The neat, two-story colonial at 4815 Chesapeake Street NW fits in snugly with its neighbors. The house has a small front yard, freshly painted wood shutters and simple architectural lines. There is nothing, save the wooden ramps to the front door, to suggest that the house is in any way remarkable.
Purchased last year for $112,500 by a volunteer, non-profit organization called Independent Living for the Handicapped, the house is, however, a forerunner in a nationwide movement to design housing for the severely handicapped.
At the present only part of Chesapeake House has been rendered free of architectural barriers and only two physically disabled residents live in the house along with a housekeeper-/aide. A third resident will move in shortly.
Unlike the handful of similar projects underway in various parts of the country (Inwood House in Silver Spring is one example), the Chesapeake Street house was not designed from scratch.
"We want to show that it is possible to take an existing single-family house in a established residential neighborhood and turn it into a barrier-free group home for the severely physically disabled," said Beverly Price, a founder of ILH.
"We felt committed, for better or worse, to trying this in the nation's capital," Price said.
The major advantage of Washington was that many groups and organizations concerned with programs for the handicapped come through the city and the house could be a very visible model of what could be done.
ILH members found, however, that most Washington houses do not lend themselves to barrier-free rehabilitation. The ideal is a one-story slab house built on grade, a type that provides for easy access to the house, bedrooms and bathrooms.
During three intensive months of house-hunting, ILH found that most large houses that could suit group needs had steeply pitched from steps, bedrooms and bathrooms on second and third floors and kitchens that were too small for wheelchair access.
"We were very excited when we found the Chesapeake Street house," Price said. It had two bedrooms and a bath on the main floor and a front entrance that could easily be ramped.It was located on a double lot, meaning that an addition could be built.
Architect Paul Devrosax, a consultant for organization and chairman of the Mayor's Task Force on Architectural Barriers, drew up a plan to build a three-bedroom addition and to rehabilitate the existing kitchen and bathrooms. ILH submitted the plan to the D.C Department of Housing and asked for a grant to rehabilitate the house! The grant has been approved but is awaiting final review and approval from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"Our objective in designing the new wing was to conform the design to the existing house and surroundings so it would not detract from the character of the neighborhood," Devrouax said. "In addition to bedrooms, we will provide a wood deck and ramps so that individuals in the house will have accessible recreational space.
"As we get into the kitchen of the existing house there are a number of things we will do. We need more turn around space for wheelchair residents, so we will cut out a wall and replace it with an arch and pass through cabinet. Ee will relocate the refrigerator in a pantry and put in sinks, cabinets, cooking range and oven that are within reach of a person seated in a wheelchair."
While the kitchen, new bedrooms and other modifications (a sun room off the living room is sunken and needs to be brought level with the living room) await the $70,000 grant, Devrouax and ILH have already made some basic renovations that allowed three physically disabled residents and a housekeeper&aide to move into the house this year.
"I know what I need and it's to be able to reach things. A corollary of that is plenty of space to turn my wheelchair around," said Mary Pat Bradley, who is a parapalegic and has been living in the house for the past eight months. As a member of ILH's Board of Directors, Bradley, who has a master's degree and a part-time job writing abstracts for the Congressional Information Services in Bethesda, was active in designing the Chesapeake house rehabilitation.
In the eight months that Chesapeake house has been in existence, ILH has been beseiged with requests from all over the country from physically handicapped people who want to live there.