A Renovated Rambler Gets a New Look With Prairie-Style Architecture
This thoughtful remodel in Arlington's Rock Spring neighborhood added significant square footage while maintaining a modest profile.
Chris and Jess Smith had wanted to remodel ever since they’d bought the little brick rambler in Arlington’s Rock Spring neighborhood in 2006, when Jess was pregnant with their first child. But then life grew busy, and more kids followed. “We just never got to the intersection of enough money and no infant or toddler running around,” Chris says.
By 2020, however, they realized they were spending a lot on home repairs when what they really wanted to do was tear down and rebuild.
They didn’t tear down. Following the advice of architect and friend Sarah Riddlemoser, principal of Arlington-based Moser Architects, the Smiths opted instead for a large-scale renovation that built around their home’s existing footprint and bumped it up with a second-floor addition.
“They had a beautiful lot, and space to go back,” Riddlemoser says. Adding onto the house made more sense, both in terms of cost and red tape. “They wanted a side-load garage, so we flipped the driveway and left the old basement so as not to introduce new water issues. If you can avoid messing with [site] grading, it’s best to leave it alone.”
Architecturally, the upgrade to a contemporary Prairie style had advantages that were twofold. The new façade—a mix of Hardie siding and dry-stacked stone with Douglas fir trim—feels fresh in a neighborhood dominated by ramblers, Colonials and newfangled Craftsmans and farmhouses. Plus, the style’s characteristically low roofline allowed for a bigger home that still respects the scale of the street. “A steep pitched roof would have resulted in a taller house that looked huge,” Riddlemoser says.
Inside, the Smiths wanted spaces with good flow for entertaining, including friends of their children, who are in ninth, eighth and third grade. “We are close to school,” Jess says (their house is across the street from Discovery Elementary). “Kids filter in after school and raid our pantry. We tried to create different areas for kids of different ages so they all have places they can hang out.”
On the main floor, Riddlemoser replaced the old, compartmentalized layout with an open plan in which the kitchen, living area, dining room and screened porch are distinct but interconnected, sharing a common language of neutral tones offset with measured pops of color.
Of particular note are the pink accents—a single pendant light with a cherry cord over a built-in bar; blush chairs bookending the dining room table; rose wallpaper in a powder room. They are subtle, joyful reminders of the Smiths’ daughter Juliet, who was born premature in 2010 and died six months later. “Even though there are five of us in the house today, we are a family of six,” Chris says. “This is Juliet’s house, too.”
Pink is the signature color of the Juliet Grace Smith Foundation, which the couple founded in 2012 to raise money—hundreds of thousands of dollars to date—in support of local programs for NICU preemies and their families. Jess is a pediatric physical therapist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, where Juliet received care after she was born.
“I’m responsible for the pink, whereas Jess is responsible for the restraint,” Chris jokes, bringing levity to a difficult topic. “I like out-there colors and evidently have no eye for design. Our house would have looked like a 5-year-old’s My Little Pony party if I’d had my way.”
Upstairs, a new owners’ suite with windows on three sides is adjoined by a serene, light-filled master bath with a soaking tub, a standing shower and a floating double vanity.
The Smiths are quick to sing Riddlemoser’s praises—“She guided us through from start to finish, had the tough conversations with vendors and the county, and knew how to settle our disagreements,” Jess says.
They extend similar accolades to their contractor, Milton Ortega of Merit Homes in Falls Church, whose ingenuity made many of the home’s quirkiest and most endearing features possible.
“Milton was up for any challenge,” Jess says. “He took our crazy ideas and said, Okay, I’ll figure out how to do it.” Like the secret “snack closet” in Chris’ home office, which allows him to access the kitchen pantry from the back. Or the custom basement shelf with a lip that prevents soccer balls from rolling off. (A former D-III player for Williams College who still plays on a local men’s team, Chris has been coaching with the Arlington Soccer Association for 19 years.)
Ortega tricked out the closet in the owners’ suite to exacting specifications, with dedicated shelves for everything from suitcases to hats, and 3-by-3-inch cubbies for the neckties Chris no longer wears. “Covid has stolen from me every possible reason to wear a tie,” says Chris, a management consultant (his firm, ChangeSmith, specializes in organizational health), “so now they are just decoration.”
Scandinavian in its simplicity, the remodeled house is easy on the eyes, welcoming to friends and super functional. It’s much more energy-efficient and eco-friendly than before, thanks to a whole-house water purifier, airtight insulation, a tankless water heater and a dual-zone HVAC system. But the heart and soul of the original structure remain.
“All of our kids were born while we were living in that house,” Jess says. “It’s cool to still have some of the original walls that held so many memories.”