Like so many of the stately buildings that line DC’s Embassy Row, 1708 Massachusetts Avenue boasts an illustrious history. The elegant brick house began life at the turn of the 20th century as a private residence, had a sojourn as the Turkish Embassy, then returned to private hands when a DC-based technology executive bought it. In 2009, the home was sold to the government of Trinidad and Tobago for use as its embassy in DC.
The house was beautifully designed for a family but not exactly fitting for the needs of a working embassy. Since funding was not immediately available for a renovation, the embassy staff made do. By the time funding had come through, a dynamic new ambassador had taken the helm.
Dr. Neil Parsan, a veterinarian, business consultant and one of Trinidad and Tobago’s youngest ambassadors, arrived in Washington with his wife, Lucia Mayers-Parsan, and daughter in February 2011, and quickly turned his attention to renovating the embassy. He tapped Daniel Steinkoler of Superior Home Services for the job and Steinkoler brought in interior designer Barbara Hawthorn.
“We wanted it to be functional in orientation but maintain the integrity and originality of the architecture,” says Ambassador Parsan. On the list of alterations: an overhaul of the ground-floor foyer with a newly designed reception area; a renovation of the second floor to accommodate the Ambassador’s office and create a “gathering room” with an attached kitchen for a less formal affair; a repurposed third floor (formerly home to family bedrooms) that would house two offices and a private guest suite, kitchenette and bath; and the creation of offices on the fourth floor.
According to Steinkoler, the greatest challenge lay in seamlessly matching the existing materials in the house with new doors, trimwork, hardware and various other installations. “The bulk of the work was obtaining original specifications for the doors and trim because they aren’t made anymore,” Steinkoler says. “We replicated everything exactly—we even custom-ordered solid mahogany doors that weighed 200 pounds each to match the existing ones.”
The Ambassador wanted the redesign to reflect the architectural style of the house while injecting color and light that would harken back to the sunlit Caribbean. “We updated the space but we didn’t touch the moldings and ceilings,” Parsan says. “We changed some of the colors to give you that bright blaze of the sun but we tried not to dilute the dark Colonial woodwork.”
With that mandate, Hawthorn began by repurposing select furnishings, draperies and accessories that had been chosen by Barry Dixon, who had designed the home during its previous incarnation. “We started with great bones,” she says of the project. “Then we had a head start with Barry’s furnishings, which we left in place when appropriate. We had to make sure it all fit. It had to be a seamless conversion.”
In the ground-floor entry hall, Hawthorn designed a grand reception desk “fit for the environment” with a hand-carved, inlaid wood base and a quartz-stone top that matches the stone floor. There was already a grand piano in the room, so the designer echoed the curves of the piano in her design of the desk.
Throughout the embassy, art by Trinidadian and Tobagan artists is showcased on the walls. It spans the period from 1962, when Trinidad and Tobago became independent, to the present. “We selected pieces that reflect the ethnic diversity of our people,” Ambassador Parsan says. The elaborately paneled main conference room—formerly the dining room—still reflects many of Dixon’s design choices, including the upholstered chairs and massive table, but the space has been enlivened by colorful artwork and Conrad shades that evoke a sense of the Caribbean.
The Ambassador’s office is bright and airy, with window treatments that provide privacy while admitting light. “It’s formal but fresh and happy,” says Hawthorn. On the same floor, the gathering room, which was once the kitchen and family room, can accommodate at least 16 people at one time, with furniture groupings of swivel chairs around coffee tables and a dining table. “They can switch furniture around as needed,” the designer explains. Its gold, coral and green palette, she says, “expresses the warmth of the culture, the colors of the sun.”
The guest suite was another challenge for Steinkoler, who had to reconfigure a portion of the third floor so that visiting dignitaries could rely on complete safety and privacy. “Guests can stay in a secure space, a home away from home,” says Parsan. Hawthorn enhanced the space by creating a comfortable seating area before the fireplace.
The newly renovated Embassy is now bustling, entertaining diplomatic corps and hosting art exhibits, book launches and cultural events. In addition to its own national holidays, the Embassy celebrates those of Muslim, Hindu, Christian and Jewish faiths, among others. As Ambassador Parsan explains,“We want to represent, substantially and symbolically, all diverse nationalities.”
Kenneth M. Wyner is a photographer based in Takoma Park, Maryland.
INTERIOR DESIGN: BARBARA HAWTHORN, Barbara Hawthorn Interiors, Ltd., McLean, Virginia. RENOVATION CONSTRUCTION: DANIEL STEINKOLER, Superior Home Services, Inc., Washington, DC.