Reimagining The Rambler
An Italian architect and her military doctor-husband put a contemporary slant on a 1940s Bethesda ranch house
When Paul Pasquina met Lavinia Fici in 1991, it was love at first sight.
“I was a senior in medical school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda and doing my last rotation at a military hospital in Vicenza, Italy,” says Pasquina, a physician who has been involved with many of the programs that care for military service members, particularly those who’ve suffered the loss of limbs, traumatic brain injuries or spinal cord injuries. “One weekend, I went to Rome, and as I was walking down the street, I was struck by lightning when I saw my future wife turn toward me.”
Pasquina approached her through a friend since he spoke no Italian and Fici spoke no English. “I didn’t really know what to think,” Fici says. “I remember wanting to communicate more with him—but even despite the language barrier, we both knew immediately that there was something special about our paths crossing that evening in Rome.”
Having instantly hit it off, the two exchanged addresses. Fici, who is originally from Sicily, was working at the time on a master’s degree in architecture at the University of Palermo, which made a relationship difficult when Pasquina returned to the U.S. But the couple overcame that challenge: They wrote often and saw each other about four times a year.
“I had to convince her to marry me over the next five years,” Pasquina jokes. Finally, in 1996 , Fici became Fici Pasquina.
The story of how the couple found their first house follows a similar arc. It was 2000 when they happened upon a neglected 1940s ranch that they decided they had to have. “At the time, we were renting a place in Bethesda, so we rode our bikes to the Taste of Bethesda and came up to this neighborhood where we saw this rundown old home that needed some tender loving care,” says Pasquina, a retired U.S. Army colonel who is chairman of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the Uniformed Services University’s medical school.
“We saw the ‘For Sale’ sign out in the front and we called the Realtor and met him that evening.
“There had already been a couple of bids on the house. But for whatever reason, those fell through, so they called us back and we jumped at the opportunity.”
Located in Bethesda’s Rosedale neighborhood, the 1,100-square-foot rambler looked every bit its age.
“When we entered the place, it was in such bad shape that anybody else would have said, ‘Oh, boy! Where do I start?’ ” says Fici Pasquina, an associate professor of architecture at The Catholic University of America in Washington and head of her own firm, Xhabition. “But when I entered, I said, ‘It’s beautiful!’ My eyes had already seen the place with the transformation.”
Rolling up their sleeves, the couple began a DIY project to make the single-level, two-bedroom, two-bath home livable, redoing the interiors and the kitchen.
“The remodeling consisted of opening up main living areas to adapt to more contemporary living,” Fici Pasquina says. This included increasing the square footage of the living areas, enlarging windows that face the backyard patio, reclaiming the original oak floors that were buried under carpet, and painting everything basic white to brighten the interior.
“We basically gutted the entire house and did all the work ourselves except for the electrical and plumbing,” her husband says.
The couple completed the initial renovation after about nine months of working nights and weekends, and felt they had a house they could be proud of and enjoy. And they did for about five years. But then it was time to start a family, and they needed more space.
Moving from Bethesda was not an option. The couple loves the area. Plus, Pasquina works nearby at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. After exploring available listings in Bethesda, they decided that the best idea was to build on the lot they already owned.
The decision to build a bigger home raised a critical question: Should they raze their house to the foundation and start from scratch? Or enlarge the existing structure?
Starting fresh was the easier route, but the couple favored preserving the house (and their earlier renovation) and simply adding to it. Naturally, Fici Pasquina handled the design work.
“Maybe it’s because I’m European and I carry this baggage of ‘Do not touch what you already have; it’s history,’ ” Fici Pasquina says. “I also like the challenge of starting something from something. It’s always better to have a constraint. We could have torn down the house and built a new one, but that would have been too easy. It’s much more difficult when you’re looking at a building with a sense of respect for history.”
Fici Pasquina also considered it more environmentally responsible to “recycle” the existing building. Still, she wanted to add to it in a way that would contrast and blend with the neighborhood at the same time. To that end, she built a steel skeleton around the original brick home, but made the new structure completely independent.
“I did not touch the 1,100-square-foot original house,” she says, “but I incorporated it into a more modern envelope.”
With its black steel framing, wing-shaped copper roof and street-facing frosted fiberglass walls, the house strikes a dramatic pose in the neighborhood. The architect built the remaining walls of the house with cast-in-place concrete, which allows large, uninterrupted spans with no support columns.
The interior reads like one big loft, thanks to the open floor plan, but it exhibits other industrial-style features, as well: exposed ductwork, concrete floors (embedded with radiant heat), and a dramatic steel staircase with cable railings. In the kitchen, stainless steel appliances and a Fireslate countertop continue the industrial feel.
“Fireslate is a concrete-like material that’s used mainly for fireplaces and applications with high heat,” Fici Pasquina says. “I thought it would be a good thing to try out for the counters.
Before I specify things for clients, I always try them myself.”
The first floor remains largely intact, with a kitchen, living room and dining room, but Fici Pasquina converted one of the bedrooms into a study and turned the garage into a studio. She designed an entirely new second level, adding two bedrooms and two bathrooms, and a large, open sunroom. “There are essentially no doors in the home,” she says. “There are two bathroom doors because we had to have them, but I just don’t like doors.”
The home’s interior is very much in line with the urban loft motif: It’s sparsely decorated with black leather sofas and white Barcelona chairs by German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, with red textiles adding pops of color.
Fici Pasquina is especially proud of the new home. Not only did she design the addition, but she also served as general contractor and brought on a variety of roofing, electrical and plumbing subcontractors to help with various stages of construction. “This was quite a learning experience for me as an architect to being fully involved in all aspects of turning what you envision in your head to the eventual living space,” Fici Pasquina says.
Now measuring about 3,500 square feet, the home offers ample space for the Pasquinas and their 6-year-old daughter, Sikelia. It also allows them to stay in the neighborhood they love.
“A home is where you hang your hat and…[is] made up of the love inside the four walls, but it sure is nice spending that time in a cool place,” Pasquina says.
“I won the lottery,” he continues. “Not only did I get a beautiful wife and a beautiful daughter, but I get a great living space and Italian food, as well.”
Nigel F. Maynard is a Hyattsville-based editor and freelancer who writes about architecture and design. To comment on this story, email comments@bethesda magazine.com.