The suburbs waved, but they found a way to stay in the city


For Ralph and Shamita Etienne-Cummings, the suburbs have long had a certain appeal – especially since 2010, when their son, Blaze, was born and Mr. Etienne-Cummings’ mother moved into their 1876 Washington row house. , DC

“Space has become more of a bonus,” Ms. Etienne-Cummings said. Her husband, she explained, is “from the Seychelles; I am from India. Culturally, we still have a family that lives with us.

But the perks of living outside of town – having a big yard and a bigger house – couldn’t compete with the convenience of living in Washington’s Logan Circle neighborhood, on a coveted one-block street. for its historic houses and central location.

Credit…Jennifer Chase for The New York Times

“Our son grew up walking everywhere with his grandmother,” said Ms. Etienne-Cummings, 52, a lawyer. “We really wanted to stay in our neighborhood, but we definitely needed more space, and it was difficult to do in an already crowded neighborhood.

Luckily, the row house next door hit the market in 2016, and they were able to purchase it for $ 1.4 million, creating a rare opportunity to expand sideways and increase their living space. total to approximately 7,000 square feet.

Their idea was to merge the two houses into a cohesive whole, with bright and open spaces for entertaining. But they knew it wouldn’t be easy.

The neighboring house was a little older and none of the facades facing the street could be changed, thanks to strict conservation rules. Plus, the extra space that came with it – just over 2,100 square feet – was on floors that didn’t match those of the couple’s current home.

“The houses are over a century old,” said VW Fowlkes, director of Fowlkes Studio, the architectural firm the couple hired. “And the joists buried in the floor plates are historically protected. We had to negotiate with the city on how to join the houses and be judicious on how the structures were going to be changed. “

Still, he said, “We were extremely excited about the design challenge. “

One obstacle that immediately arose was a brick wall separating the two houses, which could not be removed. So the architects kept it under drywall and used it to anchor a modern glass and steel staircase with white oak steps, lit by four skylights above.

“We wanted to have a monumental, light-flooded staircase that could connect the three levels,” said Mr. Fowlkes.

A complicated feat of engineering, this is one of the design’s most striking features – and one of the most expensive. The staircase took “a lot of hours of work and redesign,” said Etienne-Cummings, 54, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, who described the six-figure cost as “the most. big market price shock “. to build.”

Around the staircase are open spaces, simply furnished, decorated in calming neutral tones – a serene, cocoon-like environment that Ms. Etienne-Cummings described as “almost minimalist without being too harsh”.

With just a few key pieces, including a modern wool-covered sofa and leather rug, the living room is relatively understated. A fireplace adorned with handmade zellige tiles and finished in Venetian plaster serves as the focal point.

“It’s modern, but functional,” Ms. Etienne-Cummings said of the space.

The dining room is also sleek, with a bespoke table featuring a walnut top and pewter finish bronze legs. A delicate fixture consisting of black metal arches with brass heads hangs above it.

To create a proper entrance, which the couple’s original home lacked due to its narrow footprint, the architects erected a wall separating the entrance from the living room. Painted dark gray and lit by a halo-shaped chandelier, this is the only dark space in the house.

“We wanted to have a little more ceremony associated with the entrance,” said Mr. Fowlkes. “The entry experience is gloomy, until you turn the corner and the house sort of blows up.”

The rear of the house – where the kitchen and a raised cloakroom are located – allowed for more flexibility in the design, including an addition to one side, to create a sense of symmetry and the installation of more windows. .

The kitchen, which now features bleached walnut cabinetry with bronze hardware and a 12-foot-long cascading island clad in Caesarstone, “has truly become the focal point around which our family engages,” Ms. Etienne said. -Cummings. “Ralph is the chef, and most Sundays he will be cooking, and we sit and talk. “

In a small feat of engineering, the architects hung a 500-pound, quartz-covered range hood from the ceiling, complete with custom steel frame to support the stone panels. “This hood will stay there forever,” Mr. Fowlkes said.

In total, the renovation cost around $ 2.2 million, but for Etienne-Cummings it was well worth it. “There is a lot of turmoil in our lives,” he said. “It’s nice to walk into a space and feel like everything is easy and fits like a glove.”

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