WASHINGTON — Six years ago, as Hurricane Isabel swept through the area, Daniel and Barbara Zwerdling-Rothschild were tucked away in their 100-year-old home. As they quietly prepared to practice yoga, they heard "an explosion." Seconds later, a giant uprooted oak tree fell on their roof and ripped through three floors of their house, practically slicing it in half. The couple dashed away before the tree landed on their yoga mats. • Afterward, "we ran out in our bare feet," Daniel says. "It was the last time we were ever in that house." • The next day, officials slapped a "Condemned" sign on the property. Then the couple endured a two-year battle with their insurance company and a rebuilding process that took almost another two years.
Now the Zwerdling-Rothschilds are finally, happily ensconced in a new, architecturally modern home. It was a change in style neither one of them saw coming. "When Barbara first said, 'Let's go contemporary,' " says Daniel, "I could hardly breathe."
The thing was, he really loved their old house. They both did.
They had bought the traditional yellow, wood-clapboard farmhouse in Chevy Chase, Md., more than 20 years earlier. One of the smallest houses on the block, it had a simple shape but enormous appeal. When they saw it, they fell hard.
"The house had amazing charm," says Daniel, a senior correspondent for National Public Radio who goes by Daniel Zwerdling on air. "It was distinctive, totally unfancy and charming. The narrow oak floorboards were all cracked and uneven. It was something really lovely and special."
While they waited for the insurance settlement after the hurricane, the house stood tarped, abandoned and open to the elements for so long that it started to deteriorate. When they were finally given the money to start rebuilding, the old wood, plaster and plumbing had taken too much of a beating. Their contractor recommended that they tear down the house.
"It was emotionally shattering," Daniel says.
Rather than rebuild on the property, Barbara, a psychotherapist, wanted to move. "I thought there was too much bad energy," she says. "I knew we couldn't rebuild. . . . You can't rebuild a 100-year-old house."
Then Barbara fell in love with a house for sale in their neighborhood that had a contemporary design with an open floor plan.
"I wanted to go in a different direction," Barbara says, "to start anew instead of trying to rebuild something that was so special. I wanted a modern house."
Daniel, fond of traditional architecture, needed convincing.
"A modern house felt huge to me," he says. "Our old house was the perfect house. I couldn't imagine doing something different. It was Barbara's vision, and I very reluctantly went along with her."
In agreement, sort of
They contacted the house's architect, Mark McInturff of Bethesda, Md., and moved ahead with building such a home on their property. The couple found McInturff's excitement and creativity contagious, and became swept up in the idea of building a modern home from scratch. But while Barbara's vision was "modern, industrial and Asian," Daniel's was "modern, contemporary" and above all, "cozy."
McInturff didn't see their differences as a problem. "They were very charming in the sense that they were both very solicitous of the other," he says. "Barbara wanted light and airy, Daniel wanted cozy. You can put those things together. Their interests were not mutually exclusive; they were just different."
Let there be light
The result is a modern four-story house that reflects the ideas and desires of both. The simple rectangular exterior — a nod to the old house — is contrasted against an architecturally complex interior: a series of welcoming, wide-open spaces, soaring ceilings and walls of windows. Straight lines, steel beams and white walls are warmed by wood floors, textured finishes, tons of natural light and views everywhere of the outdoors. One step inside the house and you can see straight through to the back yard and the woods beyond.
As in their previous home, the kitchen is the couple's favorite spot in the house. But it's not just because they enjoy cooking and entertaining, but because "the island is our favorite perch to gaze out on the rest of the downstairs at the wonderful beams and chandelier and shapes and shadows, and through the wonderful huge windows out to the trellises and ferns and trees in back," Daniel wrote in an e-mail.
One of the hallmarks of the house is the four-story open stairway with small windows cut into the walls to channel light. Standing in a corner of one of its landings, you can see all four levels of the house, from the attic to the basement, and both yards; it's one little corner that completely opens up the house. The stairway stands where the tree fell.
Scattered among the new floor plan and furnishings are vestiges of the old place: a red pine farm table in the dining room, a chest of drawers in a guest room, an iron-and-glass table in the living room and accessories acquired from the couple's world travels. The beloved farmhouse is gone but not forgotten.
"I love it," Barbara says as she looks around. "The old house was so dark. There's so much light in this house."
Even Daniel now can't imagine living anywhere else.
"I love the house," he says. "And I find myself starting to think: 'If we move from here, where are we going to find a similar house?' "