Text by: Lydia Somerville
Photos by: Angie Seckinger

When Ann Roddy and Jill Johnson brought designer Nestor Santa-Cruz to view their newly purchased house, he quickly went into triage mode. The Cuba-born designer, who had decorated previous houses for the couple and their three children, understood the appeal of the Forest Hills neighborhood, a woodsy, family-friendly area in northwest Washington, D.C. But the house itself, a split-level rancher built in the 1950s and occupied by only two owners, posed several challenges, among them, small windows that didn’t capture the views of the pretty street and a kitchen and bathrooms that were greatly outdated. So Santa-Cruz set about making structural changes that would bring the house into the present without losing the easy comfort of a midcentury split-level.

First to go were the small windows and doors, replaced by larger windows—which would allow in bountiful sunlight—and taller door openings. Santa-Cruz bleached the floors to reflect the increase in light, replaced dated woodwork, and enlarged doorways. In the entry hall, a small swing door to the kitchen was opened to an archway, adding the softness of a curve and drawing the eye upward to the high ceiling. “Jill loved the arch idea, and Ann allowed it,” says the designer. “We now think it makes all the difference, as if it were always there.”

Likewise, the opening to the living room was increased from 8 feet to a full ceiling height of 10 feet. The living room itself serves multiple functions. “It is formal and informal at the same time,” says Santa-Cruz.

“It’s a living room, library, and music room all at once.” The clients wanted built-in bookshelves, but the designer balked. “I didn’t want the long and beautifully proportioned room to feel too busy, and I wanted to save some walls for their art,” he says. “But I remembered I was not designing for me.” The trio compromised with shelves that stop short of the ceiling and flank the opening to the dining room, adding symmetry to the off-center space. The living-room walls were covered in squares of handmade paper, a tribute to Santa-Cruz’s design icon, Jean-Michel Frank.

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