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.
The Sabas said they were surprised at the intense resistance and questioning during their initial presentation to the ANC in early 2005. "We really tried to build something appropriate for the neighborhood," said Laura Saba, who recalled feeling blindsided.
The couple realized they had work to do. They hired a lawyer, Chris Collins of Holland & Knight, and began a community outreach program.
They sent hundreds of letters to their neighbors and went door to door to collect signatures of support. "We had many people seriously opposed, but significantly more extremely excited that this blighted building would finally be restored," Laura Saba said. The Sabas also planned to live in part of the building, a key requirement in their application.
Eventually, they got the ANC's support. "We ultimately believed it would be a residential asset to the neighborhood," said MaryEva Candon, one of the commissioners for Sheridan-Kalorama.
At the hearing before the zoning adjustment board, some neighbors were still skeptical about the parking situation. "There was significant community opposition at the BZA hearing, but we were able to satisfy the BZA that we met the requirements for approval of a home occupation," Collins said.
Raymond Saba recalls the almost 18 months from the purchase until the zoning approval in February 2005 as a nail-biting period -- without the approval, he and his wife couldn't proceed with the project and would have to sell the building. However, now that he knew more about the building's structural problems, he believed selling it would have been almost impossible.
That wasn't the only government requirement the Sabas had to meet. Because the building is in a historic district, any exterior renovations had to be approved by the D.C. Historic Preservation Office. These approvals came more quickly than those from the zoning panel.
"When the Sabas applied for permits, they also provided all the necessary documentation and assurances that work would be done to the highest standard," said Stephen Callcott, a preservation planner in the Historic Preservation Office. "The Sabas did a tremendous job in rehabilitating a very dilapidated property, and now it's an asset to the neighborhood instead of an eyesore."
That took work and money. "This was a completely labor-intensive project," Raymond Saba said as he relaxed recently in their comfortable 800-square-foot apartment on the top floor. "It took six men six months to re-lay almost all of the interior brick."
He took charge of finding bricks to replace those that were too damaged to reuse. He traveled to Baltimore, Hagerstown, Md., and Richmond to purchase antique bricks that would match the color, size and texture of the original. These bricks cost four to five times as much as typical brick. Saba estimates the cost at about $50,000 -- not including his time or the labor.
As well as a basic crew, he hired craftsmen from the District, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia who specialized in plaster restoration, decorative ironwork, stained glass, gold leaf applique, cabinetry and millwork. The meticulous attention to detail is particularly evident in the moldings and trim, for which Raymond hand-carved sections that could be duplicated with resin castings and fit into the missing places. Although the Sabas won't say how much they spent in total on the project, he estimated that the trim restoration cost more than $100,000.
The ceiling medallion in the dining room, from which a Murano glass chandelier hangs, has a flowering centerpiece of 96 individually cast leaves. Missing balustrades were re-milled. Decorative ironwork in a fleur-de-lis pattern that was first used in the mosaic-tiled floor of the vestibule and then on railings throughout the building was also replicated.
The results enthralled hundreds of guests, many of them former skeptics, during two recent pre-opening receptions.
All 10 guest rooms were completed and open. They are quite large, about 450 square feet, and each has a private bath. The furnishings are simple but elegant. Natural-hardwood-framed beds, old-fashioned white chenille bedspreads, antique Persian carpets over the refurbished hardwood floors, white plantation shutters and two classic armchairs with reading lamps grace each room. An eclectic and extensive mix of art from local artists and guests from their Woodley Park Guest House hangs throughout the Embassy Circle house.
"The neighborhood is inundated with embassies and chanceries, but restoring an abandoned and derelict building into a residence and providing a useful service to the neighborhood was an attractive idea," said Phil Baker, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than a decade and attended one of the parties. "The Sabas presented a good case to the Advisory Neighborhood Commission and eventually turned many skeptics in their favor."
During a recent interview, Chapin, head of the neighborhood group that originally opposed the idea, said a bed-and-breakfast turns out to be a good fit for the site. However, he still is concerned about parking for guests and said he doubts they will rely on the nearby Dupont Circle Metro station, as the Sabas have maintained.
Since the opening last month, the Sabas say, business has been good. "We have been getting a steady stream of guests," Laura Saba said.
These include friends and relatives of neighbors, diplomatic guests referred by the surrounding embassies, conference attendees, and business travelers who routinely come to the District. This weekend, the Sabas have booked several artists who will be exhibiting at the Smithsonian Craft Show.
Room prices average $240 a night and include breakfast, with the conversation always coming around to the lavishly adorned interior and, of course, the story of how the building was reborn.