Historic Georgetown is rich with landmark buildings, quaint alleys and picturesque courtyards—slices of history that still evoke the bygone eras the neighborhood has weathered over hundreds of years. Prominently showcased on one such well-preserved street is a Federal-era home, recently brought back from disrepair by a renowned design team and now a winner of a Contractor of the Year Award for Entire House Over $1 Million—as well as Home & Design’s Award of Excellence.
Over the years, Glass Construction (recipient of these awards) has built a niche for itself in historic restoration, preservation and adaptive reuse. In fact, when owner Tom Glass heard from the couple who had just purchased this historic Georgetown home, it wasn’t the first time they’d called. “I’d known the owners for quite some time,” Glass recalls. “We’d done other renovations for them in Georgetown.”
Glass and his team were particularly energized by the prospect of this project because the architects tapped to redesign the house were the renowned Modernist Hugh Newell Jacobsen and his son and partner, Simon Jacobsen. “Of course I was familiar with Jacobsen’s work and it was exciting to get an opportunity to work with him,” Glass says.
According to Simon Jacobsen, while the house was designated a landmark, over the years it had been stripped of much of its historic value—so making changes was less of an issue than one might expect. The homeowners and architects agreed to return the exterior to its Federal-era roots, in keeping with the surrounding homes. “We didn’t want to erase the historic integrity of the building,” Simon Jacobsen explains. “We took it back to the Federal era, reducing it down to its original elegant design.”
The Jacobsens did the same with the interiors, which had been marred over the years by haphazard changes and reconfigurations. “Nothing original was really left anymore,” Simon Jacobsen says. “The original spaces were divided up in the 1930s, and that’s when the house began to lose what it was intended to be. The old kitchen was almost a rabbit warren.”
The new design removed extra walls throughout, enlarging rooms to their original grandeur. The house, which follows what Jacobsen terms “a two-pile plan” (a common layout of the period), is actually five splendid stories high (including the basement), and sports two spacious rooms per floor flanked by a side hall. In a crowded city, says Jacobsen, building up was historically the way to create a spacious home and heating one floor at a time made these homes financially viable.
The home’s front entrance is on the second floor, which includes both a front and a back parlor in addition to a grand front hall that now accesses a powder room, coat closet, staircase and elevator. The floor beneath—half above and half below ground—houses the dining room and kitchen (the architects dropped the floor three feet to give these rooms nine-foot ceilings), while the floor above accommodates the master suite complete with his and hers closets and a master bath. The fourth floor offers two en suite guest rooms and a laundry room, and the fifth floor belongs to the owners’ teenage son. The house boasts six working fireplaces.
Once the home’s exterior had been restored and the interiors brought back to their original state, the homeowners struck a different path. “They wanted a very clean, crisp, light-filled environment,” Glass says. “They were very much into the Modernist aesthetic. They have an extensive collection of art and a number of different kinds of furnishings that they needed space for.” Jacobsen, who is known for his spare, contemporary designs, was the perfect person to implement the sensibility the owners were looking for; in addition to the architecture, he and his son took on the home’s interior design as well, creating pristine backdrops for the homeowners’ colorful art and eclectic furniture.
The house, with its restored, open plan, is rife with Jacobsen trademarks—and as Glass describes it, these made the project a challenge. “We essentially rebuilt the whole interior, reproducing it in Jacobsen’s style,” he says. For example, in Hugh Newell Jacobsen’s vernacular, doors extend from floor to ceiling so they look like a contiguous part of the wall. Eschewing moldings at floor or ceiling, Jacobsen opts for a reveal bead—a quarter-inch metal strip that goes onto the drywall, creating a gap that draws the eye. Unlike traditional moldings, the reveal bead leaves no room for error, says Glass. And in an old building that had shifted over time, windows and doorways weren’t level. “Each jamb had to be custom fit on the outside and level and square inside,” Glass recalls, “or the windows and doors literally wouldn’t open and shut.”
In the end, the Jacobsens’ vision and Glass Construction’s precision paid off. “It was hard work,” Tom Glass says, “but it was definitely rewarding.”
RENOVATION ARCHITECTURE, INTERIORS & LANDSCAPE: HUGH NEWELL JACOBSEN, FAIA; SIMON JACOBSEN, managing design partner, Jacobsen Architecture, Washington, DC. CONTRACTOR: TOM GLASS, president, Glass Construction, Washington, DC.