By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
“It lives well.”
Repeated like a mantra, with confidence and comfort, Christie Olsen used the term several times while talking about her home at 512 Duke St.
“It lives well.”
With every utterance, and with every step through her Queen Anne-style house, it becomes a little more believable.
Life is at the center of the Olsens’ home, a testament to their tenacity and ability when it comes to renovating and revivifying homes that others might find a challenge.
After moving in and out of Alexandria for almost two decades, Christie and her husband, John, settled into their Duke Street home in early 2017. However, the couple had their eyes on the house long before then.
“The Queen Anne style, there just aren’t that many houses of this style,” Christie said. “Ever since I was kid, I’ve always wanted a house with a turret, and it has a turret. … The fact that it’s set away from the street and up some steps is cool, because it has a neat perspective. It was always an interesting house to me. I always wanted to see the inside of it.”
Seeing the inside of the house only made the Olsens more eager to buy it, despite the renovations it needed.
“It needed a lot of renovation, and I think a lot of people couldn’t see where it could go,” Christie said. “So I thought, ‘I have to take the chance and do this.’”
The carriage house-turned-garage in the back, which was originally part of a neighboring property, dates back to the 1830s, while the rest of the house was built in the early 20th century. The house hadn’t been well maintained for 30 years, Christie said. The roof needed work, the copper gutters needed to be replaced and the sides and front of the house were over-grown.
Christie, a decorator for KC Savage Interiors, and John, who works in education but who Christie described as a handyman, had renovated several homes before, including a row house on South Royal Street. They were up for the challenge.
“It needed all sorts of projects, which, for me, is awesome,” Christie said. “As soon as there’s a project house that I also want to own, it’s a perfect scenario.”
As soon as the Olsens moved in, they got to work.
“It was just a house that needed life, and it didn’t have it before,” Christie said.
When the Olsens moved into the house, the inside was very “Williamsburg-y,” Christie said.
The molding had been painted in overpowering shades of wedgewood blue and mauvy, peachy orange, depending on the room. The colors drowned out the natural light from the tall, thin windows throughout the first floor.
Meanwhile, in a piece of older-than-old-school design, the kitchen and dining room were divided by a wall that suffocated the space.
“It felt much more like when you had a cook cooking for you and you sat in the dining room, which I think is so not the way society lives anymore,” Christie said.
The couple hired contractors to knock down the wall, freeing the space from a retrograde notion of separation. Now, it’s a place where Christie and John can host dinner parties and where life can happen once again, Christie said.
“We knew, just from the beginning, that we wanted to knock it down and take advantage of seeing all this light everywhere,” Christie said.
They also split an upstairs master bathroom into two separate bathrooms and made a sitting room into a bedroom. John updated two of the bathrooms himself.
Room by room, the Olsens made the house into a home and gave each space its own personality and purpose.
A Southwest-themed office space on the first floor is a portal to John’s favorite city, Santa Fe, with art and textiles from Santa Fe-based artists. A cow skull, adorned with beads and illuminated from the inside, guards the room.
In the family room, deep blue walls and darker curtains shroud the space, creating a “cocoon,” Christie said. Right next door, the living room contrasts with tall, thin windows and lightly painted walls.
Throughout the first floor, paintings of naval ships and ornately framed maps from the couple’s travels adorn the walls. Curved staircases lead up to the second-floor bedrooms and third floor turret.
“This house is really neat in that it has a fair number of spaces to go and be social and party, but they’re all super distinctive,” Christie said. “… We find we live in all the different rooms in this house, much more than in other houses we’ve had before.”
Over the course of the first year in their new house, the Olsens renovated and updated the inside, but the outside remained a problem, Christie said. In 2018, Christie had two friends – one a landscape architect for StudioCamus, the other a gardener for BrightShade Gardens – put together a plan that, similar to the inside, created several spaces with different vibes.
“The fact that it’s unattached on both sides makes it great for the light, but there’s all these little places to go to based on if the sun’s too hot, if it’s too cold in the winter and you want to be hot. There’s little places to sit,” Christie said.
The renovated outdoor space features an outdoor living room complete with a rug, couch and cushioned chairs, perfect for cookouts on summer nights and outdoor movie screenings, Christie said.
A garden pathway on the side of the house leads around to a brick-lined patio out front, providing plenty of space for the Olsens – and their new dog Lotus.
“It’s like a little obstacle course, which is great,” Christie said. “And with the gate above the street, she’ll just be out there, watching people go by.”
Christie and John still have plans for the house – there’s always more work to do – but, for perhaps the first time in 30 years, 512 Duke St. is full of life once again and Christie can truly say, “It lives well.”
See more photos of the Olsens home below. Photos by Missy Schrott.