The House of Spirits
A onetime speakeasy in Chevy Chase undergoes a dramatic transformation
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In many homes, party guests flock to the kitchen, be it tiny or trophy. But at a 1920s Mediterranean Revival house in Chevy Chase, the big draw is a basement room with rough, whitewashed walls, no windows and a ceiling of tightly packed tree limbs.
“Welcome to the speakeasy,” Susan Young says in cheery tour guide mode as she leads the way. “It’s where everyone congregates.”
A pair of iron grates covers a square hole in the room’s far wall. This is the chute, according to neighborhood lore, down which bootleggers dispatched countless cases of illegal Prohibition booze for the pleasure of Jazz Age revelers.
To keep nosy neighbors and zealous cops in the dark during the national dry spell from 1920 to 1933, the home saloon was burrowed through tons of dirt under the front yard, Young says.
“We don’t know if it was original or added by a later owner,” says her husband, Bob Grunewald, “but someone cut through the wall and dug out a room with the lawn above it.”
Built around 1920, the house was designed by Reginald Wycliffe Geare, a prominent movie house architect, for his family. Then in January 1922 a blizzard dumped so much snow on his Knickerbocker Theatre in Adams Morgan that its flat roof collapsed, killing more than 90 and injuring more than 130, The Washington Post reported at the time. Though cleared of wrongdoing—a shoddy builder was blamed—Geare’s career was over. The family decamped to Cleveland Park in Washington, and in 1927 he killed himself.
By the 1940s, there were stories that the house had become a brothel, in addition to having been a speakeasy. Previous owner Bob Cefaratti heard the tale from a 100-year-old neighbor. During World War II, she told him some years back, there was “no activity during the day—but at night cars came by all the time.” On her only visit to the rumored bordello, she saw “women draped over the balcony in various states of undress.”
Alas, the Chevy Chase Historical Society can offer no proof of the story.
Today, the dwelling Geare created with such high hopes and great bones fairly shimmers with light. It pours through windows on every level, from the light tower high above the entryway to the glass doors that open onto inviting patios beyond the dining room and former basement ballroom, and is reflected off the white plaster walls and ceilings throughout the house.
Except for some of the furnishings—including a dark oval dining table and a massive living room chandelier—pale neutrals dominate. Think laid-back Southern California meets the South of France. That’s the vibe Young craved and Washington designer Darryl Carter created.
Young and her husband moved from Charlotte, N.C., and bought the place for $1.7 million in 2006.
“I probably looked at 50 homes, most of them center-hall colonials, which is what I did not want,” recalls Young, who co-owns La Marche Gourmet Catering to Go. “Then I saw this and I knew it was the one.”
Young also knew it would require major work. During the 18-month renovation, she and Grunewald, who’s in finance, rented a house in Georgetown and settled in with the kids: Christopher, now 20 and a junior at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.; Nicholas, 17, a junior at Georgetown Prep in North Bethesda; and daughter Kelly, 13, an eighth-grader at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda.
“We took all the original plaster walls down to stud. I wanted new plaster like I’d seen in California,” Young says. “I even wanted the kitchen cabinets framed in plaster.”
She sacrificed the old family room and an upstairs bedroom to relocate a staircase and supporting walls that had enclosed one side of the narrow kitchen. She added a pair of basement-level sleeping quarters by getting rid of the garage and a second kitchen.
Young didn’t want fussy flourishes, meaning “no moldings, doorjambs and ceiling medallions.” But she kept the original Moorish-looking molding around the foyer ceiling “because I thought it was cool and I respect those details. The work was really beautiful.”
A desire for authenticity also drove her decision to keep the imperfect glass panes in the master bedroom windows, though she regretfully gave up the rope molding in the demolished family room.
“I just wanted to clean up and streamline the look, which is why I used the same colors and materials in every room,” Young says of the four-bedroom home, which, at 6,500 square feet, is about 1,500 square feet larger than when she bought it.
Meanwhile the outdoor end of that chute to the basement disappeared when the couple widened the driveway. Today, even with two antique wrought-iron lamps switched on, the basement hideaway remains a dim curiosity.