Fifty years after the 1968 riots, the once-charred 14th Street corridor shines with glossy apartment buildings, chic eateries and upscale shops. This real estate boom is attracting well-heeled home buyers to invest in renovating the historic rowhouses dotting the urban neighborhood.
“We wanted to move to where the action is,” says Ugo Fasano, 61, a Brazilian-born economist who recently retired from the International Monetary Fund. “Everything is here. We can walk to restaurants, cafes, stores, galleries, downtown. There are so many choices.”
In 2016, Fasano and his husband, fine-art photographer Manuel Morquecho, 51, purchased a townhouse a block from 14th Street for $1.41 million. They then spent about $600,000 on improving the three-story building, which dates from about 1900, to create a two-level home and a rental apartment.
“The house was in horrible shape, but we realized it had potential,” Fasano said. “We liked that it had a ground-floor apartment with plenty of light. It wasn’t easy to find a rental unit on street level, since most are in the basement.”
For the ambitious renovation, the homeowners hired architect Andreas Charalambous of D.C.-based Forma Design, based on his refresh of their previous residence, a 1970s townhouse in Tenleytown.
“This project was more challenging,” Charalambous said. “The stairs were too steep, the bathrooms were in the wrong locations, and the rooms were small and dark. We opened up the interior and basically created a sandwich of modern design between the historic facades.”
Inside, the pared-down, open-plan spaces have more in common with the new lofts along 14th Street than with the landmark Victorians in the neighborhood.
The homeowners, however, couldn’t change the exterior of the rowhouse. They were required to preserve the historic facades because L’Enfant Trust, a D.C. nonprofit, holds a conservation easement on the property.
Nevertheless, energy-efficient, double-pane windows were inserted into the original openings, and brick walls were repaired and repainted. Missing architectural details were replicated, and every new piece of the exterior, even an outdoor light fixture, was subject to design review.
The interiors, unaffected by such stringent preservation regulations, were gutted, and the decor simplified with white walls and ceilings and pale, wide-plank oak floors.
The only preserved vestiges of the original interiors are moldings around the windows in the front bay of the living room. Otherwise, the rooms are stripped of baseboards and trim to create a spare backdrop to contemporary furnishings, colorful paintings and Morquecho’s black-and-white photography.
“We love contemporary design for its clean look, open plan and harmony throughout the rooms,” Fasano said. “We also thought that our eclectic collection of art would be easier to appreciate in a contemporary design.”
Because the rowhouse comprises two dwelling units, the renovation began on the ground floor to make over the apartment with a new galley kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. The upper two floors were then reworked into a home for Fasano and Morquecho, with two bedrooms, instead of the original three, and three bathrooms. The process took about a year, and the homeowners moved into the rowhouse in early 2017.
Fasano’s mother, Rita Di Matteo, lived in the apartment until her death in February, and now Morquecho uses the space as his photography studio. “I like that it has a built-in screen I can pull down from the ceiling to create a backdrop for shoots. It works well,” he said.
Just beyond the front door, the hallway staircase was rebuilt with simple wooden treads and risers to provide a streamlined ascent to the open-plan second floor. A bathroom at the top of the stairs was demolished to join the living and dining areas into a single open space connected to the kitchen at the rear.
Ductwork was rerouted to establish 10-foot-high ceilings that make the living spaces seem larger. A steel beam inserted within the opening between the kitchen and living-dining area eliminates the need for vertical supports. The living room fireplace was converted to gas, and an old wooden mantel replaced with streamlined, fiber-cement paneling.
Completely transformed, the kitchen is fitted with Italian-designer cabinets, quartz countertops and a stainless-steel cooktop. A narrow island, illuminated by a sleek, color-changing pendant light, provides an area for food preparation and casual meals. Concealed behind a row of doors along one wall are a powder room, a washer and dryer, a pantry and storage.
Upstairs, the master bedroom is at the front end of the house, and a second bedroom occupies the back. The couple use the guest room as a TV lounge and office, and installed a sofa that can be converted into a bed.
In the center of this top level, a third bedroom was turned into a pair of adjoining bathrooms to serve each sleeping space. The two original bathrooms were demolished to make way for closets.
The second-floor hallway is now wide enough for a desk and shelving. Sliding pocket doors to the adjacent rooms help free up space around this work area.
One of the challenges of the rowhouse renovation, Charalambous points out, was making sure daylight reached the central part of the interior, because the only sources of natural illumination are the windows at the front and back and a skylight on the roof.
“We maximized the distribution of daylight by deleting walls and other obstructions, and using glass stair railings and reflective surfaces,” the architect said. “The skylight on the top floor lets light in and, by inserting an open-tread staircase beneath it, we let the light filter all the way down to the lower floors.”
In addition, the new back-to-back bathrooms on the top floor are designed to channel light between the two spaces and into the master bedroom. Slots of glass and mirrored panels on the walls transmit and reflect sunlight from a rear window into the rooms.
Heated floors in the bathrooms, a tankless water heater for the upper-level apartment and Nest thermostats for both units save on utility bills.
The remodeling extends to the backyard, where Fasano and Morquecho improved three outdoor rooms. Glass doors open from the kitchen to a newly expanded, south-facing upper deck used for dining alfresco. A retractable awning provides shade during summer months.
A spiraling staircase winds down from the deck to a stone patio that also serves the rental apartment. The homeowners worked with Garden Wise of Arlington to spruce up the ground-level space with new paving, fencing, trees and a fountain. “It’s a place where we play with our two dogs,” Morquecho said.
At the rear of the property, more stairs lead to a garden terrace on the carport roof that is large enough for hosting summer dinners and cocktail parties. “This deck already existed when we bought the house,” Fasano said. “We just painted the fences and wooden floor and added the patio furniture. Garden Wise added bamboo trees to disguise some of the electrical cables in the alley and provide more privacy.”
Ten months into living in the remodeled rowhouse, Fasano and Morquecho say they realized that they rarely used their car, so they sold it. “We walk a lot more, bike and use Uber or Car2go whenever we need to travel far,” Fasano said. “Most of what we need is on or near 14th Street.”