Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Blue Star as Blue Star Properties Group.
It was a year of transition. At 48 and recently divorced, I moved from the suburbs to a transitional D.C. neighborhood and began transforming a 1910 rowhouse into a home that would embrace my children and their future families, and give me long-term security.
It was something I had wanted for years. As a Manhattan native, I itched to get back into a city so I could walk to things again (not just around with the dog). I had no specific plans to move from the Potomac, Md., house where my husband and I had raised our three children, two of whom had gone off to college. But, I had always envisioned myself in a historic rowhouse, renovated to respect its past and reflect my personality.
Then, in August 2013, my son transferred to a school in the District. With my ties to the Montgomery County public school system severed, I devised a plan: I would use the money from the sale of my suburban home to buy a rowhouse, where I would live mortgage-free and, once the kids were on their own full time, turn the basement into a rental property.
Unfortunately, the historic Capitol Hill rowhouses I had coveted for years were now unaffordable: Flipped houses large enough for my family were selling for $1.75 million to $4 million, and unflipped houses were hovering at $1 million-plus. I expanded my search and came upon the H Street corridor in Northeast. With restaurants popping up almost monthly amid the new apartment buildings and high-end supermarkets, local bloggers waxed poetic about how this neighborhood was becoming one of the city’s new “it” areas.
A few blocks north of H Street, I found a 17-foot-wide, painted mud-red brick house with broken windows, two oddly shaped bedrooms, a shallow basement and a sad, old chain-link fence fronting the 1,800-square-foot lot. Sale price: $645,000. Standing in what would become my master bedroom, I imagined how western light from the street side would make me smile in the afternoons and how the back lot would let me enjoy the warmer months outdoors. I knew I’d have to expand it to house my family, but I put in an offer that afternoon.
I connected with an amazing husband-and-wife team, Eric and Christal Goetz, owners of design-build firm Blue Star, to dig out the basement, refurbish the interior and build a three-story addition. It took six months to get permits — twice as long as it took to renovate the house. That meant I had to stay in rental properties longer than I had expected, which added to the $300,000 cost of the renovation. But I spent the time living in the area and fell in love with this small enclave in the city, whose residents are a mix of African American families and retirees who have lived here for decades, mostly white hipster families, grad students and middle-aged downsizers such as myself, all working with a common purpose: to improve the neighborhood.
I didn’t want to do what so many “McRowhouse” developers do: rip out all the interior walls and design an open floor plan. So, I added 17 feet to the back of the house and, for the most part, kept the interior as it was while introducing the industrial flavor of nearby Union Market, the former Uline Arena and the railway tracks. The new construction allowed me to add a bedroom behind the basement apartment I carved out, as well as a great room for the main floor and a third bedroom to the top floor.
The exterior of the house is now a soft gray, with an orange door that brightens up the row of houses. When you enter, you see the addition’s sunlight-infused windows juxtaposed with century-old accents such as the original staircase, an art deco chandelier and the original (albeit updated) front room, a.k.a. the parlor.
In the foyer, a 2.5-by-4-foot “welcome mat,” made from salvaged pieces of the home’s original yellow pine floor, has been inset into the new flooring, one of the ideas of Kerra Michele Huerta of Apartment Envy. The space also displays brick that had been hidden under plaster walls.
From the foyer, a narrow staircase leads to the second floor. We removed the steps to the basement and converted the small space under the stairs into a front closet and a four-unit drawer system for going-out-the-door necessities such as handbags and boots.
Across from the closet, the powder room houses one of my favorite finds: the 1947 roaster oven I had converted into a vanity. After buying the beat-up cream-colored piece for $99 from Community Forklift in Edmonston, I brought it to Eurowerks, an auto-body shop in Gaithersburg, which banged it out and painted it Mercedes Red. To use the sink (the former roasting area), guests just open the chrome oven top.
The first-floor living space includes the parlor, the kitchen and the great room. The parlor, directly off the foyer, has thick wood doors that we found elsewhere in the house, which now hang on custom-made iron tracks. When closed, they create privacy; when opened, they nest neatly against the wall and offer a view of the brick in the foyer. The ceiling’s 100-year-old wood rafters have been exposed, brightened with a 21st-century LED lighting system and accented by a 1920s art deco chandelier also found inside the house. Four upholstered swivel chairs in Vance Pumpkin bring the color of the front door into the mid-century-styled room.
In the southeast corner, pocket doors allow privacy from or entry to the pantry/bar between the parlor and kitchen.
The centerpiece of the kitchen is the island, with a handmade, natural-edge wood counter that had been our kitchen tabletop in Potomac. I had the 4-by-7-foot slab cut to accommodate a chrome farmhouse sink on one side. The overhang on the other side is supported by two industrial metal legs. With three stainless-steel stools pulled up to it, the island is our new kitchen table.
Two archways that originally framed a door and window lead to the main level of the 17-foot addition, a.k.a. the great room. A wall of windows, including sliders that can be opened on a beautiful day, allows for full eastern light and entry onto a deck overlooking the back lot, which has a patio covered with semi-porous pavers, with room for plants and vines.
To save yard space, I chose not to add stairs from the deck to the patio. Instead, a staircase with a steel banister leads from the great room to the ground level of the house; from there you can go out to the back lot or into the basement living areas. The basement’s back bedroom can be closed off from the apartment, which has a bedroom, a kitchen-and-living area, bathroom and its own entrance from the street.
The second floor has three bedrooms and two full baths. The exposed brick wall reappears in the master bedroom, which has a vaulted ceiling that once was attic space. There’s room for the bed, a sitting area, a large walk-in closet and a bathroom. A small closet doubles as my office, holding files and a printer.
The upstairs addition down the hall includes a laundry room and two bedrooms, one that serves as a guest room, the other for my son. He loves having a house in the city and enjoys using the basement room for video gaming when his sisters aren’t home.
Today, I often catch myself smiling as I walk around the house. When I climb into bed, I gaze at the beautiful brick of the opposite wall and fall asleep happy with how we’ve honored the house’s history while creating a new home.
Cari Shane is a public relations, marketing and social media consultant.
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