Photographs by Gordon Beall
Written by Candace Ord Manroe
Produced by Eileen A. Deymier
Ellen Conley’s fascination with flames feels primal. “I love the ocean, and just as no two waves are alike, a fire in the fireplace has a similar appeal for me. No two flames are the same.” When she and her husband, Steve, considered moving to a classic circa-1890 house as the final launching pad for their four college-bound children (now in their 20s), a fireplace—or the lack of—presented the sole hitch.
Before deciding, Ellen recruited the family’s longtime designer and friend, Mary Jo Donohoe, and architect Donald Lococo for a walk-through. “Ellen thought the house was perfect except it didn’t have a fireplace in the family room. I assured her there was plenty of space to add one, and that was it. They bought the house,” says Donohoe, who decorated the family’s three previous homes, all a stone’s throw apart on the same block of a neighborhood in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
The latest, purchased in 2007, is more of a departure. “It’s 10 blocks from the others,” notes the designer, amused by her friend’s single-mindedness in neighborhood preference. “I asked Ellen, ‘You’re leaving the block?’ ”
The bigger joke between designer and client is this: “We say to each other, ‘It only needs a fireplace to be perfect.’ Yet two-and-a-half years of renovation later, here we are,” chuckles Donohoe, who was impressed by her clients’ willingness to remain in the house throughout the project. “They’d already lived here a year and didn’t want to move, so they set up a kitchen in the basement and stayed.”
While searching for the ideal antique French fireplace surround, Ellen decided to expand the family room at the same time. Adding 9 feet would provide more room for the large family and their friends to sprawl. And because the family room adjoined the kitchen, it made sense to bump out that space, too, which resulted in a complete gutting and rebuilding to meet Ellen’s exacting standards.
“The room took an odd proportion to make it the size it needed to be for its existing ceiling height, since it had been about a third too small before,” observes Lococo, chosen by the Conleys to execute their vision. Now principal of his own business in Washington D.C., he had worked on the previous owners’ 1997 renovation while employed by another firm.
Inspired by the massive antique fireplace in one of the Conleys’ previous homes, they turned to the same local source, purchasing an 18th-century limestone fireplace surround salvaged from France. Focal point of the family room, it includes an overmantel that soars to the ceiling and required only a bit of cutting to fit.
The family room’s wainscoting was too finely finished for the room’s more casual look, so a local artisan antiqued the paneling for a better match. Drywall above the wainscoting now sports a neutral taupe. The color continues in the living and dining rooms and even on the entry’s Venetian plaster for soothing, seamless cocooning. Salvaged beams, wrought-iron fixtures and curtain rods, and blackened hardware reduce the home’s formality.
New overscale furniture for the family room better fits its enlarged size, and every seating piece is upholstered in a durable mix of indoor-outdoor fabrics and faux suede.
A classicist who loves symmetry but not at the expense of her family’s comfort, Ellen indulged her passion for order and beauty in the dining room—a bit of a challenge, given the room’s octagonal shape. The uncluttered mantel displays a handful of objects symmetrically arranged around a center-hung painting. A new crystal chandelier—sparkly but not ostentatious—prevails as the focal point, hanging low above the center of the table.
To offer budget relief in the living room, the Conleys recycled silk draperies from their previous home; Donohoe lengthened the curtain panels by adding bottom borders. Long-loved living room furniture looks fresh displayed on a new leopard-print carpet.
Continuing their knee-bone’s-connected-to-the-thigh-bone approach, the downstairs expansion led to an upstairs makeover that enlarged the master suite. Dual bathrooms already existed, but the redo enlarged them, too, and provided an excuse for Ellen to personalize hers. “She’s a girlie girl,” says Donohoe. “We monogrammed her vanity chair and secured the pleats with subtle rhinestone buttons.” The luxurious claw-foot tub was already in the house—its use evidence of the Conleys’ practical “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” mind-set.
Then they looked outdoors, beyond the house’s four-square architecture. Porches were enhanced or built to blanket the house with graceful outdoor living spaces. “We added a trellis to the terrace conversation area for a sense of an indoor-outdoor living room,” says Lococo. The space is warmed by an outdoor fireplace, which shares a flue with the antique French fireplace in the adjacent family room.
“We were outdoors this last Thanksgiving,” confirms Ellen.
“This family lives in every room of the house,” says Donohoe. “For a designer, there’s no higher compliment or better feeling.”
Architect: Donald Lococo, Donald Lococo Architects, LLC, 34131⁄2 M St. N.W., Suite A, Washington, DC 20007; 202/337-4422, donaldlococoarchitects.com. Interior designer: Mary Jo Donohoe, MJ Interior Designs, 7204 Glenbrook Road, Bethesda, MD 20814; 301/656-5370.