January-February 2010 | Bethesda HOME

Split Decisions

Renovations have transformed once ho-hum split-levels into architectural gems.

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Frank Bell remembers his father, Meade, building split-levels in the new subdivisions of the ’50s and ’60s. The houses packed a lot of living on a small, ungraded lot, and they captivated first-time homeowners. They had “a big, day-lit, walk-out rec room and an eat-in kitchen—all on a lot with as little as 60 feet of frontage,” says Bell, president of Bell Builders of Bethesda.

Bell himself grew up in a split-level in Bethesda. And these days he redesigns some of the very houses his father built.

The basic split-level was essentially two small, side-by-side houses, each with its own roof. The one-story side included a living room, dining room and kitchen; the two-story side had bedrooms and bathrooms on the upper level and a rec room—or family room—on the lower level. Because the two sides were offset by half a story, people could move between levels without climbing a lot of stairs, Bell says.

“They were far more interesting than the ramblers and colonials of the day,” says Mark Kramer of Kramer Architects in Bethesda.

But by today’s standards, the kitchens seem small and disconnected from the family room. Bathrooms and closets tend to be tiny. So homeowners are turning to renovation, particularly since many of their houses are close to transportation and situated in established neighborhoods with good schools.

The split-level’s two rooflines can present a challenge in renovation. “But it [also] affords the ability to do something more interesting,” Kramer says, “such as incorporating an entry porch on the lower side.”

Here’s a peek inside three split-levels refashioned for the families who live in them.

the Koffs: Everything but the garage

Jonathan and Stacey Koff were Army majors and medical doctors in 1999, when they moved into their four-bedroom, split-level in Kensington with 7-year-old daughter, Catelyn. Isabelle was born the following year, and Matthew arrived two years later. The Koffs devoted one bedroom to a live-in nanny, which meant two of the kids had to share, and it “just wasn’t working,” Stacey says.

The Koffs searched for a larger house off and on for a year, but never found one that offered the privacy of their 1953 home. Because of the trees, “we can’t really see our neighbors from our existing home,” Stacey says, “and we liked our vista onto Kensington Cabin Park. We also liked the small-town feeling of Kensington.”

In 2005, the couple decided to tear down the house and put up a new structure with a garage. Local building codes forbid detached garages, so unless a home is new, most houses there don’t have one. Architect Mark Hughes of Hughes Architecture in McLean, Va., helped the couple develop several plans. “The cheapest estimate was $899,000, and everyone told us to round up at least 15 percent,” Stacey says. The price wasn’t affordable, so the couple began working with Hughes on a renovation instead.

Starting with a four-level, 2,100-square-foot split, Hughes designed a 3,000-square-foot arts and crafts style home with overhanging rooflines, a raised front porch with flared columns and a new front entrance. The arts and crafts look was carried throughout the interior, with generous wood trim, two-panel doors painted white and polished wood floors. The plan gave each child a room, with a master suite on a new level above the living room.

“There was no garage,” Jonathan says, “but the price was right, almost half a million dollars less” than new construction.

The family contracted with Brav-Co Construction Co. of Frederick and moved to a nearby rental in June 2007. Two months later, Stacey was called for duty in Iraq, and while she was gone the scope of the project increased. “I decided to re-do the kitchen,” Jonathan says, “even though it was only 5 years old, because I thought I would regret it if the cabinetry and woodwork didn’t match the rest of the house.” He also committed to new plumbing, electrical work and insulation, as well as plasterboard in the children’s bedrooms.

Stacey returned “just in time to pick out the tile for the bathrooms, decide on kitchen tile and the stones to go around the fireplace and choose all the paint colors,” she says. “Virtually everything else was done.” The family moved back in April 2008.

Guests now enter a new center hall on the living-room level, instead of the floor below. The living room is on the left as it was. Directly ahead is the new, eat-in kitchen with white Shaker-style cabinets, gray-blue granite countertops and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the backyard play set. Beyond the living room and open to the kitchen is a large and informal dining room.

To the right of the center hall is the half flight of stairs leading up to the bedroom level for Catelyn, now 17, Isabelle, now 9, and Matthew, 7. A half flight down is the family TV room. 

Moving the front door upstairs allowed the couple to combine the first-floor front hall with the family room, thus enlarging it. Shelving was added to two walls for a fresh look and storage space. The nanny room and bath on the same level also were updated.

The new master bedroom, with its own bathroom and a laundry area, is accessed by a full flight of stairs carved out of the children’s bedroom level.

Stacey, now a lieutenant colonel, works as a urologist at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. Jonathan has since left the Army and practices gastroenterology with Harrington and Loughney in Washington, D.C. Although their renovated home is a hybrid rather than a split-level, “it is perfect for our family,” Stacey says. “I love the way it flows.”

the Hardistys: Downsizing in style

John and Merrily Hardisty wanted to downsize from their 6,000-square-foot, seven-bedroom, six-bath home in the Spring Hill area of Bethesda. But they didn’t want to give up the ability to entertain five couples for dinner, six friends for bridge or have a gang over to watch college football on their big-screen TV. 

Each made a wish list. John, an international trade consultant, wanted a porch and a two-car garage hidden from the street. Merrily, a civic  volunteer who loves to cook, wanted a kitchen with the latest conveniences. 

After looking at new houses with the features they wanted, the couple decided it would be less expensive to renovate an older home. So in 2004 they settled on a four-level, 2,500-square-foot, brick split-level built in 1955 on a corner lot in the Springfield area of Bethesda. The house already had a two-car garage that opened onto the side yard. It was close to the Westbard Shopping Center and Friendship Heights department stores. And the couple had lived in the neighborhood when their two children were young, so they had friends there.

“When we first walked into the home, we could see straight back to the garden, where the most beautiful red azaleas were in full bloom,” Merrily says. “The former owners had beautiful plantings that were close to the home, which made the views quite stunning. Also, because the house was set diagonally on the lot, it didn’t have the feeling of houses crowded next to you.”