Country Strong

Country Strong

A former antiques dealer and her husband restore a 110-year-old Bethesda farmhouse-and provide it with personalized touches from a well-traveled life

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Before Bethesda became the bustling hub of Montgomery County, it was farm country—an agrarian past hard to visualize, given the bumper-to-bumper traffic and throngs of shoppers here today. You can catch a glimpse of it, though, at the River Road house of Diane and Richard Monash, just over the line from the District.

The Monashes’ home served as the main farmhouse for what was once a working orchard. Daniel Sullivan built the house in 1903 and subdivided the property in 1924, enabling the land to morph into a suburban neighborhood.  

“Sullivan’s Farm originally encompassed about 7 acres,” Diane says. “If you look around the yard, you can still see apple, fig and pear trees that were part of the original farm.”

The Monashes bought the 3,200-square-foot foursquare under less than ideal circumstances. It was 1993, and Diane was working as an administrator for the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

“At the time, we were living in a duplex nearby on 45th Street in the District,” Diane says. “We just finished remodeling it the day before we drove by here and saw the ‘For sale’ sign. I asked Richard, ‘Can’t we just look?’ ”  

At the time, Richard was serving in the U.S. Navy and he acquiesced to a walk-through of the property. Thus the couple found themselves wandering through a turn-of-the-century mini-manse with 13-foot ceilings, a foyer suffused with light streaming through stained-glass windows, six bedrooms and two and a half baths. The original five-panel interior doors, two fireplaces, ornate stairway trim and hardwood floors were still in place. The house sat on nearly an acre, with a swimming pool in the backyard. But the living conditions were rough inside.

“It was in pretty bad shape, down on its heels,” Diane says. “The previous owners tried to keep up with the maintenance, but much of the house hadn’t been touched since it was built.”

The house was occupied and had been on the market for three years. But despite the poor condition and the fact they’d just finished their own renovation a few blocks away, Diane had to have it.

“We could still see the simple elegance of the house and knew we could restore it,” she says.

After finding out what the last offer on the house had been—$330,000—Richard offered the same amount and was surprised when the owners agreed.  

“The owners wanted the house to remain intact, and the other potential buyer was a developer who wanted to tear it down and subdivide,” Diane says. “We bought the new house in September, put the old house on the market in November and it sold in a week.”

The couple had intended to live in their old house as they worked on the new one. But a quicker-than-anticipated closing pushed the Monashes into a hulking work-in-progress.

They budgeted $90,000 for renovations, including air conditioning, boiler repairs, a new water heater, landscaping, upgrades to the electrical system and plumbing, painting and the removal of 10 dumpster loads of weeds, stumps and tree branches. They discovered that a doorway from the master bedroom to the nursery had been plastered over, and restored the original configuration.

In 2000, they hired contractors to expand the kitchen, with a bump-out off the back of the house that later became a TV room. Radiators, molding and trim were left in place, however. And there was no master suite renovation, no bedrooms turned into closets and no wine cellars built into the basement.

The swimming pool needed repairs for cracks, and while it was drained, Diane painted it black. “I wanted it to look more like a pond, less like a pool,” she says.

During the mid-’60s, Diane had become interested in antiques when her husband was stationed in Yorktown, Va. Trips to nearby Colonial Williamsburg coupled with visits to Europe resulted in a hobby that eventually would turn into a second career.

In 1999, she and Richard traveled to Europe and bought enough antiques to fill a shipping container. For two years, Diane spent weekends selling her wares at trade shows up and down the East Coast. Then in 2001, she decided to open her own shop, River House Antiques on Macomb Street in the District. She specialized in the rustic, heavy-legged farm tables, cabinets and chairs typically characterized as “French Country.”  

Meanwhile, the house got another new addition in 2004, when Diane retired from her job with Johns Hopkins. She cashed in her unused sick days, telling her family she was going to use the money for “a little place in the country.” The place turned out to be a “pool house,” a semicustomized storage building purchased from Home Depot. Her sons, Todd, now 46, and David, 48, swapped out the doors of the building and converted the shed into a changing room and a place to read.

With the end of her day job, Diane went to work full time at the antiques shop. But by 2011, tightened import regulations and competition from big chains such as Pottery Barn were taking their toll. “Shipping anything in became more difficult, and costs eventually doubled,” she says.

Diane closed the store that year and moved some favorite pieces into her home. They represent a cross section of the European styles she favors: boxy chests and armoires, sturdy tables, cabinets and counters from old stores, a four-poster bed and gilt-framed art that adorns her walls.

The furnishings fit right in with the couple’s other quirky reminders of an interesting life. The foyer features a bell that was used in boxing matches. It was acquired by Diane’s father, who worked as a bodyguard for Tippy Larkin, the junior welterweight champion in 1946.

A Dutch artist friend was concerned that the house had too many shadows and decided it needed its own guardian angel. So she painted one on the wall of the downstairs powder room under the stairs.

Richard retired from the Navy as a captain and now, at age 72, works as a government contractor for Dynamic Research Corporation. His naval heritage is on display as weekend visitors to the house encounter a yardarm flying Old Glory and the flag from their home state, placed outside in their honor. The yardarm stands in the side yard, serving as a gateway to the pool. “I think Richard has flags from every state—and the guests always get a big kick out of it,” Diane says.       

The home’s living room is dominated by a Steinway grand piano built in 1918. Diane, now 70, learned to play as a child but took lessons to refresh her skills. She plays three hours a day—mostly tangos and Scott Joplin-style ragtime.

Although the couple is starting to imagine life on a smaller scale, they’re happy in the house they bought on a whim.  

“It’s a very comfortable house in a fantastic location,” Diane says. “It’s a little bit of country that’s two blocks from Washington, D.C.”

Scott Sowers is a freelance writer and independent producer living in Washington, D.C.

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