Flights of Fancy

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Flights of Fancy: How Moving a Staircase Breathed Light Into a Century-Old Rowhouse

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From the national monuments and grand museums that line the National Mall to the Capitol, the White House, and the many embassies and federal government buildings, Washington, D.C., is a veritable master class in architectural mores, block after historical block.

Older than Washington, D.C., Georgetown is a tony enclave in the city’s northwest corridor on the banks of the Potomac River. Home to trendy shops, boutiques, restaurants, and even a few embassies, Georgetown is a magnet for residents and tourists alike. As home to the main campus of Georgetown University, the neighborhood has a vibrant, youthful atmosphere with streets full of charming rowhouses dating as far back as the 1800s, many of which have become de facto student housing.

Home Is Where the Hearth Is

The original kitchen looked more like a disparate assemblage of discontinued appliances in a warehouse than a functional space in which to cook. According to Bloomberg, “It was horrible! I don’t even see how it was usable!”

Since the client has a close-knit family and they love to entertain and cook big communal meals, the solution was to move the kitchen to the center of the house. This move put the kitchen adjacent to the stairwell, thus capturing ample natural light.

In this relatively small space, a massive orange acrylic countertop became the home’s only dining area and made the room more like a hearth, centering the entire home. “I wanted to have this strong, striking element to make it an identifying piece, and you’d always see it as the center of the house,” Bloomberg says. The dark cork floor and wenge wood of the lower cabinets counterbalances the light wood of the upper cabinets that seem to float since they don’t reach the ceiling.

The stair treads echo the lightness of the upper cabinets. “I had this concept of earth and groundedness and a heavier feeling at the base with an eventual lightness moving upward to the sky,” Bloomberg explains.

Defying Gravity

When Janet Bloomberg of D.C.–based Kube Architecture first saw the N Street rowhouse, she was taken aback; after years as a rental property it was in terrible condition. “We quickly realized that structurally it was a mess,” she says. “It would probably fall apart [once we started the remodel], and structurally it needed a lot of work with the center stair clogging up the middle of the house.”

Bloomberg’s goal was to remove the ancient staircase and relocate new stairs that would let in more natural light. Her first challenge was to convince the client — a trained interior designer who loved the original staircase — that there was no historical value to the rickety winders. “We have to distinguish about what’s historically important and what’s just old,” Bloomberg says with a laugh.

Once the client was won over, the real battle began — actually building the new staircase. As the 8-inch-thick masonry walls crumbled around the contractors from Madden Corp., in Rockville, Md., Bloomberg found that to give the new linear stairs an open feeling, steel would be needed to span the length and width of the home. So steel columns and beams were erected, many of which are within the sidewalls, and anchored all the way down to the basement.

“It was hard to get the open feeling because the house was so structurally inadequate,” she says, “so we had to hide all of our structural reinforcement cleverly so you wouldn’t realize what was going on.” So much light fills the house due to the open-tread stairs that it even reaches the basement.

A. Float On

The “floating wall” that separates the bathrooms from the hallway was achieved via a 3.5-by-8-inch steel beam holding up the 14-foot wall that appears to float above the floor-level window. The beam is connected to 4-inch square steel columns.

B. Great Wall

Rather than a traditional guardrail on the second level, Bloomberg chose a piece of structural glass. Due to its weight and dimensions, the glass wall is inset 6 inches into the floor, with enough bearing so that it won’t lean, and is held in place by a metal shoe.

C. Cable-Ready

A cable wall adjacent to the staircase provides a guardrail while helping to preserve an open and airy atmosphere. The stainless steel cables are stretched and held taut between a first floor half-wall and a 4-by-12-inch painted steel tube just below the skylight.