When designer Carrie Miller Armstrong of Lapis Ray Interior Design was looking for a house to own, she was looking for a fixer-upper.
“I knew I wanted something that was not recently renovated or newly repaired,” she says. “I wanted something that had good bones and would give me the opportunity to put my own mark on the place.”
Her mark, as it turns out, became her father’s mark, too. Ralph Miller grew up in the bustling household of a World War II vet who taught his son all the DIY trades of house and home. “He’s one of those guys who can literally do anything,” Carrie says with pride. Ralph passed on the same skills to his daughter, skills the duo honed on nights and weekends while juggling full-time jobs, after she finally found and purchased a 900-square-foot, two-bedroom row house in Old Town Alexandria in 2018.
“I used to live in DC, so when I saw this place, where everything, including the Metro, is only a few blocks by foot, I was sold,” she says. “And it wasn’t a condo. I’d have a backyard and front porch!”
Once the father and daughter got going, the redo quickly became a gut job that took a full six months and a whole lot of grit and determination but provided the priceless gift of working with Dad.
“We had so much fun,” she says. “I got to spend quality time with him and learn all kinds of new skills, like backing up a car trailer at the dump where we became regulars!”
The original architectural moldings stayed, as did the patinaed red oak floors, but everything else — including nonload-bearing walls, plastic wall paneling upstairs, popcorn ceilings throughout, and dated tiled floors — was stripped out, including lots and lots of plaster, hence the dump commutes.
Sledge and jack hammers became the order of the day, as the pair knocked the home’s layers down to the studs and then paused to reimagine a freshly finished layout.
On the upper floor, an old brick chimney was exposed in the main bedroom, and an extra closet from the second bedroom — Carrie’s home office — became part of the newly enlarged bathroom.
The new bathroom is outfitted with a walk-in shower behind a glass partition, as well as the original claw-foot tub that Carrie didn’t want to part with. “It’s a wet-room concept,” she says.
The vanity is an antique floor radio that fits snugly into the tight space. She even DIY-ed the penny tile pattern detail in white while the floor was being professionally laid.
“On the main level, Dad and I reframed the kitchen’s opening to line up with the opening in the living room, which we had created by removing an unnecessary door. This created a through-view all the way from front to back,” she says of significant alterations made on the lower level.
Possibly one of the most charming spots in the house is the tiny gem of a dining room located between the living room and kitchen at the foot of the stairs. Carrie made it its own space with furnishings including a gold overhead light fixture and a lift-up storage banquette paired with velvet storage stools for extra seating around a small pedestal table. But the star of the space is the flooring.
“Early on, I had a sample of that tile. I loved its pattern and how it combined a warm tone with edgy black in such a fun way. It felt like what I wanted for the house. My dad and I laid the tile and gave it a black-painted wood border. It really defines that space,” she says.
Though professional electricians and plumbers did their work, Carrie saved by taking on parts of the project herself when she could. She painted all the walls, ceilings, and moldings in a warm neutral palette with touches of rich color.
In the kitchen, she laid the floor tile, and her dad installed the store-bought cabinetry.
“The open shelves I installed with brackets from Amazon; the wood was salvaged from the ceiling rafters,” she says about the kitchen’s corner shelving.
Washer and dryer, plus boiler, are secreted on the kitchen wall opposite the fridge/range wall, behind barn doors that came from a friend’s farm.
All the storage in the small house is purposeful and planned, including the open niche with shelves and baskets created at the top of the stairs, which was once solid drywall. Even the repurposed tall narrow chest, optimizing storage in the bedroom, was made by Carrie and Ralph years ago to fit in her college dorm room.
“I loved doing the design and furnishing this home. I was mostly motivated by my sentiments. It really tells my story and is full of things I have collected and loved over the years,” she says.
Simply furnished to keep the smaller home clean and tidy, Carrie uses rugs from trips to Turkey and Morocco and art she has acquired from all over, including Laurence the Rabbit from Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen in Paris hanging above her bed.
“It’s all very personal to me,” she says. “It gave Dad and me great bonding time. I have two brothers, but I was always the one following him around with a hammer.”
Clearly, little has changed.