16 September 2008

"Embassy House".

Embassy House

Turning A Government Building Into a Private Residence

This article, a spin off from the July 2008, DC Modern Luxury "Livin' Large: Embassy Style - Diplomatic Relations", feature appeared recently on the Design Point of View website.

Ever roll down 16th Street or cruise up Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC and picture yourself in one of those fine buildings entertaining a room full of dudes with diplomatic plates? Well grab your tuxedo and your bathing suit, it’s time to sample some embassy living. Prince Albert of Monaco bought a private home in Kalorama last year and turned it into an embassy but you can also buy an embassy and turn it into a home. Just be prepared to jump through a few hoops.

A few years ago, real estate guru, Jim Abdo of Abdo Development in the District took an intriguing call about an embassy for sale near Rock Creek Park. In a driving rainstorm he drove out for a look and made a difficult decision on the spot. “I had to have a cashiers check for $137,000 that day, made out to the Republic of Ghana because the owner was flying to Rome that night,” he says.If he chose not to make the purchase, the house had two back-up contracts pending, one from Senator John Edwards.

What Abdo saw was a 1930’s era, Colonial Revival, seven bedroom, four bath mansion that had originally belonged to Colonel Robert R. McCormick, the one time editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune. Water was pouring into the house that was covered in wall-to-wall, shagadelic carpeting. Raccoons were living in the chimney, two windows in the living room had been bricked over and the basement had been converted into a discotheque, complete with a mirror ball.

Abdo drove straight to the bank. After it stopped raining he showed his new investment to the future Mrs. Abdo who responded by doing a cartwheel on the front yard and twisting her ankle upon landing. “I was on crutches for two weeks,” says Mai Abdo.

Despite the warnings from the real estate gods, the Abdo’s pushed forward with the purchase and then spent nine months renovating while the couple moved from Jim’s bachelor bad to various other residences in his inventory. Crews were rotated between Abdo’s paying jobs and his new home adding complexity to an already over full plate. “I was pregnant when we bought the house and I delivered six days before we moved in,” says Mai.

The good news is that if you have an old building and it needs a rescue, Abdo is the guy to call. The bad news was how the house was originally built. “There are no wood joists in this house,” says Abdo, “every floor and wall is made of concrete and block, it was made to be fireproof and bomb proof. You could land a helicopter on the roof.”

The bones of the home were not the issue as the Abdo’s went to work updating the space. They pulled in design help from Darryl Carter, moved a fountain in the back yard that had been plumbed directly to a city water line and put in a pool. Adding an outdoor kitchenette and changing room turned the back yard into an urban oasis.

The bricks were removed from the living room windows, the varmints were evicted and original plaster moldings were restored. Furnishings were kept simple with classic lines, a perfect choice for two self-professed neat freaks. Neutral color schemes help show off the architecture while works of art provide splashes of color. “There are a thousand shades of white and we love all of them,” says Mai with a laugh.

The public spaces in the home are configured on a grand scale with a dining room that comfortably seats 16 guests. The family room features oversized French doors that open into the garden. The eat-in area of the kitchen was fashioned from the original butler’s pantry and lined with beadboard. The kitchen is a tasteful, understated mix of stainless, white painted cabinetry, pickled hardwood flooring and natural stone countertops.

Despite his reputation as a developer magician, Jim Abdo claims his house is not now nor will it ever will be on the market. “We use the house for entertaining, my wife and I both sit on a lot of boards, and invariably after a board meeting I’ll be approached by a real estate agent and be told they have an unsolicited offer to buy the house.” The official word is that this Abdo development is not for sale. “I can walk to Dupont Circle in ten minutes, and I have red tail hawks in my back yard,” says Jim, “it’s a very special place for me.”

Special places can be found throughout the city which is good news for homeowners with a keen eye for the sublime. Three years ago, interior designer Patrick J. Baglino was living in a one bedroom duplex on Q Street and looking for a permanent home by working through a real estate broker. A list of prospects had been assembled including a penthouse-based condo that used to belong to the Embassy of New Guinea.

The building on the corner of Corcoran and 17th had been sold to a realty company who gutted it and reconfigured it as a mixed-use building. Corporate offices were carved into the lower floors as private residences were ensconced above. Baglino’s mom happened to be in town during the selection process and together they toured what the city had to offer, the embassy space was saved until last.

“As soon as she walked in, my mom said, ‘if ever there was a condo that was you – it’s this,’” says Baglino. Even painted in a non-descript “builder’s white,” the space was dramatic with the round, turret-based, great room serving as a jaw dropping focal point. With mom’s approval, the designer made his intentions known to the seller but price was an issue. The tipping point was the modest size – it was a condo really designed for a single person looking for something special. Baglino stuck to his guns, countering counter-offers until the developers caved in and sold out.

Over the next eight months Baglino began pulling together the colors, fabrics and furnishings that would make the space sing. A combination of hardwood and stone floors were already in place and walls would not be moved on this job. The designer concentrated on bringing his vision of “urban sophistication” to life in his own space just using finishes.

The living area was swathed in grey lilac and window treatments were deferred. “I don’t like clutter so I decided to keep it open and light,” says Baglino. An eclectic mix of furniture including an essential curved back couch makes the space an excellent place to watch the setting sun be turned into rainbows as it streams through the room’s eleven windows. Work space is nestled close by. A balcony winds around the outside offering views of the Washington Monument and Dupont Circle.

The master bedroom is simple and understated with alternating walls finished in a deep chocolate brown and shades of sea glass. The master bath is outfitted with a sturdy, naturally finished vanity and vessel sink combination bordered by a strong navy accent wall. A galley-style kitchen captures more space than expected by angling the fridge wall in towards the living area. Cabinets are simple white, updated by stainless, bar pulls, a glass cooktop hood and neutral granite counter tops.

Although Baglino has stopped designing in his own space to devote more time to clients he has reserved the right to switch things up. “My style changes and evolves, so I wouldn’t mind changing it,” he says. But one thing is staying the same. “That ceiling in the living room is just amazing,” he says, “we call it the rotunda and it still has that wow factor.”