Developer Donatelli and family find home in renovation of historic ‘Owl’s Nest’ mansion

September 27, 2013

When commercial developer Chris Donatelli and his wife, Karen, first saw the “Owl’s Nest,” a historic mansion set on two acres in Northwest Washington, there were more pigeons than owls in residence.

Today, with the assistance of George Myers, principal of GTM Architects, and Gibson Builders, the Donatelli home has become a family paradise with approximately 10,780 square feet, a swimming pool and dozens of places for the Donatelli children to enjoy playing hide-and-seek.

Chris and Karen Donatelli and their four children — Christopher, 11, Caroline, 10, Claudia, 7, and Catherine, 4 — take pleasure in the quirks and whimsical touches in their historic home, into which they moved in 2008. Built in 1897 by architect Appleton P. Clark for William L. Crounse, the founder of the National Press Club, the Owl’s Nest is designated as a historic landmark, which had an impact on the residence’s renovation.

“The Owl’s Nest was considered a country house when it was built on a hilltop oriented toward Connecticut Avenue,” Chris Donatelli said. “There are still lots of tall trees on the lot, so probably the name comes from owls nesting on the property. Karen and I were drawn to this place because we lived in the city when we were first married and wanted to move back into town from Potomac. Even though there were broken windows and the turret had become a nasty-smelling pigeon coop, we were intrigued by the size of the place, and we could see its potential.”

The couple’s first step was to call George Myers, principal of GTM Architects, a friend who has collaborated with Donatelli on many commercial real estate projects. Myers has restored and remodeled numerous historic homes and immediately saw the possibilities for the Owl’s Nest. The house had been vacant for years after the property was purchased in 2001 by the Jewish Primary Day School. The school wanted to tear down the Owl’s Nest to build a new school, but neighbors united to save the house by securing the historic designation, and eventually the property was purchased by the Donatellis.

Donatelli, principal of Donatelli Development, is known for transforming city neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights, the U Street corridor and Petworth with residential and mixed-use developments such as the Ellington on U Street and Kenyon Square on 14th Street. His latest project is a 376-unit building at Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road in Northeast, adjacent to the Minnesota Avenue Metro station. While his main business is residential development, Donatelli also owns the Acre 121 restaurant and Lou’s City Bar, a sports bar, both in Columbia Heights.

For his own home, Donatelli relied on Myers’s expertise.

“The house had three levels with about 5,000 square feet, so we doubled it in size,” Myers said. “The first floor was actually in decent shape, so we were able to restore the original wood floors, the wood stairwell and the stained glass windows, but otherwise it was a gut job all the way down to the studs, and we replaced almost everything.”

The historic designation meant that the front exterior couldn’t be changed, so living space had to be added to the back.

“I like to make new sections look as if they’ve always been here, so I try to use as much of the same materials as the original home,” Myers said. “The Historic Preservation Review Board, though, likes to see some kind of natural but subtle distinction between the old and the new sections. The new section needs to be smaller and secondary to the original structure.”

Stone gates frame the entrance to the Owl’s Nest, which is constructed primarily of oversized local stone with thick mortar between the stones. Some of the pieces of river rock jut from the outside of the house which gives the home an undulating look.

“This is a shingle-style home, which means it has lots of curves, including the turret and the portico,” Myers said. “We repeated some of the curves in the new section with the roof lines and the stones and matched the original green slate roof.”

Inside, the home has a meandering floor plan, in part because of the constraint of adding space only to the back of the residence.

“A new house wouldn’t be built this way, but it’s an interesting home,” Myers said. “The original section of the home included huge formal spaces, but it was missing the spaces that a modern family needs.”

An arched stone portico leads to a flagstone front porch tucked underneath another stone archway that leads to the front door. Inside, visitors’ eyes are immediately drawn to a dramatic stained-glass window with an owl as part of the design above the wood-paneled staircase. Donatelli takes pleasure in demonstrating that each panel of the window can be opened individually with the original hardware. An exterior fixture provides backlight for the owl which functions as a unique night light for the stairs.

Myers restored the formal dining room, which has the original pocket doors, a coffered ceiling, an antique chandelier and a stone fireplace. Across the hall is the oversized living room, which has a coffered ceiling with restored wood beams, a stone fireplace and some of the original wall sconces and hardware.

“The fireplaces used coal, so they’re shallow, but they can be used with a gas log,” Donatelli said. “The storage space under the benches that face one of the fireplaces was used for coal, but now the kids use it for playing hide-and-seek.”

Near the study are a powder room and hall which was previously the home’s kitchen and a step-down entrance to the library. The library, remodeled from staff quarters, has a barrel vaulted ceiling, wood paneled walls and windows on three sides.

The most recent addition to the home, on the opposite side of the living room, includes a family room with a coffered ceiling, a fireplace and French doors to a covered porch. Donatelli said family members spend most of their time in this area of the house and that he particularly enjoys reading the paper on the covered porch.

The kitchen wing includes a butler’s pantry with marble counters and an office with a built-in marble desk and additional pantry storage. These two spaces link the family room and kitchen, a sunlit room with marble counters, an oversized marble center island and a breakfast area tucked into a semi-circular space with floor-to-ceiling windows. Myers said that when entertaining, the Donatellis set up buffets throughout the kitchen, breakfast area and family room.

Above the family room and kitchen are a spacious master bedroom with a private covered porch and a luxurious bath. A hall links the master suite wing with the children’s bedrooms in the original section of the home. Christopher’s room, set in the turret, features angled walls, a high ceiling and private access to the hall bath. Across the hall is Catherine’s pale pink bedroom, while Claudia and Caroline each have a spacious bedroom linked by a connecting marble bath.

The entire family enjoys the attic level, where the turret, which has mullioned windows, is currently in use as an exercise room. A full bath is adjacent to the turret, and nearby are a loft which can also function as a guest bedroom, a flexible room used by the kids for projects and several storage rooms.

“We’ve used the rooms up here for art projects, and we set up a mini-golf course, too,” Christopher said. “I use one for a business called ‘Chris_Tech’ that helps people with their computer issues. I’m Apple-certified, so I could work in an Apple store if I were older.”

The finished lower level has multiple rooms where both kids and adults can relax. In the new wing, Christopher and his dad enjoy the man cave, which has a fireplace and doors to two covered porches that lead to the swimming pool. The older section of the home has been renovated to include a recreation room, several closets and a powder room. Nearby are a spacious hall, a den with a closet and full bathroom and a laundry room.

While the Donatelli children dominate their domain, the adults in residence have space to entertain and relax in their Northwest retreat.

Michele Lerner is a freelance writer.

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