When Martha Humler first saw her future residence in the Bradley Hills neighborhood in Bethesda, Md., in 2016, she knew immediately that it fit her vision for the empty-nester home she was ready to design.

But her husband, Herve Humler, who at that time was president and chief operating officer and is now chairman emeritus of the Ritz Carlton Hotel Co., was traveling. By the time he returned to see it, the property was sold.

“Two years later, we found out that the sale never went through, and the homeowners decided it was time to sell it again,” Martha says. “This time, we got it.”

Martha, who acknowledges that renovating homes has become her hobby, spent years improving their previous home in Potomac, Md., and worked on the couple’s other homes in Maine, where she grew up, and in southern France, where her husband inherited his grandmother’s house. For their Bethesda home, the Humlers contacted family friend George Myers, president of GTM Architects in Bethesda.

“I was drawn to this house because of the location inside the Beltway and walkability,” Martha says. “I had seen other possibilities over the years, but they were too difficult to renovate or didn’t have the right lot.”

The home, which was built in 1957, offered the first-floor primary suite the couple wanted and plenty of land in the back for outdoor entertaining.

“I went into this project thinking that it didn’t need extensive renovation,” Martha says. “All I knew is that I wanted a ‘cozy cottage’ feel to it.”

The Humlers’ Potomac house had about 10,000 square feet. After several months of planning and 13 months of renovation, their Bethesda home has approximately 5,000 square feet, only about 400 square feet larger than when the couple purchased the property. Martha estimates they spent between $1.1 million and $1.4 million on the renovation, and they moved in in October 2019.

The redesign of the house started with Martha’s idea for moving the kitchen from the front of the house to the back.

“Martha saw the potential for this house and came in with a stack of pictures and ideas,” says Tamara Gorodetzky, a senior associate with GTM Architects who worked with senior architectural designer Nate White on the house. “After Martha and George [Myers] sketched out a floor plan by hand, we created a 3-D model on the computer to help everyone visualize the house.”

Gorodetzky appreciated the Humlers’ flexibility and experience with previous renovations.

“Martha saw the potential to make this into a unique house that would reflect their vision instead of tearing it down to start from the ground up,” she says.

Several times during the renovation, particularly when the builders had to sledgehammer through brick and concrete to add more windows, the contractors questioned whether they should have torn down the existing home.

“My heart was set on renovating the house and, thankfully, we had an outstanding builder [Allegheny Builders] who liked the challenge,” Martha says. “This project required creativity and artistry from everyone.”

A 1950s floor plan

The renovation project included raising ceilings, increasing the number and size of the windows, and rearranging the floor plan on both the main level and the aboveground lower level.

“The house was really dated and had this angled front door and angled walls that made for some odd spaces,” Gorodetzky says. “There were horizontal windows and narrow corners and eight-foot-tall ceilings. Now we changed the flow of the house and increased all the ceiling heights that we could to 10 feet, with vaulted ceilings wherever we could add them.”

The rambler-style house, which appears to be one level from the front, still looks deceptively small. Martha says that every contractor who comes to the house remarks on how surprisingly large it is in inside.

“The challenge with a renovation is making it look like we did nothing at all,” Gorodetzky says. “In the end, the house should look like it has always been this way and you can’t see any seams between the old and the new. I feel we did that on Martha and Herve’s house.”

The rearranged floor plan converted the home’s original garage into a dining room and expanded the family room with curved archways to the rest of the main level. A new attached garage is the only addition to the house, but the reconfigured layout increased the functionality of the house and created an easy flow for entertaining.

“There are almost no doors on the main level,” Martha says.

To create the dining room from the former garage, both the floor and the ceiling had to be raised, Gorodetzky says. Stacked stone accents surround the new arched window in the dining room.

“Martha gave us lots of great feedback and it was her idea to add rustic wood and stone accents to the ceilings and walls inside that match the new stone outside,” she says. “We surrounded the front door and garage doors with the same stone that’s in the dining room and in the recessed niche where the range was installed. Everything was her idea; she didn’t use an interior designer at all.”

Martha’s favorite part of the renovation is the kitchen, which is where the design started.

“I think I love it in part because it was so much work to get it the way we want it,” Martha says. “This part of the house had an eight-inch-thick concrete floor that had to be jackhammered to be removed.”

The Humlers picked solid maple cabinets for the kitchen but were torn between a white and a whitewashed finish.

“My husband wanted white and at first I agreed, but then I realized I wanted whitewashed so you could see the beautiful grains in the wood cabinets,” she says. “I picked a marble counter that has a ‘leathering’ finish, not just a sealant. It’s a sanding process that makes the marble feel like leather and has a thin but dense seal to protect it.”

Because the ceiling height was impossible to raise in every location, a tray ceiling was added above the island for extra height.

“Martha picked the rustic wood for the tray ceiling, which blends beautifully with the whitewashed cabinets,” Gorodetzky says.

A sunken sunroom at the back of the house was converted to a breakfast area open to the kitchen that includes a two-story bay window, two walls of windows and a glass door to the terrace.

“The biggest challenge for this project was that this is an all-brick house, and we had to restructure the brick openings to add more windows,” Gorodetzky says. “It’s a low-slung house, so we had to beef up the roof to raise the ceilings and to support all the open spaces inside.”

To add interest to the front of the house, Gorodetzky added an “eyebrow” window above the first-floor office. The knotty pine front door and garage doors are echoed on the lower level, where an arched knotty pine door leads to the wine cellar.

The bedroom wing on the main level was also reconfigured.

“The original primary suite had a skinny hallway with some narrow closets and was at the front of the house,” Gorodetzky says. “We moved it to the back of the house overlooking the swimming pool and added a big walk-in closet with a chandelier. The [main] bathroom is in about the same location as it was, but we updated it and made it larger.”

The original primary suite at the front of the house is now a guest bedroom and bathroom. The laundry room is nearby.

Lower level raised

From the fall of 2018 into the fall of 2019 when the house was completed, the Humlers stayed in their Potomac property.

“Our kids, who were 18 and 20 when the renovations started, were both away at school and when they came home, I wouldn’t let them see the work in progress,” Martha says. “They asked about their rooms and when I told them there wasn’t a second floor, that they would be on the lower level, they thought they were being put in a basement.” Eventually, the Humlers’ daughter came to see the house and loved it.

“She called her brother right away and told him it was the best house and that he would love it, too,” Martha says. “That’s a good thing, because we’ve all been together here this past year.”

The lower level originally had a recreation room, a kitchenette and two bedrooms with a shared bathroom.

“We reconfigured the two bedrooms to make them equal in size and to bring in more light,” Gorodetzky says. “We opened the staircase and removed a wall to open the recreation room. We also converted another room that had a low ceiling into a third bedroom with an en suite bathroom and raised the ceiling there for more height.”

The kitchenette was converted into a wine cellar.

“We used the same stone from the kitchen and fireplace surround upstairs around the door of the wine cellar and extended it inside the wine cellar so that it’s like walking into a cave,” Martha says.

The backyard entertaining space is visible and accessible from both levels of the house.

Stone terraces and steps flow from the kitchen on the main level and from the lower-level family room to the newly tiled swimming pool and pool deck. The backyard has an outdoor kitchen with a pizza oven, an outdoor fireplace and another terrace with a fire pit.

“My husband loves having a pool, so we reconfigured the pool and added a waterfall,” Martha says. “We added an outdoor fireplace nearby, which is a nice place to entertain.”

The house has five bedrooms and four bathrooms and matches the couple’s vision for their empty-nester home — and functions just as well when their nest is full.

“Being flexible is so important when you’re renovating a house,” Martha says. “The teams at GTM and Alleghany were so accommodating to all our ideas unless there was an engineering issue. They would tell me what had to be changed and we would brainstorm together to find a solution.”