From a nightmare in Argentina to a dream home in Potomac: One couple's adventures in renovating
In 2001, Manuel Abdala’s routine business trip to Buenos Aires turned nightmarish when his taxi stopped at a traffic light. Armed thugs opened the back doors and flanked him, ordering the driver to take Abdala to a series of ATMs.
After he gave them several thousand dollars and his cellphone in this so-called “express kidnapping,” a common crime in Argentina at the time, they dumped him in the slums.
The next year, it happened again.
If there was a bright side to those terrifying incidents, it was that he lived more than 400 miles away in Córdoba, too distant for the robbers to add a home invasion, which often included vicious assaults on family members.
But now that “security started to be an issue,” as he calmly puts it, the economist decided to make a change. In 2002, Abdala, who specializes in international commercial arbitration, asked his American business partners at LECG for a transfer.
The first stop was the firm’s San Francisco headquarters. Then in 2003 he and his family moved east, into a Potomac Falls colonial with small rooms and little light. By 2010, Abdala, his wife, Alexandra Arata, and their children had become U.S. citizens. The following year the couple bought a $2.5 million Spanish-style house on 3½ acres in Potomac, certain they could transform it into their dream villa.
Mediterranean-style architecture was part of their shared culture. Arata’s parents had immigrated to Argentina from Italy after World War II, as had one of Abdala’s grandparents; two other grandparents came from Lebanon and the fourth from Germany.
Though some new Americans have zero interest in preserving their melded heritage, Arata and Abdala were committed to it.
“Since our families are from Italy and the Mediterranean, we have lived in many Mediterranean homes [in Argentina] which are U-shaped with a courtyard in the center,” says Arata, a teacher at the Hispanic Business and Training Institute at Montgomery College and former host of Facetas TV, a discontinued Telemundo cable show. “We never saw an L-shaped house like this one,” and immediately “felt it needed another wing.”
Thus began a yearlong renovation that would expand the home from 6,000 to 8,500 square feet on the main level; the basement, which they opened up by removing walls, retained its original footprint. Throughout construction, the family stayed in the old colonial.
Today, the new wing contains three en suite bedrooms for daughters Noel, 17, and Nicole, 13, a senior and eighth-grader, respectively, at Holton-Arms School, and son, Franco, 15, a Landon School sophomore.
But that was hardly the only change. The couple wanted a foyer, higher ceilings and darker floors. Above all, they craved a large, new kitchen with separate formal and casual dining rooms where they could entertain family and friends. They sought rustic finishes and decorative trim for walls, doorways, windows and ceilings.
Some elements inherited from the previous owners were left untouched: the original wing, which houses a trio of garages; the long driveway and front courtyard; and the beautifully landscaped backyard, complete with swimming pool, patio, multilevel pond and a stand of tall trees.
The lead contractor on the project—which cost in the high six figures, Arata says—was Bill Crowell, whose Rockville firm, Crowell and Baker, built the house in 1999.
“He knew all about the original materials, especially the roof tiles, which he bought from the same place for the new wing, and then washed the old tiles so they all matched,” says Abdala, now an international arbitration expert for Compass Lexecon in the District. “Bill did the same thing with the exterior stucco. He even used some of the same workers.”
Crowell says the original owners wanted a Southwestern style with a more contemporary interior. “They were very wealthy empty nesters,” he says, “so it had a master bedroom and two smaller bedrooms, which is why it sat on the market for a while.”
Potential buyers lacked the imagination “to figure out how to make it work for a family.”
But Arata knew what was required. She had flipped several houses while juggling her teaching and TV gigs. When Arata decreed the ceilings too low and “somewhat oppressive” in several rooms, Crowell raised them to 18 feet.
While his crew focused on the addition—which Fairfax, Va., architect John Neufeld designed to echo the original garage wing—she brought in contractors she knew from the Hispanic Business and Training Institute to create a new eat-in kitchen, convert the original kitchen into an informal dining room, remodel bathrooms, darken the floors, install stone and tile, and upgrade the wiring.
“I started meeting all of these wonderful guys who owned wonderful companies, and I learned about construction from them,” Arata says. “I had done a few renovations of investment properties, so I hired them to work on this house, and they loved working for the teacher.” (Of course she paid them market wages, she says.)
Another key player was Tom Warnock, owner of Warnock Studios in Alexandria, Va., whose team gave the stark white walls an old-world patina in shades of ochre, ivory and sienna. “The point was to make them look like they have been there for 100 years,” he says.
Over four months, his faux finishers also painted drywall boxes to resemble ceiling timbers, and stenciled subtle geometric patterns overhead in the foyer and formal dining room.
On a recent afternoon, the couple leads a visitor on a tour while dreamy tango music plays throughout the house. They begin with the new foyer. “We put in a wall dividing it from the living room, popped up the ceiling and added a wide archway and columns,” Arata says.
The pièce de résistance is a 10-by-26-foot floor mosaic—partly designed by Arata—with thousands of tiny marble squares in black, ivory, green, gray, gold and rust. Handmade in Lebanon, it was shipped here on dozens of mesh rolls ready for installation.
“Every house I remodeled, I put a small mosaic there. For this house, I wanted a large one,” she says. Actually, she wanted two. The second is on the floor of the master bath.
The foyer—with corridors on either side—leads directly into the light-flooded living room. The ceiling sports the new faux-finished “beams,” custom resin moldings and a pair of large crystal chandeliers. Sumptuous sofas and chairs rest on a wool Kashmiri rug. Many of the home’s furnishings and carpets come from Persiano Gallery in Gaithersburg, a shop Arata discovered while taking her Malti-poo to the vet. Souvenirs from family travels—a tall Moroccan urn, a pair of large, antique Bolivian angels carved from wood—add visual interest.
To the left of the living room is an inviting family room. Arata had the partially coffered wooden ceiling whitewashed and worked on lightening the bar herself to complement the new stone mantelpiece.
The family room leads to the master suite, where windows were enlarged and Warnock added a computer-copied canvas image of “Grande Odalisque” by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. The original 1814 painting hangs in the Louvre in Paris.
Beyond the master bedroom—all restful blues and ivory—and the upgraded master bath is the original library, still used as a cozy reading space. A quick left turn leads into the children’s addition. Each bedroom is furnished with a homework station and an extra bed for visiting friends from Holton, Landon and Escuela Argentina, a private school in Potomac where the siblings spend five hours most Saturdays studying Spanish, Argentine history and culture while working toward international baccalaureate degrees.
To the right of the living room is the renovated heart of the home, designed for cooking, entertaining and hanging out with family. The new kitchen features a center island where the kids can do homework. The cabinetry is light; the floors, a pale travertine limestone. Additional texture comes from “leather finished” granite counters.
The existing formal dining room boasts its original chandelier, a newly stenciled ceiling and a hammered copper table—commissioned in Mexico—that can seat 14. The metal top rests on two large, stone garden planters left by the previous owners and painted off-white by Arata.
Scattered around the house are refinished pieces bought at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Gaithersburg, where daughter Noel volunteers. These range from a cocktail table in the living room to a pair of chairs in the hallway. As avid recyclers, the family donated all the pre-renovation plantation shutters, cabinets, countertops, lighting, hardware and plumbing fixtures to that organization.
In her spare time, Arata—who has self-published a book in Spanish for immigrants interested in starting a business—paints large, abstract canvases that hang in several rooms.
One of her favorite spaces is also the smallest: the powder room. Through Crowell she found an octogenarian Italian plaster craftsman who created a sink that looks as if it came from an old Tuscan villa. He was reluctant to tackle such an arduous piece, “but it turns out he and my father’s family were both from Lucca, so he finally agreed,” Arata says.
Stepping outside to the courtyard and gazing back at the property, Abdala smiles broadly. “Finally we feel like we have our home,” he says. “A big piece of land, a large house, high ceilings and red tile roof.”
It is, in short, a place where express kidnappings seem like a distant bad dream.
Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and PoliticsDaily.com correspondent and columnist. She writes widely about design, culture and politics and is at work on a memoir.