Once ridiculed as “antipasto on the Potomac,” the Watergate complex designed by Italian architect Luigi Moretti has become one of Washington’s most respectable addresses. But its curvaceous 1960s architecture still poses design challenges for residents seeking to transform their outdated apartments for contemporary living.
Homeowners Rick Lincicome and Cheryl Flota found it took two renovations to realize the full potential of their Watergate residence. After buying the one-bedroom unit in 2000, the couple removed unwanted wallpaper and built-in bookcases, and updated the kitchen.
A more extensive remodeling followed a decade later under the direction of architects Jane Treacy and Phillip Eagleburger, and interior designer Ernesto Santalla. “Their collaboration brought fresh design ideas to the space,” says Lincicome, an architect who leads AECOM’s global practice. “They completely understand how to do residential architecture in terms of details and finishes.”
Treacy and Eagleburger began the project by embracing the rounded geometries of the Watergate. From outside the apartment, they extended the curving shape of the hallway into the foyer so the small space now bends into the heart of the interior. “The curve culminates in a large open room that we created by taking down walls to combine living, dining, sitting and kitchen,” says Treacy. “This space, in turn, directs the view to the Watergate courtyard and terrace outside.”
One of the attractions of this particular unit is its vast terrace just beyond the living space. Landscaped with a variety of potted plants, the aerie is nearly twice the size of the entire apartment and provides a generous platform for relaxing and entertaining.
Inside, the living area now extends from the terrace door to the kitchen and an adjoining nook for watching TV. The rear wall of the kitchen isn’t tiled or painted, but covered in boards made of recycled wood fiber, fly ash and cement. A row of fir cabinets stands out against the gray panels and white-lacquered drawers under the Corian countertops add more contrast. “I now enjoy cooking so much more,” says Flota. “The previous kitchen had very little counter space and storage, and very little connection to the rest of the apartment.”
To partially screen the kitchen from the living area, Treacy designed a higher-than-usual island that she nicknamed the “prairie dog unit.” Like the ground squirrels emerging from their burrows, the homeowners’ heads can be seen popping up from behind the four-and-a-half-foot-high unit as they prepare meals. “The tall island was a master stroke,” says Lincicome. “It creates privacy in the kitchen and a strong backdrop to the living room. It makes the space feel bigger and more inclusive.”
For his part, Santalla strengthened the architectural concepts in adding the final layer of furnishings and finishes. He took inspiration from the classic, architect-designed furniture already in the homeowners’ possession and combined select pieces from their collection with new designs. Both modern and contemporary furnishings share the same color palette to harmonize with the kitchen finishes previously chosen by the architects.
“A neutral color scheme allows sculptural objects, in this case iconic furniture, and artwork to stand out,” says the designer. “An element of contrast, such as a tone or a texture, adds richness to the palette.”
In the master bedroom, Santalla designed the bed frame with attached nightstands and upholstered the adjacent wall to create an oversized headboard. He created a television stand on the adjacent wall that allows the screen to swivel so it can be viewed from the bed or terrace.
A talented lighting designer, Flota has worked on projects ranging from illuminating Metrorail station canopies to the Hope diamond at the Smithsonian. She found that lighting her Watergate apartment was harder in some respects than her museum projects. “It was difficult to do because of the concrete ceilings,” she says. “You can’t recess the fixtures unless you drop another ceiling.”
Flota solved the problem by varying the lighting to fit the needs of each space. In the foyer, a row of fiber-optic fixtures reinforces the curve. Track lighting in the kitchen can be focused on countertops or walls, and a cable system in a hallway spotlights a niche for art. Paper lamps by Isamu Noguchi provide a soft glow in the bedroom.
Of all the renovation challenges facing the couple, one of the most problematic was deciding what to do with the original parquet floors in the living space. Santalla came up with the idea of staining the existing wood and extending the same dark tone to the terrace floor.
“Now the indoor and outdoor parts of the apartment are integrated to create an almost seamless space,” says Lincicome. “The design succeeds in realizing the promise of what the Watergate can be.”
Frequent contributor Deborah K. Dietsch is based in Washington, DC. Alan Karchmer is a photographer in Washington, DC.
ARCHITECTURE: JANE TREACY and PHILLIP EAGLEBURGER, AIA, principals; DAVID FENCHEL, project manager, Treacy & Eagleburger Architects, Washington, DC. INTERIOR DESIGN: ERNESTO M. SANTALLA, AIA, LEED AP, principal; SPENCER G. McNEIL, designer, Studio Santalla Inc., Washington, DC. LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE: LILA FENDRICK, Lila Fendrick Landscape Architecture, Chevy Chase, Maryland.