Labor and Commerce departments, furnished her "new" apartment -- her first experience with apartment-living since her days as a young mother -- with the best and most cherished of her lifelong possessions. She and her late husband, who was an attorney in the Lands Division of the Justice Department, were eclectic collectors.
Surrounding the teak dining room table are four hand- carved chairs from the Napoleonic era that accompanied the French general on field campaigns. A Georg Jensen silver set, bought piece by piece over the years, sits in the middle of the table.
But surely the most interesting piece in the apartment is the Chinese cloisonn,e lamp that once belonged to Diamond Jim Brady.
"I think it's a monstrosity but my husband loved it and my son loves it," says Cecile Newburg. "As my husband always said, Diamond Jim Brady had a lot of money and very bad taste."
But somehow, in Cecile Newburg's stylish English basement, with its offbeat mix of Oriental, French, Indian and American furnishings, the "monstrosity" looks just right.