For Principal Steve Lawlor of Lawlor Architects, melding the old and new is little like architectural alchemy and a lot more than just a profession.
“If someone had said to me 20 years ago I was going to have a boutique practice focusing on modern work in historic houses, I’d have been surprised,” said Lawlor, affirming over time the work has become a great passion. “Older houses require a certain knowledge of how to work in them effectively,” he said, speaking to elements such as inadequate structural components and sub-par brick. “They have little sleights of hand; you learn how these people built houses and that informs what you can do to them going forward.”
Concentrating largely on Capitol Hill, Lawlor identified a 4,400 s.f. five-bedroom (plus au pair’s room), four-bath 1870s row house initially designed as a single family residence and later turned into apartments. Purchased by the client in deteriorated condition with the intent to restore it to single family status, the architects confronted a quantity of “cellular” rooms—certainly unconnected in theme.
“As with houses of this era, there was no coherent message or design narrative taken all the way through,” Lawlor said, citing historical thinking that gave each room four immutable walls. But by the same token, if artifacts are in good condition and can be preserved, the challenge is to contrast them with new elements creating a tension between old and new, he said. “I find that really satisfying—you can’t do that in a new house.”
Before work began, the house had become three apartments in the “darkest, dimmest, grimmest kind of place,” Lawlor recalled. Boasting a beautiful façade, maintenance had nevertheless been ignored just about everywhere.
Demolishing walls that had defined the building’s public spaces, abundant light was on the architects’ short list and ultimately achieved in an otherwise brooding space, according to Lawlor. An opening was created between the formerly closed-off entry and a 22-foot now combined living/dining space to the right. A largely concealed staircase was allowed to breathe, and a contemporary kitchen replaced a choppy full bath, bedroom, closet and small porch.
In opening up the home, the team was able to maintain all of the ceiling’s original plaster work, which included delicate rosettes, and also its fireplaces. Fluted columns, though contemporary, were installed to capture the spirit of the original house. A modern color palette was employed, and everything opened up to the brand new rear kitchen with sustainable materials such as bamboo and a light-filled exposure that was basically an entirely glazed wall. In this space, a new ceiling was covered with a wood panel that angles up.
In deference to the classic plaster ceiling design that pervades much of the home, the architects jettisoned the idea of recessed lighting for a suspended track. The result gives the space a gallery-like feel with the added benefit of illuminating walls that display the homeowner’s artwork.
“You have this old ceiling and these very pristine, technical lights playing off of that vintage look,” Lawlor said.
In the row house’s master suite, the historic fabric was preserved in crown molding that encircles the space. Old heart pine doors (with added hardware) and floors were also retained, and the architects put in contemporary bead board wainscoting to pull the room together but with an old-time feel. Because ceilings in the home range from 10 to 11 feet in height, the goal was to control the various rooms’ scale with elements like wainscoting so they don’t feel like “massive train tunnels,” Lawlor quipped.
Bricks and brightness
In another Capitol Hill row house, this one circa 1890, an addition that eclipsed the size of the original three-story home was on the agenda, something unusual for a DC historic district. Owning the home for 15 years before embarking on the renovation, the couple engaged Lawlor Architects to update and create more space, resulting in a contemporary and light-filled environment.
“In a renovation like this, what we often do is work on an addition but also work on the old interior at the same time, so that the entire house has a consistent level of attention. This way it doesn’t feel as though all the money was spent in just one area,” Lawlor said.
In a great juxtaposition of historic and modern, the addition incorporated the five-bedroom, four-bath home’s rear wall brick exterior into a brand new interior stairwell, balcony and window that looks out into the new space. A large skylight frames the top of the stairwell, illuminating the texture of the old brick and channeling light to the middle of the house.
According to Lawlor, 80 percent of the work was addressed the rear addition, which included the stairwell, as the façade was strictly regulated by historic district parameters.
Victorians and views
Also on Capitol Hill, in a project the architects aptly call “historic modern,” a similar-era two-story 2,500 s.f. row house was broken into two projects: a two-story addition where the back wall was bumped out to accommodate, and a one-story addition on top. Purchased some years back by newlywed homeowners sans children, while they appreciated the Victorian’s historic vernacular, a desire to “shake it up a bit” was precipitated by a growing family, said Lawlor.
With the husband working from home, the third floor addition became an office, embracing natural light and sweeping views that include rooftops and parts of the city.
Preserving artifacts where possible, the ground floor was renovated to include a new master suite, and a brand new kitchen linked old and new with a long bamboo dropped ceiling running its entire 32-foot length. Though walls around the staircase were peeled back, “…we left the stair hall, fireplace, railings, treads, risers, newel posts, balusters and front living room more or less intact with windows that frame the street,” Lawlor said, but the homeowners also wanted a space that was not the main family area of the house. To that end, everything past the living room was rearranged, reimagined and looks nothing like it did.
“You walk in this house, which (from the facade) looks like all the other houses around it—like a very respectful Victorian,” Lawlor said, referencing the “long tongue” of a wood ceiling with recessed and pendant lighting visible from the entry.
“It’s the element of surprise in working with these old houses, and you hope that every project has one. These houses can have brand new lives and personalities.”
Photos courtesy of Stacy Zarin-Goldberg