capitol file: haute property

A Modern Foundation: Capitol File gets an inside look at Richard and Ellen Miller’s Kalorama makeover.

By James Servin
Photography by Kevin Allen
Capitol File, May/June 2012

Richard Miller recalls meeting the neighbors for the first time after moving into a Federal-style townhouse in the embassy-lined neighborhood of Kalorama. “My wife, Ellen, and I were standing outside on the stoop, and the garage door opened next door and a Rolls Royce came out, and inside was a second Rolls Royce. Across the street, the garage opened, and a fancy Mercedes came out. We thought, My god, who lives here? This was 1975, before prices were so out of control,” says the retired educator and psychologist.

Exemplary members of the nonprofit world and practitioners of the afterhours mantra “family, food, and friends,” the couple took a giant leap of faith that year, moving from a tiny, 11-foot-wide Georgetown two-bedroom townhouse into a 3,500-square-foot, four-bedroom Federal-style townhouse with a study and a sunroom.

“It was in bad repair,” recalls Ellen, a high-profile lobbyist who in 2006 founded the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group that harnesses the power of the Internet to monitor and disseminate information about government spending. “We had plasterers in the house for six weeks just putting plaster on the walls.” An architect friend was kinder: He told Richard that trying to warm up this formal home would be a lifelong project—but, in the end, a rewarding one. “You will be wrestling with this house your whole life to make it yours,” said the friend. “But it’s solid, it’s substantial, and it’s all you’ll ever need.”

Fast-forward to 2012, and the home, having sheltered Richard, Ellen, and daughters Annie and Elizabeth—not to mention guests from all over the globe and, most recently, frequent visits from grandchildren Eli, three, and Abigail, one—has indeed undergone a startling transformation. The most recent redevelopments: the kitchen, the sun porch, and the library. This new heart of the home was envisioned by Vincent Sagart of Poliform and Sagartstudio, and built by contractor Richard Kroos of Kroos Construction, who replaced the space’s homey Southwestern décor with a modern look. Stone tiles, Spessart oak cabinetry, wooden stools, Silestone quartz counters, Nakashima chairs, and Kreon light fixtures come together to create a style that Sagart describes as “streamlined, peaceful, and organized.” “This was not about redesigning someone’s lifestyle,” he says, “but about expanding, observing, adjusting to them.”

“We loved our old kitchen. It was beautiful and functioned perfectly—but fingerprints wouldn’t come off the redwood cabinets, and there were chips in the floor tile,” says Ellen. Inspired by the family’s George Nakashima dining table, Sagart suggested an Asian minimalist look to bring the home up to the present and into the future. The new space, in Ellen’s words, is “all about the appliances.” Their Wolf cooktop combination has a top-of-the-line wok burner for the couple’s frequent forays into the Chinese cooking, and induction burner (‘It gets the kid’s pasta cooking immediately,” says Richard), and an indoor grill for steaks. “I’m obsessed with our dishwasher [by Miele],” says Ellen. “The faucet [Tara Profi by Dornbracht] is a big statement piece and works brilliantly for cleaning out the sink.” And a visitor would never guess from the super-sleek appearance of the kitchen that it also houses a washer and dryer.

“We wanted the home, especially the kitchen, to work for both kids and adults,” says Richard. “We needed to have a counter with stools and a stove and a table, but also plenty of room for kids to roll around on the floor.” The sunroom, formerly a TV room and a playroom for their children, now serves as an adult reading area—though it is still a playroom for the couple’s grandchildren.

One quirky feature of the home was a wine cellar, reachable through a floor plank in the kitchen. Sealing this entrance and replacing it with integrated Sub-Zero wine storage allows more space for counters and chairs, and room for the grandkids to play—even if it poses a slight inconvenience. “It is now only accessible by going through the basement,” Richard says.

Meaning “beautiful view” in Greek, Kalorama is a choice area in which to settle.

Kalorama is “a quiet little island in the city,” says Richard Miller. “When we first moved here, it was about 40 percent embassies and 60 percent residential. The balance is more equal now.” Jim Bell, founder and managing partner of Beasley Real Estate, says the townhouses and villas were built almost entirely in the1920s and ‘30s, and sell today for between $2 million and $8 million. The local market is up three to four percent this year, he adds, and resale values are “holding strong,” says Kimberly Casey, associate broker for Washington Fine Properties. “Everybody who renovates does well, as long as it’s tasteful.” The perks of living here include a lovely local park, proximity to Dupont and Logan Circles, a 12-minute commute to Washington National Airport, and convenient parking. Neighbors include diplomats, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and historian Elizabeth Eisenstein.  

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The sunroom opens to a Chinese garden, and Richard’s new favorite reading chair.

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Says Richard of the renovated kitchen: “We absolutely love it. It’s totally different and new, but somehow it has the same character.”

The dining room leads to the sunroom, a modern retreat for the Millers and, especially, their grandchildren.

Richard and Ellen Miller, in their redesigned kitchen