House of the Week | Federal-era townhouse in Georgetown for $10.5M

This Federal-era townhouse, with its pleasingly demure countenance, offers no hint of what unexpected delights lie behind its stately brick facade.

Like many of its Georgetown neighbors, the home has been witness to history.

Not long after it was built in 1810, loyalists to the crown hid British spies in the house. Later, Confederates found refuge here. Rumor has it that it also was part of the Underground Railroad. What made it so attractive to people on the run was that its attic was connected to the other homes on the block, allowing for stealthy escapes.

In 1964, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Herman Wouk moved his family into the home during the time he was writing and researching “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.”

When Jacobsen Architecture was hired to renovate the home, Simon Jacobsen found a few mementos Wouk had left behind. Among his discoveries were the steel balls that Humphrey Bogart used in the filming of Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny” with a note that read, “To Herman from Bogie.” Jacobsen also discovered a secret room hidden behind a bookcase. Inside were .45-caliber ammunition, a telephone, a stool and a book.

“This house has so many surprises,” Jacobsen said.


(Courtesy of Washington Fine Properties)

And more than a few disappointments.

The house had not aged well. Most of the historic character had been stripped away.

“There was nothing to keep,” he said. “The house had been attacked over the last 75 years before we got there.”

Although hiring an architectural firm that specializes in contemporary design may have seemed like sacrilege to historic preservationists, Jacobsen Architecture has long married old and new in creating elegant, formal dwellings. Hidden among those baseboard- and molding-free walls, bright spaces and floating bookcases is a respect for traditional elements.

“We’re known as these modern architects and designers,” Jacobsen said, “but we abstract the older stuff.”


(Courtesy of Washington Fine Properties) The sitting room has a floating bookcase.

The firm used photos from the Library of Congress’s Historic American Buildings Survey and pattern books from the 1800s to guide it in its restoration work.

While the exterior was restored to its original glory, the interior became a contemporary showcase for the owners’ art and furniture collection.

The aggressive renovation also allowed for the installation of geothermal heating and cooling, a rarity in a historic structure.

The five-story home, which was featured in a February 2011 Architectural Digest edition and won an award for excellence in interior architecture from the Washington Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, is listed at $10.5 million.

Listing: 3255 N St. NW

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Kathy Orton is a reporter and Web editor for the Real Estate section. She covers the Washington metropolitan area housing market.
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