Home & Design: Washingtonians turn former embassy buildings into treasured homes

When guests visit Eileen Ritter’s condo, she ushers them into the imperial Chinese envoy’s bedroom and sitting room. Of course, Wu Ting-fang, envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary from the Qing dynasty, vacated the premises back in 1909, when he retired from a distinguished diplomatic career. And the Qing dynasty itself collapsed in 1912, ending China’s 2,000-year history of imperial rule.

Wu’s diplomatic residence in Adams Morgan, however, designed at the turn of the 20th century by noted architect Waddy Wood, still stands, and the 13 condo owners who live in the Tudor Revival building are pleased to remember its history with a thick brass plaque by the front door and architectural drawings that hang in the wide, handsome lobby.

Ritter’s husband, Michael Mooney, has a humorous take on living in such a storied building: “We definitely miss the staff, but otherwise it’s charming.”

Embassy buildings — whether ambassadorial residences or chanceries (offices) — change hands with surprising frequency, sometimes being sold to other countries. The Qing legation building, on 19th Street NW near the Washington Hilton, is among the many that have been converted for private use. The former Brazilian legation owned an 1885 Queen Anne Victorian near Dupont Circle that is now a private dwelling. The residence of an early-20th-century Persian envoy is now corporate apartments in Dupont Circle. The Kalorama chancery of the Central African Republic was purchased for $1.1 million in May by a Northwest Washington couple who will make it their home. And the former Italian embassy and chancery on 16th Street NW near Meridian Hill Park should eventually become condos called the Flats at Il Palazzo.

One of the reasons diplomatic residences and chanceries lend themselves to becoming homes is, of course, that most of them were residences to begin with. Embassy Row, the stretch of Massachusetts Avenue NW from Scott Circle to Wisconsin Avenue, developed out of Millionaires’ Row, mansion after mansion built by the nation’s wealthy industrialists, who flocked to the capital between about 1890 and 1930.

Everett House, the magnificent 1914 Sheridan Circle residence of Turkey’s ambassador, was designed by the noted George Oakley Totten Jr., having been commissioned by an Ohio industrialist who made his fortune manufacturing beer and soda bottles. The Latvian Embassy, also on Sheridan Circle — and, like the Qing legation, designed by Waddy Wood — was built for Alice Pike Barney, a painter, socialite and daughter of a wealthy Cincinnati distiller. Just west of Dupont Circle, the grand-looking Indonesian Embassy was the Second Empire-style childhood home of mining heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean, of Hope Diamond fame. Other examples, some as magnificent and some quite a bit less so, are sprinkled heavily through the Kalorama and Dupont Circle areas and beyond. Dozens of these mansions remain, and on Massachusetts Avenue alone, nine properties, four of them embassy buildings, are on the National Register of Historic Places.

But history happened — the advent of the income tax, the Great Depression and World War II among them. Some large homes were turned into boardinghouses, some were torn down; the fortunate ones became clubs, museums and embassies. The Chinese legation, for instance, went from a single-family residence, to a rooming house (23 units on three floors) to the current condo building developed in 1987 (13 units on five floors, with the attics and below-grade spaces finished).

Political events, such as the emergence of independent African nations in the 1960s or the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990-91, can lead to a flurry of new embassy activity, which most often translates to countries’ seeking appropriate buildings to buy for residences and offices. In the minus column, though,foreign governments — because of regime change or financial crises at home — sometimes move to new offices and residences without selling the old properties, allowing the latter to languish, possibly for years.

Reclaiming one of these former glories can be bittersweet: New homeowners often get the “good bones” of a mansion— high ceilings, thick walls, architectural detail. But interior embellishments may have been swept away to fit in one more desk or filing cabinet, and old wood floors worn down by bureaucratic foot traffic. In a condominium development, Apartment A might have the generous original bathroom, Apartment B might get the elegant balcony, and Apartment C might wind up with nothing but new drywall. The truly lucky residents of such buildings — those who own condos in the former Qing dynasty legation, for example — will not only get to live in an attractive historic building, but will also inherit tales to tell.

* * *

The 1,137-square-foot space where Envoy Extraordinary Wu once slept and relaxed is now the bright, airy two-bedroom home of Ritter and Mooney. An enormous fiddle-leaf fig tree soaks up the sun from a large south-facing window in the living room; beside it, a handsome daybed accommodates two for reading. The apartment has a fireplace the couple use frequently and a deep balcony off the living room where they have been known to sleep out. Ritter and Mooney have divided the original large bedroom to create a small guest room.

Across the hall from Ritter and Mooney on the building’s second floor, a neighbor lives in the mirror image of their condo, once the bedroom and sitting room of Wu’s wife, Ho Miu-ling, whose name is sometimes rendered as He Miaoling.

Ritter, a designer of residential interiors and museum shops, has lived in the building for 20 years (she married Mooney, who works in e-marketing at Marriott International, 17 years ago). The furnishings are eclectic: contemporary upholstered pieces flanked by a hefty antique German chest and a Shaker-style armoire. An antique Chinese wedding basket (“I just loved the shape,” Ritter says) sits atop the armoire; an old English music stand has been converted into a drinks table.

The couple know details about their building’s former life because Wu’s daughter, age 4 when her family moved in, came back to visit as a very old woman and delighted the condo owners by telling them what their rooms used to be and how she and her sister were allowed to hang over the banister on the third floor when “Minister and Mme Wu,” as they were called in the society columns, entertained guests in the lobby below.

* * *

Directly off that lobby, in a unit owned by Audrey Bender, is the building’s showpiece: the envoy’s handsome main reception room. This condo had been a rental before Bender’s arrival, she says; the owner leased it to four young men and it was “party central.” Given that history, “the idea that nobody painted the wood, nobody removed the fire screen, nobody took the cushions [from built-in seating by the fireplace] — it was extraordinary to me,” she says.

A glance around at the original dark-paneled room tempts one to see it as exotically Chinese. But Bender, whose condo includes the reception room plus a redone kitchen and powder room on this main level and a handful of bedrooms and bathrooms on the floor below, knows better. Ho Miu-ling “was insistent that her home not be Chinese at all,” says Bender, who paid $900,000 for the 2,300-square-foot unit in 2010 (other units in the building are now assessed at between $476,000 and $797,000).

Bender, a retired creative crafts editor for Family Circle magazine, is right: The dark wood has a Tudor or Jacobean feel, and the inglenook fireplace — that’s a fireplace recessed in an alcove with seating on either side — is European in style as well.

Because the large room virtually swallows furniture, Bender has arranged half a dozen velvety armchairs and love seats into seating and eating areas; pink light bulbs give the space a moody glow. On shelves, and in shadowboxes, she has placed a lifetime’s worth of objects, plus tongue-in-cheek art assemblages of her own making — little treasures that might have delighted the envoy’s young daughters. In a way, the room feels like the shadowy sitting room of a men’s club, all about comfort and conversation.

Bender feels an almost mystical connection to her apartment. A few years ago, “I was entranced by a vintage photo I found in a newspaper of an elegant Chinese woman in Western clothes,” she says. “I clipped it out.” That was two years before the Milwaukee-born Bender landed in Washington, having already tried New York, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Colorado. When she first saw the apartment, only the third one she had looked at, “I swear, I said to myself, ‘I have to have this.’ It just took hold of me.” And the photo? It turned out that the elegant woman was Ho Miu-ling, the envoy’s wife. “Isn’t that strange?” Bender says.

* * *

Often the exotic flavor of a present-day residence predates a building’s diplomatic period. The exquisite two-story stained-glass window on the building at 18th and R streets NW, now known as Duncan House, has nothing to do with its period as the Taiwanese chancery.

The window was designed to bring light to the grand two-story concert hall that the original owner, physician and amateur organist William Duncan McKim, included in the 1906 home. The McKim mansion changed hands a few times after McKim’s widow’s death in 1969, but his massive, 45-foot-tall organ was preserved even during the eight years Taiwan used the building for office space. In a happy ending, when an investor group bought the building to do a condo conversion in 2006, it donated the organ, now being restored, to the Universalist National Memorial Church on 16th Street NW.)

Walter Dellinger, who works nearby, had seen the striking building being converted into condos. Attracted to Duncan House’s proximity to Dupont Circle, he and his wife, Anne Maxwell Dellinger, became the first buyers, in 2006, when the nine units were selling for between $575,000 and $1.5 million. They had their choice of, among others, the ground-floor corner condo with an original fireplace, or a unit with either the lower or the upper portion of the stained-glass window.

But the third-floor condo they purchased boasted something more important for them: a large bay window in the dining area of the sunny two-bedroom, two-bath open-plan unit. The window lets the two lawyers see up and down 18th Street, enjoying what Walter Dellinger calls a “quiet intersection in the midst of a very lively neighborhood.”

Walter, assistant U.S. attorney general from 1993 to 1996 and now a partner at the O’Melveny & Myers law firm, and Anne, a retired law professor from the University of North Carolina, have lived in the city on and off since 1980 (their principal residence remains in his native North Carolina).

They relish their walkable Washington neighborhood with its restaurants, Java House and Kramerbooks, and don’t even keep a car in the city. He bikes less than a mile to work, and she walks the four blocks to her office. “The trek to Whole Foods is the longest thing I have to do,” says Anne — they’re on their second shopping cart. They bought their furniture in North Carolina but say “everything else” came from the housewares annex of the True Value hardware store about a block away, on 17th Street NW.

It makes sense to Walter Dellinger that countries want their embassies and chanceries “in the city part of the city,” for convenience and also because they “look over and say, ‘Hmm, that’s a nice building.’ ” Just the way he did years ago, while walking to work and watching the development of Duncan House.

* * *

Designer Darryl Carter’s 1999 purchase of the former chancery of the sultanate of Oman off Sheridan Circle was “like a shotgun wedding,” he says. Carter had accepted an unsolicited bid on his apartment in the Altamont, a stately condo building in Kalorama, and had 30 days to find a new place.

Not that this kept him from being picky: He wanted a house on Massachusetts Avenue. And, he told Greg Gaddy, his Sotheby’s agent, the house had to back onto Rock Creek Park, be a flat-front with a limestone facade and have fireplaces everywhere. That’s all.

“We looked at a former chancery of Korea,” says Carter, but the bidding got too competitive. “And I went to contract on the [Alice Pike] Barney house — but there were too many restrictions.” Then he won a bidding war for the Oman chancery, paying just under $500,000.

“I had looked at it earlier,” he remembers, “but it was daunting” at almost 6,000 square feet. It was structurally sound. What it required above all was vision, “to imagine what these spaces used to be. There were miles and miles of gray carpeting, and thousands of miles of dropped acoustic-tile ceiling and the [fluorescent] light fixtures that accompany dropped ceilings,” he explains.

To create office spaces, the Omani government had merely inserted partitions inside the shell of the building. Recapturing the original house, whose architect and original purpose are unknown to Carter, was “more about editing,” he says.

The four-story 1914 mansion, which also contains Carter’s studio, came to reflect his refined design sensibility: white walls, neutral-color fabrics and idiosyncratic antique furnishings and objets that usually have the crust of time on them.

Carter’s story is interior-design legend: While he was still practicing law, color spreads of his Altamont apartment and then his chancery renovation appeared in Metropolitan Home magazine, leading to a now-well-established design business. Carter has created furniture collections for Neiman Marcus and Thomasville, and light fixtures for Urban Electric Co. His second design book and second collection of Benjamin Moore paint colors come out this fall.

He still enjoys being on Embassy Row: “I get to [look at] examples of classical architecture; I could be in Europe.” He also likes the seclusion. During the day the street buzzes with diplomatic activity, “but after 6 and on weekends, it’s very private.”

And, 12 years in, he’s still changing the place — but with embellishments such as a “new” ceiling rosette for a chandelier and restored shutters. For Carter, it’s more about honoring the bones of the building than about decorating it. “These houses are precious for what they were.”

* * *

Precious, perhaps, but complicated. In 1978, just days before the United States recognized the People’s Republic of China, the rival government of Taiwan sold its official Washington properties to friendly interests, to prevent the “other” China from appropriating them. One such property was the stately Georgian-style mansion at 2224 R St. NW, built on spec by a French architect in 1902, and used for years by the Taiwanese military attaché as offices and a dormitory for 28 men.

Fast-forward to 2003, and the R Street building was far less than stately: Owned by a Taiwan interest group, it had been abandoned for 15 years, with crumbling columns and capitals inside and out, missing windows, hopeless plumbing, and extensive fire and water damage that compromised the structure. Even the interior wainscoting had rotted away in places.

Today it’s the Embassy Circle Guest House — and residence of Raymond and Laura Saba, who also own the Woodley Park Guest House. Some 30 dumpsters full of debris separate the old building from the restored one, which opened for business in 2007.

The Sabas are remarkably cheery for people who paid $1 million for the 8,250-square-foot property in 2003 and then spent 40 months (and hundreds of thousands of dollars) turning the ruin into a picture-perfect bed-and-breakfast that commands from $190 to $290 a night. “It was a labor of love and lunacy,” Laura Saba says. “Our marriage survived the renovation, but our bank divorced us.”

The Beirut-born Raymond Saba, formerly in facilities management at the World Bank, and Washington native Laura Saba, who worked in marketing, conquered the blight bit by bit with their newly formed family construction firm (the rebuilding is chronicled in a slide show on the inn’s Web site). It wasn’t all hopeless. The living room fireplace had a delicate overmantel trimmed out with neoclassical swags. The entry hall had graceful proportions and a tall ceiling. Remarkably, the interior vestibule door, with overhead fanlight and leaded sidelights, had sustained no damage.

Details were nice, but major structural work had to be done first. Only then could Raymond Sabatransform himself from general contractor to craftsman to make new molds for the rotten capitals and strip all the original door hardware.

Laura Saba made her mark in the decorating phase. Each of the 11 guest rooms is named for the antique Persian carpet on its floor (Ivory Esfahan, Electric Blue Tabriz, etc.), and each contains paintings by local artists. Furniture is traditional but not fussy; some fabrics vibrant, others soothing. The Sabas, married for 36 years, live in an apartment on the third floor, as befits a mom-and-pop operation.

“We used to call this block the ‘forgotten block of R Street,’ ” reads a picture caption on the Web site. In some ways, it still is. Across the street from the crisp-looking guest house are vacant buildings that belong to Pakistan and the former Yugoslavia. There’s a reason the Yugoslavian property, which is directly opposite the inn, isn’t as benighted as some diplomatic properties on the street: Raymond Saba takes it upon himself to trim the hedges and water the flowers.

* * *

Sometimes the bona fides attached to a piece of real estate are a little imprecise. When interior designer Patrick J. Baglino Jr. found a perch overlooking New Hampshire Avenue NW in 2005, he was told that his top-floor penthouse had been the residence of the ambassador from Papua New Guinea. More recently, real estate agent Vincent Hurteau of Continental Properties, who had the listing, found out that the penthouse had been used by the president of the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru when he visited Washington.

The place certainly seemed swell enough for either: The large open living room was in the building’s turret, with a 20-foot-high domed ceiling and small windows marching around the circular space. Baglino was able to find a curved sofa to comfortably fit the room. The interior evoked what he likes to call “urban sophisticated.” And it received attention — notably in D.C. Modern Luxury magazine — as had Baglino: In 2004, House Beautiful named him one of the nation’s top designers younger than 40.

Baglino is still urban and still sophisticated, but he has moved on, and this time he has “landed,” as he says, at yet another diplomatic address, a Dupont Circle rowhouse that once served as offices for Costa Rica.

The parlor-floor unit Baglino occupies has the fittings of someone who understands the need for storage in a city home. Blond cabinetry lines one wall of the living room, interrupted by a fireplace; walls are deep and moody. French doors lead to a dining room/ library, which Baglino uses as an office. The handsome cherry-and-steel desk melds nicely with mahogany built-ins that hide file drawers and shelves, in addition to offering glass-fronted display cabinets; the designer has heightened their drama by painting the walls a deep navy.

The bedroom already had two tall storage towers connected by an overhead bridge, creating an alcove for a bed. “I normally wouldn’t do something like this,” says Baglino, “but, turns out I love it. I feel very cozy here.” The room also reflects the designer’s “latest fascination,” charcoal gray. As he wrote on his design blog, “I love the way this paint color adds instant sophistication and drama to a space.”

As a rowhouse that contained utilitarian diplomatic offices, the four-unit 19th Street NW condominium building could use some TLC. And Baglino has promised to tackle the faded entryway, for starters. But not just yet: He is still recovering from months spent juggling clients and the new HGTV show “Showhouse Showdown.” The “American Idol”-style competition had him going head-to-head with another designer decorating two nearly identical model homes in Integrity Homes’ Potomac Overlook development at National Harbor, in Prince George’s County.

It was a great, if grueling, experience: There was no client to answer to, and, he adds, “they just handed me a credit card loaded with thousands of dollars on it.” Baglino’s episode finished filming early this month and is scheduled to air Oct. 31 — after which he can contemplate the entryway of his building and perhaps more diplomatic “posts” in the future.

* * *

If anyone appreciates the good, the bad, the ugly — and the sublime — about reviving embassies and other diplomatic buildings, it is Jim Abdo. Followers of local real estate know him for Abdo Development, which built its reputation on adaptive reuse of historical structures such as the Bryan School, now the Bryan School Lofts on Capitol Hill, and the former Capital Children’s Museum, now Landmark Lofts at Senate Square — more than 30 development projects new and old up to now.

Abdo has said that when looking for buildings to redevelop, he likes to target vacant structures or those not intended for residential use. That way, he doesn’t displace people.

Raccoons are a different matter. A group had colonized the abandoned 8,000-square-foot former residence of the Ni­ger­ian ambassador on Woodland Drive NW in Massachusetts Heights. In 2005, Abdo paid $3.25 million for the three-story 1924 property he later called a “disaster.” After three years of renovations, he sold the home — which has six bedrooms, 5 1 / 2 bathrooms, a library, a family room and an elevator, plus separate au pair and staff quarters — for $6 million.

That wasn’t Abdo’s first brush with a diplomatic property. In 2002, he suddenly had the opportunity to buy the Ghanaian ambassador’s residence off Embassy Row. It was enormous, 9,000 square feet, but distressed. Says Abdo, “I saw waterfalls pouring in the house,” which had been vacant for about a year. That didn’t worry him, though: “Water can’t hurt that building,” he explains. “It’s all concrete, steel and terra cotta brick; there isn’t a wood joist in the place.”

Jumping at the chance, Abdo and his wife, Mai, paid $2.25 million for the property and much, much more for what was “a total gut job.”

The 1920s home on Benton Place off Embassy Row was once the home of Col. Robert McCormick, editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune and, briefly, the old Washington Times-Herald. Totally renovated, it easily accommodates the couple and their two children, with a dining room that can seat at least 10 for dinner and a rear patio and pool area.

But even that wasn’t Abdo’s first embassy deal. It turns out that he once lived on 19th Street, near the Washington Hilton. Yes, in the building that was the imperial legation of the Qing dynasty.

“I rehabbed my condo unit there years ago,” Abdo says. “It’s a very special place.”

To Abdo, in fact, many embassies are special places: “When I hear there’s an embassy or ambassador’s residence available, nine out of 10 times, it’s a very special piece of real estate, often in distressed condition. That’s right down my strike zone!”

Nancy McKeon is a former editor of and frequent contributor to The Washington Post. She can be reached at mckeonn@washpost.com.

 
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