Even in today's real estate market, you pay a premium for houses that don't need at least a little bit of fixing up. Houses with "potential" can often be had at bargain prices.
For an excellent example of what the right vision can bring to such a house, visit this year's D.C. Design House, which runs through May 8.
Located in the Tudor Hills neighborhood of Northwest Washington, this 12,000-square-foot decorator showhouse nicely illustrates how to uncover that hidden potential — and the work of Bethesda architect Jim Rill and interior designers Patrick Sutton of Baltimore and Erin Paige Pitts of Gibson Island provides three worthy examples.
Believed to have been built for the founder of department store chain Woodward & Lothrop, the 1925 country Tudor house had experienced the usual updates and improvements over the years, and different eras of decor had resulted in drab, dated interiors.
To bring back this early 20th-century gem's sparkle, and raise money to benefit the Children's National Medical Center, 20 of the region's top designers, including Rill, Sutton and Pitts, worked to create major decorative improvements inside and out.
Rill gave the front facade a face-lift by updating the portico with a freshcolor scheme, new lighting, reconceptualized trim details and a new mahogany ceiling. Inside, the interior designers took cues from the existing architecture to develop a vision of what each room could be.
For Sutton, the challenge was to take a big stark room with a cathedral ceiling and give it warmth and personality.
"The living room was a large, grand, formal reception hall with a 20-foot ceiling," says Sutton. "It was grand and cold, and everything was painted white. The only thing the room had to offer was the unusual shape."
The beginning of Sutton's design process started with exploration. To find out what was under all that paint, he got up on a chair that had been left in the room, took out his keys and started chipping away at one of the painted beams that rib the cathedral ceiling. He found real wood, and knew the next step would be to bring back those wood beams and the painted fireplace.
It took a team of six workers from Pyramid Construction five days to strip an estimated 20 layers of paint, but the effort was worth every minute. "With the paint gone, suddenly I had real wood beams and a great concrete fireplace," says Sutton. "We had character, something to start with."
Working with the warm exposed beams and the soft patina of the old fireplace, Sutton's primary goals were to bring the large space down to human scale and then make it comfortable. To do so, he introduced tall Palladian-style bookcases, upholstered wall panels on the opposite wall and drapery panels mounted higher than the tops of the windows to echo the the height of the bookshelves and screens. Collectively, these elements lower the visual plane of the room from 20 feet down to 10.
Several intimate furnished areas within the room help make it comfortable, even cozy — a sofa grouping where people can sit and hang out; a set of chairs and an ottoman from the Georgetown antiques dealer Cote Jardin by the fireplace; and a big plank table for working on a laptop or family game night.
The overall mood of the room was inspired by the paintings of Vermeer.
"A room like this should be a comfortable retreat, so I introduced Vermeer's calm, comforting color palette — the pale green and peacock blue as well as the tonal white on ecru of the Farrow & Ball wallpaper are colors you see in Vermeer's paintings," says Sutton.
But Vermeer's influence did not stop at color. Sutton staged and photographed an environment that looked like something Vermeer might have painted. Adding a touch of playfulness to the room, he had the photograph framed, hung it above the fireplace and used many of the elements in the image to accessorize the room.
In the poolroom adjacent to Sutton's living room, Pitts took a dark, lifeless space and made it bright, casual and cheery.
"It was the darkest, dreariest room in the house," says Pitts. "The walls were dark, the floors were dark, opportunities for natural light weren't good. But something about the design I had originally submitted for the sunroom prompted the design chairs to solicit me to do the poolroom. I reluctantly agreed and soon found out my concept translated really well."
The first step was to paint the dark paneled walls and faux terrazzo floor. The walls and ceiling were coated in a Farrow & Ball's "All White" and Twin Diamonds Studios created a faux whitewashed wood effect for the floor.
Because the house doesn't have an outdoor porch, Pitts' concept was to create a porchlike space indoors.
"I love elegant coastal elements, so I tried to introduce the coastal feel in a very understated, elegant way so that the space felt as if it could be in D.C. or at the beach," says Pitts, who evoked the organic, casual, coastal vibe by blending white, neutral and gold tones with sisal, linen, silk, and other natural materials and textures. She used Jim Thompson Fabrics exclusively.
"All of them have a real breezy, retreatlike feel," says Pitts. The table skirt, for example, is partially see-through and helps to convey the light, airy mood Pitts conceptualized for the space.
Polished nickel lanterns, framed marine intaglios and a Murano glass vase with a sea urchin motif extend the relaxed, coastal tone.
If the rest of the decor didn't dictate relaxation, the porch swings — custom versions of the 'Serengeti' settee by Baltimore furnituremaker David Edward — make it clear.
"It is hard to sit in swing and be stressed out," says Pitts.
The same can be said of visiting a decorator's showhouse. Hard to be stressed out when touring beautifully decorated rooms. And if you've been wondering what constitutes "potential" in a house, the "before" photographs displayed in many of the rooms will answer that question once and for all.
Dennis Hockman is editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 2011 D.C. Design House
The design showhouse is at 3134 Ellicott Street NW, Washington. Through May 8. Open noon-5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays.