Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly quoted Jim Abdo as saying that Ricky Basye was project manager for Abdo’s house. Bob Etchells of House in Montana was project manager and Basye, one of Abdo’s employees, assisted him.
You might expect the D.C. developer known for transforming neighborhoods from Logan Circle to H Street to Brookland into hip hot spots to spend his free time enjoying the delights of urban life at Le Diplomate or the Rock & Roll Hotel.
Instead, Abdo and his family spend every available weekend at their 70-acre country retreat in Rappahannock County near Little Washington. Abdo cleared the land himself for a river walk and a sunset-viewing clearing and worked with his staff to design the small cottage that rests on the property.
“I love living in the city and working there, but to completely relax, recharge and clear my mind, I need to come out here,” Abdo says. “It’s like I flip a switch and turn off the work. Until six months ago, we didn’t even have Internet here, and there’s no cellphone service.”
Abdo, founder, president and chief executive of Abdo Development since the company was incorporated in 1996, is known for his dedication to investing in crumbling communities and transforming them into vibrant neighborhoods. His pioneering work in the late 1990s renovating dilapidated houses on P Street NW between 15th and 16th streets, long before other developers considered building in the area, can be directly tied to the resurgence of the stretch of the city from Logan Circle into Columbia Heights.
“When you’re in the middle of investing in a decrepit part of the city, you sometimes question your wisdom, so getting away from it helps me reaffirm what I believe,” Abdo says.
Abdo’s love of the country started long before he purchased The Ridge in Washington, Va. More than two decades ago, he purchased news broadcaster David Brinkley’s 50-acre property in Rappahannock County, which includes a house and pond. Abdo loved it, but he wanted to design his own ideal home rather than live in someone else’s.
“Every weekend for 12 years I would look at property,” Abdo says. “I wanted three things: views, privacy and water. I asked Grant Griffith, a real estate agent I worked with on Capitol Hill who owns property here, to see if he could find me a place. I didn’t hear from him for a year or so, and then one day I received a fax that just read, ‘I think I found it.’ ”
Abdo and his then-fiancée, now wife, Mai, immediately drove the 11 / 2 hours to see the property, which had an old bungalow with a washing machine on the back porch, overgrown hay and shrubbery and, at the same time, everything they wanted for their country retreat.
“I had to clear a path with the machetes I had in the back of my Range Rover, but we got to the top of the ridge and saw the most amazing view of the Shenandoah Mountains,” he says. “Then we hacked our way down to the Covington River, and we realized it was perfect.”
Abdo thought the blurred fax listed the home for sale at $875,000 and hoped for some wiggle room when he called the listing agent, but it turned out the price was $375,000. He had the contract faxed to the local library and made a full-price offer immediately. Abdo is only the third owner of the property, which stayed in the hands of the same family from the 1730s to the 1990s.
“The owner turned up while we were looking at it so I wrote him a check on the spot and told him I’d leave my fiancée there as collateral while I went to the library to sign the contract,” Abdo says. “He let us stay there for the weekend, and on Sunday we were sitting on the hood of our car at the top of the ridge looking at the mountains when all these people showed up for the open house. We just sat there with a bottle of wine toasting our luck. The place had seven offers and an escalation clause, but we already had locked it down.”
The Abdos, who married after they purchased The Ridge, restored and modernized the inside of the bungalow, but three years ago lightning struck the house and it was destroyed by fire. No one was hurt and Abdo was able to save most of the furniture he and his wife had collected from antique stores and flea markets over the years.
“We saved as much as we could of the wood from the house, which had been built in 1907,” Abdo says. “Jyh-Mei Lee, our in-house architect, designed a new cottage for us that fits on a slightly expanded foundation, and Bob Etchells, our project manager, lived in the bunkhouse here and hired all the local contractors to build it. We call it a ‘barn bungalow’ house because it’s small yet open inside. It’s designed to be completely maintenance-free and doesn’t need any paint or caulk because I want to spend weekends enjoying the land, not working on the house.”
The exterior of the house is constructed of bonderized steel that seems to change color at different times of day and natural wood, including some of the original oak in the cottage and 100-year-old oak “shiplap” siding with tight seals. The bungalow has a standing seam metal roof held up by tall beams of reclaimed 250-year-old heart pine from a textile mill in Danville, Va. The same beams support the ceiling inside the open-floor-plan great room but have been given added character with narrow cuts from a circular saw blade. All the exposed beams there are structural beams, Abdo says.
The Abdos take a minimalist approach to decorating at their country home, which has floor-to-ceiling windows framing views of the hayfields and trees that surround the property.
“The house itself is art, so we don’t have any paintings on display,” Abdo says.
Two small barn doors along one wall of the great room each hide a flat-panel TV, which Abdo says allows the family and their friends to enjoy two football games at once. Below each of these barn doors is a large wood-burning fireplace.
“When we come out here in winter we start the fires and keep them going until we leave,” Abdo says.
The white interior walls provide a fresh backdrop for the reclaimed wide-plank oak floors, wood trim and distressed furniture in the house. Along one wall is an enormous hutch that Mai Abdo found during the couple’s exploration of local antique shops. Jim Abdo found a 130-year-old black walnut farm table in a junk shop in Culpeper, Va., which the owner had practically buried under piles of true junk. Abdo bought it for $80. He also found a 100-year-old tool chest that he restored to use as a coffee table.
Abdo’s admiration for antiques doesn’t preclude him from modern touches such as a whole-house audio system to fulfill his love of music.
“I hate clutter, so I figured out a way to get all the systems for the satellite TVs and the audio system hidden in a storage closet under the stairs,” he says.
Design expertise solves several minor annoyances for Abdo in addition to the electronic clutter. Abdo doesn’t like to look at screen doors, so he designed pocket screen doors that can be hidden when not in use and then slide out when the family wants breezes to waft throughout the house.
“I made sure that the mullions in the window and the screens line up perfectly so that if we ever have the screens out and the glass doors closed it still looks perfect,” Abdo says. “We also put in a spring-loaded clip so that these heavy wood doors automatically latch on when we open them,” he says. “That way I don’t have to worry about the wind knocking the doors into one of the kids.”
A wide deck on the side of the house faces the trees and hayfields along with some old barns from the 1800s.
“My wife wanted me to get rid of them, but I wanted to keep them, so I had someone lay electrical lines out there,” Abdo says. “One evening I brought her out to the lounge chair on the deck, handed her a glass of wine and told her to close her eyes. Then I switched on the spotlights and with these ethereal lights it looked like we were on a movie set for an old Western. Now she loves the barns, too.”
Over the years, Abdo has found antique farm implements in the trees and shrubbery that he’s dragged to the barns for authenticity. The original wash house has been converted into a bunkhouse for his children Sophie, 11, Griffin, 9, and their friends for sleepovers.
“I added central air conditioning and heat, Internet and satellite TV and wireless speakers so we can communicate with them from the house, and bunk beds that can sleep four to six kids,” Abdo says. “I also cut French doors into the side of the bunkhouse so they can have a view, too.”
Inside the main house are two guest rooms on the main level, each with a full bath with Porcelanosa tile in the oversized showers and walk-in closets with built-in outlets so visitors can charge their phones while keeping them out of sight. The reclaimed wood stairs include a newel post built from a wood joist saved from the original cottage. The upper level includes a gallery with a cozy reading nook that overlooks the great room, a bathroom with an oversized shower and the master bedroom, which includes a peaked ceiling, an office space and extensive closets.
Abdo plans to build a larger main house on the clearing with the best sunset views, currently home to four Adirondack chairs where the Abdo family likes to relax and watch their most frequent company: wild turkeys, red foxes, black bears, bald eagles, grey herons, ducks, pheasants, grouse, quail and, of course, deer. The surrounding hayfields ripple like waves on the ocean. Abdo has a nearby farmer bale the hay two or three times a year to take it to his farm.
“He always wants to stack it up, but I ask him to drop it where it’s finished so I can see the bales dotted everywhere,” Abdo says.
Abdo and his family use a golf cart to reach the river, where the children wade and play with tadpoles and the family swims in a swimming hole not far from where beavers diligently work on their dam. Abdo created a sledding hill and a river walk, a grassy path that meanders adjacent to the river. He and a contractor cleared trees to create a path from the house to the river, and then he and Mai spread 1,000 pounds of grass seed along the route.
Abdo’s devotion to enjoying nature with his family might surprise those more familiar with his current city projects, including an arts walk and apartments in Brookland, a 75-foot-tall mixed-use development on the corner of 14th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW and the first pod-style hotel in D.C., a redevelopment of the Allen Lee Hotel on 23rd and F Streets NW, which he describes as “hip and minimalist.” Yet Abdo plans to bring a taste of his development to the closest town, the tiny village of Washington, Va., best known for the gourmet restaurant the Inn at Little Washington.
“I’m using what I learned about urban conversion projects to bring this little town back to life,” Abdo says.
Abdo, whose plan is generating some controversy among local residents, said he has no intention of letting Little Washington grow too big. He wants to maintain the serenity of the Ridge and its neighboring properties for generations to come so that everyone can be engaged with nature as well as the city.
Michele Lerner is a freelance writer.