The House of Spirits | Page 2 of 2

The House of Spirits

A onetime speakeasy in Chevy Chase undergoes a dramatic transformation

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Owner Susan Young. Photo by Darren HigginsThe couple won’t discuss the cost of remaking their new digs, though builder Mickey Mauck of Mauck Zantzinger & Associates in Washington, D.C., notes that nearly every old home conceals at least one “Money Pit” nightmare. The speakeasy house had several. The only thing keeping the decaying conservatory walls upright were layers of old stucco, he says. Cinderblocks under the ballroom were crumbling from water damage. And “there was rot everywhere,” Mauck says.

The layout of the house is both simple and grand. To the left of the foyer is the two-story living room and adjoining glassed-in conservatory, which Young guesses was once an open porch. A black lacquer baby grand in one corner gets regular workouts from piano-playing guests. And tall niches filled with cut logs flank the fireplace.

The furnishings are eclectic: clean-lined and sophisticated upholstered pieces; art collected primarily by Grunewald; and dramatic antiques, such as the circa-1820 painted apothecary cabinet in the living room.

From that room, you can see the new curved staircase with its simple iron railings—a killer to suspend properly, Mauck says—along with the original Juliet balcony, a reminder that the initial architect once designed romantic movie palaces.

In the family room, a new 10-foot addition with comfy seating at the rear of the house provides a cozy reading spot. It’s just steps from the blown-out kitchen where Young channels her inner foodie. This area required tricky structural work, including knocking down two walls and the staircase between them.

Easier to solve was finding the perfect shade of white plaster. After Young rejected one too many hues, Mauck tracked down the “secret formula” from a California plaster master: bright white with a hint of gray, used on everything from walls to kitchen cabinetry frames. The pale counters are poured, polished concrete; the custom table that acts as an island is topped with white marble.

It’s an easy segue into the dining room, where an elaborate ceiling medallion was replaced by smooth plaster glazed to a translucent shine. At the far end, French doors open onto a remade patio with weatherproof sofas and an outdoor fireplace that throws considerable heat.

“My favorite form of entertaining is to make dinner for a dozen family members,” Young says. “We’ll have cocktails outside even in winter, with a roaring fire. Then we go back into the dining room to eat.”

In the second-floor master bedroom, five tall arched windows overlook neighborhood trees, giving the space a serene, green feel. The master bath, like the kitchen, features poured concrete surfaces. The tub has a plaster surround and a concrete top, while the glass-enclosed shower features tumbled marble inside.

The water-damaged basement required major structural work before the backyard could be landscaped into an expansive outdoor living space. French doors lead into the 62-foot former ballroom with its 12-foot ceilings. Towering fireplaces anchor either end. Lost during the renovation were two old Mediterranean landscapes painted into recessed arches along one wall. After a spirited family debate—“they were really ugly,” son Christopher says—both were plastered over.

 Young divided the space, putting a pool table and drum set on one side and a huge TV on the other. A few yards beyond the ballroom are two new bedrooms and the celebrated speakeasy.

In 2007, the family celebrated its first Thanksgiving in the new home. Susan Young expressed gratitude for family, friends, good health and good jobs. But she also gave thanks for the Reginald Wycliffe Geare house. Even five years after its renovation, she cannot cite a single woulda-coulda-shoulda.

“It’s my baby. I worked really hard on it,” she says. And from the old speakeasy, you can almost hear the clinking of glasses and murmurs of “cheers.”

Washington journalist Annie Groer writes widely about design, politics and 21st-century manners. She is at work on a memoir.

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