January-February 2010 | Bethesda HOME

Split Decisions

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

share this

Working closely with Merrily and her collection of magazine clippings, designer Frank Bell created a stylish, 4,500-square-foot home in a year’s time, with high ceilings, gleaming hardwood floors, custom crown molding and solid panel doors. For John, Bell designed a wraparound porch; for Merrily, a magnificent kitchen. And because “I love arches, Frank used them wherever he could,” Merrily says, “starting with the new front door.”

The new entrance opens into a spacious center hall that runs to the back of the house, where there’s a new, two-story addition. The existing living room, at the right of the front door, was enhanced with a bay window for the couple’s grand piano, and the original fireplace got a new marble facade and built-in bookshelves on each side. Between the living and dining rooms, a half wall with shelving above allows Merrily’s collection of art glass to be viewed from both rooms. The dining room was enlarged to seat 12 and accommodate the couple’s massive breakfront and antique Turkish Oushak rug.

There’s a new powder room across from the living room, on the bedroom side of the house. “Frank removed the short staircase going down to the former rec room and squeezed a half bath in its place,” Merrily says. Up a half flight of stairs on the same side is the former master bedroom, now John’s home office. Another bedroom on that level serves as a guest room, and the third is an office for Merrily, who chairs the Springfield Civic Association Traffic Committee.

By widening the hall between the bedrooms, Bell created space for a full flight of stairs to the former attic on the living room side. He raised the roof there to create a master bedroom, two walk-in closets and separate his-and-her bathrooms with marble finishes.

The first-floor addition, the new heart of the house, incorporates an elegant TV room with windows on two sides overlooking the garden, and a fireplace bracketed by custom-designed shelving. To the right of the sitting room are the kitchen and the breakfast room, which overlooks the porch.

The kitchen, which Merrily helped design, has double ovens, a warming drawer and a glass stovetop with a retractable down-draft exhaust system on one wall. The window wall has a sink, dishwasher and abundant counter space and cabinets. A third wall has a 36-inch-wide refrigerator and a 36-inch-wide freezer. In the center is a large island with a granite top that matches the counters. Off-white, custom cabinetry conceals all the appliances, and two pantries keep everything else out of sight.

A full flight of stairs leads down to John’s brick-lined wine cellar and “Terrapin Lounge.” Oriented around a big-screen TV, the room displays John’s University of Maryland memorabilia and serves as a gathering spot on game days. The same level provides space for Merrily’s flower arranging and scrapbooking.

With two full flights of stairs, the home is no longer a split-level, but rather a hybrid. “It was a well-built house, and there were portions we could still use,” says John, who figures they saved money by renovating rather than building a new home. He declines to discuss the cost of the renovation, though. “I prefer not to think about it,” he says.

the Guelchers: Room to entertain

Jeffrey and Christine Guelcher loved their neighbors and the big backyard of the ’50s-era Bethesda home they’d lived in for 11 years. But even though they’d improved the house over the years, they imagined more.

First, a dining room that could seat 12. “We have lots of friends from Georgetown [University] passing through, and Jeffrey’s the kind of friend who keeps up with people,” says Christine, a nurse practitioner at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Second was a mudroom with its own entrance. “Our living room had become the biggest mudroom in America, with coats, shoes and backpacks all over,” she says.

Third was an adults-only bathroom. Although their home had two bathrooms, “we all shared one, because the downstairs bathroom was inconvenient for day-to-day use,” Christine says.

They looked for another house, but “everything we looked at was a lot more money and less land,” she says. Besides, they loved the split design, “so we decided to use the equity in our home to renovate.”

After interviewing architects recommended by friends and colleagues, they hired James Cummings of Washington, D.C. “[His] approach was very collaborative, and [he] had a good eye for little details that can impact upon your day-to-day enjoyment of a home,” says Jeffrey, who works as general counsel for Lerner Enterprises, a Rockville-based real estate development company. “He gave us five concepts that we kind of mixed and matched.”

Cummings increased the living space from 2,000 square feet on four levels to about 4,200 on five. He added a first-floor extension off the back for a great room. He created a new roof peak at the center of the home, with a ridge line running perpendicular to the street and high enough to convert the existing attic into a master suite.

He moved the front door from the living room side to the center of the new facade. Large mullioned windows with dark frames, an offset front porch and light paint that unifies existing brick and new siding lend the home a distinctive look without dominating the neighborhood.

The new front door opens into a center hall that runs back to the new great room. On the left of the hall is the new dining room, formerly the living room, which runs perpendicular to the front of the home. Large enough for a table that seats 12, the dining room has a window wall facing the street. A second wall, facing the side yard, has a gas fireplace between large interior windows and built-in shelving. Beyond that wall is the new mudroom, with its own entrance, a door to the kitchen and a wall of double-hung windows that bring light into the dining room. “My friends didn’t get it [the mudroom], but when they see it they go wild,” Christine says.