When Colman and Richard Riddell bought a tiny house in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., that was once a 19th-century stable, they knew they were becoming the latest caretakers of a piece of history.
The 1,700-square-foot home began life in the 1850s as the carriage house and stables for the mansion next door. The red brick property, tucked beside a quiet alley, was converted into a two-story, three-bedroom residence in 1923. Over the past 90 years, residents have left clues behind: terra cotta religious tiles, red and green stained-glass windows and two second-floor Juliet balconies that open into a double-height living room.
Colman, a designer, says all the different styles gave her creative license inside the house. “You don’t feel obligated to honor any kind of covenant or any sort of design since everyone along the way has left their mark,” she says. “It frees you up to do interesting things.”
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Colman’s solution for a house big on charm but skimpy on space: Give each room a jolt of personality. Or as she calls it, “a big wow factor.” She created comfortable spaces for her family of four with dramatic surprises throughout:
• Snakeskin print vinyl wallpaper on the kitchen walls and ceiling.
•- Oversize pink wing chair in her daughter’s tiny bedroom.
• Army of painted Chinese chests bought during a year living in Beijing. They add warmth and sorely needed storage.
Look around and you’ll see her bold brush strokes everywhere: an antelope head from eBay, black-and-white awning stripe wallpaper in the powder room and instead of flowers, a vase of kale on the bar.
Colman, 44, and her husband, Richard, 52, a partner in Well Oiled Wine Co., a Leesburg, Va., wine importer, son Kane, 12, and daughter Elizabeth, 7, moved to Georgetown from Waterford, Va., in 2011. They loved country life. But when Kane was accepted to the McLean School in Potomac, Md., they knew they had to move closer to the school.
They searched for a small house in Georgetown, knowing space would be sacrificed for location. “I wanted something unusual, not the standard town house,” Colman says. She had grown up in Georgetown and her parents still live there.
By chance, an intriguing little house she had passed by for years was on the market. “I was always curious about the place. When I got inside, I was shocked to see the fantastic double height living room.”
The square footage was less than half of their Waterford place, but it had all the proper rooms: The first floor had a foyer, living room, den, dining room, kitchen and powder room; upstairs were three bedrooms and two bathrooms.
They bought it.
Colman had used neutral colors for walls, furniture and floors in her old house, and went with the same plan.
“I call my style neutral-with-artifacts,” she says. Walls were painted Benjamin Moore Dove Wing and Farrow & Ball Charleston Gray. Cream and taupe sofas and chairs were regrouped. Beige and brown herringbone sisal rugs in the major rooms tie the spaces together. With two kids and a dog, the textured weave and pattern make spills and accidents less obvious.
Most of the decorating budget went for lighting. “I love to use large fixtures in smaller rooms that have no focal point,” Colman says. The 60-inch-wide gold-washed wood chandelier (Mansion by Currey & Company) is an example. “The fixture needed to be massive to be noticed in this room with a 22-foot ceiling,” Colman says. “It makes it cozy.”
The kitchen got a minor face-lift when she painted wood cabinets white and replaced counters with honed sugar white marble. The eye candy is Visual Comfort’s Trillion crystal chandelier. “I wanted something glamorous as I spend a lot of time in here,” Colman says.
There is lots of documented history, as well as legends and lore, associated with the house. The stable-carriage house was just one of the outbuildings wealthy Georgetown businessman Richard Pettit constructed for himself in the 1850s. Around 1923, the stable was subdivided and renovated into two small houses.
Former D.C. TV anchor Tracey Neale owned both houses for 10 years. Neale said in an email that she had heard the Riddells’ house was owned or used by a religious group at one time. She occasionally found nuns praying in front of the religious tile embedded in the home’s exterior. There were also stories that the stained-glass windows had come from the Iranian Embassy.
The Riddells are leaving their own stamp. Kane is drawing ninja battles and skateboard logos on his bedroom walls that are coated with Benjamin Moore chalkboard paint. Colman is thinking about adding rustic beams to the living room.
Meanwhile, more surprises might be in store. This house, Neale wrote in an email, was always full of “history and mystery.”