Anna & Joe's Living History in Georgetown

Anna & Joe's Living History in Georgetown

Catrin Morris
Dec 17, 2012

Name: Anna & Joe (and daughter Lucy, 7, and dog Cassady)
Location: Georgetown, Washington D.C.
Size: originally 1800 square feet, with a 1000 square foot addition
Years lived in: 11 years; owned

Anna and Joe's home is less a brick-and-mortar structure and more a story, a choose-your-own-adventure fairy tale steeped in history but bursting with inspired and whimsical adaptations. Every inch of this Georgetown townhouse tells the charming tale of the 1820s home's rich past as well as its evolving, lively present: a landscape where Anna's love of collecting and gardening blossoms; a cozy, creative sanctuary where their young daughter can curl up in a reading nook or sit at the kitchen table and draw; and a living studio where Joe can conjure up his latest inspired DIY project.

When I first walked into Anna and Joe's little home, tucked away just doors down from the din of Wisconsin Ave in busy Georgetown, I was genuinely taken aback. I felt I had entered some alternate universe, a sunny little oasis bursting with personality and charm. It is almost impossible to capture this vibe on film. The first thing that struck me is that from the front door, you can see straight through the entire first floor into the labyrinthine, magical little garden out back. In fact, it is unclear where the indoors ends and the outdoors begins, an effect that is enhanced by the countless hanging and potted plants Anna has scattered throughout the home.

Anna and Joe's home is the antithesis of the staged, over-stylized interior-designed-to-death houses you so often see in Washington's wealthier enclaves. Indeed, there is nothing static about this home. The living room is stock full of the delightful mirrors (too many to count!) and knick-knacks Anna has accumulated over the years. Their daughter Lucy's 5-year-old handprint is embedded in the poured-concrete countertop. The basement reading nook— a favorite spot in a home of avid readers — can double as a stage during precocious playdates. Throughout their extensive renovations, Anna and Joe have made it their mission to "reuse, repurpose and reclaim" as much as possible from the house's magnificent bones. The garden beds are bordered with carderock stones that had once served as the home's foundation. Joe made a large wooden mirror from remnants of the neighbor's old Walnut tree. I could go on.

The point is, this home is fun. It is stylish but not a bit contrived. It is elegant but playful. It is a pleasure to visit Anna and Joe's home — and no doubt a real pleasure for them to spend their days in.

More than two decades ago, Anna (a former attorney) opened DC's wonderful shop Proper Topper, which started as a hat shop and has evolved into a shop full of what Anna calls "diverse wonders" (including tons of home goods). The same could be said for Anna's home. And I am sure the story of Anna and Joe's house has just begun. I can only imagine what is in store. I am already bucking to get in for a follow-up House Tour a few years from now!

Apartment Therapy Survey:

Our Style: We're both collectors — not as in fine art, as in A Very Fine Line Between collecting and hoarding. Our style is a little French country, a little vintage, a little industrial. And believe it or not, we edit constantly and still have this much stuff.

Inspiration: The Botanical Garden, old movies, every design magazine/blog on the planet. We sell much of the same collection we have in our home in our shop, proper Topper, and it becomes very hard to resist taking one of everything home!

Favorite Element: Favorite Element: The long straight view from the front door through the garden to the shed, which twinkles with light in the evenings. The garden is so lush and full in the spring and summer, and even fall — it's hard to notice the rest of the house!

Biggest Challenge: In a word: the renovation.

We lived in our quirky ca. 1830 house for 9 years before taking the plunge to do major work. We started longing for a little more space 3 years in, when we had an infant, who, it turns out, required a lot of accessories. Then we learned that there was a crack in the sill of the house, which was causing lots of cracks in the plaster walls, and the stucco exterior was starting to crumble. It really looked like leaning hard against our house might cause it fall down. I'm pretty sure our neighbors were wondering what we were thinking! Meanwhile, our infant became a 3-year-old, owning even more stuff, taking up more space, etc. We had to decide if we were going to stay or go.

We wanted to run away from the problem, but we knew we'd need to repair the foundation before we could sell. And it was hard to contemplate giving up this location, directly across the street from one of our shops and half a block from our daughter's pre-school. So, we decided to stay put and fix.

Breaking ground on the renovation: Adding a basement
Since repairing the sill meant digging under the house, which had no basement, only a 10 x 10 cellar accessed through a cellar door in a wooden deck, we decided we might as well dig down deeper. ("Might as well" became a recurring phrase for the next couple of years.) We dug down 8 feet, and the full width and breadth of the house plus a bit more. (Did I mention that this dig was happening, with our house supported by 2x4s, during the massive Snowmageddon storm in 2009? Quite nerve-wracking, but the house remained standing).

After the dust settled (ha!), some friends referred us to an amazing young architect, Mark Freeman; he and his wife, Lucia, had just struck out on their own and founded Aggregate Architecture + Design. We were their first job. They understood how badly we wanted to avoid a dark, plain box of a basement. They helped us design a basement living level with lots of light and space and tons of interesting detail, including (heated!) hardwood floors, custom bookcases (designed and built by our friend/neighbor Bo Jia), a cool reading nook/day bed/stage, a dream bath, a bar, and a mud room connected to the back stairway and garden.

Renovation Stage 2: Entry level
We had to take down a wall on the first floor to create an interior stairway. We left the stairway open for more light and flow. And, of course, we couldn't stop.

Now, when you step into the house, you see straight through to the deep, green yard. We thought about installing a living wall on the interior back wall, but instead, just inside the glass doors, I indulged my gardening addiction with lots and lots and lots of sun-loving plants, which blur the lines between outside and in.

We opened up a formerly small kitchen, stretching it and combining with the former dining room; we removed a drop ceiling to expose original beams, removed dry wall to expose a brick chimney, replaced all of the cabinetry, and then Joe poured a beautiful concrete countertop (complete with the handprint of then 5-year-old Lucy). It is sunny and cheerful and relaxing. I feel like I am in the country. It is my favorite room in the house.

We laid down new pine floors over the beautiful but worn-thin original heart of pine floors on the first level. The planks now run front of to back rather than side to side, making the whole house seem longer and directing the eye right to the garden when you walk in the door.

Exterior and yard:
After the sill was repaired, we removed the stucco exterior, which had crumbled as a result of structural weakness. We spent most of the hot summer of 2010 under Tyvek, but we now have a beautiful wood clapboard exterior, which research showed the little frame house started out with around 1820. (Did I mention how many times we had to go before the Old Georgetown Board?) And, oh thank heavens, we added central air.

After almost two years of being buried under construction materials and huge river rocks, my beloved garden came back to me. We replaced the wood deck with local flagstone. When we exhumed the original foundation during the basement dig we had discovered it was largely made of carderock (who knew that was not just a Beltway exit, but actually the area's native stone!). So, we used that carderock to build stacked walls around new raised beds, a waterfall/pond, and an outdoor kitchen area. Joe and Mark did all the physical labor themselves (with a little help from a mason), and made amazing improvements to the shed at the end of the yard. They added sliding glass-paneled doors on barn tracks so that the space can be very open, or closed off for privacy. They built a trellis, which is now covered in passion flower and wisteria, and a mirroring trellis just outside the house.

A few of my biggest, hardiest plants survived, and I created a new collection to suit the newly sunny exposure, as we had lost several enormous trees in the time span of the project.

Joe used as much of the ancient black walnut tree we lost as he could salvage, scattering it around the garden for seating or climbing, and using a slice of the hollow trunk to make a giant mirror, mounted on the stone wall between our house and our neighbors'.

What Friends Say: There's an element of surprise, entering from the pretty sedate facade on very busy city street and feeling kind of transported to a faraway place: we have lots of flora and fauna going on, and it is very quiet. So, often there's a bit of a gasp.

I love it when friends say it looks like we have fun here, because we do: our dog Cassady moves from sunny spot to sunny spot throughout the day, and she absolutely adores having the run of the place. Lucy loves the new basement level, which is a great stage for impromtu theatrical productions and dance parties. And we love entertaining in the kitchen/dining room/garden. It's heaven.

Oh, and — people who know our shop usually notice that there are many familiar elements in our home! Much of the furniture and virtually all of the accessories come from Proper Topper.

Biggest Embarrassment: Our upstairs bathroom, which was always the worst room in the whole house, and now, after all this work, it remains just as bad as ever. Worse, in fact: the tile has started falling off the walls, so we have a big saran-wrap-covered section of wall at the moment!

We were so glad when we didn't have construction dust and workmen in the house with us every day (we lived in the house throughout), but now amnesia is setting in and we're contemplating tackling the upstairs and making the attic into Lucy's room. She's already started her inspiration notebook, and now that there's Pinterest… oy.

Proudest DIY: Oooh, several:
Joe's concrete counter.

The kitchen island Joe built using the old slate-and-pressed-tin counter that used to be in our Georgetown Proper Topper branch (we closed that location in the course of the renovation), adding a walnut cutting board surface between slate pieces.

The garden (Anna) and the shed (Joe and Mark). And the trellises, painted by Anna and friends Katherine and Sara.

A great, loooong table extension Joe built from wood and steel pipes so that we could have dinner parties that extend from inside all the way out into the garden. And matching benches.

Joe's repurposing of the the ancient black walnut tree by scattering it around the garden for seating or climbing, and using a slice of the hollow trunk to make a giant mirror.

Biggest Indulgence: Everything seemed like an indulgence at the time, but the biggest ongoing indulgence is the garden. And the biggest argued-over indulgence was the sound system throughout the house, but we do love it.

Best Advice:

1) Patience.

2) Find architects as awesome as Mark and Lucia Freeman of Aggregate, who helped us figure out which dreams could become reality, and who helped us figure out how to get there with patience and grace.

3) Re-use, repurpose, reclaim as much as you can. If you loved it once, you can keep finding ways to love it. I had a weird, uncharacteristic urge to start fresh after the construction ended. My friend Melinda really talked me down. Thank you, wise one!

Dream Sources: Hmmm… I am blessed to have access to most of my dream sources. I really have to restrain myself when I'm on buying trips for Proper Topper!

Resources of Note:


    • Exterior: Benjamin Moore Castle Walls
    • Trim: Benjamin Moore French Beret

    First Floor:
    • Walls: Sherwin Williams "Crystal Ball" (I tried a hundred different greys, but all seemed too blue or too brown... finally, I realized the shade I liked best was the spackle the painters had used to repair the plaster, so I found the paint chip that most resembled spackle ... and I love it!)
    •Trim: Ben Moore "Bright White"

    Lower level:
    • Walls: Glidden "Glistening Moonlight"
    • Trim: Bright White
    • Nook: Ben Moore "Alaskan Skies"

    • Minwax Jacobean stain with 50/50 white paint/water wash (This was really hard to convince the contractors to do, but we are really happy with it!)


    • Bench: Vintage Oxcart
    • Cushion - custom (made by my friend Melinda!)
    •"J" Chair - Roost, from Proper Topper
    • Steel Cabinet -- former jewelry cabinet from our shop


    • Velvet curtains- Anthropologie
    • Linen sheers - Restoration Hardware
    • Linen parlor sofa, steel & linen chairs - RH
    • Linen tufted back sofa - Crate & Barrel
    • Glass drum tables -- vintage Proper Topper
    • Chinese stool - Forgotten Shanghai, from Proper Topper
    • Mirrored steel end tables - Notre Monde, from Proper Topper
    • Mirrors - some flea market, some Proper Topper
    • Pedestal Table - former PT fixture
    • vintage garden bench
    • vintage Chinese children's chairs
    • Swedish arm chairs - vintage, via Jean Pierre Antiques
    • Lamps - Jamie Young
    • Glass terrariums - Roost and Homeport, from Proper Topper
    • Branch lights - Roost, from Proper Topper
    • Accessories - Middle Kingdom Porcelain, family collectibles, and Proper Topper


    • table- vintage, from Jean Pierre Antiques
    • bench- Roost
    • stools- Matahari, from Proper Topper
    • China cabinet, vintage
    • Zinc top Potting Table- Proper Topper
    • Zinc narrow bureau- vintage
    • wood/steel bookcase- Roost
    • stone/steel bakers' rack- vintage
    • wood/leather dining chairs- flea market
    • pendant light - Artecnica from Proper Topper
    • steel ball cage planters suspended from ceiling - Proper Topper


    • Island- Joe!
    • mercury glass pendants- Proper Topper
    • industrial bar stools, West Elm, Lostine
    • cabinets - Decora
    • subway tile- Gabriella "Casa Vogue"
    • counter - Joe!
    • pot rack:
    • iron wine rack/console- old Proper Topper fixture


    • desk/table- flea market
    • bookcases- custom, by Bo Jia/Middle Kingdon
    • Thomas Paul linen octopus-covered stool - Estate of the Nation
    • Nautilus Chair - Estate of the Nation
    • Sofa, Mitchell Gold
    • coffee table- flea market
    • eucalyptus wooden bench and side tables- Proper Topper
    • console- vintage Chinese
    • framed art- by our daughter Lucy

Thanks, Anna and Joe! (Can we come back in a year and see what has changed!?)

(Images: Lauren Ackil)

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