By Kassidy McDonald │[email protected]
Julie Obiala and Jake Dowling have lived on South Lee Street since 2014, but their home hasn’t always looked as sleek and modern as it does now. Their home is a rare gem in Old Town, complete with huge windows in the main living space overlooking a luscious green patio and extensive shared backyard – something that is hard to find in a city like Alexandria.
Obiala and Dowling rented the house on S. Lee until they purchased it in 2019. The three-bedroom two-and-a-half bath home was built in 1953 and is around 1,800 square feet. The property backs up to Jones Point Park and is part of the Yates Gardens development in Old Town, which is a townhome community with its own style of Alexandria charm.
For Obiala, purchasing this property was a dream come true because of how much she had enjoyed the couple’s five years of renting the home.
“We had always loved the property and when it was time we jumped on it and bought it. And the great thing was, because we were renting it for so long, we had always imagined what changes we would like to make. So we had a lot of time to think about the various ren- ovations that we would do,” Obiala said.
The two gutted the entire main floor in their home, which is where most of the renovations took place. The work started in April of 2020, the month after the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Alexandria. Although the community is mostly brick colonial townhomes – a signature of Old Town, once you step inside their home, the sleek and contemporary style of the main living space may come as a surprise.
“The biggest thing we wanted to do was create more windows in the back, to improve the connectivity with the back yard, which is special for Old Town. So we redid the whole back wall,” Obiala said.
They removed the original windows that were smaller and awkwardly placed. They installed new, almost floor to ceiling windows in order to add dimension and more natural light within the space.
“Pretty much everything you see is new,” Obiala said about the main floor. “The floors, all the doors, everything. The staircase, the mantle, bookshelves, windows and of course the kitchen.”
Before the remodel, the kitchen was boxed in by walls. Once multiple walls were removed, the space immediately felt bigger. They were able to add an island to create more counter space, hanging modern lighting fixtures as well as new cabinetry to match the new more sleek aesthetic of the home.
Besides the large windows being the focal point of the main living space, the home also features custom-built bookshelves that were specially designed for Obiala and Dowling’s shared love of books. Although she’s a self-proclaimed minimalist, Obiala has a passion for collecting books, and having them on display in their home was an important part of the design layout. They worked with a friend, Joanna Abizaid, an interior designer who owns a design company called Cline Rose.
The three worked on a floor plan, and Abizaid and a carpenter helped figure out how the bookshelves could fit in the space. The bookshelves look as though they could have always been a feature in the older home, but the decor makes them feel modern and clean.
As for the home’s aesthetic, Obiala’s taste is contemporary and chic – quite different from what the traditional decor of a house in Old Town may look like. The lines are clean, and reflective surfaces within the space make it feel more open. Modern style furnishings were chosen by Obiala to maximize the space. The kitchen flows into a sitting area, which then flows into the dining area.
Various plants decorate the main space and help bring natural elements in, which was an important aspect for Obiala because the main space highlights their special outdoor living setup. The fireplace in the living area was converted from wood-burning to gas and the new mantle was constructed with the same material as the countertops, helping tie together the entire main floor.
“It’s been fun to reimagine an older space and an older home with more modern sensibility,” Obiala said.
The contemporary and abstract art featured in the main living space includes pieces that Obiala and Dowling have collected over the years, which makes it personal for them both.
“The two contemporary/abstract pieces on the main floor – the oversized piece and the vertical piece that hangs in the corner over the Eames chair – and four pieces in the lower level are from a gallery in our old neighborhood in Los Manos, Chicago,” Obiala said. “I am a Chicago native and we lived there until 2011 when we moved to Old Town. They specialized in supporting local artists, and we became friends with the owner as well as several of the artists whose pieces we now own. These pieces are a tie to our old life in Chicago, so we cherish them.”
Other art pieces – including an abstract goldendoodle collage that was purchased at Ivy Lane in Old Town to honor their dogs passing in 2019, and an abstract print over the fireplace called “16 Queens” by an artist named Jamie Reid that was purchased at an antique market in London due to Obiala’s love for abstract art, British music and history – are all purposefully placed within the space. Each art piece tells its own story and is special to both Obiala and Dowling.
“Julie’s passion and interest is design,” Dowling said.“She works for an architecture firm actually. How I view it is the home flows into the patio where we spend time in the garden. It’s all tied to things we care about and that Julie cares about. It’s very reflective of her style and of our personalities. But it is her passion, and I’m along for the ride and loving it.”
Arguably the most unusual part of their property is the outdoor living space. To access this area, you walk downstairs into another family zone with a sitting area with a couch and chairs, desk for working from home, a wet bar and another bedroom off the living room. Similar to upstairs, this space used to be dark and drab; adding huge windows opened up the space and brought in more light to make it feel bigger.
Walking out the door from the downstairs living area leads to an expansive patio filled with plants, a dining ta- ble for outdoor entertaining and furniture for lounging.
The patio gate opens up to an expansive backyard with a garden that the two took up as a new hobby during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dowling noted that Obiala put in many pollinators, which attract bumblebees, butterflies and even a hummingbird moth to their space.
Dowling also said that an industrial railroad used to be located past the property line. Now, they find all kinds of wildlife like foxes, deer, groundhogs, owls, hawks and turtles. All the open space beyond the patio and garden is perfect for Obiala and Dowling’s two goldendoodles to romp around and play with the other dogs on the block.
“Each house, the property lines extend down to where a hill begins. Each property has that much of this area back here. While it’s technically each home’s own little sliver, it’s really just shared space, so all the kids that live on the block, all the dogs that live on the block, everyone is out here all the time. … It becomes a really lovely communal space which is great because we have such great neighbors,” Obiala said. “It’s a really special community.”
They’ve had barbecues, graduation parties and even a neighbor’s christening in the outdoor communal space. Both Obiala and Dowling love the outdoor space and view a smaller home as a good tradeoff for this amenity. A common renovation in the area includes bumping houses out if there is room to build in the back, but the two were adamantly against sacrificing their outdoor living space for a little more room inside.
“Our next door neighbors, who are our best friends, had a daughter that graduated high school and they had a big party out here. People use this for all sorts of things,” Dowling said.
Next steps in their home renovation journey include tackling the three bedrooms.
“We were so fortunate to live here for as long as we did… it gave us so much time to imagine and to think about what we would like to do,” Obiala said. “In some ways, as painful as it was to wait as long as we had to, it was a blessing in disguise.”