A sculptural staircase defined by welded-steel plates wends its way to a future roof deck. A light-filled kitchen by Contemporaria combines Cesar cabinetry and an anigre wood island.
The new open plan flows between living spaces.
The dramatic stair leads to the third-floor owners’ suite.
Designer Sandy Despres Stevens placed muted furnishings from B&B Italia in front of a handcrafted steel fireplace wall.
European white oak paneling adds warmth to the bedroom’s inner walls, which are bathed in light from clerestory windows.
The bath is detailed with flooring and walls clad in porcelain tile from ITT Ceramic and a freestanding Signature Hardware tub.
The historic exterior shows two matching bays.
Removing the party wall between adjoining dwellings freed space for a custom dining table by Thos. Moser; a floating partition conceals a second renovated staircase and a “wine wall.”
The complexity of a whole-house renovation was increased exponentially in a townhouse reinvention near Washington’s Logan Circle. That’s because the owners, Sharon H. Russ and David Rubin, had just expanded their domestic real estate holdings by one adjoining historic row house. With an active family and professional responsibilities—she is a consultant, he is a managing director at Deloitte—they had longed for more space. When the opportunity arose to purchase the property next door, the couple jumped on it.
But as Russ points out, they knew they might move out one day. The task they presented to architect Salo Levinas: Join the two dwellings for now, but preserve future resale value.
“The houses were joined, but with the possibility of separating them,” explains Levinas, principal of Shinberg.Levinas, a multi-disciplinary Washington practice. “The challenge was to create one large unit that you could close tomorrow and have separate units that would work perfectly well.”
Preservation requirements dictated that the historic façades remain unchanged, including the two front doors; the owners use the door to their original end unit. Inside, the architect envisioned a modernized, four-level home encompassing 4,200 square feet and including five bedrooms, four full baths, a study and a family room. Two lower-level rental units were also renovated.
On the main floor, Levinas established an expanded envelope for entertaining. By taking down party walls and moving one staircase, he created wide open spaces defined by off-white gallery walls. Calibrated shafts of daylight from repositioned skylights and existing clerestory windows bounce off polished European white oak flooring. Behind those walls, double the wiring and plumbing was installed, in case the units need to be walled off again and another kitchen is required.
The floor plan and architectural features subtly respect the former division between spaces. The doubled living room now boasts two handcrafted steel fireplaces—one for each downsized unit. It took even more finesse to accommodate two complete staircases. Levinas gave each its own strong sense of individuality; one, newly fashioned in the owners’ original row house, winds up from the kitchen in a coil of steel. The architect calls this his “statement” staircase; its counterpart in the acquired home was demolished in favor of a straight flight with open risers, separated from the adjacent dining area by a suspended partition. Levinas found room for a nifty “wine wall” beneath the stairs.
For furnishings, Russ turned to Sandy Despres Stevens, a New York-based French designer then working under the name Decopostale. “Our goal was to bring a contemporary but warm feeling to the home,” says Despres Stevens, now CEO of the New York office of Jean-Philippe Nuel, a Paris designer of hospitality and residential interiors. “As it is a narrow space with a lot of circulation, we needed to find the right balance in furniture proportions and materials to achieve a clean design that is comfortable and livable.”
Deborah Kalkstein of Contemporaria designed the sparkling kitchen, where Italian Cesar cabinetry hides every possible appliance. “The kitchen is open to the entrance so it becomes a very important part of the two houses,” she remarks.
The upper floors are enlivened by floor-to-ceiling windows across the backs of both houses, where there are no preservation requirements. The boys sleep on the second floor, encompassing two rooms and a bath on either side of the former party wall. The third floor houses a sleek owners’ suite on one side and an office, guest room and bath on the other; natural wood paneling lines the walls, closets and hallway, which culminates in a glamorous owners’ bath. The ceiling was lifted to 13 feet by borrowing space from the attic.
The family moved out during construction. When the dust settled just before the pandemic, Russ, Rubin and their two teenage boys returned to a transformed home. On the serene main floor, walls provide space for displaying bold art. In the dining room, for example, a slanted wall creates a niche that frames a Renée Rendine sculpture made of crocheted fishing line. Says Levinas, “We don’t treat these rooms like boxes, but as sculpture.”
You gutted one townhouse and retrofitted another. How tricky is that?
Salo Levinas: In remodeling an old house, you don’t know what is hidden; the floors are not straight, the bricks are not completely aligned. With craftsmanship, you are able to do it. The partnership is crucial. Fortunately, we chose a contractor with craftsmen who know our expectations and were able to meet them. This kind of job requires people who have pride in the construction.
How important is budgeting?
As a design firm, we are very conscious of budgets. The architect has the responsibility to manage the budget, not to communicate false expectations to the client. If they spend so much money on planning, you can’t build. You have to start with an honest relationship.
Is designing a home a bonding experience?
Everything is designed by our firm. We treat the house as a whole. To go into detail, to engage with the client in a tight, tight relationship—that I really enjoy.
Renovation Architecture: Salo Levinas, AIA, principal, and Paola Lugli, project architect, Shinberg.Levinas, Washington, DC. Interior Design: Sandy Despres Stevens, Decopostale, New York, New York. Kitchen Design: Deborah Kalkstein, Contemporaria, Potomac, Maryland. Contractor: Czecher Construction, Woodbridge, Virginia.