In November 2020, Port Of Harlem will celebrate 25 years of publication. As we count down to our birthday, we will republish some of our most popular articles from our print issues. Thanks for subscribing and inviting others to join you in supporting our inclusive, diverse, pan-African publication - - now completely online. We originally published this article in the Aug 2006 - Oct 2006 print issue.
I was elated when I got the news that This Old House, the leading media authority on home-improvement and renovation, had chosen me to be the architect for the Washington Project. The house they charged me to help renovate was a 2,950-square-foot single-family townhouse built around 1879 in a neighborhood named for Civil War Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commander of the 54th Massachusetts (Colored) Volunteer Infantry. The neighborhood grew out of freed slave encampments in what was then the rural outskirts of Washington City. The area had been hub of African-American cultural life since the late 19th century.
When I first saw the house, I found a dilapidated two-story row house occupied by squatters and crack addicts. Intense fires had blackened the inside brick, scarred the joists, and caused major structural damage.
In many ways, the house was typical of many others I have worked on in the city. Despite the building’s appearance, it was structurally solid and I envisioned turning this eyesore into a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home with exposed brick, dramatic lighting, new windows, and updated amenities.
With only a $200,000 budget and $100,000 in donated materials and items purchased at specialty construction auctions, I designed the home's interior so that those who arrive through the front door enter the living room, the most formal of rooms. As one moves toward the rear of the house, the intended functions of the rooms become less formal, ending originally with the kitchen.
As in the original floor plan, I designed a wall to run parallel to the exterior wall to create a hallway. The wall prevents guests from viewing the entire first floor upon arrival. This layout gives the homeowner the chance to direct guests into the room where the owner wants the guest to go; therefore, helping to make the house the owner’s sanctuary.
To update the house, I added modern amenities like a fully appointed kitchen, central air, first floor powder room, laundry room, and lots of closet space. The trend is to layout homes in a manner that will save the occupant’s time. Therefore, staff architect June Riley designed the laundry room on the second floor near the bedrooms where the owners will keep their clothes.
The original basement had a dirt floor and only six-foot ceiling height. We removed about a foot of dirt from the basement by hand and poured a concrete slab to make the basement habitable.
With only a $200,000 budget and $100,000 in donated materials and items purchased at specialty construction auctions, I designed the home's interior so that those who arrive through the front door enter the living room, the most formal of rooms.
Our biggest challenge, however, was father time. We only had one month to design, complete construction documents, and get a building permit, and three and a half months for project construction. As with most projects, the owners requested a design change as the project leaped from paper into reality.
As the house was taking form, the owners wanted to move the kitchen, which was in the back of the house, to the space occupied by the family room, which was in the middle of the house. The owners thought that if someone added onto the house at a later date, they would prefer adding onto a family room instead of a kitchen.
Architecturally, the problem was that I had to move the electrical and plumbing system and redesign the kitchen layout. With already limited time, we had to work overtime to get this project completed on time. The completed project, however, was the custom designed home that the owners and I envisioned.