When Debbie Berger Fox and her husband, Nick Fox, decided it was time to give up their glamorous London lifestyle to live in the Washington area, they discovered their ideal neighborhood was a throwback to an earlier America.
“The town of Somerset is like living in Mayberry in the 1950s,” said Debbie, a communications consultant for the Democratic National Committee. “It’s a self-contained bubble with charming houses and suburban amenities like the swimming pool and tennis courts, yet you also get the urban ability to walk to the Friendship Heights Metro station and restaurants and shops.”
Somerset, Md. — an incorporated Montgomery County town near Chevy Chase — has about 400 residences, including 54 designated by the county as part of a historic district. The Foxes’ home, which they purchased in 2013 for $1.5 million and moved into in 2015, is one of the historic houses.
“We spent roughly the same amount on remodeling the house as we did to buy it,” Debbie said.
Sandy Spring Builders and GTM Architects, which have renovated other homes in Somerset, collaborated on a plan that would honor the house’s history while also increasing the living space and incorporating a more modern style.
“The house was a dilapidated center hall Colonial with asbestos siding and a tiny garage that wasn’t really functional,” said Luke Olson, a senior project manager with GTM Architects in Bethesda. “It was a small house for the neighborhood and had a very steep back yard, which made designing the expansion challenging.”
The approval of the county’s historic preservation panel was needed for the remodeling, which enlarged a 2,300-square-foot house to about 6,500 square feet on four finished levels. The exterior retains the look of the original 1929 design, although the driveway and garage were moved to the opposite side of the house.
“Buying this house was a leap of faith because we were basically buying it off a piece of paper,” said Debbie, who grew up in the American University Park neighborhood of Northwest Washington and is the daughter of Sandy Berger, who was President Bill Clinton’s second national security adviser, and Susan Berger, a real estate agent with Evers & Co. Real Estate. “When we walked through it, everything was a wreck, so we had to visualize what it would look like when it was finished. We tweaked the plans a little, removing a porch from the second level in the back of the house and moving things around a little on the lower level, but we were in London while the work was being done.”
Nick Fox is a partner and chief communications officer at Virgin, the collection of businesses founded by billionaire Richard Branson.
Since the Foxes married in 2005 and Debbie moved to London, the plan was always to live in America at some point. The plan was pushed back a few times, but the couple accelerated their move to the D.C. area when Debbie’s father was diagnosed with cancer.
“My parents always wanted to live in Somerset, so part of renovating this house was in honor of him,” Debbie said. “I was able to spend a lot of time with him during his last six months, and, in fact, his last outing out of the house was to come here for Thanksgiving.”
One of the Foxes’ favorite moments during the 18 months they have spent in their house was the 70th birthday party they threw for Sandy Berger, attended by Clinton.
Debbie worked for the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 presidential campaign and, along with several former colleagues from CNN, she plans to open Podium, a media-consulting firm.
Restoring and expanding an older home requires sensitivity by architects and builders, even when they are not under the supervision of a historic preservation panel. Olson said one challenge was peeling off the asbestos siding to reveal the original wood siding. The builders were able to salvage and restore most of the siding and then find new wood siding that matched it.
“One of the main requirements of the historic preservation committee is that they want an addition to a house to be secondary, to defer to the main house, so that drives decisions about the roof lines and where to add space,” Olson said.
Living space was added to the back of the house so that the width and height remain the same.
Debbie said the front door and the windows in the original section of the house had to remain the same, but the historic preservation panel approved moving the driveway and garage to the opposite side because that made expanding the back of the house simpler.
The center hall staircase was moved to one side to open up the floor plan and allow people to see through the house from the front door to the back porch.
The Foxes’ London rowhouse, while smaller than their Somerset single-family house, inspired some of their design choices. Both houses demonstrate the couple’s sense that a home is meant to be shared and enjoyed with friends and family, which in their case includes three children: two girls, 9 and 2, and a boy, 6.
Debbie collaborated with three London decorators to furnish the house, mixing contemporary light fixtures and rugs with antiques inherited by her husband and updated with new fabrics and wood stains.
“We love the fact that we have this charming historic house that’s been infused with new design features,” Debbie said.
At the front of the house is a living room with a rug designed by Jennifer Manners, a London designer. The living room has windows on two sides and was originally the dining room.
“I’d love to have the time to spend just reading or relaxing with friends in this room,” said Debbie, who enjoys hanging out in the sun-drenched family room, kitchen and breakfast room with her busy family.
Debbie opted to have the living room and dining room entrances wide open for a more modern look. Throughout the house, the original glass doorknobs have been replaced by contemporary glass knobs that bridge the gap between historic and modern styles.
The large dining room includes a contemporary-style glass chandelier and has a glass door to the adjacent study. On one wall is a favorite painting by a D.C.-area artist, A. Brockie Stevenson, that hung in her father’s White House office and that Debbie said is on loan from her mother.
Nick spends his days, when he’s not traveling, in the study, which was created from the sunroom above the original garage. The room, with windows on two sides, has its original wood ceiling, now stained to highlight the wood. The space has a built-in rustic wood desk — from GoodWood, a D.C. antique store — that echoes the tall trees outside the window.
“This house offers us a great lifestyle, and working at home gives me the flexibility to walk up to the school at the end of the road to pick up the kids,” Nick said. “I can deal with issues in Australia in the middle of the night and then talk to people in London and still be able to see my family. It’s easy to travel out of the D.C. area, too.”
The family spends most of its time together in the family room and kitchen and, when the weather co-operates, on the wide back porch that overlooks a grassy play area with an in-ground trampoline and a zip line that passes through a grove of trees.
The family room has a gas fireplace flanked by built-in bookcases, and the entire back wall is filled with windows that look out on the trees that embrace the back of the house as well as the high-rise buildings of Chevy Chase and Friendship Heights in the distance.
Debbie brings her sense of humor and playfulness to decorating and enjoys “high-low” style. In her kitchen, for example, a zinc-top farmhouse table from Restoration Hardware is surrounded by clear Philippe Starck-designed dining chairs, some of which are authentic and some of which she freely admits are knockoffs. The industrial-looking bar stools at the center island are from Crate and Barrel.
The kitchen features professional-grade stainless-steel appliances, navy blue cabinets with gold handles, Carrara marble counters and a Carrara marble center island.
“People told me not to get real marble for the counters because they can get scratched and stained, but I like the idea of having things that show a house has been lived in,” Debbie said. “I don’t mind a red wine stain on the marble or a little scratch here or there.”
One of Debbie’s favorite spaces in her home is the mudroom next to a glass side door leading from the driveway.
“I wanted these beautiful Moroccan tiles, which are very trendy in London, for the mudroom floor, but even though it’s a tiny space, they were going to cost about $3,000,” she said. “Then I found tiles at Home Depot that have the same pattern as the Moroccan tiles but cost $1 each.”
Debbie kept a few of the original glass doorknobs to use as coat hooks in the mudroom, which has cubbies as well as a coat closet.
Debbie plans to add a barn door over the mudroom, which has a modern light fixture that matches two fixtures in the kitchen, all by British designer Tom Dixon.
“I bought three of them thinking I would need all three in the kitchen and then decided, why not put one in the mudroom for fun,” Debbie said.
While the Fox children each have a bedroom and a bathroom upstairs, it’s clear that their domain is in the house’s lowest level, below the main level. At the bottom of the stairs is a surprisingly wide room with glass doors and tall windows facing a stone terrace with steps to the yard. A second gas fireplace warms the family room and playroom, which has a distinctive storage armoire brought from the Foxes’ London home. This level also has a guest bedroom and bathroom with an adjacent kitchenette.
In the original part of the basement is an exercise room that Debbie said has become the kids’ “painting and ball-throwing room.” Nearby are storage closets, a wine room and a game room.
“We moved rooms around in the lower level because the original basement has lower ceilings and the new section has higher ceilings and a walkout to the terrace,” Olson said. “We moved the wine room and exercise space into the old section of the basement and moved the family room forward.”
The family bedrooms are on the floor above the main level, and each comes with a full bathroom. The children’s bedrooms and bathrooms are in the original part of the house, and each has its own distinct charm.
“We call our son’s bathroom the ‘Harry Styles’ bathroom, after the One Direction singer, because apparently he has a navy blue bathroom that looks a little like this one,” Debbie said.
The youngest daughter’s bathroom is a short step above the bedroom and has a sloping ceiling.
About the master bathroom, Debbie said, “One thing I insisted on … is a copper free-standing tub that looks like one I saw in a London country homestyle hotel.”
The bathroom also has a glass-enclosed shower, skylights and two vanities from Restoration Hardware.
The nearby laundry room has a dash of British style, with classic black and white tile flooring offset by a contemporary light fixture.
A similar blend of classic and contemporary style can be found on the staircase between the main and second levels.
“I insisted they stain it black, and then we had glass panels installed instead of traditional railings on the second level to bring in a contemporary style but keep the traditional feel,” Debbie said.
The renovation added extra living space on the attic level. The ceiling was raised in the formerly unfinished space, which now is reached by a staircase and includes a bedroom with a sloped ceiling.