There's renovation, and then there's transformation.
Renovation means months of plaster dust and power tools, of waking up to find a carpenter on a ladder outside your bedroom window. It implies tacking a study onto the kitchen you tacked on five years ago. It connotes pain and discomfort, suffered because renovating is usually cheaper than moving.
Transformation, on the other hand, has a whole different ring to it. It has little to do with getting an updated kitchen -- and everything to do with Getting What You Want. Sort of a vision thing, actually.
Transforming a house, any house, raises an odd question, though: Why would people buy a place they essentially don't like or don't think meets their needs? The standard answers are as varied as the people giving them. They talk about the location or the view or the schools or the neighborhood, all legitimate elements, to be sure. But chances are, the larger motivation is something else, perhaps people's unceasing need to leave their mark, to create order where there is none, to show What Can Be Done. It's a healthy exercise in ego, one that, if you're lucky, spills over onto your persona.
Because sometimes you transform a house, and sometimes a house transforms you. A NATURAL PROGRESSION
Theodore Adamstein and Olvia Demetriou are sitting in the living room of their new house, trying to eat lunch. Trouble is, they also want to talk about the house. With good reason -- it's wonderful. Wedged into a narrow strip of Washington west of Georgetown, south of Foxhall, it's a tall, skinny thing from the outside, but wide inside, as broad and open and densely colored as an Italian palazzo.
What they want to talk about, of course, is how they made that happen. And hunger stands in the way. But as the meeting evolves, so does their system. While Adamstein talks -- about how Chrome, their photo-processing business, coexists with their architecture practice and his own art photography -- his wife and architecture partner munches on a roast beef sandwich. And when Demetriou chimes in to elaborate on why they bought a house with no redeeming architectural features, her husband dives into half a turkey on white. And so the explanations continue, with an easy back and forth, until their house and theories are outlined and their lunch eaten.
The couple have been married for five years and two houses, the first of which seems, in retrospect, to have been a mini-lab for their current creation. The first house had 1,500 square feet; this one has 4,800, 1,200 of those added with a two-story addition that includes the living room and the master bedroom above. Their singularity of vision is apparent even in their well-cut casual clothes: The colors they're wearing today are all to be found in the rooms around them -- her black-and-cream stripes in the dining room tables and chairs, his ocher shirt and mustard trousers right there on the living room wall behind him. This apparently graceful partnership succeeds in more than just interviews and wardrobes. Demetriou works full-time in their architectural practice and sometimes, she says, gets caught up in solving a little problem while straying from the big picture. That's when Adamstein, a Kiefer Sutherland look-alike who devotes a lot of his time to Chrome, can step into the process and supply the overview once again.
The two of them sometimes talk in "arky speak," a professional architect's language studded with terms like "axial corridor," "linearity" and "on center." But they can also talk like a couple of young people delighted with what their home feels like. So first Adamstein, who retains the accent of his native South Africa, explains that the house used to be entered from the side, its center "congested" with a central staircase they were constantly having to walk around. Then he adds, with a little grin, "Something about being in the center of the house is very satisfying, well, especially to architects." And that's why the entry is now on the skinny street facade and takes a visitor through a long, narrow hall to the dining room, with its easy chairs and bookcases -- the new center of the house.
And though the Greek-born Demetriou can talk about letting the house "unfold" little by little, the way a filmmaker chooses what viewers get to see and when, she also will just say that the living room is divided from the dining room by wide doorways simply because it's "more mysterious" not to see the whole downstairs at once.
There's "a lot of depth to surfaces" in the house, says Adamstein. Fronts of some cabinets are clad in acid-etched metal, and there are sloping sheets of rusted metal, worked by sculptor Lisa Scheer, under the living room windows. Even where the surfaces are just paint, they have glazed finishes by artist Lenore Winters or, at least, areas recessed to form huge "frames" around pieces of art or furniture.
All this articulation inside stands in sharp contrast to the outside, where the house has been simplified, Demetriou points out, to the pure form of a house that a child might draw, with a pitched roof and flat windows. The mustard-stucco-clad facade stands out gently from its brick neighbors, but Adamstein and Demetriou saved the real aggressive materials for the rear, including wide swaths of glass and monumental copper columns, oxidized by artist Tim Makepeace.
The sandwiches eaten, the house explained and the neighbors arguably soothed by stucco, it's back to Chrome and the offices of Adamstein & Demetriou Architecture & Design, both in the same Georgetown building. The two enterprises are more related than they might first appear, Adamstein argues. "A lot of architecture is less three-dimensional than one thinks. The world, at least, sees most architecture through drawings and photographs. The stuff that communicates best is two-dimensional vignettes that can be extracted. And that's how we put pieces together." THE 1 PERCENT SOLUTION
The woman opens the front door and manages to keep one of her two Lhasa apsos from running out into rush-hour traffic on Connecticut Avenue. Once the door is closed, though, the driven world of Northwest Washington recedes. The house is cool, an oasis, but beckoning from the end of the hallway is something even more welcoming. It's a narrow stucco-walled garden, a tiny echo of the sort of garden that sheltered the Finzi-Continis. It twists off into the near distance, a chorus of gentle colors. It's beyond the ground-floor garden room and you feel drawn to it -- right into your own private sunshine. That's exactly how the woman and her interior designer wanted you to feel. "The garden becomes this room," says the designer, Frank Babb Randolph, gesturing around the sit- ting room, "and this room becomes the garden."
On the other hand, a private paradise was not what the builder of this new luxury town house had in mind. He envisioned a common area behind his curved cluster of homes, presumably with neighbors toasting one another from separate, rather naked 10-by-10-foot patios in the evening. Certainly not an image from Robert Frost. Randolph repeats the poet's famous line with a chuckle: " 'Good fences make good neighbors.' " And, indeed, this summer a maze of fences began to divide the former "common."
The client, a businesswoman who works at home, bought the house 99 percent finished, but she "could see the possibilities, see what had to be done. I would not have bought the house if I couldn't have made the changes after I moved in." And it was the third house she had worked on with Randolph, which explains in part the dispatch and harmony with which the pair worked.
Some of the changes reflected matters of taste: all-too-shiny brass outdoor lamps removed from the rear, oak floors pickled, patio doors replaced with sleeker custom-made models, a wet bar and an elevator declined. "We even made them change the style of the banister we knew we were going to rip out anyway," the woman chortles.
But other alterations are what really transformed the four-story house, giving it the grandness of scale and proportion it had lacked. The rear second-floor living room wall featured a cluster of eight big and small windows, not unattractive and certainly more innovative than standard builder issue, but overly complicated and confining. Randolph replaced them with a tiny balcony and oversize French doors that fill the living room with space and light. A doorway separated the kitchen from the dining area. Randolph removed the door -- and the drywall transom above it, leaving nothing to stop the eye. The living room was separated from the dining platform by a waist-high wall. Randolph and his chic client said no to the wall, and now both areas can be used for sitdown dinners and free-flowing buffets. They removed a dozen recessed lights in the living and dining rooms -- "black holes," the designer calls them. And they refused to have shoe molding attached to the baseboards.
"It's one of many things that crowd a room," says Randolph. "Most designers want to add. I want to eliminate." That extends to everything from the banisters to the door transoms to the cording found on most upholstered furniture. Another thing he has eliminated is strong color. "If you look at my work over the past 18 years, you'll see I've been working in the same cool palette, refining, always editing." A lot of people, he concedes, can't live with the spareness, the coolness of it. "It sounds terrible to say, but most people aren't intellectually able to live in a cool palette." It's also one that doesn't allow for the warmth or clutter of a lot of books. For that mental nourishment, the client has to go upstairs: That's where her boxes of books await a place of their own. A CLEAN SLATE
It wasn't easy for Don Russell and Helen Brunner to renovate their house near the border between Maryland and the Dis- trict. What the two art consultants wanted was a neutral space, a blank to be filled with the works of artists they loved and worked with. However, this house was anything but neutral. It was the home Brunner grew up in, and renovation meant eliminating traces of her childhood.
But facts were facts. The dark 2,000-square-foot house had to serve lots of functions. For one thing, Russell and Brunner, who founded the Washington Project for the Arts bookstore, wanted to do their art consulting at home (currently they conduct surveys for the National Endowment for the Arts and recently they helped organize the show of fax art now hanging at the Andrea Ruggieri Gallery at Dupont Circle). For another, the couple wanted to start a family, with all the demands that would make on space. The renovation, designed by Annapolis architect Wayne Good, would be "painful but right," Brunner decided. And once the couple moved out to allow construction, the pain was replaced by excitement.
On this warm, late-summer day, Brunner and Russell are taking turns showing off features of the sleek German kitchen and comforting year-old Nina. Outside, 4-year-old Nicholas plays with a neighborhood friend. Laughing, Brunner calls the decor of the now-3,000-square-foot house a collaboration between the design showrooms AI and the Pace Collection and Toys 'R' Us.
True, kids do turn a household upside down. But so did Brunner and Russell. The kitchen used to be in the back. Now it's in the front ("It forces us to keep it clean," says Russell). The living room was in front. Now it's in back, expanded into a "garden room" overlooking a slate-and-marble checkerboard patio that is what's left of the back yard. The real back yard is now in front, and tall shrubbery hides the swing set and tricycle from commuters driving by.
Russell and Brunner also went against the prevailing wisdom when it comes to bathrooms. Says Russell, "We didn't add them, we took them out." Specifically, after deciding they wanted their ground floor to revolve around a central core, encompassing closets and stairways, they removed the ground-floor powder room. "We would have had to have a tiny dining area on one side," Brunner explains. "Or give up part of the library," adds Russell. "And, besides," they add, practically in unison, "you always know what that 'box' in the middle of the floor is."
And people might disagree with what they did upstairs, says Russell, but "I'd rather have one great bathroom than two tiny ones." That one bathroom is great, with a large whirlpool tub and a separate oversize tiled shower room. Then, to propitiate the gods of real estate, they added a bath on the basement level.
The additional square footage created the new living room, an airy master bedroom above it and an office in the opened-up attic. There, and everywhere, sunlight pours in on white walls and bleached floors. The light cascades through the rear of the house, made up mostly of windows. It filters through the leaded-glass front door. A skylight lets it fill the stairway to the office.
And, filled with sun, this white envelope of a house also pays homage to the moon. There's "The Eclipse (A Science Fiction)," a piece of conceptual art that documents newspaper photo coverage of a total eclipse on February 26, 1979. There are the wood puzzle sculptures of moons by Robert Brooks. And the front door incorporates half-moon shapes.
Where they could, Russell and Brunner commissioned artists to build for them. The front door was made by Washington artist Sal Fiorito. The living room window seat and the couple's bed are by furniture maker T. Evan Hughes. Works on canvas and paper by Brunner's brother, Wil, dot the hallways. And the architect created a little something extra as well. It's a slice of balcony off the master bedroom, just sitting there, unused, looking inviting. Russell looks at it wistfully, then at little Nina, and says, "It's for when our lifestyle changes."