Yvette Freeman is a haunter of flea markets, where she picks forsaken treasures out of the trash, but she also has a day job.
"I'm a real estate developer who just happens to be a designer who owns a furniture store," she says. One of Freeman's current areas of interest is the Northwest Washington neighborhood of Bloomingdale. Her restored treasures now include an early 1900s vintage townhouse with some unusual features.
Freeman bought the house the way real estate pros do things — very creatively.
"The house was not on the market," Freeman, 47, says. "We had made six or seven other offers on properties, and it didn't work out. I saw permits in the window of this house, and, being in the business, that's what I'm looking for."
Freeman walked onto the job site of a renovation project in progress and smelled an opportunity. She chatted up the construction crew, found out the house was being fixed to flip and contacted the owner about buying it as it stood, before the renovations were complete.
At the time, she was living in a nearby apartment in Bloomingdale, after selling her home in the Palisades neighborhood. Freeman is co-owner of District Design + Development (D3) based in D.C., and had been focusing on properties in Bloomingdale because she wanted to live where the action is. The developer who owned the house and Freeman came to terms, and a deal was struck with a sale price of $1,085,000.
Then, the challenges came.
"The other real estate developers had started working on the house and butchered it up pretty badly," she said, adding that she trusted the skeleton built by famed D.C. developer Harry Wardman. "They hadn't done any of the mechanical or electrical work to code. When we bought the house, we went back to the studs and started over, because none of it had been permitted."
Improper grading in the back yard flooded the home with rainwater soon after Freeman took possession.
Modern-day lifestyles can also become cramped, even in a Wardman. "I wanted an open, livable space," Freeman says. "I like to entertain quite a bit, and I love to have big dinner parties, so I needed the first floor to be completely open. It was also important to have a secondary living space in the basement."
Freeman commissioned an I-beam across the ceiling of the first floor and removed all the interior walls. The basement floor was lowered 16 inches through digging and underpinning. A two-story addition was attached to the back of the house, creating a living room downstairs and another bedroom upstairs. Freeman played the role of general contractor on the project, bringing in her own crews of subcontractors she works with in the development business.
The project lasted nine months and involved special touches along the way. Passing through the front door lands you in an unconventional dining room bordered by what appear to be exposed black brick and a piece of art that looks like graffiti, which it is. The bricks, however, are not real.
"When I first saw that piece of art, it was hanging on a black brick wall, Freeman says. "In order to give 'Bad Betty' [the artwork's title] her story, it just seemed logical to buy some pieces of faux brick paneling, rough them up with chains and plaster to make them look real, and paint them." A chandelier adorned with tiny black chains illuminates the art and the dining room.
The floors on the first level all had to be replaced. The homeowner then personally distressed the new hardwood. "I took rocks in a burlap bag and dragged it across the floor to make those divots, because hand-scraped oak floors looks too intentional," she says.
The home's dining room flows right into the kitchen, another room that includes some unconventional choices. The espresso- colored cabinetry that could pass for cherry is actually "engineered wood" — an umbrella term that refers to wood-based composites of wood pieces held together with an adhesive.
Plywood, medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and oriented strand board (OSB) are all types of engineered wood. Depending on the application, engineered wood can offer advantages over solid hardwoods, including structural strength. Freeman chose to save money on the cabinets and spend it in other places, including the wide expanses of white Carrara marble used on the countertops and island.
The living room and kitchen feature tray ceilings, but the kitchen cabinets do not extend all the way to the top, giving them a floating appearance. Cabinet hardware is brushed nickel and oversize, to make the cabinets appear more lux. Lighting in the kitchen is a mix of pendant, recessed and over-counter. The fridge is a Viking; the range is a Bertazzoni.
The kitchen gives way to the living room, which is part of the home's addition and serves as a window into Freeman's world of professional flea marketing. A contemporary couch faces a dining room buffet that was bought at auction and then painted black in Freeman's back yard.
An oversize Palladian mirror scavenged from a Methodist church rests atop the buffet and is flanked by twin, open-frame, barrel chairs dating from Italy sometime in the 1800s. Two club chairs reupholstered in black patent leather on the front and zebra hide on the back sit in front of them. The living room walls are painted in "Inkwell Black."
The front section of the home's basement level includes a ceiling decorated with a Union Jack rendered by local artist Kasey O'Boyle. The British flag serves as a logo for Freeman's interior design company, Foundry by Freeman, which is headquartered at the Old Lucketts store in Leesburg, Va. The symbol was etched into Freeman's brain during an 11-hour layover in London's Heathrow airport.
She used the motif again on the back gate that leads to her garage, which bears a stylized Union Jack, also painted by O'Boyle but then amended with contributions from local street artists recruited by Freeman.
The designer was exposed to outsider art and, especially, the power of graffiti after attending Art Basel in Miami and visiting the Wynwood Walls neighborhood, a former funky warehouse district in that city that was revived by the efforts of real estate developer Tony Goldman, who turned blank cinder block walls into canvasses for street artists.
Although developers make their living by finding, fixing and flipping undervalued property, Freeman has an affinity for a neighborhood that, like many in the District, is changing rapidly. She said they invested about $300,000 into renovating the property and realize that real estate developers are often seen as the encroaching enemy in these scenarios. Freeman says she tries to be gentle and respectful in her approach.
"There are a lot of developers who come in and don't care about the neighborhood," she says. "In order for it to work better, you need a baseline of communication. If you respect the differences, you can cohabitate. All people want is to be heard."