Design & Home

Before and After: How Two Awkward Rooms Became Light, Bright, and Modern

They're barely recognizable now.
Mary Jo Major did away with the clutter that littered the old space by adding built-in storage to the window alcove. Photograph by Constance Mariena.

Century-old rowhouses are full of cramped rooms and seemingly useless nooks and niches. Here’s how two difficult spaces—both in historic Capitol Hill homes—became bright, modern, and multi-use.

Finding Purpose

The ambiguous, 112-square-foot space just inside this Eastern Market rowhouse’s front door presented a classic design challenge: It had so many different uses, it had lost any clear sense of purpose.

The old space.
The old space. Photograph by Constance Mariena.

Joelle Ballew and her husband—who have two young sons—used it as a drop zone for bags, coats, and mail on the way to the living room. But they also had added a pullout couch so the area could double as a guest room. Complicating things even more, a built-in bar cabinet on the far wall suggested that the odd nook was actually for entertaining. The Ballews were at a loss. “It was such an awkward space” says Joelle.

Hoping a designer could find a solution, they hired Mary Jo Major. The goal: for the space to have more definition and cohesiveness while still retaining its functionality.

Major’s first task was to custom-design a closet, turning a tricky alcove into hidden storage for coats and shoes. After a debate about the bar—Joelle wanted to get rid of it, her husband wanted to keep it—they came to a compromise: covering it with patterned wallpaper to make it less obtrusive, then adding a mirrored console nearby where guests could mix their drinks. A large abstract print from One Kings Lane gave the room a focal point.

To enliven the setting, Major added fun wallpaper, an oversize artwork, and a console for cocktail-mixing.
To enliven the setting, Major added fun wallpaper, an oversize artwork, and a console for cocktail-mixing. Photograph by Constance Mariena.

Keeping the pullout sofa, Major added a pair of ottoman poufs, which can serve as seating or be topped with trays and used as tables. When not needed, the poufs tuck away beneath the console.

A large indoor/outdoor rug stands up to heavy traffic and distinguishes the area from the living room. Accent pillows and a stunning brass light fixture from West Elm were final touches, helping create an airy space that’s barely recognizable from its former setup.

Into the Light

Victorian rowhouses conjure ornate woodwork and dark, formal rooms. Designer Annie Elliott, however, was intent on a new vision for her clients’ lower-level dining area on Capitol Hill.

Annie Elliott brought a lower-level space out of its dark, Victorian-era rut with fresh wallpaper, light tile, and well-proportioned furniture. Photograph by Jenn Verrier.
Annie Elliott brought a lower-level space out of its dark, Victorian-era rut with fresh wallpaper, light tile, and well-proportioned furniture. Photograph by Jenn Verrier.

 

The space played to the stuffy stereotype, with deep-red walls and heavy furniture. A beautiful fireplace, original to the 19th-century rowhouse, got lost in visual clutter that included white chair rails and dated black-and-white floor tile. “It felt closed, which it shouldn’t have, given the amount of light coming in,” Elliott says.

The original lower-level space. Photograph by Jenn Verrier.
The original lower-level space. Photograph by Jenn Verrier.

The designer had already decorated several of the house’s other rooms, and her clients—a retired couple—gave her carte blanche to transform this one. “It had to be a comfortable, multi-use space,” Elliott says. “That was our direction.”

She papered the walls with a fanciful pattern of birds and greenery, pulling inspiration from the English-style garden just outside the windows. New porcelain floor tile, resembling pale, creamy-gold limestone, further brightened the room. Elliot got rid of a bulky radiator cover and eight-inch-deep windowsills in the niche, making room for a plush settee and side table.

This desk gives the couple a dedicated spot to work and pay bills. Photograph by Jenn Verrier.
This desk gives the couple a dedicated spot to work and pay bills. Photograph by Jenn Verrier.

Because her clients wanted the space to fill a variety of roles, she paired a whimsical round table with skirted upholstered chairs that “are not overtly dining chairs.” She also managed to fit in a desk, giving the couple a dedicated spot to work or pay bills, because their upstairs living room and library didn’t have one.

One of the owners’ must-keep items was the large, dark china cabinet. To make it less dominant, Elliott moved it to a wider wall and lined the backs of the shelves with grass cloth. “Without that, the piece was very heavy,” she says. Now the items on display pop from their lighter background.

Elliot kept the original Victorian fireplace as the room's focal point. Photograph by Jenn Verrier.
Elliot kept the original Victorian fireplace as the room’s focal point. Photograph by Jenn Verrier.

And that original fireplace? The room’s only distinctly Victorian feature is finally the focal point it always should have been.

This article appeared in the July 2018 issue of Washingtonian.

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Assistant Editor

Hayley is an Assistant Editor at Washingtonian Bride & Groom and Washingtonian. Previously she was the the Style Editor at The Local Palate, a Southern food culture magazine based out of Charleston, South Carolina. She currently resides in Bloomingdale. You can follow her on instagram @wandertaste.