Many homes can appear deceivingly small from the front and surprise visitors with their depth and expansive living space. The Potomac house owned by Tracy and Mary Vargo was just the opposite: the rare house that was actually smaller than it looked, said Tracy, a principal with the Matan Cos., a commercial real estate services and development firm in Germantown.
“We fell in love with its charm, and we were moving from a smaller place, so it seemed fine until our three kids got bigger,” Tracy said. “We always thought we’d add onto the house eventually, but the addition got bigger than we ever anticipated.”
The Vargos’ first major addition, a silo with a curving staircase that leads to Tracy’s home office high above the grounds of the property, was completed in 2007. Subsequent remodeling and additions eventually expanded the living space from 2,400 square feet to 11,000. Tracy continues to tweak elements of the house a decade after the renovations began.
“I actually don’t know how much we spent on all of this,” Tracy said with a laugh. “It was spread out over a few years, which makes it easier to handle.”
“Renovating this house was a great adventure with our kids,” Mary said. “For a while, we lived above the garage in one big room, and for another stretch, we lived in the basement. It created a lot of camaraderie within the family.”
The Vargo offspring are now 18, 22 and 25.
“The house has been great for parties; in fact, we had piano recitals here twice a year for six years with 80 people seated and then a reception after the music,” Tracy said. “The house flows really well, and if we have less than 50 people, it seems like a small gathering.”
Tracy, who studied architecture in college while he earned his degree in real estate, loves design and collaborated with Jim Rill, owner of Rill Architects in Bethesda, and his team on the house.
“I sketched the silo addition for my office, but they did the design,” Tracy said. “We lived here throughout every phase of the remodeling. I think one reason our middle son is graduating with a degree in architecture is because of his experience living through all of this.”
Tracy says the kitchen was moved three times during the renovation process.
“The Vargos had lots of big ideas, which was great, and then it became a team effort between the architects and contractors to make them feasible,” Rill said.
He said the Vargos paid attention to every detail of the design.
“After living in a smaller house, I know that every inch of space is important,” Tracy said. “I think of this house as ship-like, with everything having its place, especially in my office, the kitchen and the master bedroom.”
For example, in Tracy’s office, built-in cabinets and drawers provide extensive storage, and even small spaces adjacent to the window sills have been designed with tiny storage areas with glass doors.
The Vargo house, built by Brendan O’Neill in 1977, was a traditional Colonial-style house with a central staircase separating the living room and formal dining room.
“We moved the staircase to the former dining room to create more living space, including a new dining room and foyer,” Rill said. “We also converted the former garage into a breakfast room with a big stone fireplace. The fireplace was a natural choice because the chimney connects with the master bedroom fireplace upstairs.”
The new foyer includes textured glass transoms that are a feature of many of the main-level rooms. On the floor is a compass of several types of stained wood that marks the latitude and longitude of the home’s location.
“There’s only one piece of drywall in this entire house that was part of the original house, although some of the walls are still in the same places,” Rill said.
New details in the house include a pocket door handmade to fit into an arched doorway and nooks that include storage areas at every opportunity, including closets hidden by paneled walls.
“My favorite room is the breakfast room because I spend a lot of time in that part of the house,” Mary said. “We deliberately designed it with a lot of big windows because I love the light and also because I needed to be able to keep an eye on the kids when they were in the pool with their friends.”
The breakfast room has built-in bookcases, a beamed ceiling and built-in benches with storage beneath that sit under a picture window framing a view of the swimming pool and terrace. A set of cubbies and hooks provides additional storage near the breakfast room.
“Tracy became a woodworker as a hobby during this remodeling project and built on our design base to do his own drawings for things like the latches on the kitchen cabinets,” Rill said.
The kitchen has cabinets on four walls and a central honed granite island with built-in bookcases. Narrow cabinets perfectly sized for cutting boards and cookie sheets, and others designed to hold spices, have been incorporated into the kitchen design.
“We have two dishwasher drawers and a standard dishwasher, which I really like so I can throw the pots and pans directly into the drawers while I’m cooking,” Mary said. “We have the baking supplies in one area of the kitchen, which makes the flow easier, too.”
The kitchen includes two sinks, two refrigerators, freezer drawers and plenty of space for cooks to work together, along with an opening into the family room with bar seats for easy conversation when entertaining.
All the rooms of the main level are visible to each other across the back of the house, which makes for an easy flow when the house is full. Rill installed glass floor panels near the kitchen to provide additional light to the lower -level rooms.
The original sunken family room was raised to match the rest of the level and still has its beamed ceiling and corner fireplace. This room opens into the two-story great room, which has a 24-foot-high tongue-and-groove fir ceiling with exposed beams, a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace, gabled dormer windows cut into the ceiling and a hidden projector and screen for movie nights.
“We wanted an opportunity to add Craftsman-style elements to the house, such as the wood ceiling in the great room,” Rill said. “The bar in the great room was custom-designed with a trough sink that you can fill with ice for oysters or beer.”
The Vargos have a large collection of custom-made wood furniture from Thos. Moser, numbering approximately 40 pieces.
“I fell in love with the quality of Thos. Moser’s furniture 20 years ago in his studio in Maine,” Tracy said. “We had great woodworkers in this house, and it reminded me of the care taken with Moser’s furniture. We like the fact that the chairs feel so good and are kind of a lighter version of Colonial furniture with a little bit of a contemporary feel.”
Near the great room, a brick-floored hallway leads to the silo tower, a cedar-shingled addition to the house with a spiral staircase of reclaimed barn wood topped by a wood-plank ceiling. The curving walls of the silo include a hand-carved wood handrail made from a single piece of hardwood.
“The silo was designed because we’re in the country, and it’s a detail that you might find on a farm,” Rill said. “It also functions as a ‘knuckle’ connecting the addition to both the garage and the main house.”
The addition includes an expansive office with built-in bookcases and a desk, a sitting area and a guest suite with a bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom.
Tracy, his family and Rill clearly enjoyed playing with the design of the house.
“After we built the silo, Tracy decided it would be fun to use the attic space above the main house to create a loft for each of the kids’ bedrooms,” Rill said. “Each bedroom has a different style of a spiral staircase to its private loft.”
One of Tracy’s sons, who was in fourth grade at the time, decided he wanted a trick door to his bedroom. When you first turn the doorknob, you reach a linen closet. Turning the doorknob a different way fully opens the door into a bedroom with a nook lined with bookcases, a twisting wood staircase to a loft and a full bathroom with a pedestal sink constructed from a piece of reclaimed wood.
The loft above the daughter’s bedroom includes access to a rooftop walkway. Another bedroom has French doors to a balcony also accessible from the master suite.
The master bedroom includes a small foyer entrance flanked by built-in cabinets and shelves and closets with built-in storage. The master bathroom includes a mosaic floor and one exposed brick wall of the chimney from the fireplace below.
The whirlpool tub, placed next to a picture window framing views of the treetops, has operable transom windows above the two walls that surround the tub. The suite also has a sitting area next to the balcony, a built-in window seat and bookcases, as well as a fireplace.
Tracy and his family love fireplaces, so they have been added in traditional places such as the two-story family room and the breakfast room, as well as in unexpected places, such as the lower-level exercise room.
“There’s really no reason not to have one in the exercise room,” Tracy said. “It makes it a more casual space and provides the flexibility to use the room as something other than an exercise room in the future.”
While Tracy says the exercise room on the lower level is a favorite feature of his house, there are plenty of other spaces to enjoy downstairs. A craft room/art studio includes built-in storage and a sink and is adjacent to a game room, a sitting area and a living area with a large-screen TV. The exercise room has a stone floor and garage doors that can be opened to enjoy fresh air. Adjacent to the exercise room is a spa room carved out of space below the garage. The spa, constructed of marble and slate, has a vaulted ceiling, a steam shower and a sauna.
The lower level includes French doors to access the back of the house, including a side patio for barbecues.
While the interior spaces were carefully designed to match the owners’ aesthetics, the exterior of the house also underwent changes.
“Nothing was ever left un-designed,” Rill said. “We added barn doors to the bottom of the silo to access storage space and added stone retaining walls around the house and near the pool.”
From the front, the Vargo house looks like a one-level house with an attic, while from the back, it looks like a two-story house with an attic. Details such as round windows and an arch over the balcony, as well as varied roof heights, add interest to the back of the house without altering the charm of the front.
Tracy added a screened porch, a storage room and a fountain to one side of the house to give the property a more enclosed courtyard feeling.
The Vargo family retreat, set back from a winding Potomac road, provides a private world for work and family life that they enjoy sharing with friends and acquaintances.