A historic row house gets a fresh attitude in this smart remodel
A stroll through the historic Capitol Hill neighborhood proves that even in high-powered Washington, D.C., politics isn’t the only game in town. Teens play softball in a park surrounded by historic row houses, restaurants, and coffee shops. Bicyclists toting groceries in backpacks head home from the Eastern Market, the oldest fresh-food market in D.C. Everywhere, people are on the streets—walking home from school, from work, or to a major league baseball game at the nearby Nationals Park that’s an architectural home run.
“It’s like living in a small town in the big city,” says Karen Sealander. The amenities and recent reawakening of this neighborhood are what inspired Karen and her husband, Winfield, to renovate their 1890s Capitol Hill row house not once, but twice.
Like the neighborhood, their house has had its ups and downs. When the Sealanders bought it in the late 1980s, the three-level brick structure was painted “ugly brown,” and the front yard was concrete. “It was totally dilapidated, a real eyesore,” says Winfield. The house was built as a single-family residence but—like many in the area—had been converted to a rooming house in the 1940s, when there was a housing shortage.
“I originally bought the house for speculation,” says Winfield, “but when Karen saw it, she liked the fact that it was within walking distance of work, church, a fabulous elementary school (Capitol Hill Day School), and extracurricular activities for the children, including dance, choir, and sports programs. Plus, there were nearby corner grocery stores and restaurants.
“We moved to the Hill [from Alexandria, Virginia] because we both worked in the city and, with the arrival of our daughter Olivia, we wanted to put down roots and become more home-centered.”
The Sealanders gutted and restored the house to suit their growing family’s needs (a second daughter, Caroline, was born soon after the move) and created space for a live-in au pair suite and a separate two-bedroom rental unit on the lower level. “The renovation was designed with an eye for resale at some future date,” says Winfield, who is a real estate manager and developer.
Flash forward 18 years: Daughters Olivia and Caroline are college age (or close), and the former au pair suite and rental are no longer occupied. “By this time our family was deeply rooted in Capitol Hill, and we couldn’t imagine living anywhere else,” Karen explains. “We had raised our children with our neighbors, and staying on the Hill was important to us.”
It was then that Winfield happened to meet District architectural and interior designer Mary Douglas Drysdale at an area millwork shop. He was impressed with her innovative solutions and invited her to look at their house.
“It started out as a kitchen renovation,” says Drysdale, but as the designer walked the rooms, she saw bigger issues. “When I first went in, it felt like a small house with a collection of very small rooms that were not communicating well. They were so full that you didn’t get the fact that there were gracious proportions underneath. The circulation of the house was very poor,” she relates.
The house was basically one-room wide, with rooms stacked front to back. A narrow staircase in the front hall connected the main living level with the bedrooms upstairs. Tucked underneath the main staircase was a steep and dangerous 21-inch-wide staircase to the lower level.
The connections (or lack of) between rooms made it difficult to limit the project to a kitchen redo, Drysdale explains. Gradually, a whole-house renovation evolved that included adding two staircases (one in the front and one in the back of the house), removing walls, enlarging doorways, and adding columns and moldings on the main level to create flow and make rooms seem spacious.
Building on Karen’s love of blue and white, Drysdale introduced a soft blue, off-white, and crisp spring-green palette that visually opens rooms and introduces a fresh attitude while staying true to the Federal style of the house. New wood floors were installed throughout the main level and stained in a classic checkerboard pattern.
The 18-month-long project began at the back of the house with the family’s primary access—a dilapidated wood exterior staircase from a ground-level patio to the kitchen on the main level. In order to create a more functional and welcoming rear entrance, Drysdale eliminated the exterior stairs and converted the lower-level former au pair room into a mudroom. An interior staircase was added to connect the mudroom with the kitchen above, dramatically improving the rear entrance and accessibility to both levels. But Drysdale wasn’t done.
A front bay window offered an ideal location for a winding staircase that connects the living and dining rooms to the lower level. With the downstairs now easily accessed, the area was transformed into a family room-library and a bedroom suite for Olivia. “Putting those two staircases in absolutely changed the house,” Drysdale says. “They really improved the feeling of and accessibility to all the spaces and made the traffic patterns very circular. ”
To gain desperately needed square footage for the 9-foot-wide kitchen and breakfast area, the Sealanders eliminated a powder room and were granted a variance for a narrow (about 7x14-foot) two-level addition on one side of the house.
In the front room, Drysdale removed walls and enlarged doorways, converting a cramped living room and formal dining room into a light-filled “double living room.” New columns and crown moldings play up the 11-foot-high ceilings. To eliminate the expense of detailed crown moldings (“Every project has a budget, and millwork is expensive,” Drysdale explains), trim was embellished with stenciled tone-on-tone motifs that mimic ornate millwork.
Stencil work continues with a small, abstract flowerlike motif in three shades of green on walls around the bay window staircase and on one side of the entry. Green and blue painted stripes march along the front hall and up the main staircase, accentuating the area’s height and referencing the spring-green accents in the double living room. “I was interested in bringing the spaces together so they felt bigger,” Drysdale says. “Each of these rooms borrows space from the next room. The biggest success was transforming what felt like a small house into one that feels open.”
The Sealanders agree. The open and light-filled house nurtures plenty of quality family time. But perhaps the biggest success is living in a “like-new” house in a historic neighborhood they love.
Photography: Ron Blunt
Architectural and interior design: Mary Douglas Drysdale, Drysdale Inc., 2026 R St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009; 202/588-0700, drysdaleinc.com .
Table (“Celestial Round Table” #B8012-20/Medium Walnut): Barbara Barry Realized by Henredon, barbarabarryco.com .
Silk window treatment (#89024-88 in Champage): Duralee, 800/275-3872, duralee.com .
Green silk stripe window treatment (“Lamballe Silk Stripe”/Kiwi #BR-82383-416): Brunschwig & Fils, 800/538-1880, brunschwig.com .
Floor (custom, diagonal two-tone floor pattern): Tom Hickey, Rising Tide Inc. Decorative Contracting, 443/204-4177, risingtideinc.us .
Side chair: owner’s collection.
Chair fabric (#32085-140 in Winter): Duralee, 800/275-3872, duralee.com .
Faux-grained front door: Tom Hickey, Rising Tide Inc. Decorative Contracting, 443/204-4177, risingtideinc.us .
Columns and a stenciled motif at the crown molding provide architectural impact. The pedestal table from Barbara Barry Realized by Henredon doubles as a dining table.
Entry Hall Details
Curvaceous antique vases and a bouquet of freshly cut calla lilies adorn a glazed chest in the entry hall.
BEFORE Front Rooms
An arched doorway used to serve as the entrance into the dining area. Drysdale was concerned about restricted circulation between rooms.
AFTER Front Rooms
Removing a wall between the dining and living rooms created a spacious “double living room.”
Designer Mary Douglas Drysdale combined an abstract painting by Maryanne Pollock with the traditionally trimmed fireplace, establishing the designer’s affinity for mixing modern and classic styles.
A cream chair with brass rivets sits below a pair of watercolors by Maryanne Pollock. The playful striped pillow matches the bright chartreuse of the walls.
A tall secretary Drysdale designed is flanked by blue china plates, creating a colorful focal point visible from the front entry.
Living Room Details
Hot pink roses pop against the green secretary and the classic blue and white of the china.
Living Room Details
The graceful curves of the secretary designed by Mary Douglas Drysdale bring subtle sophistication to the living room. Hand-painted details ensure that the piece stands out against the bright walls of similar hue.
BEFORE Kitchen & Breakfast Room
The kitchen felt cramped with an island squeezed into the already-tight space.
AFTER Kitchen & Breakfast Room
A hallway leads from the front door to the back of the house, passing through the kitchen and into the breakfast room. Counter seating and a large table allow the family to gather when preparing meals.
The island top curves inward on the side near the Thermador range to maximize floor space for multiple cooks.
Drysdale designed the hand-painted secretary to conceal the TV.
Art by Cindy Kane above the breakfast room banquette adds lively color.
BEFORE Kitchen & Breakfast Room
The existing kitchen was just 9 feet wide. “It was a bowling alley,” says Drysdale.
AFTER Kitchen & Breakfast Room
An addition bumped out the kitchen several feet on one side and allowed for a large center island and more seating space in the breakfast room. Wine is stored in cubbies below the island and across from the bar area. To improve the home’s rear entrance, an interior stairway that leads to a ground-level mudroom was added.
A secondary sink eases meal preparation time, especially with multiple cooks in the kitchen.
Karen Sealander’s prized blue-and-white dishes look at home in an antique pine cupboard.
Oranges look stunning nestled in the blue-and-white bakeware.
The narrow two-level addition that allowed for a bigger kitchen also provided space for a sleeping niche in the lower-level bedroom, made cozy with matching blue toile bed cover and bed curtains, and a fabric wall covering.
Blue Bedroom Details
Bright flowers freshen the blue toile wall covering from Duralee. A porthole mirror hangs above.
Framed antique quilt fragments hang above the Federal-style settee upholstered in Clarke & Clarke “Ascot” in Mermaid blue.
Family Room Details
A collection of quilts from Bellwether Dry Goods is stored on built-in shelves. The dusty blues of the family room are warmed by the antique desk, a family heirloom.
Rich chocolate tones rule the master bedroom. A geometric bedspread stands out against a lofty riveted headboard.
Master Bedroom Sitting Area
A Hickory Chair pedestal table in the bay window offers an inviting sitting spot. Roman shades in Duralee winter white and the Merida sisal rug provide peaceful backdrops.
Many Capitol Hill homes were built between 1890 and 1905 for the growing number of government workers moving into the District. In the mid-1950s, residents began heading to the suburbs, and Capitol Hill housing went into a decline, culminating in fiery riots in 1968. In the ’70s and ’80s, homeowners started buying the rundown structures and returning them to single-family residences. Businesses grew, and public parks are now centers of community activities.
Karen, Winfield, and Caroline Sealander are loyal boosters of the Capitol Hill neighborhood.