Fulfilling the Vision of I.M. Pei

By Beth Gilbert
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 19, 2008

"Welcome to a work of art" is a phrase Dan Snyder says only occasionally but has often thought as he greets guests at his architectural masterpiece of a home in Cleveland Park.

At 2,600 square feet, it's no mansion -- Snyder had one of those, too -- but he has done more entertaining there than at all his former homes, including hosting a wedding for 125. (Snyder, a local communications executive, isn't the Dan Snyder who owns the Redskins.)

Designed by the architect I.M. Pei in 1958, the residence is one of just three attributed to Pei, renowned for his municipal buildings and art museums, including the East Building of the National Gallery of Art.

The modern/international-style house won a prestigious award from Architectural Record magazine in 1964. However, because of financial constraints of the first owner, the home only recently fulfilled the original ideas of the architect.

Pei selected the site for its southern and northern exposures. Three 13-foot-high, barrel-vaulted arches peek above the brick wall that surrounds the front of the south-facing home. Brick piers divide each module of floor-to-ceiling windows with sliding glass doors that continue through the home, making it almost transparent from front to back.

Perhaps it's more than coincidence that Snyder first saw the house while perusing a book of Architectural Record homes at a Georgetown flea market. Snyder later bought the house, without even touring the interior, from the estate of the original owner, William Slayton, a government official active in urban planning.

Slayton, for whom the house is named, met Pei while working on urban-renewal projects in the mid-1950s, including the Southwest Washington Redevelopment Project. Slayton later served as commissioner of the Urban Renewal Administration during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

While working for the State Department, he hired Washington architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen to restore the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

In 2002, Snyder also hired Jacobsen to renovate Slayton's home and complete Pei's original vision.

"The house had wall-to-wall carpeting, heavy draperies on the front, south-facing windows and a wall at the top of the staircase that eliminated all the light from the northern windows," said Charlie Gaynor, the real estate agent with City Houses who brokered the deal for Snyder in 2000. He is listing the property, with two master suites and a third full bath, for Snyder at $4.25 million.

Snyder holds two degrees in industrial design and, along with Jacobsen, made major improvements to the home that enhance the visual axis and unite the interior with the exterior.

Marble was originally specified for the floors, but Slayton couldn't afford it, and his wife thought it would make the house feel too cold.

Snyder imported 28 tons of 12-inch-by-24-inch Turkish travertine tiles, about 3,500 square feet of them, which Jacobsen used liberally inside and out. The white stone reflects the light back into the house, where it bounces off the 13-foot ceilings and casts a warm, flattering light throughout the main level.

"The arch in the barrel vault is one of the greatest tools an architect can work with," Jacobsen said. "Reflected light provides the ambiance and flatters the building materials as well as the people and in the Slayton house finally fulfills the architect's vision."

Jacobsen also used marble on the rear, lower-level patio, which has three sets of sliding glass doors to the dining room, kitchen and den. When opened, Snyder said, the house could easily accommodate a party of 200.

Removing the wall at the top of the staircase that led to one of the bedrooms brought light from the north-facing windows into the main living area. This united and accentuated the northern and southern exposures -- the basis for Pei's choice of the site. Now, the half-flight of stairs from the open living room leads to a library between two master suites. The two walls of the library are composed of Jacobsen's "signature" egg-crate bookcases.

Jacobsen also added a swimming/reflecting pool surrounded by the travertine in what was previously a grassy area behind the brick wall at the front of the property. The pool has six jets or fountains, which can be regulated via remote control.

Snyder inherited all of Slayton's documents related to the design and construction of the home, including a thoughtful and sometimes humorous journal called "Vignettes." In one entry, Slayton describes two other architects -- one from Pei's New York office, Kellogg Wong, and one in Washington, Tom Wright. "I had both a Wright and a Wong architect working on my house," he joked.

Snyder said he will donate the documents and drawings to the Library of Congress. An application to place the home on the National Register of Historic Places is pending.

He said he feels he has fulfilled a mission of sorts, that it was his destiny to restore and preserve the house.

As for what he'll miss most, he said, "Leisurely reading the newspaper on a Sunday afternoon -- it's then, after several hours, that one can truly experience the magical effects of the light."

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