David Feinstein and Susan Pitman were, technically speaking, city dwellers as 13-year residents in the Northwest Washington neighborhood of Tenleytown. But they were looking for a more urban experience.
In the fall of 2010 they walked through a vintage Victorian rowhouse near Logan Circle and fell in love.
"Starting with the overall street presence, we thought it was one of the most beautiful blocks in the District," said Feinstein, 49, a partner at Beveridge Seay, a D.C.-based communications firm.
"There's a grand sense to it, and even though it is a rowhouse, it has its own unique characteristics on the facade - from the plaster casts to the nature of the brickwork - that works in concert with the facades along that row," he added.
The future owners were getting a glimpse of Washington's pedigreed and somewhat mysterious past.
Experts say the home was designed by one of two respected architects, but they aren't certain which. It could have been Glenn Brown, who designed Washington's Dumbarton Bridge and the National Union Building.
Or it could have been T.F. Schneider, who worked with Adolf Cluss, the designer of Eastern Market on Capitol Hill and the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries building on the National Mall.
The house was built between 1888 and 1890 for James Ewan. Ewan had three daughters, and the home still bears a carved relief of four female hands holding bells. Historians believe the sculpture was a tribute to the Ewan daughters and his wife, giving rise to the home's identification as "The House of Four Bells."
There was no question the 4,000-square-foot home was historic, but it also had issues. The windows facing the street leaked like sieves, and there were more structural challenges. Architect Kendall Dorman, principal at Wiebenson & Dorman Architects based Washington, was along for the ride while the couple was house hunting.
"The bathroom floor joists on the second floor looked like beavers had been in there, the roof had to be redone because a big joist was cracked, the stairs were slouching, and the kitchen was a one-sided galley," Dorman said. "We think the original kitchen may have been in the basement."
The basement now contains two studio-size apartments as the couple decided to attack the renovation in phases. Phase 1 was window and door replacement to help stabilize interior temperatures. Phase 2 was directed at the bathroom issues on the second floor. Phase 3 targeted the third floor, including the master bath, and the final segment focused on the kitchen.
The couple purposefully lived in the space before launching each new phase to see what was working and what wasn't. They lived in the construction site by occupying rooms on different floors to avoid the ongoing disruption of a six-year build out.
The other wrinkle was the couple's taste in art and decor, which skews modern. Vintage stereo gear, Saarinen tulip chairs and Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs would have to blend with the vintage plasterwork, crown moldings and an ornate grand staircase.
"How do you respect the history and retain the elements that have significance yet move the ball forward?" Feinstein said. Compromises were made as some of the molding was painted; roughed-up plaster was left in place. Original heart of pine flooring was refinished and, where needed, painstakingly matched with salvaged lumber.
An oddly configured bathroom on the troubled second floor became two modern baths. Unused bedrooms became home offices, and a large second-floor bedroom that became known as the "fire room" because of its fireplace and a partially charred floor became the TV room.
The home's front facade, foyer and living room remained unchanged except for a long built-in bench fashioned from lacquered medium-density fiberboard that starts just beyond the front door, extends through the receiving hall and reappears in the kitchen as a banquette.
"We did want a contemporary feel - the bench was a way to introduce that as soon as you walked into the house," said Pitman, 51, a founder at Foodminds, a public affairs firm with offices in Washington.
The couple enjoys entertaining - sometimes for large groups. But the house lacks a hall closet. There are storage drawers under the seat of the bench, and it also provides a place to drop coats. The bench passes under a wooden lattice that appears to be original to the house and was left in place.
The living room looks out onto the street and hosts a free-standing vintage breakfront that used to be in the formal dining room. The piece was cleaned up and now works as a cocktail station.
The receiving hall provides a landing for the stairs and contains another heirloom - an oversize framed mirror with hooks mounted on the back for more coat storage.
"It was brought into the house at some point," Pitman said. "The gentleman who owned the house in the 1970s would go around to the local junk shops, and the mirror was probably salvaged from another house."
The kitchen comes next in the floor plan, and it was there where the design team faced a challenge. Dorman recommended flipping the dining room and the kitchen to improve the home's flow to the rear deck, but the couple wrestled with the implications.
"It was a good two months to get to the decision of changing a formal dining room and galley kitchen, knowing we were altering a bit of history but knowing that the history was no longer relevant to the way we were living," Feinstein said. "There were elements that we had to sacrifice to be able to make the house as livable as it was for the people who designed it and lived in it in the 1890s."
The flip worked on correcting the flow as the design team went with an island equipped with a drop-in sink and casual seating. The countertops are White Zeus Silestone, the kitchen cabinets are lacquered MDF. The fridge is from Sub-Zero, the cooktop and microwave are Thermador, and the oven is Miele. The dishwasher is Bosch, and there's also a Fagor two-burner induction cooktop for quick heat ups. Overhead track lighting provides illumination.
Two full light doors help bring the sun into the kitchen and lead guests out onto the back deck that's set up for grilling. A steel arch painted green frames the views from the deck while also supporting the "sky deck" protruding from Pitman's third-floor office.
The third floor also houses the master suite and a master bath with a Japanese twist, a tub and a shower right next to each other. Drawing from the tradition of the "onsen," the wet room allows a bather to shower before entering the tub that is used for a relaxing soak.
The master bath features wall cabinets from Ikea and a double vanity from Porcelenosa. The tub is a Bain Ultra Origami from Thomas Somerville, the floor tile is Brazil Black slate, and the tile is a mix of stone field tile from Zebrano and glossy glass tile from Architectural Ceramics. The compromised ceiling joist in the master bath gave the architect the opening he needed to install a skylight and bring in a bit more light.
The team worked well together through the epic slog, a fact that Dorman says is based on experience. "There was always stuff to respond to, but that that's not unusual for any project," Dorman said. "They are both seasoned renovators."
The designer was also not put off by the notion of mixing a traditional house with contemporary furnishings. "If you look at Italian furniture catalogues - where the lighting is modern, the art is modern but it's a traditional house - it's a little contrasty, but it works well together," Dorman said.
The house closed for $1,480,000 in 2010. Feinstein replies to questions about renovation costs and resale by saying: "If we had to sell it, we would be whole."
He's pleased about his new life deep in the city and the way the house presents itself. "Regarding the intent of the function, it lives up to the expectations," he said. "The grand rooms play grandly, and the intimate rooms play cozy."
Pitman said she is also satisfied that they made the right choice in moving.
"I love the location, and being really urban has been really fun," she said. "It's been interesting to watch the development of Mid City, which is what we call the surrounding neighborhood. It's a big house, but we can find comfort and coziness in different parts of the house."