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The Journey to Convert a Vintage Carriage Shed into a Modern Classic

To get their dream home, the Montgomery County family had to partially demolish and rebuild the 1909 structure

The owners wanted an L-shaped house, which included a central courtyard.
The owners wanted an L-shaped house, which included a central courtyard. (Jennifer Hughes)

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Ten years ago, Lee and Jen Odess purchased a 1970s hiker with a leaky basement in the special tax district known as the City of Oakmont, which sits off Georgetown Road in Bethesda.

They sold the house in 2015 and moved to Florida for a job opportunity, but Oakmont called them home. The convoluted journey took a while, but eventually brought them to a modern home that started life as a vintage 1909 carriage house.

The family, which includes two children, returned to Bethesda in 2018 and started looking for something to buy. “We spent six months in a rental house hunting,” says Jen, 42. “I knew I wanted an L-shaped house, and I knew I wanted a super modern house.” The family considered buying an “L” shaped mid-century modern house in Florida and the idea stuck. She and her husband Lee, 45, both work as tech executives.

The odds of finding a modern L-shaped home in Bethesda seemed remote, so the family called Colleen Healey, director of DC-based Colleen Healey Architecture, to begin looking into teardown possibilities. Healey had known the owners personally for years and was candid with them about their limited options. “I said to them, ‘Given your budget, we’re going to have to find a lot of things that no one else wants, make a deal, and then figure out how to be creative,'” Healey explains.

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Scrolling through the lists, Jen landed on a possibility. “The house was stuck in time on a funky shaped lot and the price was low,” she says. The lot housed a shed that years earlier had been converted to living space via a rear addition. It sits on the street slightly behind what was once the estate’s main house and is bordered by seven surrounding properties. Healey gave the thumbs up and the purchase was made in 2019 for $615,000.

The Town of Oakmont was formed in 1918 by three neighbors who wanted municipal services brought to what was then a remote section of Montgomery County. Oliver Owen Kuhn, editor of the Evening Star, was one of the founders. Washington Senators pitching ace Walter “Big Train” Johnson lived nearby, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had friends in the neighborhood. The town is two streets long and consists of approximately 60 houses spread over 18½ acres. The city has a design review board that discourages “mansionization”, but found no problem with the Odess family’s unconventional plans.

The design quickly hatched in about six months when Healey and Jen decided to keep a red maple on the side of the property and three walls of the shed. The addition would be demolished and rebuilt. A “galley” leaves at 90 degrees and connects a new section. The L-shape creates a courtyard used as an outdoor entertainment area and a play area for children.

Demolition began in September 2019 as the family planned to be in their new home before the end of their two-year lease. Six months later, the pandemic hits. Principals of Cabin John Builders, based in Cabin John, Maryland, who are also friends of the owners, signed on as crew and quickly began to climb the learning curve associated with modern design. “Modern detailing needs to be done at the structural level before it gets to the finishes,” says Healey.

Delays began to affect the project and living conditions when the family realized they would have to vacate the rental before the new house was completed. They moved in with Lee’s parents for a while, then put away the family vehicle and began a road trip around Florida, stopping at Airbnbs so the kids could take online lessons. Life on the road lasted about eight weeks until the builders and owners agreed that the house was complete enough to occupy.

The driveway runs along what was once the estate’s main house and ends at what was once the front of the coach house. The circular porthole window was part of the existing structure. The large window that overlooks the kitchen was once a horse-sized entrance. Although the shed may have been demolished, there was a strategy to leave it in place.

“People probably thought we were crazy to keep it all together,” Healey says. “For zoning reasons, we were able to stay further forward, about four feet, because we kept parts of it.” A wall in the shed was removed and replaced with a glass wall overlooking the courtyard. The roof was raised and angled into a shed configuration, which made room for clerestory windows.

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The front door to the house is on the side of the driveway and opens into a hall. There is a mud room to the right and a small office to the left. The great room is just ahead. Originally, the family had planned to separate the living space from the dining room and kitchen with a wooden slat divider, but plans changed. The kitchen is to the right with the butler’s pantry tucked behind the back wall of the kitchen.

The main living area is within the original coach house walls. The space that was once the addition has been rebuilt into two children’s bedrooms, each with its own full bathroom. There is also a relaxation area and a shower room. The floors in the old section are all poured concrete.

The kitchen is defined by an island with three seating areas and gray lacquered low cabinets below. The stove and refrigerator, both from Jenn Air, are framed in an integrated wall unit that includes a line of upper cabinets. The sink faces the exterior wall, which is lined with a row of whitewashed oak base cabinets. All cabinets were from Downsview Kitchens, based in Ontario, Canada. The island and countertops are a mix of polished black granite and white Corian.

The back wall of the great room is lined with wooden slats that lead guests into the gallery, which functions as a hallway leading to the new section of the house. At the start of the design phase, the gallery was to be entirely glazed, but the plans have been reduced and it is now lined with wooden slats. The new section is on two levels, the lower level being dedicated to a guest suite. Upstairs is the master suite, which includes an office, bedroom, and walk-in closet leading to the master bathroom. The main bathroom has a separate toilet and a three-headed walk-in shower. A skylight illuminates the space.

The master suite offers quiet respite and an excellent view of the red maple that survived the renovation process. The exterior color selections are a mix of bold hues and black, leading one of the neighbors to ask the owners if they were building a funeral home. Not counting the sarcastic comment, the quirky neighborhood that once turned on the streetlights with a switch on the porch of one of the original residents accepted the newcomer.

“It’s unexpected. It feels like a very small space, and then it opens up to you,” says Healey.

“It’s so different for the neighborhood. They can see that there are different ways to renovate and different ways to upgrade. There are other answers and other ways of living.

The owners have chosen not to disclose renovation costs and concede that their price per square foot is high compared to other homes in the area, but is offset by the home’s modest size of 3,300 square feet.

Resale at this point is not a problem, even if another job opportunity in Florida materializes. “We don’t care because we’re not moving,” says Jen. “If we moved, we would keep the house. It’s not very big, but that’s exactly what we want.

Experience has become vital for owners, says Jen. “Facing the unknown was a challenge but I love the story. We remodeled parts of the house and it was fun doing it with close friends. It was important to us. »

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