TY PENNINGTON: Why do I like this house
“I dig the way the master suite addition thinks out of the box: A bumped-out wall and clerestory windows break up the simple geometric shape.”—Ty
Elliott Himelfarb and Janet Minker had walked past the featureless Bethesda, Maryland, house hundreds of times but, says Elliott, “There’s something about a ‘for sale’ sign that gets your attention.” They took a second look—and a third—and discovered that hidden behind an uninspiring facade of shiplap siding and orangey bricks was a tidy cube of early 1960s modernism set in a deep lot planted with cherry trees, poplars and dogwoods. Modernist aficionados and devoted gardeners, Janet and Elliott saw the potential that others had missed.
Philippe Starck chairs pull up to another one of Elliott’s creations: a dining table made of gray laminate and pieces of aircraft aluminum.That was in 1986. Over the years, Elliott and Janet tweaked the house— widened the back deck, replaced the shiplap and turned the neglected yard into an English-style garden. Eventually, they began to feel restless and started house-hunting again, but couldn’t find anything nearby that came close to matching their spacious lot and expansive view. So they called in architects Ralph Cunningham and Lee Quill, of Cunningham & Quill Architects in Washington, D.C., whose work they admired, and asked for help turning their old house into something new. “Because of the way the house is sited on the lot, an addition could go 40 or 50 feet back,” says Janet, a self-employed graphic designer. An L-shaped addition was the way to go.
Although the inside remained virtually unchanged except for the rear addition, the front facade got a sweeping makeover. In place of a crumbling brick retaining wall, a sinuous poured-concrete wall—dramatically up-lit at night with low-voltage canisters set into the paving—leads to the house’s front entry. The narrow driveway had always been a logistical nightmare for a two-car family; a double driveway and handsome jutting canopy now make it easy to keep both cars under cover.
The real magic, however, is only visible from the back: a new master suite, perched like a tree house atop the 900-square-foot addition, which includes a workshop on the lower level.
A drawing by artist Jody Mussoff sits on a bedside table, another one of Elliot’s designs.High windows on four sides, floor-to-ceiling windows on the bump-out, and a horizontal window Elliott and Janet call the “mail slot” fill the master bedroom with natural light. “At night we can lie in bed and track the moon through the clerestory windows,” says Elliott. “In the morning we can watch the birds come and go at the bird feeder.” Like the rest of the house, the new master suite is deliberately spare but hardly Spartan. (“We only buy something if both of us really fall in love with it,” says Elliott.) The new bathroom features unobtrusive luxuries like a skylight over the shower and radiant heat under the limestone floors. “It cycles up and down on a timed thermostat,” says Janet. “It may be my favorite part of the whole addition.”
The airy light-filled house is a fitting showcase for Elliott and Janet’s collection of 20th-century furniture classics. What they can’t find, Elliott makes himself in the new workshop. (He works for a Washington insurance and investment firm, but owned a furniture and fine millwork company in a former life.) Updated, expanded and fitting more comfortably than ever before on its site, the house is a 21st-century classic all on its own.