ROBERT A. BELL was almost five stories up in the air laying gold leaf on the pinnacle of a tower swaying in the breeze when he decided to give up on construction work and stick strictly to a career as architect and developer.
"William Adair (restorer for the National Portrait Gallery) had told me how to lay gold leaf," said Bell. "But his wife wouldn't let him climb up on the ladder, 60-odd feet in the air. I just didn't tell my wife."
Today the pinnacles of the two towers shine above the greenery of two penthouse decks on the distinctive four-story building facing Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill, as Bell imagined they would. "I thought of those pictures you see of Russian cities, their domes and pinnacles glittering in the sun." Bell also gold-leafed the decorative detail over the entrance door for a brilliance against the old red brick.
The gold leaf, though tricky, was the least of the work Bell did on the old building. When he bought it about three years ago, the brick derelict had been vacant since the riots in 1968. Before then, a drugstore occupied the first floor with a pile of small apartments above.
"The main staircase took a man two weeks to scrape down," said Bell. "That's really all that was worth saving. I gutted the rest of the building."
Instead, Bell built nine condominium apartments. He used the octagons and polygons of the old shell to suggest alcoves, high ceilings, interesting shapes of rooms - an apartment building where not only are no two apartments alike but neither are two rooms. "I went all the way on this one," Bell said. "Since I was the architect, the contractor and the developer, I suited myself - plaster walls, millwork of the period, wrought iron fence, the whole thing."
Bell sold the apartments for $85,000 to $120,000, but not long ago the one that was originally $85,000 resold for $120,000.
The most sepctacular of the Bell apartments are the two penthouses, using what used to be the attic as kitchens, dining rooms and roof gardens. One belongs to Nobuo and Carol Akiyama, the other to John Butler and Patty Cox.
As you come into the Akiyama apartment, you take off your shoes and pad around in your stocking feet, or use a pair of the large assortment of elaborately embroidered slippers in all sizes provided at the door. The shiny floors look as if they've never been walked on since they were laid.
The living room has a bay of windows looking north; a tree shades it in summer. The fireplace, like all the other fireplaces and medallions in the house, is plaster cast the old way in moulds by Giannetti's Studio in Hyattsville.
The Akiyamas have filled the apartment with a collection of Japanese prints and other paintings. The color and the abstract quality of the art are set off nicely by the white walls, wood floors and the old and ornate decorations of woodwork, fireplace and ceiling medallions. The Akiyamas' furniture is oriental and contemporary - a Chinese medicine chest in the living room holds her sewing, a Korean chest holds other things. Big silk pillows from Thailand provide sprawl space in front of the fire.
Up the steps - not old but, like the window framing, in the Victorian manner - is the dining room. Bell raised the old roof a bit to give a higher ceiling. Behind sliding doors is a neat U-shaped kitchen with handsome tiled counters and floors and a bay window "that makes even all the chopping for a Japanese meal not such a chore," Carol Akiyama said.
Akiyama's mother, well-known Japanese journalist Chieko Akiyama, and Akiyama's grandmother, especially liked the kitchen window. Chieko Akiyama wrote about the apartment for a Japanese magazine not so long ago.
But the real surprise is the deck up a few steps from the dining room. It is entered through a great arch (a Bell trademark) of French doors. It looks a bit like an oriental moon gate. (The steps, during the Akiyamas' sushi dinners for 40, serve as seats.) Here is a wide and pleasant wood deck with the wall cut down on the west side to offer a panoramic view of the Capitol dome, the Washington Monument and even the Cathedral.
"It's all lighted at night," said Carol Akiyama. "So it's really something to see. A while back we had people over for-sushi , sake and sunset. Everybody was supposed to go on to the art show. But I had to finally push them out. Nobody wanted to leave before the sunset was over."
A good thing the Akiyamas go back to Japan about once a year. It must have taken multiple trips to bring back all the dozens of handsome pottery dishes they use for their Japanese feasts. "There's an individual dish for everything," said Carol Akiyama. "You have to be careful. Everybody knows, for instance, that this is an individual pickle dish and this one is for sauce. My mother-in-law has brought us many pieces."
The dining room furniture is simple Scandinavian teak, which, after all, was inspired in part by the Orient.
Downstairs are two bedrooms, two baths and a study. The Akiyamas work at home at desks set at an angle to each other. They write language readers used in Japanese high schools and adult education, including corporate classes. She writes the English text; he writes the Japanese explanations. They also collaborate on a weekly column on the U.S. cultural scene for the Student Times in Japan. And they have served as language teaching consultants for the Peace Corps.
They met when Carol, an American, was Nabuo's teacher at a languages school in Washington. they went on to study at American University, where she majored in linguistics and he studied International Service. They were married in 1971 and went to Japan for their honeymoon.
On the main floor of their apartment, the master bedroom is the highlight, or rather the skylight; it is situated under the conical tourette or tower. Bell tore out its belfry or attic to make a 30-foot-high room with semi-circle windows way up there. "The room is great in the early morning," Carol Akiyama said. "I can tell time by the way the light from the windows reflects on the wall."
In both bathrooms, a huge sheet of mirror forms the tub's main wall. Everything else is tile with a decorative strip.
The Akiyamas found the penthouse about a year or so ago after a long time of looking for a row house. "A friend kept saying, 'You must go to see it.' Finally, we did, and we didn't look any further."
On the first floor where the drugstore used to be is one of the most interesting apartments, that of Greg and Dorie Ryken. There Bell installed tall and handsome French doors - you step up from the dining room to the living room with its polygonal alcove just right for a grand piano.
On the lower level (basement if it weren't so fancy), Bell had wells carved out of the yard to bring in light to the bedrooms. Some of the wells are semi-circles walled with bricks making them a good place for pots of flowers in the spring.
Nowadays, Bell has given up construction (the gold-leaf pinnacle was the height of his contracting business.) Not long ago, he bought the old Georgetown jail on Volta Place, and is busy designing custom houses and swimming pools for the space. But that's another story. CAPTION: Picture 1 and 2, High atop Robert Bell's remodeled building, which Lincoln Park, are the two decks of the houses belonging to Patty Cox and John Butler (top left) and Nobuo and Carol Akiyama. Bell used the octagons and polygons of the old Victorian building to create alcoves and rooms with high ceilings and interesting shapes.; Illustration, no caption, Illustration by Architect Robert A. Bell; Picture 3, At left is Patty Cox in a skylight atrium; Picture 4, below is Carol Akiyana in her dining room with stairs leading to the deck; Picture 5, and at right is the Akiyama's bedroom with 30-foot-high ceiling.; Photographs by Harry Nalchayan-The Washington Post; Picture 6, Architect and builder Robert Bell: "I went all the way on this one."; By Harry Naltchayan - The Washington Post