Dome Sweet Dome
Photos by Morgan Howarth
Political consultant Mildred Webber Holmes is admiring the skylight installed above her top-floor landing. “It gives the upstairs the look of a Tiffany lamp. I absolutely love it,” she says. It replaced “a muted, dim skylight that brought in nearly no light—horribly ugly yellowish plexiglass. We couldn’t see the sky.”
Six years after buying their home in the Wesley Heights neighborhood of Upper Northwest D.C., Holmes and her husband, Chris, tasked Anthony Wilder of Anthony Wilder Design/Build in Cabin John, with redesigning the skylight as part of a third-floor renovation. He’d be drawing new plans for a guest room, bath and sitting area, and while he typically wouldn’t recommend skylights in historic homes, especially in the front of the house, he made a suggestion that the homeowners liked: an octagonal, leaded, pastel-tinged window.
In this 1928 French country-style home, he found an unusual flat spot on the roof above the third-floor ceiling. At roof level, high enough to be invisible from the street, Wilder’s team placed a square metal box with clear, insulated glass. This outer window makes the skylight waterproof.
Things were trickier several inches below, in the staircase ceiling. The design team built an octagonal frame to hold the lower window in place. This skylight is a dome, not flat, because “over time, weight can settle and undulate,” Wilder explains. “A dome won’t do that.”
Sunlight heats up lead, which—combined with gravity—would make the window sag. So Wilder added strong metal ribs throughout his design to help support the weight of both the glass and the lead. He also added the color amber around the edges of the glass for warmth. Holmes sees purple, blue around the center circle, and occasionally green and pink. “You can see different colors at different times,” she says. “It’s definitely part of the whimsy.”
It’s part of why visitors clamor for the third-floor guest room, which has a view of the skylight. “Guests go on and on and on about it,” Holmes says. “They fight about it, even though they have to walk up two flights of stairs.”
On sunny days, the skylight brings brightness all the way down to the first floor. It updates the home while fitting in with its classic period appeal. Looking ahead, Wilder says, “this will sell the house. You’ll never see anything like this in any house outside of London or Paris.”