THE MOST RECENT occupants were neighborhood junkies, but in 1981 the look of the house intrigued the two couples -- although neither couple knew of the other. The look that captivated them was a residence on Logan Circle so grand that all four felt it was far too ambitious a project to undertake singlehandedly.
One of the interested parties asked the real estate agent: Who else was interested in the house? One other couple, the agent said, and gave him Walter Romanek's phone number. Romanek and his wife, Nancy Miller, soon met with the other two (who prefer to be anonymous) and decided, after surprisingly little discussion, to form a partnership. They bought the house in 1982 and spent the next three years as general contractors and laborers and in weekly partnership meetings. By 1984 they had renovated a two-bedroom basement unit in the house, and in 1985 they were ready to move in.
The most important single decision was who should get what space. The first floor had grand high ceilings, a wonderful bay window and mantle. The second and third floors were reached by a handsome staircase. By the third floor, the staircase was a narrow passage leading to little more than what appeared to be crawl space on the fourth level.
Ultimately, each couple made a trade-off that has made all parties happy. They decided to piggy-back two units: Each party would get a piece of the second floor; each would have a duplex. The two units were subdivided with the grand first-floor unit getting a back deck and ground-floor access. The second-floor unit, in exchange, got more space by converting the fourth floor into a master bedroom suite. The two apartments share a foyer.
With the help of Leonard Taylor and James Latham of LTJ Architecture, designer Brian Smith and cabinetmaker Susan Butler, the house now commands the dignity that must have characterized its early days in 1887, when it was constructed.
The house had served as the home of a prominent banking family for its first changed hands several times before becoming the home of a Washington minister and his family.
After World War II, in response to the shortage of decent housing, the mansion became a rooming house and its decline began. In the late 1970s, an official of the Carter administration and his wife purchased the house and lived in some of the second- floor rooms. The owners hoped to renovate, but little was done and they soon returned to Atlanta. The house remained vacant for several years. During that time, the "street" did its informal gutting. Stained glass windows were stolen, mantels and doors stripped from the house. On every floor were scattered used syringes and mattresses.
The new owners' plan was to transform the spacious basement into a rental apartment immediately to make the house income-producing while they determined what to do upstairs.
At one time or another, each of the four was ready to give up, but the others were not. The four -- a psychologist and an attorney, a government employe and a professor -- all worked together, delegating responsibilities so that each partner had a job. One kept the partnership books (all costs for the entire building were shared), two handled financing, two handled historic preservation credits, one was the direct liaison with the many subcontractors on the job. Every item from doorknobs to appliances was "shopped" to get a price as close to wholesale as possible, even though once they had to hire a truck and drive to New York City to pick up a bathtub.
Though the first-floor couple prefers 18th-century English antiques and Romanek and Miller favor 19th-century French antiques, there is a harmony to the overall restoration, a similarity of tastes that may have been an unspoken part of why the partnership has lasted.
Would they do it again and would they do it differently? The upstairs occupants long for a tiny elevator when they return from a shopping trip. The downstairs couple might next time choose a "gut" renovation rather than a painstaking restoration. But all four agree with a resounding "Yes!" that the effort was worth it.
THE PARTNERSHIP wanted to retain the floor plans of the original house as much as possible and yet make the apartments comfortable. The original kitchen had been in the basement, so new kitchens had to be placed in each apartment. On the first floor, the front room and middle room (once the back parlor) remained essentially the same. In the dining room was added a built-in breakfront designed by Taylor and crafted by Susan Butler. The dramatic oak piece will be stained to match the trim in the room, which has been carefully stripped. A wet bar is invisible around the corner from the breakfront, and a hallway runs along the rear. Behind the dining room is the kitchen and then out back, a small deck and back yard. Both couples chose the same appliance for their kitchens, but each design is completely different. The first-floor couple used dramatic white cabinets and high-tech track lights with "barn doors" (flaps that adjust the spread of the light) to give a clean-lined, dramatic look. The wall ovens and television set were placed in the area that used to have a fireplace. In all, nine fireplaces were preserved in the house, but the one in the rear of the first floor had to be bricked over to provide a space for the wall ovens.
Up original back stairs one travels to the second floor, inside the first- floor apartment. A master bedroom and bath and a guest bedroom complete the first-floor unit. The bath backs onto the entry area of the second couple's apartment.
THE SECOND FLOOR is the entrance for the Miller/Romanek home. However, only two rooms are on this level: the living room, which spans the entire front of the house, and Miller's office, each with its own fireplace. The stairs continue up to the third floor, where there are a study and dining room at the front, a kitchen, and then two bedrooms and baths at the rear. A new, wider staircase leads to the fourth floor, where an impressive master bedroom suite has been carved out of the front, and where a roof deck is planned to provide an outdoor recreation area and garden for the second couple.
To keep light pouring into the town house, the original skylight was retained, down as far as the first floor. The only task yet to be completed in this four-year long process is to finish the exterior of the grand mansion.