- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2003

The trend toward loft living — or variations of it — has hit Washington in a big way, especially in downtown areas where urban chic is not considered a contradiction in terms. Clientele moving into these new locales want to take advantage of the variety and pace of the city.

“We feel we have a new life,” says Elaine Clayman, who moved with her husband, Michael, from what she describes as a conventional 1921 suburban home in Chevy Chase into Saxon Court Residences on Church Street between 13th and 14th streets NW. Her husband likes the energy of the city, she says — so much so that the couple sometimes meet at a coffee shop on a nearby corner after his workday is over. They subscribe to Studio Theatre and Theater J, just steps away.

Their kitchen, a sleek marble, wood and stainless-steel galley open on two sides, has minimal freezer and storage space because she doesn’t have to stock a lot of food.

“My freezer is Whole Foods,” she says with a laugh, referring to the popular coffee store and grocery emporium on P Street between 13th and 14th streets.

The only problem they have with entertaining is finding time for it. “Everybody wants to come to dinner because they are so curious,” she says.

Their children are grown, and Mrs. Clayman had time to work with their architect and home furnishing stores on designing the kind of interior the couple wanted. They were guided every step of the way by Jim Foster of Arcadia in Northwest, who functioned as both architect and designer.

Appurtenances in the two-bedroom, three-bath, two-terrace apartment — carved out of two units on the fifth floor — include a striking custom-made stainless-steel fireplace and a flat-panel TV that acts as a room divider. The Italian contemporary furniture bought at several venues in Washington and Bethesda is arranged in elegant clusters.

A loft, by definition, has many unobstructed lines, except for support pillars, and is usually, but not always, on a single floor. It has brick walls, exposed ductwork, a great expanse of windows and higher-than-average ceilings, although the ceiling height may only look higher in some cases. The use of metal and concrete gives the space an industrial feel.

The Claymans improvised to some degree and added a few walls, but openness — and togetherness — is the general rule. Michael Clayman, a dental surgeon whose hobby is painting, can work with the back of his easel facing Mrs. Clayman as she sits opposite on a sofa reading or listening to music. Walls are painted white; the ceiling is a tan brushed concrete.

Definitions of loft living depend on a trick of memory. Some area developers are advertising New York-style lofts here when there is almost no way for the District to imitate the Manhattan version. Loft living in New York became popular many decades ago when artists in search of cheap quarters in what then were run-down downtown neighborhoods took over old factories and warehouses and turned them into raw studio apartments. Many of those same lofts today sell in the millions of dollars.

Because Washington historically had no manufacturing base, there are few factories and warehouses to convert into housing quarters. Some developers, such as the District’s ABDO Development, however, are turning old school buildings into expensive loft-style condos. Many such newly built loft apartments are designed to resemble traditional artists’ lofts — but with the appeal of modern materials and conveniences.

Artist Renee Butler and her husband, Joe White, also an artist, live and work in what would be considered a more traditional-style loft, although it is a duplex. Ms. Butler, a video artist, is founder and promoter of a yet-to-be-built museum for Washington artists; Mr. White is a painter.

Carved out of several apartments on the top floor of a plain brick building in Adams Morgan, the residence was converted for their purposes 23 years ago. Deceptively simple furnishings have been chosen with care, and much of the decor consists of folk-art pieces the couple have collected together and separately. She changes print fabric covers with the season. A large hand-carved lion stands in the middle of the living/dining room, where an old-fashioned white swing is suspended from a high ceiling. A leggy iron bed serves as a sofa. The exterior kitchen wall is made of glass. Two cats share their home, which has an open staircase leading to an airy upstairs bedroom, bath and terrace.

“People wanting lofts are looking for something cutting-edge and not the same old drywall,” says Mark Stahl, director of sales and marketing for PN Hoffman Construction Development, the firm responsible for building Saxon Court Residences when that part of Church Street had only auto-body shops, abandoned buildings and dirt parking lots. “Families buying in is rare. One reason is there is more disposable income in people who don’t have that expense.”

Architect Greg Zahn says his firm, Zahn Design Architects in Northwest, is doing a lot of what he calls row-house interpretation of a loft in which the word volume is key.

“From the outside, it is very traditional town-house-looking, while inside there is double height — lofty — space,” he explains — a different tack from that taken by PN Hoffman and other developers doing apartment-style lofts.

“People who love the true industrial spaces don’t realize the draftiness and a bit of loss of creature comfort, although newly built ones are insulated better; we have better [heating and cooling] systems to install,” says designer Walter Gagliano, who calls the loft trend “a residential version of the SUV.”

An open kitchen typically means a loss of cabinets, for which he compensates by adding a small pantry area. Ceiling fans help control air flow.

Inventiveness is required to overcome a shortage of walls and storage space. Elizabeth Piersol, director of design development for Apartment Zero in Northwest, uses different textures and shapes to anchor the different living and sleeping areas and chooses multipurpose pieces of furniture such as four-sided coffee tables and benches for storage. “You don’t have to buy larger pieces of furniture,” she says. “The key is how one piece relates to another. Many people’s first instincts when faced with a big open space is to gravitate to big sectional sofas, which could actually be too big.”

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