The journey to transform an old coach house into a modern classic

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To get their dream home, the Montgomery County family had to partially tear down and rebuild the 1909 building

The homeowners wanted an L-shaped home that includes a central courtyard.
The homeowners wanted an L-shaped home that includes a central courtyard. (Jennifer Hughes)

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Ten years ago, Lee and Jen Odess bought a 1970s Rambler with a leaking basement in the specialty neighborhood known as Oakmont, off Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda.

They sold the house in 2015 and moved to Florida for a job opportunity, but Oakmont called them back home. The complicated journey took a while but eventually brought them to a modern home, launched in 1909 as an old coach house.

The family, which also includes two children, moved back to Bethesda in 2018 and set out in search of something to buy. “We spent six months in a rental and looked at houses,” says Jen, 42. “I knew I wanted an L-shaped house and I knew I wanted a super modern house.” The family considered moving in Florida to buy a mid-century modern house in the shape of an “L” and the idea stuck. She and her husband Lee, 45, both work as technology executives.

The odds of finding a modern L-shaped home in Bethesda seemed slim, so the family called Colleen Healey, director of DC-based Colleen Healey Architecture, to look for demolition opportunities. Healey had known the homeowners personally for years and spoke openly to them about their limited options. “I told them, ‘Given your budget, we need to find a lot that nobody else wants, get a deal, and then figure out how to get creative,'” says Healey.

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While scrolling through the lists, Jen came across an opportunity. “The house was on an unconventionally shaped lot on time and the price was low,” she says. There was a carriage house on the property, which years earlier had been converted into living quarters with an addition to the rear. It is set back from the road just behind the estate’s former main house and is bordered by seven surrounding lots. Healey gave the thumbs up and the purchase was made in 2019 for $615,000.

The City of Oakmont was founded in 1918 by three neighbors who wanted municipal services to be brought to what was then a remote part of Montgomery County. Oliver Owen Kuhn, Editor-in-Chief of the Evening Star, was one of the founders. Walter “Big Train” Johnson, the Washington Senators’ ace pitcher, lived nearby, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had friends in the neighborhood. The town is two streets long and contains about 60 houses spread over 18½ acres. The city has a design review board that advises against “mansion building,” but found no problems with the Odess family’s unconventional plans.

The design was quickly hatched in about six months when Healey and Jen decided to keep a red maple tree on the side of the property and three walls of the coach house. The extension would be demolished and rebuilt. A “galley” shoots out at 90 degrees, connecting a new section. The L shape creates a courtyard that is used as an outdoor entertainment space and a playground for the kids.

Demolition began in September 2019 as the family planned to move into their new home before their two-year lease expired. Six months later, the pandemic struck. Directors of Cabin John Builders, based in Cabin John, Md., who are also friends of the homeowners, enlisted as a crew and quickly began climbing the learning curve associated with modern design. “Modern detailing has to be done at the frame level before you get to the surfaces,” says Healey.

Delays began to affect the project and living conditions as the family realized they would have to vacate the rent before the new home was ready. They moved in with Lee’s parents for a while, then packed up the family vehicle and embarked on a road trip to Florida, stopping at Airbnbs so the kids could take online classes. Life on the street lasted about eight weeks before the builders and homeowners agreed the house was ready enough to be occupied.

The driveway runs alongside the former main house of the property and ends at the former front of the coach house. The circular porthole window was part of the existing structure. The large window looking into the kitchen used to be a horse-sized entrance. Although the coach house could have been demolished, there was a strategy to leave it in place.

“People probably thought we were crazy for keeping some of it,” says Healey. “For zoning reasons, we were able to stay about four feet ahead because we preserved parts of it.” One wall of the carriage house was removed and replaced with a wall of windows overlooking the yard. The roof was folded up and pitched into a shed configuration, making way for clerestory windows.

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The front door of the home is on the side of the driveway and opens into a foyer. On the right is a clay room and on the left is a small study. The great room is straight ahead. Originally, the family planned to separate the living area of ​​the room and the dining area and kitchen with a wooden slatted wall, but plans changed. The kitchen is to the right with the butler’s pantry behind the back wall of the kitchen.

The main living area is within the original coach house walls. The former extension was converted into two children’s rooms, each with its own full bath. There is also a meeting point and a guest toilet. The floors in the old part are all cast concrete.

The kitchen is defined by an island with seating for three and gray lacquered base cabinets below. The stove and refrigerator, both by Jenn Air, are framed in a built-in wall unit that includes a series of wall units. The sink faces the outer wall, which is lined with a series of whitewashed oak vanity units. All cabinets came from Downsview Kitchens of Ontario, Canada. The island and countertops are a mix of honed black granite and white Corian.

The opposite wall of the great room is paneled with slatted wood that takes guests into the gallery that acts as a hallway and leads to the new part of the house. At the start of the design phase, the gallery was supposed to be all glass, but the plans have been scaled back and it is now clad in slatted wood. The new area is on two levels, with the lower level 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 walk-in shower with three shower heads. A skylight illuminates the room.

The master suite offers a tranquil retreat and excellent views of the red maple that survived the renovation process. The exterior color choice is a mix of bold hues and black, prompting one of the neighbors to ask the homeowners if they would build a funeral home. Aside from the scathing comment, the quirky neighborhood that once turned on the streetlights with a switch on one of the original residents’ porch has accepted the newcomer.

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

“It’s so different for the neighborhood. You can see that there are different types of renovation and different ways of upgrading. There are other answers and other ways of living.”

The homeowners chose not to disclose renovation costs, acknowledging that their price per square foot is high compared to other homes in the area — but this is offset by the home’s modest size of 3,300 square feet.

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

The experience became life-affirming for the homeowners, says Jen. “Facing the unknown was challenging, but I love the story. We have repurposed parts of the house and it was fun doing this with close friends. It made sense for us.”

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