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Capitol Hill Victorian Joins the Movie Set

By Jura Koncius
June 4, 1987
© The Washington Post

How did a 109-year-old Capitol Hill Victorian town house land a starring role in a major Hollywood motion picture?

Like so much of movie legend, it was being at the right place at the right time.

Last February, a Twentieth Century Fox location scout was combing Capitol Hill for a house to use in a James L. Brooks movie about the television news business; the movie was to be shot in Washington this spring. Intrigued by the historical fac ade and the generous proportions of the house with rooms on either side of a central hallway, she rang the doorbell. A few days later, the owners were asked to sign a contract to allow their home to be used as a movie set.

Some families might have found such a request too logistically complex. But this couple was tempted. After all, they had already lived through the domestic upheaval of a year-long renovation to their house, where they put in a new kitchen, lowered part of the living room floor, added more windows, stripped miles of woodwork and installed Victorian era lighting fixtures and hardware.

Having a movie shot in their home would disrupt the day-to-day routine of the family and their two cats, but it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. "We are not people who go berserk if our schedules are slightly modified," said the wife. "The whole experience was just another adventure for us."

Their answer to Twentieth Century Fox was, "Roll 'em."

On March 25, the owners of the house -- he is a Washington attorney and she a former teacher, journalist and United Nations education specialist -- and their two daughters vacated the house and moved into a local hotel suite for four weeks. Their 1878 house was then stripped for use as a set for what became known around town as "James L. Brooks' Untitled," the working name of the comedy starring William Hurt, Albert Brooks and Holly Hunter that will be released this fall.

Crews from the movie carted off the family's Victorian parlor furniture, antique carpets and French antiques. The living room, dining room and kitchen were then transformed into the more casual, contemporary and cluttered quarters of a fast-paced TV journalist, a bachelor in his midthirties. Instead of Victoriana, the house was filled with overstuffed sofas and club chairs, framed political photographs, state-of-the-art electronics and stacks of books, magazines, newspapers and VCR tapes.

The handsome three-story brick row house had already undergone several transformations in its over 100-year history. Standing proudly on one of the elegant thoroughfares of Capitol Hill, the house has a small, flagstone-paved front yard, a carriage house in back and the luxury of narrow side courts on either side of the back of the house that bring tremendous light into its two-story rear portion.

The house had been owned for over 100 years by the same family -- a dentist and later his son, a doctor. Both housed their offices on the first floor, thereby transforming the original Victorian room arrangement of front parlor, followed by a back parlor that led to a large dining room and narrow kitchen in the back. The couple had both been patients of the doctor and had liked the house's charm, its spaciousness and the wonderful light that filtered through it. So, in June 1983, when they decided they needed more space for their family as well as their expanding collection of antique carpets and oriental art objects, they were delighted to find it on the market and promptly bought it.

They knew the house needed attention, but didn't realize the scope of the work. "We thought the house was in good shape," recalls the wife. "We had never renovated a house before, but we thought it would be mainly cosmetic: cleaning it up, plastering and painting it. We knew we would have to add central air conditioning and put in a new kitchen on the first floor. But we never dreamed how much work it would all be."

The couple found that all of those things needed to be done -- and much, much more. The family ended up living in a small rented apartment nearby until July 1984, when the project was nearly completed. (The kitchen wasn't finished until that October.)

For starters, the job entailed installing a kitchen on the first floor, redoing wiring, putting in new heating and cooling systems, replicating molding and other architectural details and adding bathrooms. Decorative carved wood moldings on the grand staircase were stripped of many layers of paint. When the couple discovered that the original pine flooring under the linoleum that covered the entire first floor was ruined, they decided to replace it with similar long-needle pine boards remilled from barn beams of the same era.

The large room at the back of the house was totally remodeled, lined with windows, added onto with a new lower level and given French doors. The second floor -- which had served as the doctor's living quarters -- was turned into a master bedroom suite and library. The three generously sized rooms on the third floor were repainted and polished up to become bedrooms for the family's two daughters and a guest room. A hallway that had been turned into a galley kitchen on the second floor was restored to its original use.

Lawrence Hodgson was hired as general contractor and master carpenter. To help with a redesign of the two-story rear portion of the house and other projects, the couple brought on Pamela Heyne as a consulting architect.

The couple was closely involved in each aspect of the renovation and visited the site daily. One of their main goals was maintaining an appropriate architectural tone for the house. Although many of the fine original Victorian features such as plaster medallions and decorative moldings remained, some were missing. The wife spent days hunting through such architectural salvage shops as The Brass Knob and Canal Company for lighting fixtures, hardware, mantels and doorknobs.

Much of the work involved changing the house back from a medical office to a family home. Previously, when the first floor was given over to a series of examining and waiting rooms, the living room and kitchen had been relocated to the second floor. The family wanted to return the common rooms back to the main floor.

One of the major challenges in the renovation was transforming the 13-by-30-foot rear room of the first floor of the house into an elegant, light-filled parlor. Although the room had access to a good deal of natural light, its ceilings were only nine feet high. The rest of the first floor had ceilings 11 feet high as well as the original plaster crown moldings.

With Heyne's design help, the team turned the room into a formal parlor that was light and airy. "To create the right feeling there, we had to maintain the same ceiling height as in the front of the ground floor of the house, so we either had to lower the floor or raise the ceiling," said the wife. "So since there was no basement, we dug down for the two feet."

To create a graceful entrance into the room, they fashioned a curved balcony with three steps down into the space. To let in even more light, windows were added on each side of the room, and tall French doors that lead to the garden and the carriage house were put in at the back. Plaster moldings replicating those in the main part of the house now embellish the interior space.

What originally were the front and rear parlors in the house now became a dining room and a kitchen respectively. With this arrangement, the kitchen sits in the middle of the house and can relate to both the dining room and the new living room in back. Two small former examining rooms that adjoined each other on the left side of the entrance became a small office and a high-ceilinged, grandly furnished powder room. The furnishings on the main floor (these were completely removed during the house's incarnation as a movie set) are a mix of Victorian period settees and armchairs, family antiques and art objects from the Far East. Here and throughout the house are many fine oriental carpets that the couple has been collecting for many years. Some hang in place of paintings -- a 19th-century Turkish kilim handsomely decorates a stairway.

There are also decorative pieces -- scrolls, bowls and other art objects -- picked up on travels in the Far East. Since the couple is fond of Chinese hand-painted wallpaper, they commissioned a wall treatment for their dining room that is reminiscent of it. An artist did a watercolor on silk in a dragon and phoenix motif representing a "family allegory" and affixed the silk to panels which line the walls of the dining room.

In the two years following the restoration on the house, the family has added to their collection of Victorian furniture and to their cache of rich antique carpets. Their appreciation of the 19th-century charm of the house continued to grow with every year, as did their pride in the fact that they had brought it back to life. It was a star in their eyes, and soon it would be starring in a major motion picture.

When Hollywood came calling one blustery morning this past February, it was actually Peggy Pridemore, a local free-lance location manager working for Twentieth Century Fox, who fell upon the family's townhouse while out scouting locations for the James L. Brooks movie.

The film, which is about a Washington-based network television news bureau, was to be shot at about 40 different Washington locations. Pridemore needed a home for the character played by Albert Brooks, a network television newsman working a Washington beat. Pridemore was looking for a brick row house, not too posh. She liked this house because of the spacious rooms on the main floor that could accommodate the crew and all the windows in the back that could fill sets with natural light.

Pridemore paid another call with one of the producers and a cinematographer in tow, who also liked the place. And the next day, director Brooks and his entourage arrived for a trial rehearsal on what turned out to be one of the winter's major snow days. While munching on bagels and cream cheese with the crew, the family watched as Albert Brooks and Holly Hunter, who plays a television news producer, spent five hours going over their lines in the family's living room.

James Brooks was thrilled with all the light, and Albert Brooks felt very much at home in the space. So the house passed its screen test and a contract was signed for its use. From March 25 to April 23 the house was surrounded by 13 trucks and inhabited by dozens of actors, set decorators, camera crew and the other people it takes to produce a movie.

The Albert Brooks character was thought of as an intellectual bachelor. Said Kristi Zea, the art director for the movie, "he has a lot more interest in the substance of his work than the material neatness of his life. He is not a slob, but he is preoccupied with the business of making and getting news."

To assist in creating the right ambience for the interiors of the character's house, and to make them look believably lived in, Zea visited homes of well-known correspondents and producers in the network news business. She took notes on what sorts of furniture -- and what kinds of clutter -- was to be found at their homes.

"This was not supposed to be a luxurious townhouse," said Zea. "We found by talking to a lot of people in the TV news world that most newspeople don't have a heck of a lot of time to decorate their homes, especially if they are single. They literally move in with what they happen to have. This man was more interested in supreme high-tech, state-of-the-art electronics than in an excellent piece of furniture. And since all media people read avidly on everything, we filled rooms with stacks of newspapers, magazines and books."

The filming would take place in the dining room, kitchen and living room, so these three rooms were emptied and totally redecorated for the shoot. The goal was to make the rooms look stylish and contemporary but not "done." The furniture was to be good quality but not matching; and the colors were neutrals like beige, gray and brown. They dressed the windows minimally in natural-colored canvas Roman shades.

As the place where the character spent most of his time at home, the living room was filled with comfortable, overstuffed chairs and a sofa strewn with pillows. A large television set, a VCR and a compact disc player were installed; low coffee tables held piles of VCR tapes, old newspapers as well as candles, slipware pots, oriental carvings and cactus plants.

"One thing we wanted to say about the character was that he wasn't fussy in his interests, but what he did collect was good," said Zea. "And many things were pieces he'd picked up on travels in places like China or Central America."

The family had been asked to remove everything from the kitchen counters, but shelves were left stocked. The movie crew covered the counters with the latest in sleek kitchen gadgets and appliances from coffee makers to food processors to electric grinders.

The dining room was set up as a sort of eat-in study. The family's hand-painted walls were masked by panels covered with grass cloth painted white. Furnishings were comfortable and casual -- an off-white love seat, an overstuffed club chair, crammed bookcases, a small word processor. Framed black-and-white political photographs decorated the walls.

Zea, set decorator Jane Bogart and other members of the movie crew used many local sources to obtain furnishings for the movie's sets. Many of the large pieces were rented from Antique and Contemporary Leasing Inc. For a wide array of accessories, they combed well-known antique haunts in Kensington and Manassas and thrift shops like Georgetown's Christ Child Opportunity Shop. Department stores like Hecht's, Woodward & Lothrop and Garfinckel's became sources for sheets, towels and many other household items.

The family watched in amusement as their house took on this new personality. One day the family would visit the set and find leafless trees out in the garden and fake snow dusted on the ground. The next day, the same trees would be covered with shiny green leaves and ivy was growing where none had been the day before. All the equipment and the clutter in the house didn't faze them. "I think they really set a scene," said the wife. "They really did a super job creating the realistic look of a male journalist in his pad."

During the filming, the family saw their house crammed with camera crew, sound crew, dressers, makeup people, electricians and prop people. "We knew if anything was broken it would be fixed or replaced, " said the wife. "I must admit, though, it was strange to see the place looking like a mess."

The family didn't move back in until all the walls had been freshly repainted, the floors repolished and the furniture put back in approximately the same places.

"The experience provided me with new inspirations in putting the house back together," she said. "Although we didn't particularly like the house with the overstuffed contemporary look, just being away from the house for one month and then totally reassembling the rooms was very useful. It gave me new ideas for the spaces and made me reconsider all our possessions in a fresh way."

© Copyright The Washington Post

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