When Colman and Richard Riddell bought a tiny Georgetown house that was once a 19th-century stable, they knew they were becoming the latest caretakers of a curious piece of history.

The 1,700-square-foot home began life in the 1850s as the carriage house and stables for the mansion next door. The red brick property, tucked beside a quiet alley, was converted into a two-story, three-bedroom residence in 1923. Over the past 90 years, residents have left clues behind: terra cotta religious tiles, red and green stained glass windows and two second-floor Juliet balconies that open into a double-height living room.

Colman, a designer, says all the different styles gave her creative license inside the house. “You don’t feel obligated to honor any kind of covenant or any sort of design since everyone along the way has left their mark,” she says. “It frees you up to do interesting things.”

Colman’s solution for a house big on charm but skimpy on space: Give each room a jolt of personality. Or as she calls it, “a big wow factor.” She created comfortable spaces for her family of four with dramatic surprises throughout: Snakeskin print vinyl wallpaper on the kitchen walls and ceiling; an oversize pink wing chair in her daughter’s tiny bedroom; and an army of painted Chinese chests bought during a year living in Beijing. They add warmth and badly needed storage. Look around and you’ll see her bold brush strokes everywhere: an antelope head from eBay, black-and-white awning stripe wallpaper in the powder room and instead of flowers, a vase of kale on the bar.

Colman, 44, and her husband, Richard, 52, a partner in Well Oiled Wine Co., a Leesburg wine importer, son Kane, 12, and daughter Elizabeth, 7, moved to Georgetown from Waterford in 2011. They loved country life. But when Kane was accepted to the McLean School in Potomac, they knew they had to move closer to the school.

Colman Riddell tucked her office into a corner of the living room. The desk shares space with a radiator. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

They searched for a small house in Georgetown, knowing space would be sacrificed for location. “I wanted something unusual, not the standard townhouse,” Colman says. She had grown up in Georgetown and her parents still live there. By chance, an intriguing little house she had passed by for years was on the market. “I was always curious about the place. When I got inside, I was shocked to see the fantastic double height living room.” The square footage was less than half of their Waterford place, but it had all the proper rooms: The first floor had a foyer, living room, den, dining room, kitchen and powder room; upstairs were three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

They bought it.

Colman had used neutral colors for walls, furniture and floors in her old house, and went with the same plan. “I call my style neutral-with-artifacts,” she says. Walls were painted Benjamin Moore Dove Wing and Farrow & Ball Charleston Gray. Cream and taupe sofas and chairs were regrouped. Beige and brown herringbone sisal rugs in the major rooms tie the spaces together. With two kids and a dog, the textured weave and pattern make spills and accidents less obvious.

Most of the decorating budget went for lighting. “I love to use large fixtures in smaller rooms that have no focal point,” Colman says. The 60-inch-wide gold-washed wood chandelier (Mansion by Currey & Company) is an example. “The fixture needed to be massive to be noticed in this room with a 22-foot ceiling,” Colman says. “It makes it cozy.”

The kitchen got a minor facelift when she painted wood cabinets white and replaced counters with honed sugar white marble. The eye candy is Visual Comfort’s Trillion crystal chandelier, which looks like something twinkling in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. “I wanted something glamorous as I spend a lot of time in here,” Colman says.

The kids love the home’s quirky features. Elizabeth’s bedroom has a balcony with a window she can fling open onto the living room. “I love my balcony because I can look out and watch when my mom is having a party,” Elizabeth says.

They love not having to drive everywhere. “Our old house was a mile away from the closest place to get food,” Kane says. “Here I can get to Five Guys in a few minutes.” Richard admits to a nostalgia for “the country’s wide open spaces” but he’s psyched about how easy it is to get to Nationals Park for a ballgame: Walk to Washington Harbour and take a water taxi.

Because the Riddells’ house will be on the Georgetown House Tour on April 27, the tour committee has been working with the Georgetown Neighborhood Library and other sources to tell its history.

There is lots of documented history, as well as legends and lore, associated with the house. The stable-carriage house was just one of the outbuildings wealthy Georgetown businessman Richard Pettit constructed for himself in the 1850s. Around 1923, the stable was subdivided and renovated into two small houses. The two-bedroom house attached to the Riddells’ was bought by her brother and will also be on the house tour. Former Washington WTTG and WUSA TV anchor Tracey Neale owned both houses for 10 years. Neale said in an e-mail that she had heard the Riddells’ house was owned or used by a religious group at one time. She occasionally found nuns praying in front of the religious tile embedded in the home’s exterior. There were also stories that the stained-glass windows had come from the Iranian Embassy.

The Riddells are leaving their own stamp. Kane is drawing ninja battles and skateboard logos on his bedroom walls that are coated with Benjamin Moore chalkboard paint. Colman is thinking about adding rustic beams to the living room.

Meanwhile, more surprises might be in store. This house, Neale wrote in an e-mail, was always full of “history and mystery.”


Chat Thursday at 11 a.m. Colman Riddell, designer and owner of the Georgetown house on the cover of this week’s Local Living, joins staff writer Jura Koncius for our weekly online Q&A on decorating and household advice. Submit questions now.