Historic Evermay mansion in Georgetown becomes a $22 million guesthouse

Canadian concert pianist Ryo Yanagitani’s taxi entered through Evermay’s imposing iron gates, passed by the three-bedroom gatehouse and drove around the graceful circular driveway.

He finally arrived in the granite cobblestone courtyard, built around a gently bubbling black marble fluted fountain. Though he had Googled “Evermay mansion” before coming, Yanagitani was stunned when he beheld the commanding 211-year-old brick Georgetown manor. “Words fail to describe how I felt when I pulled up to the house in the cab,” Yanagitani says. “It just blew my mind.”

Inside, he took in the 35-foot-long center hall; the 12 fireplaces with marble and carved-wood mantels; the handsome, wide-plank black-walnut floors. He spotted two grand pianos: an Estonia in the drawing room, which has early 18th-century pine paneling that once graced an English estate; and a Steinway in the ballroom, which boasts wood and travertine marble floors and 17-foot ceilings.

He walked the paths through the terraced gardens, which cascade over almost an entire city block, along banks of azaleas and gnarled wisteria and towering magnolias. He took note of the quiet. “It was a really peaceful and dreamy spring day, and the place enshrouded me in an illusion — as if I had walked into another country, another time, another world,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe that

just a few blocks away, there was a bustling city with traffic and noise. You could feel the history and nostalgia of times past.”

For two nights in May, Yanagitani, 33, stayed — alone — at the 12,000-square-foot mansion. He was there at the invitation of Ryuji Ueno and Sachiko Kuno, husband-and-wife biotech entrepreneurs who bought Evermay last yearand turned it into a guesthouse.

A $22 million guesthouse.

***

In a city that can’t quite decide whether power is money or money is power, two scientists, whose means and modesty are significant, can claim both.

The two Japan-born doctors are founders of Bethesda’s Sucampo Pharmaceuticals. Their research has led to breakthrough drugs, including those that treat such conditions such as glaucoma and chronic constipation.

Although they have been active in organizations such as the Washington National Opera and the Smithsonian Institution, and have their own foundation, they were pretty much under the radar in social Washington until they bought two of Georgetown’s most famous houses.

Their purchase of Evermay, ahuge Federal-style mansion on 3.5 acres, was one of the most expensive private home sales in Washington. Then, last November, the two successfully bid half Evermay’s price — $11 million — on 30,000-square-footHalcyon House, an even older Georgetown gem that dates to 1787, had original gardens designed by Pierre L’Enfant and hosted legendary social events. Both properties had been on the market for years, and their owners had taken to renting them out for parties and receptions to help pay the huge upkeep and taxes, a practice that dismayed their neighbors. Because parts of Evermay required upgrading, and the entire mansion needed to be furnished as soon as possible, the doctors would enlist Bethesda architect Jim Rill and Chevy Chase interior designer Jodi Macklin to gently bring the mansion into the 21st century.

For Ueno, 58, and Kuno, 57, spending $33 million to rescue two historic properties isn’t out of character. Some people collect cookie jars; this couple collects houses. In addition to Evermay and Halcyon (whose future use is still being determined), they own two homes in Potomac, one of which is their main residence; a townhouse in Georgetown; and two houses on the Eastern Shore.

There was no agonizing over the decision to purchase Evermay. “I liked it very much, and within five minutes we decided we wanted to buy it,” Ueno recalls, sounding as if he had just picked out a new sofa. “Well, maybe it was 10 minutes. We knew it was very unusual to find such a property on the market in Georgetown.”

“We were attracted to everything, the history of the building and the beauty of the garden,” Kuno says. “We fell in love, and we felt like we would like to have it.”

***

Evermay has been enchanting visitors for more than 200 years. The estate’s terraced gardens are dotted with fountains, domed temples and statuary, and lush with decades-old boxwood, roses and azalea. The house has weathered Victorian additions (now gone), threats of demolition and tree-toppling hurricanes. Oprah Winfrey was rumored to have considered buying it several years back to keep as a Washington pied-a-terre near pal Barack Obama.

The property on 28th Street NW, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, sits on land bought by businessman Samuel Davidson in 1792. He hired British architect Nicholas King, a noted surveyor of early Washington, to design the mansion and formal gardens.

For two centuries, the view from this woodsy crest at the edge of Georgetown has offered a vantage point on history: Residents have monitored British troops burning the Capitol and watched the burials of the rich and powerful in adjoining Oak Hill Cemetery.

Ownership passed through several families. The mansion’s most recent caretakers were members of the Belin family, who enhanced and nurtured the walled estate for nearly nine decades. Diplomat Ferdinand Lammot Belin, who bought the property in 1923, and son Peter sensitively restored the Federal style of the house and added many features, including the brick orangery constructed on the east front in 1961. Peter’s son, Harry Belin, opened the property for Georgetown garden tours and launched a nonprofit group to rent the estate for special events. But, struggling under heavy maintenance costs, he put it on the market, eventually selling it to Ueno and Kuno for less than half of his original $49 million asking price.

With the purchase, Ueno and Kuno inherited five boxes of carefully preserved archives that document purchases of mahogany doors, marble fountains, boxwood plants and pine paneling.

***

Because Kuno was spending more of her time on activities for the couple’s nonprofit foundation, she had realized the importance of having a special place — not only for offices, but for entertaining and musical evenings.

With Evermay came the opportunity to unite money, taste and philanthropy. The two doctors decided to refurbish it to serve as the headquarters for their S&R Foundation, whose mission is to recognize outstanding young scientists and artists, especially those who contribute to U.S.-Japanese understanding. The offices would be located in a small one-story brick building steps from the main house. The 12 bedrooms in Evermay’s manor and gatehouse would serve as guest quarters for these lucky foundation honorees; the ballroom and dining room would provide space for foundation events such as small concerts, meetings and dinners.

After they closed on the property last July, the couple set a deadline for restoration: the National Cherry Blossom Festival’s Centennial Celebration in March. Their foundation was a supporter, and S&R was sponsoring Overtures, a concert series held at the Kennedy Center in conjunction with the festival, which featured seven performing artists, many of whom had received foundation awards.

In September, the owners brought in Macklin and Rill, whom they had worked with before. “They had the experience and the taste. I trusted them as a team,” Kuno says. “I wanted to bring fresh air into this house. I wanted to save it for the next generation and the next 100 years.”

Rill recalls: “Dr. Kuno said to me, ‘There’s a project in Georgetown I want you to look at.’ I figured it was a townhouse. Then she said it was on 3.5 acres. She mentioned Evermay. I went back to the office to look it up. My eyes went very wide.”

Macklin, a native Washingtonian, says she had one of those “pinch-me moments” when she drove up the driveway and walked in the front door. “You can’t help but be awed by it. It’s a Washington landmark. What is amazing about it is the sense of calm in there. It is so old and strong. It gives you a peacefulness within just being there.”

Rill and Macklin would have less than seven months to restore and furnish four floors in the main house and a three-bedroom gatehouse. Twelve bedrooms and 13 bathrooms had to be painted and outfitted down to the sheets, the tufted ottomans and the hair dryers.

A team was assembled: electricians, fountain specialists, antique lock restorers, wood floor experts and faux painters. Jay Graham, an Annapolis-based landscape architect, tended to the gardens. “It was a challenge to get everything done, but people were excited to work on the project because it’s such a special place,” Rill says.

***

Kuno liked the neutral colors and elegant sofas and tables that Macklin had used in the couple’s Potomac home. “I love Jodi’s look. I wanted it beautiful and very comfortable,” Kuno says. “It had to be livable.”

Kuno also requested a setting that encouraged interaction among guests at Evermay, whether composers, filmmakers or medical researchers. “I wanted places in the garden and the house where they could share a conversation,” she says. The designers created cozy sitting areas throughout the house and added urns of abundant flowers outside. Outdoor dining tables and lounge chairs are on order.

The restoration team carefully restored damaged walnut and heart pine floorboards and polished the rest. It preserved moldings and shored up the infrastructure. New lighting and Internet and cable connections were installed. Rill says there were lots of surprises, as there always are in old houses. “The scariest part was the electricity, plumbing, heating and air conditioning systems,” he recalls. “Everything needed to be upgraded. Every time we opened a wall, we found how they were jury-rigged.”

Meanwhile, Macklin and Lauren Sparber, her design assistant, tracked down fabric and carpet samples and furniture photos, which they presented to Kuno and Ueno on folding tables in the dusty kitchen. Many of the clean-lined traditional furnishings were custom. They decided on creamy neutral paint colors by Farrow & Ball, including Slipper Satin and Skimming Stone. Serene, mostly pale colors, lots of off-whites and grays, were selected for upholstery and rugs. “We needed to maintain the integrity of the house but wanted to take it to a calm, peaceful place,” Macklin says.

Each bedroom is named after a tree or plant on the property, and each got a special statement bed — such as Barbara Barry’s curved Lyric bed for Baker or an iron canopy design by David Iatesta — layered with fluffy down comforters and textured coverlets. There are accents of color in the lamps and pillows. Sparber even stocked the bathrooms with toothpaste (Colgate) and shampoo (Molton Brown).

Some of Kuno and Ueno’s artworks and other personal collections were included in the redesign. A pair of antique Japanese screens painted on paper by famed Edo-period artist Kano Tanshin about the same time Evermay was built were installed in the dining room. Other personal furnishings included antique chairs, art glass and the antique crystal dining room chandeliers.

Subtle hints of cherry blossoms turn up in the decor. Six black-and-white cherry blossom photographs by Frank Hallam Day hang in the “Cherry” bedroom. Decorative artists from Bethesda’s Lenore Winters Studio painted champagne cherry blossoms on a polished Venetian plaster ceiling in the main-floor china display room. And Ueno suggested substituting pale pink cherry blossoms for lilies on the border of a 14-by-22-foot custom wool rug hand-woven for the drawing room by Elizabeth Eakins.

Guest handbooks in each room contain a history of Evermay, Metro maps in Japanese, and menus that include biscuits and gravy and miso soup and rice balls.

***

The design and architectural team made deadline. During the Cherry Blossom Festival concert series, Ueno and Kuno spent the night at their dressed-up property. They stayed in one of the smallest bedrooms in the house in antique brass twin beds: All the other bedrooms were occupied by cellists, violinists and sopranos, plus the couple’s mothers, who had come from Japan for the occasion.

“It felt like I was in a dream,” Kuno says.

Ueno and Kuno see themselves as next in the line of Evermay’s caretakers.

“Evermay is like a national treasure,” Kuno says. “We are honored to be the owners. We love it. But it’s a big responsibility to protect it for the future.”

They have already added rare specimens to the garden: As thanks for their support of the Cherry Blossom Festival, they received two Yoshino cherry saplings derived from the original 1912 Tidal Basin trees that were a token of friendship from the people of Japan. The saplings have been planted near a 150-year-old beech.

Yanagitani, who was visiting Evermay to receive a 2011 S&R Foundation Washington Award, won’t soon forget his weekend there.

He stayed in the bronze “Azalea” bedroom on the third floor, which arguably has the best view in the house. He slept in a queen-size Edward Ferrell + Lewis Mittman bed upholstered in beige wool gabardine and topped with a 630-thread-count Egyptian cotton Sferra duvet cover in a Turkish print.

He dined at one of two seven-foot mahogany tables, ordering waffles and homemade sausages from a menu prepared by Evermay’s chef Makoto Hamamura, formerly a sous-chef at the District’s four-star CityZen. He got to try out the two grand pianos.

“I practiced and played on the piano way into the night without bothering a single soul,” Yanagitani recalls. “I felt in­cred­ibly free and liberated after having lived in small apartments for a long time.”

“As a musician and artist, the experience of Evermay gives you the opportunity to step out of the real world. I could really let my creative juices flow,” he says. “I played pieces by Schumann and Chopin, both composers born in 1810. I realized I was performing in a mansion older than those great composers. It was a real gift.”

Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this article, send e-mail to wpmagazine@washpost.com.

The home and design coverage of Jura Koncius has taken her inside hundreds of homes, from tiny studios in Penn Quarter to country castles in Warrenton. Jura also hosts the Home Front live chat, Thursdays at 11 a.m. ET.
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