Home profile: Journalist and Army veteran set down roots in King Street home

Home profile: Journalist and Army veteran set down roots in King Street home
Prior to the renovation, this kitchen and dining room space was broken up into five rooms. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

By Cody Mello-Klein | cmelloklein@alextimes.com

The relationship between a homeowner and their home is like any other – it changes over time.

Paint chips and cracks form in previously sturdy walls. The little things that were just annoyances at first, if not addressed, can become significant issues as the years go by. Just like any relationship, homes require time and work to maintain.

Lara and Mike Jason learned this lesson firsthand at their home on King Street. What first seemed like a forever home with room for improvement quickly became a capital P “Project” for the Jasons as they wrestled with a house that resisted livability at every turn.

By the time Lara and Mike moved to Alexandria in 2013, they were both eager to establish roots in a community and find a place to call home after years of traveling.

For years, settling down was not an option. Lara and Mike met in Iraq – she was a reporter covering the Middle East and he was serving in the army – before Mike was stationed in Afghanistan. While in separate countries, Lara and Mike would spend time browsing house listings on Trulia.

“When we were in the Mid East and we were sitting at our respective desks in our respective countries, we would bond and plan for the future by looking at homes,” Lara said.

“I always wanted to find a forever home. I didn’t want a starter home,” Lara added. “I didn’t want to go through the process of moving two years and then two years and then two years. Been there, done that with all of our moves all over the world.”

After moving stateside to Savannah, Georgia, the couple stumbled on a listing for a house located on the King Street hill leading away from the George Washington Masonic Memorial.

Lara, who had lived in Old Town before moving to the Middle East, was familiar with the neighborhood from her morning “challenge runs” and said she knew it was an ideal location.

Lara and Mike went on an in-person tour in late 2012. Although they both recognized that the house needed some work, Lara and Mike saw the potential in both the house and neighborhood.

“The guts were good, the roof was fine, the foundation was fine, the location was fantastic,” Lara said. “The fact that it had a garage was a total plus, and we could walk to the Metro. Mike is a car aficionado; he wanted a garage. I’m an exercise freak; I wanted to be able to walk to the Metro. So, this hit all those sweet spots.”

As part of the renovation project, Lara and Mike Jason expanded one of the Arabesque archways that leads from the kitchen to the living room. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

The house also had small touches, like a pair of pointed, Arabesque archways on the ground floor, that made Lara and Mike feel even more connected to the property.

“It felt like it was a nice reminder of who we were and our roots, and since we wanted to put down roots here, we also wanted to keep the identities that we’d had before we moved here and this really important experience for both of us. It’s like a little daily reminder,” Lara said.

The couple closed on the property in December 2012 and ended up renting the house back to the sellers for three months before making the move in April 2013. While there was plenty to like about the house, the areas of concern that Lara and Mike had identified when they first moved in loomed larger as time went on.

The layout of the house presented challenges for the Jasons, especially as their family grew to include a young daughter, who was learning to walk, and a dog.

Little things, such as a dormer located over Lara’s side of the bed that she would hit her head on in the morning, became almost daily nuisances. Then, there was the main floor, which at 800 square feet had been oddly divided into seven rooms.

The previous owners had cut up the main floor in order to build a separate apartment space for their elderly in-laws. While that may have worked for the previous owners, the narrow walkways and unusually placed rooms led to frustrations and unused, wasted space.

The kitchen, in particular, was a sticking point for the family.

“The kitchen was a galley, which was L-shaped, and the only access to the back door,” Mike said. “[It] caused what we call the ‘fatal funnel’ – it’s a military term – but if you opened up the oven or the fridge or any cabinet, no one could get in or out of the house. … It was insanity.”

The small galley kitchen on the main floor became too cramped
for Lara and Mike’s growing family. (Courtesy photo)

Lara said she always dreamt of having a house where she could entertain guests and host Thanksgiving and Christmas for family. With a cramped kitchen and labyrinthine main floor, that was hardly an option in the King Street home.

There were other issues with the house as well. On the second floor, which has three bedrooms and two bathrooms, the master suite had “an interesting” walk-in closet that devoured one third of the bedroom and covered a large window that had been boarded up, according to Lara.

After six years of living in the house, they both knew enough was enough.

“We kind of came to that decision after five years, six years, where we said, ‘Either we’re going to do major renovations to this house or we’re going to move,’” Lara said.

At one point, they considered moving elsewhere in the same neighborhood, but ultimately their love for the location and their immediate neighbors won the day.

“We’re very close with everybody. I don’t have any fear about sending [our daughter] down the alley to play with neighbors or to ride her bike,” Lara said. “That’s kind of the childhood I had 35 years ago, 40 years ago, and it’s very cool to be able to offer a child that experience in this day and age.”

Lara and Mike ultimately made the decision to put in the work to fully realize the dream of their forever home.

They brought on David Foster of Foster Remodeling who helped them rethink the way they used their space and identify what parts of their dream renovation project could actually be accomplished with their budget.

Ultimately, Lara and Mike decided to renovate almost the entire main floor and the master suite.

What used to be five rooms with a single access outside via a mudroom on the main floor is now an open kitchen/dining room that runs along the entire back stretch of the house, with an additional door to an outdoor patio area and driveway.

Lara and Mike Jason integrated items from their travels abroad, including Turkish tile, throughout their renovated spaces. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

“I always wanted to have the house that was a good place to entertain for people that I love and to have the big family or the big friend get togethers. The renovation helped us with that,” Lara said.

Lara and Mike also were able to find ways to integrate more personal touches into their renovated kitchen and main floor.

While Foster had to knock down one of the Arabesque archways, he rebuilt it, molded it by hand and expanded it from an eight-foot-wide archway to a 30-foot archway that welcomes people from the relatively unchanged living room to the kitchen. The same pointed archway design was also integrated into the shape of the kitchen island.

By using tiles that Lara found in Turkey as the back splash for the new stovetop and a few tiles from their trip along the Amalfi Coast in Italy during Mike’s time attending the Italian War College, the kitchen has become a testament to Lara and Mike’s life experiences.

Between the main floor renovation and the improvements made to Lara and Mike’s bedroom, which got rid of the walk-in closet and opened the window to the front of the house, the project lasted from April to December of 2018.

The Jasons chose to live in the house throughout the project, which led to some creative living arrangements, including the creation of a de facto kitchen in the basement with a microwave and a hotplate while their main floor kitchen was being renovated.

“We lived in the house through the project with a baby … and a dog and two fulltime jobs. We lived through complete renovation, so that was interesting,” Mike said.

Every renovation project has an element of the unexpected. For Mike and Lara, that came in form of torrential rain that flooded their basement. What could have otherwise been a disaster became a blessing a disguise.

“The night after [we moved out of the basement], the basement had four inches of water,” Mike said. “[The workers] were still here. Thanks to insurance and everything, we did a quick redesign and we redid the basement.”

Mike’s “mancave” in the basement, which is full of items from his military past, now functions as a remote office space. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)

A basement redo was on Lara’s initial dream list of renovation projects, so the flood came at the right time, she said.

Prior to the renovation, the basement stairs descended to one large open room, a den with couches and a T.V. The lighting was dim, and the rest of the space was “basically a mancave” for Mike, Lara said. Every square inch of the walls had photos and memorabilia from Mike’s military service.

Now, the right half of the open den is closed off and will serve as a bedroom for visitors. Although it was repainted, refloored and relit, the rest of the den functions largely the same, with a large couch, plasma T.V. and fireplace designed for more private entertainment.

“It was important for us to have a place where, if we had out-of-town guests, they could have their own space and not feel like they’re on top of us – for their privacy as much as ours,” Lara said.

Mike’s “man cave” is smaller now, although it is still filled with symbols of his military past, and functions as a remote office space during the pandemic.

Now that they are spending more time at home than ever before, Lara and Mike are even more thankful for the changes they made. Their home is not only more livable – it finally feels like the home they dreamt of owning and the life they dreamt of living when they were house shopping abroad and envisioning a future together.

“We feel like we are putting roots down in this community that is so important to us, and the house was the gateway to that,” Lara said.

(Read another home profile: Old Town home brings George Washington’s history to life)