Two-year renovation of historic building balances 19th-century history with modern flourishes
The five residences on N Street Northwest between 33rd and 34th Street exemplify Georgetown’s distinctive architecture during the Federal period in their solid brick construction.
The houses, which were set back from the street, created so-called ‘door yards’. They all had flat fronts, large black shutters, dormers and decorative flounces neatly tucked into recessed panels. Their austere uniformity helped the street become known as “Cox’s Row,” a series of homes listed collectively in the District of Columbia Inventory of Historic Sites and part of the Georgetown Historic District.
One of the city’s few surviving rows of federal houses, it’s where the Revolutionary War hero, the Marquis de Lafayette, stayed while visiting Washington in 1824. And not far from where Senator John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, lived during his 1960 campaign for president – eventually moving from their brick mansion in Georgetown to the White House after winning the presidency.
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The 1870 Federalist row house that writer and historian Greg Jackson bought five years ago is across from Cox’s Row, overlooking the stately homes Cox built on N Street. And that’s no coincidence.
“It is arguably one of the most historic streets in a city filled with historic streets,” said Jackson, a religious scholar with a specialty in American culture. “For me, as someone who loves and understands the history of the city, being in this area was an easy decision.”
Far from simple, however, was the two-year renovation that saw a four-bedroom terraced house in dire need of updating and repair into what it is today: a completely redesigned mansion that deftly balances 19th-century history with contemporary flourishes. (Cox, on the other hand, built each of his houses in about a year.)
While Jackson’s row house is historic in its own right—it was built for Colonel Charles Beatty, who owned the ferry between the Virginia coast and the foot of Frederick Street at Georgetown’s Water Street—it had fallen into disrepair over the years and had to there’s a lot of work.
Before he could even think about interior renovations, Jackson said the house suffered from structural problems. Years of flooding severely damaged the foundation, requiring months of extensive repairs.
“As the crew pulled up the floors, we quickly saw that the beams were rotten,” he says. Contractors eventually had to dig under the kitchen and dining rooms to a depth of about three feet to lift the back of the house and repair the foundation.
“It was only after we pulled up the floors that we could see that the foundation walls had eroded so badly that they were only an inch of brick in places.”
Repairing the extensive plaster cornices in the living room and hallway also presented challenges. Rather than simply replacing them with wooden moldings—which would have been the easiest route—he tried to restore them.
“The leftover plaster was pretty amazing,” Jackson says. Craftsmen spent weeks slowly filling and rebuilding the molding’s ridges and textures, he says.
“In some places, pieces were missing; in other places, several meters of profile were completely missing,” he says. “The process of building up the plaster and shaping it by hand was extraordinary and the beauty of the detailing and the curved lines could not be duplicated using wood or foam profiles.”
Jackson engaged North Bethesda, Md., interior designer Lorna Gross to overhaul the interior of the property.
Born in New York and raised in Louisiana, Gross eventually opened her practice in the DC area, where she quickly gained a reputation for designing homes that comfortably blend history with modernity.
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Gross says that when the partnership with Jackson began — mapping out how each floor of the five-story building would be revamped — she quickly realized his in-depth knowledge of architecture and home design went well beyond her usual clients.
“He came to the process with a full understanding of what it took to realize his ideas for the project,” Gross says. “He had some pretty unique ideas from the start, but he wasn’t afraid or intimidated to work together to make that happen.”
Those unique ideas included an unconventional interior scheme for the first level of the house: Jackson wanted the entire floor to resemble a custom Orient Express train car.
He says the idea was inspired by his days living and studying in Europe in the 1980s and the journeys he made on the long-distance passenger train before it stopped in 2009.
During its 19th-century heyday, the Orient Express traveled across continental Europe and into Western Asia, terminating in Paris, London and Istanbul. Nicknamed “the king of trains, the train of kings,” international train service epitomized the golden age of travel, inspiring authors from Graham Greene to Agatha Christie to tell stories about its famous passengers – both real and fictional.
“As a student traveling around Europe, it was as legendary as it was luxurious,” says Jackson. “It just radiated this kind of bygone era of luxury.”
For Gross it was a welcome challenge. “I like projects that go beyond the cookie-cutter ideas of what an interior should be,” she says. “Greg gave us a real opportunity to create a bit of a story with the interior and I embraced that from the start.”
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Gross went to great lengths to recreate the look and feel of a train car from a bygone era. She had period furniture and lighting from the 1930s installed on the first floor of the house, a long, narrow space with two fireplaces dating back to the Art Deco period.
The remodeling of the interior involved removing walls just past the entrance to the first level, allowing visitors to look directly into the courtyard through new steel windows and doors down a long hallway.
Gross chose a pair of antique chandeliers to mimic the Deco equivalents of the time, as well as wall coverings used to create a warm backdrop to the mix of antique and modern furniture.
The kitchen was also completely renovated and is now swathed in Art Deco-inspired black to add a little drama, Gross says.
“The goal was to create something unique without coming across as kitsch,” Gross says. “It should feel authentic, but not immediately obvious.”
Jackson says he didn’t want the Orient Express motif to dominate the entire house.
He and Gross teamed up to make parts of the 2,382-square-foot residence reminiscent of a chic lounge, which Gross describes as “a Hollywood gentleman’s lounge that Cary Grant may have frequented.”
Doubles as a home office and media lounge, the guest bedroom features Phillip Jeffries blonde wood wallcovering and a 1930s walnut cocktail table.
A powder room offers a touch of modernity among the house’s largely antique furnishings. Like almost every room of the house, it contains luxurious wall treatments that add a decorative flourish that creates a warm atmosphere.
“I think the most important thing Lorna brought to this was a strong eye for historical detail,” Jackson says. “She really understood how to make the design a unique expression of my taste without losing one of the most important parts of the house’s history.”