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Living With History

County awards honor work that keeps historic homes livable.

Old homes may creak at night, but as home prices rise across the county and around the region, Arlington homeowners are finding lots of reasons to stay in their homes — some are creating their own reasons, reasons that win awards for their innovation.

Last Monday, the county’s Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board named five winners for its sixth annual Preservation Design Awards. The awards are designed to highlight renovation projects around Arlington that modernize and expand homes while still honoring the buildings’ historic origins.

Living in a historic home does not have to tie homeowners’ hands, said Cynthia Liccese-Torres, historic preservation planner for the county. In a county filled with Craftsman homes from the 1920s, garden apartments from the 1940s and ramblers from the 1950s, she said, the awards “show how you can use these historic building types and still adapt to suit the needs of modern living.”

Competition for such awards increases year by year as homes become more expensive, said architect Charles Moore, of Alexandria firm Moore Architects. He and his firm have won two preservation awards over the last two years, along with five honorable mentions.

“People are saying, ‘I can’t afford to move,’” and come to an architect to turn their old house into the house of their dreams, he said.

<b>OFTEN, HOWEVER,</b> there’s something about their house they love, and want to add on to that. “Generally, I like to find what’s worthwhile to save,” said Moore.

Douglas Bennett and Mary Weaver wanted to save almost everything. Bennett and Weaver won the Preservation Design Award for Major Residential addition for the kitchen space they added onto their North Nelson Street home, which started life in the 1950s as a stone rambler.

Architect Milo Meacham, an earlier resident, had converted much of the interior walls to glass. Working with Meacham, Bennett and Weaver added space to the kitchen and replaced much of the kitchen’s walls with glass. “We put in a turret of glass that is a breakfast nook,” said Bennett.

It was a two-year project, which meant blocking off half the house with plywood and setting up a temporary kitchen in a guest bedroom with a sink and a refrigerator. “I got very familiar with my George Foreman Grill,” said Bennett.

<b>BEFORE BEGINNING</b> work, he and Weaver took their time studying how people moved in and around the kitchen. “I’m a lobbyist, and I do political events a lot,” said Bennett. “We wanted to know how traffic flowed.

In the end, the time was worth it. “The goal was, nothing above the waist except glass,” he said. Standing with back to the refrigerator, he said, a cook can now look out over counters and have an unobstructed view of Nelson Street.

“ The unique thing about our project was how few square feet were added,” said Bennett. “It was not to add space. It was to make more efficient and attractive the existing space.”

<b>EXISTING SPACE</b> was sparse for David Griffin, but he was attracted to keeping a long-time home in a comfortable neighborhood. Griffin and his wife, working with Moore, won the Preservation Design Award for Major Residential Addition.

“We used this as an opportunity to rethink how the house looked,” said Griffin.

They started with a house on North Oakland Street, in the Maywood neighborhood, where many of the neighboring homes are Craftsman Arts and Crafts homes. But Griffin lived in a 660-square-foot 1950s brick colonial. “As Charlie Moore said, a 1950s hamburger,” said Griffin. “You can do anything you want with it.”

Griffin bought the house in the early 1990s, before he was married. After marriage, he and his wife considered moving. “My wife and I said we would like to live in an Arts and Crafts home,” said Griffin. “But we were shocked at what the prices were.”

<b>INSTEAD, THEY DECIDED</b> to take advantage of their “1950s hamburger,” and add toppings: a second story, with extra bedrooms and living space. They created their own version of a Craftsman bungalow. “I’m a graphic designer, so design matters a lot to me,” Griffin said.

Added to increased kitchen space, engineered with Moore two years ago, they more than doubled the space in the house. “It’s a modern interpretation of Arts and Crafts,” said Griffin. “It’s still a little house, but that’s what we wanted. We have a beautiful backyard, and we didn’t want to encroach on it.”

There’s little remaining of the original home inside, though. “There’s an original ‘50s pink bathroom, which we held onto,” to remind them of the house’s origins, said Griffin.

<b>EXPANSION OF GRIFFIN’S HOME</b> has been on several local design awards lists, said Moore. “We just won a DC [branch of the American Institute of Architects] Washingtonian award, a Northern Virginia AIA award, and an award from Remodeling magazine.”

The secret of that success is looking at the source material and finding what should stay, he said. “We look at a lot of terrible houses. The ones built from 1960 back … are either great foundations for a full house renovation, or there’s a lot of neat stuff to work with.”

Either way, he said, a good redevelopment will take its shape from the original house rather than tearing everything down and starting all over.

That’s why the Bennett house is an example of how redevelopment doesn’t have to antagonize neighbors, said Moore. “A lot of [redevelopment] work is not well done, and it’s too big.”

Much of that construction is just designed by builders, he said, not by architects, and it emphasizes size over style. “They’re just building mass,” said Moore. “I can create 3,000-square-foot houses without antagonizing the neighborhood.”