A long, loving renovation is sparked by the desire for a working fireplace
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.”
Photography: Gordon Beall
Produced by Eileen A. Deymier
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.
What had started as the desire for a fireplace grew into a comprehensive remodel, although the previous owners had already done some updating. The beautiful staircase, for instance, had once been boxed in, but was renovated to give the front hall a more expansive feeling prior to the Conley’s purchase.
Existing Venetian plaster in the entry was recolored to match the Farrow & Ball “Dolphin” neutral used in adjoining rooms.
BEFORE Family Room
The original family room and the new, enlarged one share the same ceiling height, but the similarities end there.
AFTER Family Room
The antique fireplace (circa 1740) is a stunning focal point in the family room. The room’s new iron lamps, chandelier, and metal coffee tables are all from Formations. Salvaged ceiling beams added architectural interest. “I used beams in a gridwork that worked with the style of the doors and fireplace,” explains architect Donald Lococo.
The small, formal living room at the front of the house was improved with the addition of French doors that lead to a charming outdoor dining area. A new leopard-print Stark carpet updates the room.
BEFORE Dining Room
The previous owners added French doors to quaint dining room.
AFTER Dining Room
The eight-sided dining room adds a special fillip to gatherings around the table. Under the Niermann Weeks chandelier, whose shape is outlined in crystals, sits a fanciful tablescape featuring Ellen Conley’s collection of Herend dinnerware and figurines.
BEFORE Breakfast Room
The countertop in the old kitchen broke up the room, but the addition to the back of the house allowed the Conleys to completely renovate and open up the space.
AFTER Breakfast Room
Two steps up from the family room, the breakfast area is bathed in light from new windows that also repeat the unusual grid of the house’s original windows.
In the kitchen, a window above the sink was high on Ellen’s wish list. This window embraces the historic language of the original windows, notes architect Lococo. The massive island, stained in a delightful chocolaty-brown, serves as the focal point of the kitchen work area.
BEFORE Master Bedroom
The remodel included a freshening up of the master bedrooms.
AFTER Master Bedroom
A Nancy Corzine four-poster is flanked by Niermann Weeks side tables custom-designed to match some that appeared in a dream Ellen had. A chaise in front of windows dressed in Manuel Canovas panels is topped with Jim Thompson silk pillows.
A chic chaise is accented with patterned pillows covered in silk.
The claw-foot tub was already in the house when the Conleys moved in. They kept the luxurious tub as part of the glamorous remodeled bathroom.
The original tub remains in the updated bathroom. A cafe curtain on a rod wider than the windows mixes up the lines along the bathtub wall to add interest. Ann Sacks semiprecious gem tiles in a mosaic pattern create art underfoot.
Ellen’s graceful monogram is embroidered in the same color as the dressing table chair.
Ellen Conley’s classicism is evident at the sink, where a pair of sconces balance the gilded mirror.
Throughout the renovation, one of the goals was to provide easy access to the outdoor living areas like this one. Porch Designer Mary Jo Donohoe punctuated the outdoor dining area and terrace with refreshing accents of blue in the upholstery fabric. “The Conleys love to use the porches for dining, and especially for watching their recently added flat-screen TV,” she says.
The Conley house is a great example of teamwork on a redesign. Together, the clients, the architect and the interior designer were able to give new life to a grand old house.