Ten years ago, Lee and Jen Odess bought a 1970s-era rambler with a leaky basement in the special taxing district known as the town of Oakmont, which is off Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda.
The family, which includes two children, moved back to Bethesda in 2018 and began looking for something to buy. “We spent six months in a rental looking at houses,” says Jen, 42. “I knew I wanted an L-shaped house, and I knew I wanted super modern.” The family considered buying a mid-century modern home shaped like an “L” while in Florida and the idea stuck. She and her husband Lee, 45, both work as technology executives.
The chances of finding a modern L-shaped house in Bethesda seemed remote, so the family called in Colleen Healey, principal of Colleen Healey Architecture based in D.C., to start looking at teardown possibilities. Healey had known the homeowners personally for years and was frank with them about their limited options. “I told them, ‘Given your budget we’re going to have to find a lot that nobody else wants, get a deal on it and then figure out how to be creative,’ ” Healey says.
While scrolling through listings, Jen landed on a possibility. “The house was stuck in time on a funky shaped lot and the price was low,” she says. The lot hosted a carriage house that years earlier had been converted into living space via an addition off the back. It sits off the street slightly behind what used to be the main house on the estate and is bordered by seven surrounding properties. Healey gave the thumbs-up and the purchase was made in 2019 for $615,000.
The town of Oakmont was formed in 1918 by three neighbors who wanted municipal services brought to what was then a remote section of Montgomery County. Oliver Owen Kuhn, the managing editor of the Evening Star, was one of the founders. Walter “Big Train” Johnson, the ace pitcher of the Washington Senators, lived nearby, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had friends in the neighborhood. The town is two streets long and includes about 60 homes spread over 18½ acres. The town has a design review board that discourages “mansionization,” but found no issues with the Odess family’s unconventional plans.
The design was hatched quickly in about six months as Healey and Jen decided to preserve a red maple tree on the side of the property and three walls of the carriage house. The addition would be torn down and rebuilt. A “galley” shoots off at a 90-degree angle and connects a new section. The L-shape creates a courtyard used as an outside entertainment space and a playground for the kids.
Demolition began in September 2019 as the family planned on being in their new home before their two-year lease was up on the rental. Six months later, the pandemic hit. Principals of Cabin John Builders, based in Cabin John, Md., who are also friends of the homeowners, signed on as the crew and quickly began ascending the learning curve associated with modern design. “Modern detailing has to be done at the framing level before you get to the finishes,” says Healey.
Delays began to affect the project and living arrangements as the family realized they were going to have to vacate the rental before the new house was finished. They moved in with Lee’s parents for a while, then packed up the family vehicle and began a road trip to Florida, stopping at Airbnbs so the kids could attend online classes. Life on the road lasted about eight weeks until the builders and homeowners agreed the house was finished enough to occupy.
The driveway runs to the side of what used to be the estate’s main house and ends at what used to be the front of the carriage house. The circular porthole window was part of the existing structure. The large window that looks into the kitchen used to be a horse-size entrance. Although the carriage house could have been knocked down, there was a strategy for leaving it in place.
“People probably thought we were crazy for keeping any of it,” says Healey. “For zoning reasons, we were able to stay further forward, by about four feet, because we preserved parts of it.” One wall of the carriage house was removed and replaced with a window wall looking out onto the courtyard. The roof was popped up and pitched to a shed configuration, which made room for clerestory windows.
The home’s front door is off to the side of the driveway and opens into a foyer. There’s a mud room off to the right and a small study to the left. The great room is straight ahead. Initially the family planned on separating the living area of the space and the dining area and kitchen with a slatted wooden divider, but the plans changed. The kitchen is to the right with the butler’s pantry tucked behind the kitchen’s rear wall.
The main living area sits inside the original walls of the carriage house. The space that used to be the addition was rebuilt into two kids’ rooms, each with its own full bath. There’s also a hangout space and a powder room. The floors in the old section are all poured concrete.
The kitchen is defined by an island with seating for three and gray, lacquered base cabinetry below. The range and refrigerator, both from Jenn Air, are framed into a built-in wall unit that includes a line of upper cabinets. The sink faces the outside wall, which is lined with a row of whitewashed oak base cabinetry. All the cabinets came from Downsview Kitchens, based in Ontario, Canada. The island and countertops are a mix of honed black granite and white Corian.
The far wall of the great room is trimmed with slatted wood that leads guests into the gallery, which functions as a hallway leading to the new section of the house. Early in the design phase the gallery was going to be all glass, but plans were scaled back, and it is now lined with slatted wood. The new section is on two levels, with the lower level dedicated to a guest suite. Upstairs is the main suite, which includes an office, bedroom and a walk-through closet leading to the main bath. The main bath has a separate water closet and a curbless shower with three heads. An overhead skylight illuminates the space.
The main suite offers a quiet respite and an excellent view of the red maple tree that survived the renovation process. The exterior color selections are a mix of bold hues and black, which caused one of the neighbors to ask the homeowners if they were building a funeral parlor. Not counting the snarky comment, the quirky neighborhood that once turned on the streetlights with a switch on one of the original resident’s front porch has accepted the new arrival.
“It’s unexpected. It looks like a very small space and then it opens up to you,” says Healey.
“It’s so different for the neighborhood. They can see there are different ways of renovating and different ways of upgrading. There are other answers and other ways of living.”
The homeowners chose not to disclose the renovation costs and concede that their price per square foot is high as compared with other homes in the area — but is offset by the home’s modest 3,300 square foot size.
Resale at this point isn’t an issue, even if another job opportunity in Florida materializes. “We don’t care because we’re not moving,” says Jen. “If we were moving, we’d keep the house. It’s not very big but it’s dialed in to exactly what we want.”
The experience became life-affirming for the homeowners, says Jen. “Facing the unknown was a challenge but I love the story. We repurposed parts of the house and it was fun doing it with close friends. It was meaningful for us.”