Steve and Carin Collins chose renovation over moving in part because "we can walk to (downtown) Bethesda," Carin Collins says.
Photo credit: Jonathan Timmes

After moving into his house near downtown Bethesda in 1996, Steve Collins noticed something odd in the basement of the 1922 structure: One of the cinderblock walls had been patched. Comparing it with the home’s exterior wall, he realized there was a hidden space.

“I opened the wall up and stuck my head through,” he says. Inside were a dilapidated copper still and a collection of mason jars. “You never know what you’ll find in an old house,” Collins says.

Old houses are full of charm, but they also can hold a few unpleasant surprises for modern families—including tiny kitchens, inadequate closets and “choppy little rooms,” says Bethesda architect George Myers.

That’s what Steve and Carin Collins realized 10 years ago as their four children, now 20, 18, 15 and 11, were growing older. They were running out of space, but the more they looked at larger houses for sale farther out in the Maryland suburbs, the more they appreciated what they already had. “We owned a large lot and walked to everything,” Steve Collins says. “We finally decided to stay and look into rebuilding or renovating our house.”

They considered tearing down the old house and building a new one, but the couple knew they wanted that “old house feel.” Their home also fit in perfectly with the character of their Battery Park neighborhood, which was established shortly after World War I.

In 2005, the Collinses contacted Myers. They knew him socially, but they also admired his work and felt he understood their needs. “The Collins family was a lot like mine,” Myers says. “They had four kids; we had four kids. Our sons went to school together. We were all living the same crazy life.”

Myers, who established GTM Architects in 1989, worked with the Collinses to design a house with more room and open space wrapped in “a package with a lot of character.” The plan was to renovate the first floor and the attic, and add a two-story extension with a kitchen, family room and offices on the first floor, a bedroom and bath on the second floor, and a playroom and home gym in the basement. The addition would double the interior, resulting in 7,100 square feet of living space.

Because of the home’s age, Myers hired Waldorf builder Stephen Buick, who has 25 years of experience renovating old houses in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area. Buick learned much about his craft working as a carpenter at the U.S. Capitol’s cabinet shop in Washington, D.C. He was employed there in 1983 when a bomb exploded one night near the Senate chamber. Repairing the damage became the carpenters’ focus. “We used the building’s original specs and re-created everything from raw materials so it all looks authentic,” Buick says.

To set the foundation for the Collinses’ addition, Buick’s contractors excavated 70 truckloads of dirt. “The hole was so big, it looked like we were putting up an office building,” Steve Collins says. To quell any “McMansion” fears, he took the architectural drawings to several neighbors to show them how the renovated house would look.

Myers’ goal for any renovation is to make the finished house look like it has always been that way—even when the house is going on 90 years old. “He knew we didn’t want anyone to say, ‘OK, here’s the old house, and now I’m walking into the addition,’ ” Collins says.

To seamlessly blend old and new construction, Myers studies a home’s existing architectural features. “Then I ask myself, ‘If it had been bigger, what would the builder have used? What would he have done?’ ” he says.

For the exterior of the Collinses’ addition, Myers replicated the original home’s Craftsman-style windows, dormers, round columns and cedar shingle siding. For the interior, he matched the five-panel recessed doors elsewhere in the house, as well as the trim on the door and window casings. On the walls with openings wider and thicker than a standard door frame, he added recessed panels that mimicked the doors, as well as additional trim to make the casings proportional to the larger openings. He also used beadboard wainscoting, typical of the 1920s, throughout the house.

“It was really a combination of matching the old house and using the old trims in a new way,” Myers says.

Although the Collinses had signed off on Myers’ and Buick’s general vision for the home’s interior, Carin, in particular, had definite ideas about some of the details. When choosing finishes and fixtures, she wanted to remain true to the home’s original character. “I wanted to transition to modern appliances and conveniences,” she says, “but I wanted to have the house look classic—nothing trendy.”