Clearly architects, film buffs and maybe a few former Hollywood civilians, such as I, know the Cary Grant classic (see story title) by a similar name, where unwitting advertising executive Jim Blandings, wedged into a cramped NYC apartment with his family, takes leave of his home and his senses when purchasing a deeply plagued fixer upper in the hinterlands of post-war Connecticut.
For D.C. residential architect and furniture designer Michael Callison, the idea of renovating his own 1,000 s.f. two-bedroom 1922 Chevy Chase Arts and Crafts bungalow catalogue kit house, conceived in the style of the Sears catalogue houses of its day, may have seemed less of a challenge at the outset than Cary Grant’s, given Callison’s profession. However the 20-year-long road to renovation – a voyage from what the architect called “self-conscious design” all the way to an epiphanic result that would essentially let the house simply stretch and breathe –was purely unanticipated, the process kindling a brand new architect. In the end, the emergence of a four bedroom, four bath, 2,200 s.f. home that entirely preserved the original structure’s character was a journey, Callison said, that transformed the way he practices architecture.
Citing 20 years’ worth of sketches to augment his own bungalow, the renovation process is something Callison had explained to clients many hundreds of times, advising them to move in to a newly purchased house and live with the property to develop a master plan before making any changes. But where his own home was concerned, in addition to fabricating a master plan, the architect said it took two decades to work through preconceived notions he’d acquired training as an architect in the modernist tradition.
“The thinking (in that vein) is to express your ideas as an architect, regardless of what the house is,” he said, revealing that he and others grapple with the idea of “showing the neighborhood – the rest of the world – what a clever architect you are. I had to get to the point where I was really more sensitive to what the house was telling me,” he said of his very personal discovery. “The style of the house; the lines of the house -there’s that vital symbiosis between innovation and tradition.”
Purchasing the home in 1987, Callison and wife Caitrine Curley-Callison, a professional potter and owner of D.C. women’s consignment store Secondi, immediately recognized that among many things, the property needed a rear addition, something then unaffordable to the young couple. “It was a small, one-story house with two bedrooms and one bath (plus a non-functioning semblance of a bathroom in the basement), a low-slung roof, as well as a rickety, disheveled sleeping porch on the back,” Callison explained. With little money to spare, the Callisons began what would become a two-decade long transformation by returning from work each night to chip away at the kitchen floor with a paint scraper, digging for mystery material beneath the decimated linoleum. When a pine floor ultimately emerged, the couple salvaged the best boards, hidden under the cabinets, and reused them for the kitchen remodel which Callison did with his own hands.
“I’m an architect and furniture designer, not a furniture maker,” he said of the kitchen cabinets he eventually crafted, noting it was a learning process in which he taught himself carpentry. “The kitchen took about a year to do and I used a little table saw in the back yard,” he said, also applying beadboard pine panels to the space, a theme eventually carried into attic space-turned-guest bedroom and the original bathroom.
Also where the original bathroom was concerned, Callison said the previous owners apparently had a proclivity for showering without a curtain, so all of the plaster had collapsed. Over time, structural and other practical aspects firmly in place, the couple decorated in part by incorporating a picture frieze around the space with a rail that supported old Polaroids from a personal collection.
With other catalogue bungalows in the neighborhood consisting of rooms that were chopped and tiny, Callison said his home’s spatial sequence was quite favorable and in fact the living room traversed the entire width of the house. Similar to the large dining room, it had multiple windows creating a light-filled, casual environment something like a beach house. An unattractive but functioning fireplace in the living room was lowered and faced with marble mosaic tiles in the Arts and Crafts tradition. Wearing his somewhat more evolved carpenter’s hat at that point, the architect built cabinets on either side of the fireplace, along with a coat closets flanking windows and an electronic cabinet, wooden arch and window seat as well.
Constructing a great room and master bedroom suite – Callison hired general contractor Jorge Euceda-Rios for the major part of the renovation – and in deference to the Arts and Crafts style original that “had its own set of rules,” the architect decided that altering the roofline to build both spaces would not honor the classic bungalow. “My clients generally want a new kitchen that opens to a family space, and above that space they want the master suite,” he said, which wasn’t conceivable for his own home. Finding a way to “tuck it (the master suite) into the roof was the difficulty,” said Callison, with the suite ultimately built on the lower level, in place of the walkout basement, and with added floor-to-ceiling windows for a sense of openness and connectivity to the outside. Located beneath the new great room that was added when the rickety porch, which had blocked access to the yard, was demolished, the master suite became an oasis for the homeowners with a new 360-bottle wine cellar conceived on the same level.
“We telescoped the roof to do this,” Callison said. “In other words if you’d grabbed the edge of the old roof – just pulled it back towards the rear yard – that’s what we did to (accommodate) the addition.” And because the ceiling of the great room–which Callison calls the lodge room because it reflects the great lodges where he’s stayed as a fly fisherman–soared to about 15 feet as it absorbed some of the old attic space, turning what should be a warm, comfortable room into one that may overwhelm, Callison borrowed an idea from the dining room which utilizes molding around the perimeter at the ¾ level. The color above matches the ceiling, and the color below is darker, he said. “It’s a lot of interesting detail for almost no money–a way to take a large space and hold down the scale of the room, as well as connect it to the rest of the house.” Back in the dining room, the architect also retained the services of Barbara Billet of Billet Collins Decorative Painting Studios to paint a frieze that he created around the room. A flower design predicated on a Victorian stencil pattern, the frieze encircles the room with the exception of one special panel containing a passage about fishing, written by Caitrine’s father, an author. And in place of the Longleaf Pine flooring still in the original house, with an eye toward sustainability, Mountain Lumber Co. in Ruckersville, Va., specialists in reclaimed wood, used salvaged beams from an old Maryland barn for the great/lodge room floor.
Gilding the Defibrillator
“The house is a very simple, casual, unornamented bungalow, so over time my attempts on the inside were not to cross the line,” Callison reflected, adding that the objective, in addition to preserving the exterior character, was to find a way to breathe life into it with elements such as built-ins and friezes.
Professing that the project changed him a lot, Callison said every residential architect that comes out of school wants to do a Frank Gehry-style addition, but there are choices to be made. “The reality is that you can promote yourself by doing something everybody notices and sees as a signature design, or you can try and make the house a really good neighbor, working with the original structure, adding to the community by careful design.”