Portfolio -Embassy Row

An architect restores run-down embassy buildings to their originial historical splendor

 


Under Raj Barr’s auspices, the ambassador’s Tudor Style
residence looks better than ever.

The word “embassy” conjures images of sprawling, palatial residences. While this description often fits, the lack of upkeep on embassy buildings can detract sadly from their beauty. How well maintained a property is varies, depending on the representative country’s interest in that maintenance. Raj Barr, AIA, principal of Barr-Kumar Architects in Washington, DC, has been called in to restore these unique buildings when time and neglect have pushed them into disrepair. Most recently, the governments of Trinidad and Tobago and Sri Lanka have enlisted Barr to renovate their embassy residences. His firm, which handles all aspects of a renovation, restored the spaces to their original glory while adding all of the latest modern conveniences.

A Light Touch

Nestled on a bucolic, two-acre lot in northwest DC, the Ambassador’s residence for the Embassy of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is far afield from Massachusetts Avenue’s famous Embassy Row.  At about 6,500 square feet, the five-bedroom house is picturesque—a World War II-era, Tudor-style building that looks like an English country estate. The house was purchased by Trinidad and Tobago in 1970. Though it wasn’t in bad shape when Barr first inspected it, he found what he calls a case of “deferred maintenance. Coming from a tropical place like Trinidad and Tobago, people don’t have the knowledge about maintaining a house in the winter,” he explains. “I needed to bring it up to speed.”

The year-long renovation began in the spring of 2006; the ambassador and her family were able to live in the house throughout the process. Barr tackled the roof first. “It’s an asymmetrical roof with lots of valleys,” he says. “So there were leaks in the ceiling.” He replaced what he describes as “10 or 15 years of jerry-rigged electrical stuff,” added two new baths and a new kitchen, and replaced fireplace mantels and woodwork. Fortunately, not a lot of interior decorating was necessary. According to Barr, Ambassador Marina Valere—who recently moved on to the United Nations—had good taste; Barr kept her furniture and added wallpaper in subtle vertical bands of cream and white in the foyer. In the spring of 2008, a new ambassador, Glenda Morean-Phillip, moved in to enjoy the renovated space.

A Major Project

The Sri Lankan Embassy’s residence is tucked away on an acre of land near Embassy Row. The building, about 7,500 square feet with seven bedrooms and baths, was built around 1920 and purchased by Sri Lanka in 1949. According to Barr, the only major renovation since that time took place around 1960, a period when “historic preservation was not a priority.” In 2002, the house was shut down for a renovation that never took place, and as Barr describes it, that’s when the condition of the house went from bad to worse. “The crucial thing that happened was that they shut off the water and gas at that time,” Barr explains. “When they decided to open the house up four years later and turned it all back on, there was so much water damage the ceilings were falling down. It needed a complete redo.”

The year-and-a-half-long process entailed a number of improvements to the home’s basic infrastructure: new windows, heating and cooling systems, plumbing and electricity. The kitchen and baths were gutted and modernized, and a new roof was added to the building. However, when it came to architectural details and finishes, Barr’s goal was to restore the house to its original state and he veered in the direction of historic preservation. He re-plastered the walls and moldings, replicating their original style; he replaced the fireplace mantels with Carrera marble (they had unaccountably been tiled during the 1960 renovation); and he selected elegant, circa-1920 color schemes throughout, including off-white and cream walls with blue and green accents, and plaster crown moldings with gold highlights.

The only structural change Barr made was to the south-facing sunroof, a 15-by-20-foot space that was never used. “We enclosed it,” Barr says, “and turned it into a solarium for year-round use. And since it was south-facing it gave us some solar gain.” In fact, eco-friendly choices are a big priority for Barr’s firm. “One of the biggest challenges of these projects was working within budget while trying to respond to environmental issues,” Barr recalls. “All our paints are low VOC, and our wood-refinishing products are water-based.”

Another challenge was security. Barr installed one-way glass in the transom over the entryway, and cameras were installed on the sides and back of the house. They are not visible in front, however. “Safety is an issue,” Barr says. “But we wanted visitors to feel welcome.”

Barr-Kumar was hired during the tenure of Ambassador Bernard Goonetilleke, who was replaced by Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya in the spring of 2008, soon after the renovation was finished.

Chancery changes

Around the time of the other two projects, Barr-Kumar also worked on Trinidad and Tobago’s Chancery on Embassy Row. Like the Sri Lankan Embassy residence, this was a major renovation. Built in 1910, the five-story building had begun life as a residence, and was later converted into a school. When the embassy bought it in 1970, its original 13-foot ceilings had been lowered to nine feet with acoustic tile, and the passport office sat in the middle of what was once a handsome entry way.

Barr’s first priority was to move the passport office to the basement, creating a separate garden-level entrance for it. To make it habitable, he opened the space up by removing walls, and installed a wood-paneled ceiling. He also took down walls upstairs that had been erected by the school and reopened the elegant front stairway, which had been blocked off in favor of an elevator at the back of the building. The goal was to limit embassy business to the basement office and to use the rest of the building for ceremonial and diplomatic functions. “They used to have to do diplomatic events in rented spaces,” Barr says. “Now they can do them on their own soil, so to speak.”

Barr’s first priority was to move the passport office to the basement, creating a separate garden-level entrance for it. To make it habitable, he opened the space up by removing walls, and installed a wood-paneled ceiling. He also took down walls upstairs that had been erected by the school and reopened the elegant front stairway, which had been blocked off in favor of an elevator at the back of the building. The goal was to limit embassy business to the basement office and to use the rest of the building for ceremonial and diplomatic functions. “They used to have to do diplomatic events in rented spaces,” Barr says. “Now they can do them on their own soil, so to speak.”

Photographer Gwin Hunt is based in Annapolis, Maryland.

 


Architect Raj Barr stands in Trinidad and Tobago’s
newly renovated chancery.

 

 



Trinidad and Tobago’s ambassador’s residence harkens
back to a bygone era, with its elegantly appointed living room.


The renovated Chancery offers spacious,
tastefully furnished rooms.

When architect Raj Barr began renovating the Sri Lankan
embassy residence, the house was suffering from serious
water damage. Barr restored plaster moldings and crumbling
ceilings to recreate the gracious interior as it once was.