Ralph's House Of Cool

Ralph's House Of Cool

Leah Moss
Oct 14, 2010

Name: Ralph Wittenburg
Location: Intersection of Dupont, Adams Morgan, and U St. — Washington, DC
Size: 3 bedroom, 3 bath, 3 story townhouse which includes a garden level apartment.
Years lived in: owned since 1979, lived in continuously since 2007

Coming up with a title for Ralph's house tour was a freebie— I probably said "whoa, cool" about 1,000 times during the course of the photo-shoot. From the sculptural quality of the winding central staircase, to the luminous glass tiled master bath which overlooks the upper hallway and soaks in light from the massive skylight, to the retractable awning off the living room deck and the perfectly modern landscaping which manages to look lush and organic and clean and graphic all at once, it's all cool! Oh, and the fact that it sits at the hub of three of DC's most popular night spots, well, that's pretty cool too.

Although Ralph claims that the exterior doesn't give away any of the coolness contained within, I respectfully disagree. It's clear that this house is unique from the front facade, beginning with the sleek modern gray paint and the zinc covered bump out. Ralph bought the house in 1979 before the area boomed, and used the garden level apartment as his office while using the other part as a rental while he resided in a DC area suburb. However, in 2005 he began an extensive two year renovation led by Wiebenson & Dorman Architects, and by 2007 he moved into his dream home on the upper two floors. The garden apartment, which connects to the living space through an interior as well as exterior doors, still serves as his office for his work as a psychotherapist, clinical professor of psychiatry, and President of the Family Mental Health Institute which helps women who suffer from perinatal depression.

The skillful renovation brought many amenities to the home, but one of the coolest elements was there from the start. Ralph jokes that "the house invented the term, 'Location, Location, Location'....My side of Florida Avenue is called DuPont Circle. Across the street is Adams Morgan. The U St. corridor[... ]begins a half a block down the street. I have counted over 30 restaurants of every ethnicity within a two block walk of my front door. The house is less than half a mile from the downtown area, but is a beautiful residential neighborhood. It is easily accessible by subway or bus. There are several very nice hotels within two blocks. The two hottest streets for clubs and shopping come together a half a block away. The neighborhood is small enough that I know most people in the shops and restaurants by name. My health club, which I love and spend a lot of time in I spend a lot of time is half a block away. I had been living in a suburban area that was so 'dead', I literally walked in a cemetery. At midnight on Saturday there is more traffic on the street, automobile and pedestrian, than during rush hour. "

The inside proves just as sweet as the surrounding neighborhood, although its sleek white interior and clean-lined furnishings radiate a sense of calm that makes it seem worlds removed from the bustle outside. On the upper two living floors, Ralph and his architects purposefully played up the blank canvas look, limiting artwork and color, giving total prominence to the lines and textures of the walls themselves. The office level has many elements in common with the upper levels, but with a warmer, more layered feel due to the use of rugs, color, and artwork. Throughout, Ralph has incorporated his collection of mid-century favorites with the occasional Ikea find and other discount items for a look that's fully cool.

Check out the captions in the gallery tour for details of individual rooms.

Apartment Therapy Survey:

Style: Contemporary

Inspiration: The house's openness and comfortable atmosphere; welcoming from two to 80 people at a time. It has a beautiful flow in all directions. It is beautifully lit by skylights and windows and feels very spacious. I have many furnishings that go back to my office in he 1960s and '70s which I understand is called "Mid Century Modern" But I had the stuff all along. Items include Eames chairs, Saarinen chairs, Ikari lamp, etc. I bought art work back then just because I liked it, not as a collection. The house sets this off with its combination of black floors and white walls. At one point I thought of having a salon. In my imagination it was going to be ongoing, but I have had the most remarkable gatherings from international policy wonks to a series of singles events.

Favorite Element: How "Cool" it is, from the moment you come in from the street and see the Robert Indiana "Love" lithograph, to the electronics, the kitchen, the bedrooms and baths, etc, etc. Looking at it from the outside gives no hint what will be found when you come inside. It's sort of a European tradition.

Biggest Challenge: To keep it from being cluttered. I think one of the most attractive features is the flow of light and space and any extra objects interfere with that.

What Friends Say: my friends and other visitors say how comfortable and welcoming the house is.

Biggest Embarrassment: How cluttered my business office can get.

Proudest DIY: Painting the pottery in my garden.

Biggest Indulgence: Custom-made drapes.

Best Advice: Get what you love and then worry about the price.

Dream Sources: Cranbrook Academy outside of Detroit Michigan, where the Saarinen brothers were in residence.

Resources of Note:
I was able to afford to do things exactly the way I wanted to because the value of the house had appreciated so much, and I could take out a mortgage that would cover the expense. I also had a very good friend, Cheryl Hall, who is a combination of interior designer, faux painter, and had two homes in the country. She knew suppliers, materials, and had her own particular vision.

The paint, both exterior and interior, was Benjamin Moore low solvent emission.

Because we bought the kitchen cabinets from IKEA and used the cylindrical door pull we selected Jenn Air appliances because of the matching hardware. The appliances themselves are excellent. The only exception is a Miehle dishwasher which is great. It is so quiet you can run it when you're guests are present.

We got the majority of the hardware from IKEA. We used finger pulls as the door hardware throughout the house.

A lot of the furniture came from an office that I've had since the 1960s. It included Eames chairs, solid teak desks and bookcases, Saarinen tulip chairs and side tables. We supplemented Mies van der Rohe chairs that fit under the counter in the kitchen from Design Within Reach. We found a huge white calfskin Ottoman on sale one day at Saks Fifth Avenue, of all places. Sleep sofa was custom-made. The master bed had been a hospital bed that went up and down. The Italian pieces were custom-made and took about 14 weeks to arrive.

Most of the accessories are in my office downstairs. On the main level there are couple of side tables that have platters. One was a housewarming gift of beautifully turned wood painted bright red and the other is a bright red glass one that we got from IKEA for 10 bucks. We have one stairway banister made out of aluminum that apparently was a relic of a cruise ship.

Almost all the artwork came from my previous office and were items that I bought just as I enjoy the people who painted them.

Window treatments were ordered custom-made through an interior designer named Jean Perry.

The lighting in general was designed by the architect and consisted of low-voltage indirect light. In the office we IKEA track lighting which was amazingly inexpensive but very good-looking. We used industrial lighting over the dining room table and that all

Cheryl knew the carpet company that was both in Manassas Virginia and Farmville Virginia, which is about a four hour ride from Washington. However we were able to get the most amazing antique tribal Persian rugs. One cost $900 and the other 300. The carpet in my business office came from IKEA for about $120.

all the really high quality stone and tile came from a company in DC called Tile Source. This included such items as green glass tiles (master bath), multicolored slate (front entry), Lava Stone (guest bath), and red glass terrazzo (guest bath).

The floors were yellow oak covered with three coats of black stain. The flooring in the basement is wood herringbone which was installed when the house was built.

Thanks, Ralph!

Images: Leah Moss

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