Suzanne and Bob Stoll had been itching to get out of suburban Bethesda for so long that when a 2,700-square-foot Kalorama condo became available in 2003, they moved to the District immediately, two weeks before their younger child graduated from high school.
Though both Suzanne and Bob were raised in the suburbs (she in a small town outside of Boston, he in Camp Springs), they think of themselves as city people. They had left the District in 1994 for purely parental reasons, their need for a city lifestyle temporarily overridden by their wish to give their children Michael and Jessie, then 10 and 9, what they considered the best public school education in the area.
While they made great friends and enjoyed a suburban lifestyle of grilling steaks on the patio and parking in a two-car garage, it was a long nine years for the Stolls in their 7,500-square foot home. They missed the immediacy of Washington’s museums, restaurants and zoo (which they had visited with the kids at least twice a week), and, most of all, the noises.
“In the suburbs, you can’t go anywhere without getting into a car. And it’s quiet. I understand why people value the quiet, but I don’t,” says Suzanne, 62, chief operating officer of the Raben Group, a public policy and lobbying firm, and a former chief of staff to three Democratic congressmen.
Suzanne met Bob, 54, commissioner of the United States Patent and Trademark Office, 30 years ago, when both were taking night classes at Catholic University’s law school. By then, each had established that they were die-hard city people and that surrounding themselves with family and friends was a top priority. Both sides of the family (Bob Stoll is one of five siblings) meet regularly for family trips and meals. Suzanne’s mother, sister and brother “followed her” (as Bob puts it) to Washington, and the extended Stoll family gathers every Sunday for brunch at Murphy’s, a downtown Irish pub owned by Suzanne’s mother, Audrey Marcus. As a couple, the Stolls entertain often, opening their home eight to 10 times a year for fundraisers, social celebrations and work functions.
That meant that any old city apartment wouldn’t do. It would have to have room for entertaining, and for friends and family to visit. When the couple saw the $900,000 apartment carved out of three spaces in a historic building on California Street in Kalorama, they recognized another important factor: views. With four exposures and two balconies, the fifth-floor apartment in the 1905 building constructed by T. Franklin Schneider, overlooks Washington National Cathedral to the north and the Washington Monument to the south.
“We bought the place because of the space and the views,” Bob Stoll says. “It had room for the kids to come back. That was the critical dimension. We thought of my mother-in-law, as well. She lives on her own just a few blocks away now, but she can move in here whenever she likes.”
Although Suzanne wanted to remodel the apartment right away and see whether they could rent back the house they had sold, Bob wanted to move to the city as quickly as possible, even though Jessie still had two weeks left at Walt Whitman High School.
“I didn’t like commuting. I wanted to be here, and I wanted to know by living in it what we needed to do with the apartment. I wanted to see it out, see what it needed, feel it out, do it right.”
The Stolls decided that what they wanted from their apartment was three different dimensions of space: wall space to display about 40 works of art; open space for their party guests; and room space for family and friends to stay for short and long visits. About a year after they moved, they hired Mark McInturff and Julia Heine of McInturff Architects in Bethesda to reconfigure, design and decorate the choppy, awkwardly glued-together apartment (a two-bedroom and a three-bedroom apartment and part of the public hallway had been subsumed into one in the 1980s by the previous owner).
Before they started the job, the Stolls threw a building party, to thank their neighbors in advance for the inconvenience, and — with the two kids home from college on break and, eventually, a new puppy — moved to a 100-square-foot efficiency apartment on the first floor of the building for the 10-month-long, $425,000 remodeling project. “It was like ‘The Waltons,’ ” Bob says.
The center of the apartment now brags an art-filled foyer that is infused with McInturff’s carefully crafted ceiling lighting, panel walls that pop with color and open spaces that draw the eyes diagonally across the apartment through the library/art gallery, through the dining room, living room and then straight out the windows and into the elements of the city beyond. (The family’s bedrooms and baths are on either side of the central part of the apartment. On the east side of the apartment the couple established a den and a bedroom for their son, Michael, a bedroom for their daughter, Jessie, and a room for guests. The western side has the large master bedroom suite.)
Despite their modern design sensibility, the Stolls wanted to preserve the apartment’s century-long history. “Mark found a way to maintain a sense of the age of the building,” Suzanne says. “He kept the original columns and warmth of a 100-year-old building.” Those interior columns, according to James M. Goode’s book, “Best Addresses,” originally had been erected to divide the “reception hall” (now the library/art gallery) from the living room.
“The detail and carving of the columns works really well against a sleek surface,” McInturff says. “You can join those two elements if it’s done selectively.”
To create the space his clients wanted, McInturff had to reinvent the apartment’s circulation pattern by knocking down old walls and erecting new ones, a process he likens to exploratory surgery. “It required a lot of forensic investigation. When you want to open or remove a wall you have to determine if it’s a [load-]bearing wall and what’s in that wall — a pipe or a duct or wiring, plumbing, cable.”
In the end, McInturff removed three walls and erected six “panels” throughout the apartment to accommodate the Stolls’ art collection. The panels are immovable floor-to-ceiling walls encased in one-inch frames of stained black ash wood. Painted a variety of colors to accentuate specific pieces of art, the panels themselves look like framed canvases. In some cases, the panels — of varying widths and heights — stand independently; in others, they are set against a wall, adding depth to the apartment. The panels can be repainted to showcase whatever pieces of art the Stolls decide to hang on them.
“We changed the circulation completely,” Heine says. “You can now move through the apartment in a circular pattern through the island-centered kitchen, into the dining room, living room, foyer, and there aren’t any dead ends. There is one big loop, and it all makes sense.”
The new looping pattern is exactly what the Stolls needed for their parties. “At parties, there is always a critical mass around the outside bar of the kitchen, and that group flows into the dining room. Then there’s a big mass of people in the dining room that flows into the living room,” Suzanne says. “The open library is wonderful for flow, as well. We can have 75 to 90 people here, and we can now move around comfortably.”
In addition to improving the flow, the redesign allows a visual connection between husband and wife while they relax with their favorite after-work hobbies.While Bob is cheffing it up in the kitchen , Suzanne, who began painting 10 years ago, can be just a few feet away, capturing a view of the city from the dining room bay window. Bob also likes to sit in the corner of the living room’s black sectional couch and gaze at the openness of the apartment. “I just love looking at the angles and lines.”
McInturff’s favorite accomplishment is the library, one of the only rooms in the apartment without natural light. Its African mahogany shelves (made of the same wood as the kitchen cabinets) are home to the Stolls’ books and Asian-centric collections purchased on trips around the world. “We took a space that really felt like it was unusable ... and first we assigned it a function, which was to be both a library and a gallery,” McInturff says.
There could be no drilling into the apartment’s concrete ceilings, so McInturff had to be creative about changing the lighting. Because the nine-foot ceilings were higher than in most apartments, he says, he decided to lower them in the central part of the apartment and played with contrast, “creating areas that are cozy and lower and those that are higher,” he says. He also lowered the ceiling through the foyer into the library and the kitchen, accenting it with layers of lighting. “Part of that was a way to lead the eye through the space.” “It is a series of directional runners, like a floor runner, except it’s on the ceiling.” McInturff’s design was practical, too; it gave him a place to run the wiring.
There’s utility in the kitchen, as well. A Carrera marble column next to the island is a plumbing stack that serves the entire building and rises up from the floor and through the ceiling right in the middle of the kitchen. “We were restricted by where the plumbing could go,” says McInturff, who decided to box the plumbing in as tightly as possible and then cover the stack with panels of white marble to make it appear as an intentional design element.
In choosing a color palette for the apartment, Heine started with Benjamin Moore Super White, then added accent colors to the panels to complement each piece of art. The colors range from gray to creamy yellow to rusted orange and pale blue, though most of the apartment remains white. The one dark wall in the house, painted black with Benjamin Moore Studio Finishes Chalkboard Paint, rises behind a 10-foot-long, black custom-made Daniel Donnelly couch. The black wall absorbs the black window casements and pulls into the room the wrought iron fire escape that climbs outside the window. “When you stood in the living room and looked at a white wall, it wasn’t the right composition with the fire escape. The black wall allowed the fire escape to become part of the interior design,” Heine says.
The exterior ended up being an important part of the design in other ways. Suzanne’s favorite part of the apartment is the balcony off the kitchen, which is accessible through two glass doors. “I like sitting on the balcony and looking at the sun set over the cathedral,” she says.
“There are enough chairs for Michael and Jessie and their significant others and friends. We have drinks out there when the weather allows; we watch the bats and listen to the bugle as they lower the flag at the vice president’s mansion.”
Michael and Jessie are often on the balcony because they have come back, as Bob and Suzanne wanted. Michael, 26, currently clerking for a Florida judge, lived in his part of the apartment during his three-year stint at Georgetown Law School. He will likely return again when he resumes his career at a Washington law firm in September, though his den has been taken over by Bob, who had turned it into an office. Jessie, 25, an associate at a different Washington law firm, is back in her section, too, with the second bedroom used for the friends who often find their way into the apartment.
But don’t worry about grandma. Michael, apparently, is willing to give up his space should she ever decide to move in. “She’s the only one he would let have his room,” Jessie says.
Cari Shane is a freelance writer and Huffington Post contributor in Maryland. She can be reached at email@example.com.