Two years ago, Jim De Lorbe had an idea that was either crazy or brilliant, and even he wasn’t sure which it was. De Lorbe wanted to take a historic property, turn it into a show house and have college students design rooms for a modern family.
Turns out, it was a brilliant idea, mostly because of the students from George Washington University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In reimagining the rooms of Woodlawn in Alexandria, they showed inspired creativity and profound respect for the home.
De Lorbe, who founded the nonprofit educational organization Made: In America to foster American enterprise, was looking for a way to feature U.S. furniture manufacturers and to give design students hands-on experience working with historic properties. Having been involved with projects for Oatlands Plantation and President Lincoln’s Cottage, De Lorbe decided to approach officials from the National Trust for Historic Preservation about Woodlawn.
“I really thought, ‘Oh, they’re going to think I’m crazy,’ ” De Lorbe said. “They were both like, ‘Oh, wow, we like the concept. Let us think.’ And so they did.”
Woodlawn was once part of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. The former president gave 2,000 acres of the estate to his step-granddaughter, Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis and her husband, Major Lawrence Lewis. William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol, designed the Georgian home, which was built in 1805. It was the first site owned and operated by the National Trust.
“It is what people would envision is the all-American house,” De Lorbe said.
Once the National Trust gave its approval, De Lorbe invited three schools to participate in the two-semester project; one school later dropped out. UNCG had the largest contingent, 16 students for the first semester, seven of whom continued into the second semester.
“We said, ‘Sure, we’d love to do it,’ having no real idea what it meant,” said Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll, professor of interior architecture at UNCG.
GWU started off with five students, but only one, Jasmine Callender, a 20-year-old junior, saw the project through to the end. Unlike the UNCG students, Callender, who is working toward two degrees, one in fine arts and one in interior design, did not receive college credit for her work. It was strictly an extracurricular project for her.
“My biggest challenge was coming up with a concept,” Callender said. “We were given the question, ‘What is American? What does that mean?’ What I did was really research what Woodlawn was about, its push for sustainability and being a self-serving community. I was going to use that idea, and our new focus on being eco-friendly and healthy.”
Working within the exacting limitations presented by a historic property — some furniture couldn’t be moved — the students transformed the home from staid to sensational. The rooms were judged by members of the Congressional Club — Julie Reichert, Tamra Bentsen, Betty Ann Tanner and Marty Hinojosa.
UNCG, which designed six of the eight rooms, won first place for the parlor and third place for the center hallway. GWU won second place for the dining room.
The judges “were very swayed by the accessories,” said Ashley Wilson, architect and designer with the National Trust. “I think [the parlor] won solely because of the doorknobs.”
On a table in the room, the students filled an apothecary jar with vintage brass doorknobs, one of which had the face of George Washington. That wasn’t the only clever touch. In the linen room, the UNCG students enlarged a vintage map of Washington and adhered it to the wall. The map, along with the telescope on the secretaire, brought home their theme of “looking out into the world.”
In conjunction with the Woodlawn competition, students from the Corcoran College of Art and Design participated in a contest to make over the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Pope-Leighey house. The historic home, located on the Woodlawn property, was built in 1939. The students prepared design boards with their visions of how the home could be updated for a 21st-century family. Designers Alexa Hampton and Barbara Hawthorn judged the entries. Monica Mesa won first place for her board.
“We loved the way it integrated nature into the home,” Hawthorn said. “When you have a small space, the best thing you can do is open it up to the outside.”
The Corcoran entries are on display at Woodlawn in a room next to the gift shop.
Although this was the first time a historic home had been turned into a show house, many of those involved hope it won’t be the last. Officials for Made: In America and the National Trust are looking at ways to continue the partnership into the future.
The competitions “really fit into our desire to use all of our sites as places for creativity and inspiration and new design and new thinking,” said Katherine Malone-France, director of outreach, education and support for the National Trust. “It was a nice way for us to introduce to [students] how you do work in a national historic landmark.”
For those visiting Woodlawn who find they can’t live without the Thomas Jefferson-inspired reversible reading chair made by Century Furniture in the parlor, there’s a way to take it home with you. Much of the furniture, which is on loan from the manufacturers, will be sold through a silent auction that runs through the end of the exhibit on June 16.
9000 Richmond Hwy., Alexandria. Open daily except Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., through June 16. Admission $20. 703-780-4000. www.woodlawnpopeleighey.org.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this story, one of the judge’s names was misspelled. Her name is Tamra Bentsen.