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In the Lap Of Luxury And History

By Linda Wheeler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 21, 1996; Page E01

The Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood of Northwest Washington has some of the finest mansions in the city, a community where homes still have ballrooms, grand staircases and circular driveways. Built for the city's wealthiest and most powerful families in the 1920s, many of the homes continue as residential homes while others are now elegant embassies.

Marie Drissel felt lucky to buy one of these houses in the late 1970s. She and her husband became the fourth owners of a house that was then about 60 years old. They only got to see it once, but that was enough. They bought it and then moved into an 8,000-square-foot house with a second-story ballroom, 11 bedrooms, including five for the servants, and a library.

The plan was to bring it back to its original beauty.

"We were wildly naive," she said. "We didn't know how bad it was. It has taken me 17 1/2 years to restore it."

The ballroom, Drissel said, at first looked like a mass of decaying plaster and peeling paint, until they discovered that it was a 200-year-old mirrored room taken from a Bavarian castle and installed on the second floor sometime in the 1930s. When she realized how expensive the restoration of just that room would be, she taught her self to gild, plaster and sew curtains.

Drissel, who is known for her political activism on District issues, said the five servants' rooms are now space for her home office and she likes to tell visitors she is the one employee.

The Drissels' house on Bancroft Place was built in 1917, a period when about a third of the 500 homes that now make up the historic district were built. The first rush to build on the pretty hill overlooking the White House a mile away came in the 1880s and 1890s. At the time, Washington experienced a huge building boom as housing demands continued to rise after the Civil War.

What now is Sheridan-Kalorama had been a large estate known as Kalorama with a manor house at the present day intersection of 23rd and S streets NW. The neighborhood name was coined when the area became a historic district in 1989. It combines the Kalorama name with Sheridan for Sheridan Circle, which is on the southern boundary of the neighborhood.

Developers demolished the 150-year-old manor house in 1889 as the former estate was divided into building lots for the city's well-to-do who wanted to get away from downtown. In the process they created an early suburban community.

Unlike nearby Dupont Circle and Logan Circle, where Victorian row houses dominated, Sheridan-Kalorama was different from the start. Although Sheridan-Kalorama had large town houses and luxury apartment buildings, the neighborhood became known for its impressive, free-standing mansions. There are blocks of them, mostly on the west side of the community bounded by Rock Creek Park and Connecticut, Florida and Massachusetts avenues.

If there ever was a down period for the neighborhood, it was probably in the 1960s, when the Maryland and Virginia suburbs became the place to live for those who could choose. Some of the grand houses were made into apartments and others into embassies. Some stood vacant.

It was about then Elmer and Minnie Klavens were looking for a closer-to-downtown home after raising a family in the Palisades neighborhood on MacArthur Boulevard. What they found was the entire Holton Arms School that was a series of houses joined together. The school was moving and all the property was for sale.

Elmer Klavens, a developer, saw a lot of potential in the string of buildings.

"We cut them apart and remodeled them," Minnie Klavens said. "We had done this so as to have a house of our own but we ended up selling everything but the one big one on the corner of Bancroft and 23rd and the 15-foot-wide lot next to it."

She wanted an art studio and her husband couldn't figure out how to make one in the last building. One day he realized if he sliced off a four-story, 15-foot-deep bay window of the remaining house, he would end up with a lot big enough to build just the house they wanted.

The house, although 40 years old, blends in well with the older houses they had renovated. Minnie Klavens has almost an entire floor for her studio, which overlooks the Washington National Cathedral on one side and the White House on the other. She has been painting her abstract pictures there ever since.

Like others, Minnie Klavens likes living close enough to Connecticut Avenue to walk to stores and restaurants. She also is pleased that her neighbors are not overly friendly.

"I do have neighbors here who know me," she said. "They don't intrude but they are there when you need them."

The formality of neighborhood relations may have grown out of the architecture which is more exclusive than folksy. When the neighborhood became a historic district, the 200-page application noted that the residential character "is marked by an understated sense of visual style and its zealous commitment to dignity and propriety . . . . Throughout its history, architects have designed buildings for Sheridan-Kalorama in a range of fashionable styles, but never at the expense of the neighboring building."

All of this translates into some high-priced property, rivaling Georgetown, Spring Valley and Wesley Heights. Susan Safer of Pardoe Real Estate said her firm's listings and those of other companies include 16 houses on the market in the neighborhood with prices of more than $1 million and one house at nearly $3 million.

At least one of those houses has a famous Washington name attached to it. In the 2400 block of Wyoming Avenue, the Jellef department store family built a mansion in 1920 that is for sale at about $1.23 million. Like many of the other houses for sale, it was built with fine woodwork, decorative plaster ceilings and other features that, Safer said, "are of a quality that is not obtainable in new houses today."

She said that during 1996, 12 houses ranging in price from about $460,000 to $1.3 million sold, as did 28 apartments with prices ranging from about $58,000 to $678,000. On the market now are 35 houses and 25 apartments with prices ranging from $75,000 to $2.9 million.

The prices on the apartments reflect those in less-luxurious buildings built in recent years and condominiums in Park Avenue style buildings that can be as large as 5,500 feet. Nine of these apartment buildings are featured in James Goode's book, "Best Addresses."

The "good addresses" of Sheridan-Kalorama were, and are, home to many of Washington's politicians, lawyers, artists, military leaders and socialites.

Among those identified by Howard Berger, the president of the historical society, as former neighbors are five presidents: Franklin Roosevelt, Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, William Taft and Woodrow Wilson. Wilson's home on the 2300 block of S Street has been preserved as a museum and is open to the public.

According to other residents, their neighbors now include Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn, D.C. Control Board Vice Chairman Steve Harlan and former Organization of American States ambassador Sol Linowitz.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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