Eyesore To Asset: Reborn As a B& B

The Embassy Circle Guest House, which opened last month, began with the $1 million purchase of a dilapidated property.
The Embassy Circle Guest House, which opened last month, began with the $1 million purchase of a dilapidated property. (Photos By Beth Gilbert For The Washington Post)

By Beth Gilbert
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 21, 2007

Laura and Raymond Saba were ready for a change.

In 2003, with their two sons off to college, their Shepherd Park home felt lonely. The couple had owned the Woodley Park Guest House, an 18-room inn just off Connecticut Avenue NW, since 2000. They had renovated the dilapidated former rooming house into a successful business, with Laura parlaying her marketing experience and Raymond using his 15-year background in facilities management at the World Bank.

At this empty-nest stage, many couples decide to travel more and work less, but the Sabas dreamed of starting a new business, a bed-and-breakfast, which they would live in and operate.

It's an often-idle fancy that has beckoned many who have flirted with the idea of buying a charming old house. But the Sabas had a plan. They set their sights on a vacant 100-year-old mansion near Embassy Row. The building's 8,250 square feet would allow them the 10 guest rooms they figured they needed to make it profitable. And it was less than a mile from their guesthouse, which they planned to continue operating.

In September 2003, their $1 million bid for the house at 2224 R St. NW was accepted. That's when the complications began to mount.

Changing the use of the long-vacant building required city approval of a zoning adjustment. But opposition from the neighborhood made that more difficult than they expected. And then there was the state of the building itself: The damage and deterioration of 15 years of neglect and an earlier fire were extensive. Ultimately, the repairs and renovation cost more than twice their initial estimate, and the project took more than a year longer than they had anticipated. They finally opened the Embassy Circle Guest House for business last month.

The elegant structure just off Massachusetts Avenue NW was built in 1902 for Louis D. Meline, a French-born architect, artist and antiques collector. In the mid-1940s, the building was purchased by the government of Taiwan; at one point, it was used as offices and dormitories for the Taiwanese military attache. The building had been vacant since about 1990. The roof leaked, windows were missing, and the elements had taken a toll.

"We soon realized it was a much bigger project than anticipated and before beginning any renovations, the building needed to be stabilized because it was in danger of collapsing," Raymond Saba said. Fire had almost disintegrated the rafters supporting the roof, but the extent of the damage had been disguised by covering the rotted timbers with plywood.

"Seeing the tremendous damage the house had suffered had us reevaluate our budget and helped us make the decisions we did -- which were to restore the ornamental core," Laura Saba said. "This included the eight front columns, the entry doors, the front entry hall, the living and dining rooms, the grand staircase, the intermediate landing with columns and a bay window between the first and second floors, and the arches and columned entryway to the bedrooms on the second floor, as well as the third-floor staircase."

The Sabas had assumed that the surrounding Sheridan-Kalorama community would support the conversion from empty hulk to high-end inn. By their estimation, the immediate vicinity was a lot more diplomatic than residential. Neighbors included the embassies of Armenia, Cyprus, Kenya, Guatemala and Greece. Two vacant buildings, one that belonged to Pakistan and one that had belonged to Yugoslavia, sat across the street. The couple counted several other vacant buildings within a two-block radius. On their block, they said, there was just one single-family house.

The Sabas needed neighborhood support, especially the blessing of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission. According to D.C. law, the opinion of the ANC has "great weight" when issues such as these are ultimately presented to the Board of Zoning Adjustment. The couple needed a zoning adjustment to increase the allowable occupancy from six to 10 rooms and to establish a home-based business.

But neighbors want more residential uses -- single-family houses or condominiums, not businesses or chanceries, which are essentially office buildings. "One of our main concerns was that a bed-and-breakfast would draw more vehicles to an area with a severe parking shortage," said Chris Chapin, president of the Sheridan Kalorama Neighborhood Council, which was one of the lead opponents of the project.

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