Home Profile: Art and light transform Old Town rowhouse

Home Profile: Art and light transform Old Town rowhouse
The artichoke illustration in the sunroom is one of the removable wallcoverings Ashely designed for her business, Casart Coverings. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

Ashley and Peter Spencer have spent 30 years infusing art, light and personality into a historic rowhouse in Old Town.

Ashley, originally from New Orleans, and Peter, who hails from Rhode Island, met while attending the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. After graduating, Peter stopped through Alexandria.

The Spencers’ home sits among a series of rowhouses on Harvard Street. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

“He was on his way back home after college and stopped over to see a friend and never left,” Ashley said. “I knew I wanted to be here with him, and as it just turns out, D.C. has some incredible opportunities for art.”

The two began renting in Parkfairfax around the same time Ashley, an art history major, began working at the National Gallery of Art. They bought their rowhouse on Harvard Street – just off of upper King Street near the Metro – in 1989, a year after their first son, Piers, was born.

They recently learned through fire maps and newspaper records that their row of houses was built in the 1920s for Torpedo Factory workers.

The historic rowhouse is tight on space, but what it’s lacking in square footage, it makes up for in personality. Over the last 30 years, the Spencers have transformed the home through renovations and art.

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Younger guests at the Spencers’ Easter party last month helped transform a black and white wallcovering into a vibrant, turquoise flower-scape. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

The major revamping the couple did – a skylight above the front stairwell and an addition at the back of the house – were to bring more space and natural light into the home.

“Natural light is key in a house. Just being an artist, I need light,” Ashley said. “[The sunroom] gets the morning light back here and then the front gets the late afternoon light. There’s a continuation of light coming in the house, which is good, because otherwise it would drive me crazy.”

It is Ashley’s artistic side that has defined the character of the home. After the birth of their second son, Jackson, in 1992, Ashley left her job at the National Gallery and began doing illustration work out of the home. She eventually developed her own decorative painting company, Casart, which has since expanded to selling removable wall murals.

“I started doing murals in people’s homes, and then I had a lot of people start asking me about canvas, portable murals,” Ashley said. “That’s when I started Casart Coverings, which is a removable and reusable wallcovering business. I was able to translate a lot of those decorative finishes and murals into wallcoverings that are reusable.”

Ashely Spencer on the staircase she painted in her Old Town rowhouse. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

The Spencers’ home acts as an informal gallery of Ashley’s murals, wallcoverings, painted tiles and framed artwork. Each room has a distinct personality.

“A lot of what is in the house or about the house is Ashley, not me,” Peter said. “I just sort of enjoy her eye for how things should look and things like that.”

Ashley creatively painted most of the rooms in the house herself.

“I have a mix of different styles,” Ashley said. “I like to change it up a little bit so it’s not just all one style, and I think if you display what you like, then as long as the colors kind of flow from one room to the next, that should be fine. It doesn’t have to be one theme or one color working throughout, for me anyway.”

Upon entering the rowhouse, visitors are greeted with a sunlit stairwell, the riser of each step painted to form the image of a stream flowing through a forest, complete with birds and butterflies.

Ashley Spencer painted the upstairs bathroom to look like a beach cabana. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

The stream leads to the top of the stairs, where a hand-painted, cabana-themed bathroom awaits. Bright blue stripes climb up the walls and come together in the illusion of a peak on the ceiling. Seashells, a lacy shower curtain and yellow and white floor planks complete the look.

“I kind of wanted it to look like a beach cabana, and then I added that finial at the top just to kind of give the sense that it was holding all the ‘fabric’ up,” Ashley said. “And I guess what inspired that is I had gotten those lace shower curtains from Rue de France, which is a store that started in Rhode Island.”

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The wall in Ashley’s makeshift art studio is decorated with a photo her son took in Sewanee, Tennessee. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

Down the hall is Ashley’s makeshift art studio in her son’s former bedroom. One wall is dominated by a full-sized photo of a forest that Jackson took in Sewanee, while the others are painted light green.

“We liked the idea of water dripping, so we came up with the idea, and I actually let him take over and just like splatter paint and let it drip down,” Ashely said. “If he had his druthers, he would move to Seattle because he likes the rain and so that’s kind of what inspired this. … [It’s] kind of like my spa room. It’s all light colors and streamlined.”

Downstairs, the Spencers’ living room, kitchen, dining room and sunroom are filled with artwork and souvenirs with special significance. On display are pieces of art that they’ve brought back from trips, as well as works that Ashley has inherited from her cousins, her aunt and her mother.

“I collect things from when I travel pretty much,” Ashley said. “I just see what I come across. If I’m planning anything on a trip, it’s an experience, getting to know the city, walking around and getting the flavor of what makes that town tick. … I’m not really seek – ing out art so much, I like to discover it as it happens.”

The main floor also has a lot of Ashley’s painting and illustration work.

A Palladian-style villa adorns the wall of the first-floor bathroom. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

The sunroom features a Casart Covering of a giant artichoke, while a bathroom mural imitates a Palladian-style villa. Since the kitchen has no windows, Ashley recreated the view from the kitchen in her childhood home in New Orleans in painted windows. In the dining room, a hand-lettered quote from Dante’s “Paradiso,” runs along the ceiling.

“We had some friends over for dinner, and we were thinking of something to put up on the ceiling,” Peter said. “We broke out our copies of Dante and were just looking for a particularly good quote.”

The Italian quote they chose reads in English: “Overcoming me with the light of her smile, she said to me: ‘Turn now, and listen, for not only in my eyes is Paradise.’”

The Spencers’ furniture collection is a combination of pieces they’ve purchased new, inherited and found at thrift and antique shops. A colorful armoire in the sunroom was one of their first purchases.

“We don’t have any big entry closet when you walk in, so it’s a replica of a Dacha armoire, so on either side, you can open it up and you can hang coats if you need to,” Ashley said.

A colorful armoire in the Spencers’ sunroom was one of the first pieces of furniture they purchased. (Photo Credit: Missy Schrott)

While at times when their boys were growing up the rowhouse felt small, Ashley and Peter said it’s now the perfect size for them.

“With two boys here, it was always tight,” Ashley said. “Now that they’re gone, it’s great. Peter and I enjoy the space. And we love living here, that we can just walk down the street, and if we don’t have anything for dinner, we just walk down the street and get something. It’s so nice to be so close to everything.”

“You have the location,” Peter said. “That part of Alexandria from Route 1 to the west, has really blossomed in the last 15 years.”

A combination of falling in love with the location and infusing their style into the home has led the Spencers to call Harvard Street their forever home.

“If you’d asked us back in 1992, ‘Do you think you’ll still be there in 2019?’ I don’t think we would’ve said, ‘Yes,’ and … few people say that, think that far ahead,” Peter said.

“The longer you live in a place, the more you invest into making it your own,” Ashley said. “So as you do that, you, kind of, you don’t want to necessarily give it up. Even to get more space if you move further out [from Old Town], you don’t have the charm it seems in some of these places.”

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