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Mod to Modern: Redesign of a Watergate Penthouse Brings '60s Chic Into the 21st Century

In 2007, when Myrna and Arthur "Chip" Fawcett bought their two-bedroom, two-level penthouse Watergate apartment, they were crazy about the location, not so much the eight-foot ceilings, pinkish marble floors, padded silk walls and clunky radiators. The Fawcetts hired designer Lori Graham to rework elements of what was modern in the 1960s into what looks fresh today.

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By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 10, 2009

Before there was a break-in and a national scandal, the Watergate was known solely as one of Washington's most luxurious and modern apartment complexes.

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When the contemporary Watergate East building opened in 1965 as part of the 10-acre riverfront development in Foggy Bottom, it had the latest for upscale living: open-plan layouts, balconies, marble vanities, maid's rooms and harvest gold Formica counters. Remember, this was the 1960s.

Forty-two years later, Myrna and Arthur "Chip" Fawcett bought their two-bedroom, two-level penthouse Watergate apartment primarily because of its sweeping vistas of the Potomac River. The couple were crazy about the location, not so much the eight-foot ceilings, pinkish marble floors, boxy rooms, padded silk walls, low banisters and clunky radiators.

"The place looked dated," says Myrna Fawcett, a Washington lawyer specializing in elder law. "But we couldn't resist the view and the wonderful light."

Fawcett says they recognized that the Watergate was a place where many original owners had lived for decades. But baby boomers and families with young children were moving there. "The demographics were changing, but it had always been a strong, self-contained community," she says.

The Fawcetts hired designer Lori

Graham to rework elements of what was modern in the 1960s into what looks fresh today.

She remixed furnishings they owned and created seating areas to relax in while gazing at the sky and water. Chip Fawcett, who died in November, had a particular interest in the Potomac and the boat traffic that is part of its daily panorama, especially the crew shells that regularly glide by. The sport was a lifetime passion of Fawcett's; he was a skilled rower, college crew coach and longtime president of the Potomac Boat Club.

Graham worked closely with the couple in adding contemporary design to their many traditional pieces. "I tried to make the place look modern again," she says. "There was lots of refinishing, reupholstering and replating."

She remade what she could, sending a massive Italian brass chandelier to an auto body shop to be sprayed coral and salvaging the original brass hardware throughout the apartment by having it replated in nickel. A black Naugahyde wing office chair that once belonged to former Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas was given a new life. "I loved the shape of the chair, but it was falling apart," Graham says. "We lacquered the frame white and did brown mohair upholstery."

The Fawcetts were no strangers to moving and rearranging. They had lived in four properties near Dupont Circle since they wed in 1987, a second marriage for both. Each time, they artfully combined antiques, black-and-white photography, stacks of old books and 19th-century watercolors. Eventually, they bought a weekend house in Annapolis, where Chip's family used to run Fawcett Boat Supplies. They realized how much they enjoyed living by the water and hatched an idea to move to an urban apartment along the water's edge yet near downtown.

The Watergate's controversial curving lines and saw-toothed balconies took hits from architecture critics over the years, and the hotel was recently in foreclosure. But the complex of apartments, office space, hotel and underground stores has endured, becoming the home address of many members of Congress and administration officials. For the Fawcetts, it wasn't the Watergate mystique or its high-voltage residents, such as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, tenor Plácido Domingo and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice (who just sold her place), that sealed the deal. It was the lure of the river.


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