WASHINGTON—In an old house, there are endless places to spend money. But for the Hoburg family, whose Capitol Hill rowhouse is 117 years old, it’s never been about perfection. In the 14 years the family of four have lived in the narrow, three-story house, they have patiently carved out a sense of home — one exposed brick wall and yard-sale chandelier at a time.
“Living in smaller, older spaces, you have to be creative,” said Meg Hoburg, 50, a designer whose specialty is budget-minded jobs. “We did things in stages as we were able to afford them.” Her husband, Glenn, 52, a pastor at Grace DC, said he used to dread the word “project,” but he’s continually mastering the skills needed to keep home improvements moving forward.
“I didn’t grow up learning how to fix anything, but Meg had a vision of what the space could become and wasn’t afraid to take risks,” he said. “Now I can install wallpaper and tile and change out faucets.”
The Hoburgs are one of many urban, space-challenged families who love their neighborhoods and will make lifestyle compromises to stay in the city. There’s not a bathroom adjoining each bedroom and no massive trophy kitchen in the Hoburgs’ 1,500-square-foot home. There are no walk-in closets, though their teeny third upstairs bedroom is the size of one. But by using every inch, doing much of the work themselves, continually coming up with new storage solutions, repurposing furnishings, and constantly condensing and purging their stuff, they found affordable ways to make the house functional and comfortable.
No coat closet? They put up hooks in the small entry vestibule and enlivened the space with a navy-and-white wallpaper inspired by Mexican folk art, , Otomi by Hygge & West. Limited kitchen cabinets? Because they have high ceilings, they looked for extra storage vertically and added a wall of open shelving and a Crate & Barrel pot rack. No back patio? They Googled how to build one themselves and bought a truckload of bricks. With the help of friends and family, they carried the bricks through the house to the back, as they have no rear access to their tiny yard.
Their daughters Isabelle, 17, still at home, and Maddie, 20, who recently moved out, have contributed to the overall design of the house and developed their own DIY projects. Isabelle’s art installations involve paper flowers of her own design. She embellished her bedroom chandelier, bought at a community yard sale in Grafton, Vermont, for $2, by painting it bronze with touches of gold leaf and dangling her white-and-gold flowers from it.
She also created artwork using a piece of driftwood from which an armload of her handmade blooms are suspended. Maddie painted her closet doors bright aqua (Warm Springs by Benjamin Moore), and her own framed artworks hang throughout the house.
When the Hoburgs moved into the house in 2003, previous owners had already given it a basic renovation: a simple Ikea kitchen, updated bathrooms, replastered walls and a finished basement that serves as a family room, guest quarters and storage. But some of the charming quirks of a house that dates to 1900 were still there: slanted floors, wooden doorknobs that rattle, and brass hinges layered with paint. The tiny back yard was a patch of dirt and weeds. When it rained, water occasionally trickled into the master bedroom through the light fixture.
But the house had its original pine floors, tall ceilings and claw-foot tub. The Hoburgs invested about $45,000 in the past 14 years on major improvements including a new roof, air conditioning and built-ins, as well as exterior improvements; most years they spend $2,000 to $3,000 on repairs, upkeep, furniture and accessories.
Meg majored in interior design in college and then attended a seminary. She continued to do decorating for family and friends, then opened her own business last year.
As her own client, she knew her challenges: choosing furniture that was the right scale for the rooms, using lots of mirrors to open up the spaces and providing plenty of lighting, as rowhouses are notoriously dark inside.
The first floor of the house had a small living room and a small dining room. In stages, the Hoburgs took down the walls between them, put in crown molding and added two plaster columns to define the rooms. They exposed a brick wall to add character and added a built-in bookcase. In the kitchen, the original tin ceiling had been painted white; they painted it silver (Modern Masters’ metallic paint) to make it look more authentic.
The kitchen pantry had already been turned into a utilitarian powder room; Meg and Glenn upgraded it by installing removable wallpaper tiles (Petal Pusher in black by Hygge & West) and added a new mirror, light fixture and faucet to give it more personality. In the dining room, a 19th-century pew that was a gift from a former church has stylized floral pillows by Rifle Paper Co. A gallery wall above is hung with an assortment of art including works by Maddie, framed silhouettes of both girls done by Isabelle, and vintage mirrors.
Upstairs, the tiniest bedroom is now Meg’s office and has a twin bed squeezed in for guests. Isabelle’s bedroom is awash in color and texture, with her pink Tyley chair and boho cotton kilim, both from World Market, and her flowers.
Meg and Glenn were able to squeeze a queen-size black pencil-post bed into the master bedroom. “The bed gave us some height without being bulky,” Meg said.
Painting seems to be an ongoing activity at the Hoburgs’. Right now, the living room is Gray Owl by Benjamin Moore; previous colors have included Restoration Hardware Latte, Benjamin Moore Sag Harbor Gray, Benjamin Moore White Dove and a mustardy yellow whose name Meg has blocked out because she said it was “a big mistake.”
According to Glenn, Meg has a limit on how long she likes a paint color. They painted when they moved in. Two years later, she told Glenn she was ready to change it up. They work as a team, with Glenn doing the rolling and Meg doing the edges and the trim. “She’s the skilled labor,” Glenn said.
The Hoburgs brake for yard sales, and they like to shop locally at Union Market and Eastern Market. Meg loves vintage but has also found a lot of great home accessories at Ikea, HomeGoods and Target. She discovered a way to add some patina to the newer pieces on one of her visits to Stylish Patina in Falls Church, Virginia: Pebeo gilding wax, which comes in a jar and can be rubbed onto wooden lamps, frames, doorknobs and mirrors. “It adds character and richness and makes details stand out,” Meg said. “In a small space, gold accents, different textures and anything with a sheen adds a lot to a room.”
Their house is a work in progress. On the list for the future: new kitchen cabinets, painting the floors upstairs and a new living room sofa.
“We learned to be content with each stage of this house over the years,” Meg said. “We learned to be thankful. We know this house is a real gift.”