A Washington Gem Restored

A young couple breathes new life into President Warren Harding's former Kalorama home, and prepares it for the next chapter in its history

A Washington Gem Restored

An anteroom leads into the foyer, where new marble and honed
black-granite tiles replicate the room’s original black-and-white
painted concrete floor.

In Washington, buying a former President’s home carries a certain cachet. But when Gregg Busch and Brook Rose purchased the 1916 Kalorama residence Warren Harding built four years before he moved into the White House, the presidential pedigree was only part of the attraction. Despite the Georgian-style home’s overgrown lawn and crumbling interiors, these two savvy businessmen recognized a diamond in the rough that they could restore to its former splendor.

“It was in scary shape. There was plaster completely coming down from the walls and ceiling. But I just remember walking in and feeling the proportions take my breath away,” recalls Rose.

“The fact that a lot of the original details had not been stripped out of the house” appealed to Busch, a mortgage banker. “And the fact that it was a President’s house put a lot of icing on the cake—about three layers!”

Busch and Rose were one of nine bidding parties on the house. They prevailed not only for their final offer but for the concessions they were willing to make, such as handling the removal of hundreds of boxes of water-logged books, papers and other “junk” the previous owners had piled up in every room. The wife had just passed away after living in the house for some 80 years.

After Busch and Rose closed on the home in 2004, they embarked on a year-and-a-half renovation that would include an exterior makeover, a new roof and gutter system to stop the water damage, major plaster and drywall repair, the installation of new electrical and heating/cooling systems and a total overhaul of the antiquated kitchen.

A developer who buys and renovates homes for a living, Rose spearheaded the undertaking in close collaboration with Busch. Their goal was to bring the home into the 21st century in a way that would respect its architectural history. “I did a lot of research. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do, which was to keep as much of the original layout and character as I could. I wanted the actual finishes, the color choices and the materials to feel like the period in which the house was built,” Rose says, “but update them to be modern and usable for today’s lifestyle. And simultaneously, I wanted it to be a little more glamorous than the typical Washington home.”

The couple turned to designer Anthony Wilder of Anthony Wilder Design/Build, Inc., to create a more welcoming approach to the house and spruce up the front yard, which consisted of a “big pile of dirt with overgrown evergreens and boxwoods, half of them missing,” according to Rose. Wilder designed a retaining wall out of antique bricks and added a new Belgian-stone driveway inlaid with mondo grass to better define the main entrance, which is on the side of the home. Historically accurate shutters and gas lamps salvaged in New Orleans complete the period look. (The project was featured last year on HGTV’s “Curb Appeal.”)

Upon entry, guests find themselves in a brick anteroom with French doors opening into the foyer, the living room and the dining room. Busch marvels at the grandeur of this space, “which feels so good, especially in spring when you can open all the doors and let in the breeze.” From the foyer, a grand staircase ascends to the second and third floors. Large landings on the upper levels lend a formal feel to the home beyond its public areas.

An initial challenge the owners faced was to repair the home’s crumbling plasterwork. “One of the great features of this house is that it does have this beautiful, elaborate plaster molding in the foyer, living room and dining room,” says Rose.

“Unfortunately, water had really damaged the plaster walls and the molding. There were gaping holes and chunks of plaster on the floors.” Rose called on the same plaster artist who restored Gianni Versace’s mansion in Miami to “surgically remove” moldings from other rooms in the house and, where necessary, remold and recast new sections to seamlessly fill in the missing areas.

Busch, Rose and their contractors went to great lengths to maintain historical accuracy and preserve as much of the original home as possible. An old postcard of the house they found in the Library of Congress helped them match new shutters to the originals. “Wherever I added a casing or a door, I completely replicated an existing door down to getting moldings re-cut,” says Rose.

Rose immersed himself in the selection of colors for the interiors. “I love neutrals and I think they can be very clean. But this is not a house of neutrals. Historic houses, to me, feel like you walk into every room and there should be a little surprise, a jewel, a ‘wow.’ Sometimes if you do that too boldly it will not tie together.

Equal care was taken on furniture placement as Rose sparingly blended antiques, reproductions and modern pieces. “I look for tasteful period pieces that can work in any environment,” he explains. “I took a couple trips to the Paris Flea Market, which sounds a lot more glamorous than it really is, but you find some beautiful pieces there.

“I also went to Buenos Aires, where I got a lot of light fixtures. They have beautiful stuff that is also very reasonable,” Rose continues. “Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world in the early half of the 1900s. People shipped in beautiful art and antiques from Europe and they’re still there, slowly being raided by people like me.”

In the living room, antique engravings and a French antique mirror hang over the original limestone fireplace. Pale celadon walls play off the sisal rug and neutral furnishings. The overall look is formal, not fussy. “There’s sparseness in both the amount furnishings and in the amount of pattern,” explains Rose. “I wanted it to flow so that when you walk from one part of the house to another, the rooms are all unified in some way.”

The dining room envelops guests in rich chocolate brown walls brightened by accents of gold. Champagne taffeta drapes by Curtain Exchange and a Niermann Weeks chandelier dress up the space. Busch and Rose entertain frequently, from impromptu parties with friends to a campaign fundraiser they hosted for Washington mayorial candidate Adrian Fenty in 2006 before, says Rose, the now-mayor was “all the rage.” They planned the butler’s pantry off the dining room accordingly, with its own sink, refrigerator, dishwasher and storage space to accommodate caterers and crowds.

They also transformed the “dark and dingy” kitchen where, Busch recalls, there was a linoleum floor, an old icebox, a single light fixture in the ceiling and little else. To bring more light into the kitchen and create a garden and deck in their yard, Rose and Busch wound up demolishing the adjacent garage. Now sunlight pours through the kitchen’s new windows and doors.

Designed with help from interior designer Lori Geiss, the kitchen and butler’s pantry evoke bygone days with vintage-style cabinetry and nickel fixtures and hardware. “If you look at the cabinetry and the choice of color and the subway-tile backsplash from Ann Sacks, the kitchen has an Old World feel to it. It has a similar look to what was here, especially the cabinetry,” says Rose. A coffered ceiling and a corner banquette create a homey atmosphere.

In contrast to the light and airy kitchen, a clubby atmosphere prevails in the second-floor library. “Some rooms have more clutter than others,” says Rose. “The library I wanted to be my warm, cluttered room.” A limestone fireplace, original wood paneling and a worn leather chair Busch and Rose picked up in an antiques store on the way to Rehoboth lend the room a cozy, lived-in feel.

They instilled a more modern look in the master bedroom, with its Barbara Barry bed and goatskin ottomans. The couple added a double-sided fireplace between the bedroom and the home’s original sleeping porch—a staple in Washington homes in the days before air conditioning. The porch is now a sitting room with its original bead board walls intact, the perfect spot for reading or an afternoon nap.

Rose calls the new master bath the home’s most “awe-inspiring” room with its intricate tile and marble work. By demolishing a former dressing room off the master bedroom, they were able to carve out enough space for a Waterworks tub, a luxurious shower and a separate WC.

In addition to the bedrooms Rose and Busch have converted into their own home offices, there are five guest bedrooms and almost as many guest baths, which makes hosting visitors a breeze. “The best part of having this big house,” says Rose, “is that the bedrooms are all ready. You can literally have a group of five of your friends stay here comfortably and they’re not in your space. I make a point that my family can come up any time.”

Hopefully, the couple’s friends and family have all had a chance to spend the night in President Harding’s former home. Because at press time, Rose and Busch were leaving the residence to make way for its next chapter in history. Though the house was not officially for sale, the government of Monaco made them an offer they could not refuse. Once the deal is done, Monaco’s newly appointed ambassador to Washington, Gilles Noghes, and his American wife, Ellen, will be moving in. Prince Albert quietly visited the home in November and decided to buy it on the spot—a testament not only to the architectural legacy of the house but to the work, dedication and talent that its most recent owners lavished upon it.

Brook Rose and Gregg Busch are now in the market for another home in Kalorama. But as Busch admits, “I don’t think we’ll ever find a home like this one again.”

Lydia Cutter is a photographer based in Arlington, Virginia.

Senator Warren Harding reportedly used the home’s veranda
for delivering speeches during his bid for the White House.
Designer Anthony Wilder created a retaining wall out of antique
brick and better defined the approach to the main entry.

In the living room, a plaster artisan restored all of the original crown
molding. Brook Rose and Gregg Busch purchased the 1898 Steinway
piano that belonged to the home’s previous owner, who spent 80 years
of her life in the historic residence.

Rich chocolate-brown walls and champagne taffeta drapes
by Curtain Exchange dress up the dining room.

The dining room opens to the butler’s pantry, equipped with its own sink,
refrigerator, warming drawer and dishwasher.

Gregg Busch and Brook Rose.

A complete renovation opened the kitchen to a new garden and
outdoor living area.

All of the original paneling was preserved in the second-floor library.

The master bedroom adjoins the former sleeping porch, now converted
into a light-filled sitting room.

The luxurious new master bath was created by eliminating a small
dressing room.