When Michael Vergason came to the Washington area to pursue his career as a landscape architect, he wanted to find a home with some of the architectural distinction he had come to appreciate during a year in Rome.
"I had hoped to find one piece of the detailing that I loved," he said. After a two-month search, Vergason and his friend, planner Sandi Chesrown, had found that -- and more: terrazo floors, inlaid wood floors, high ceilings, leaded-glass windows, marble wainscoting, plaster mouldings ornamented with cupids' heads, marble doorways and solid oak doors.
Vergason and Chesrown had gotten themselves to a nunnery. Their new home is a one-bedroom condominium, one of 10 units fashioned out of an old convent at 1715 15th St. NW.
Built in the late 1920s, the convent was once part of the St. Augustine Church parish headquarters. Until February, nuns of the Obelate Sisters of Baltimore lived and worked there, worshipping in an adjacent chapel.
Behind the convent was a former school building that once was used by St. Augustine Church, one of the nation's oldest black parishes. St. Augustine's merged with St. Paul Church in 1961, and the school was moved up the street. As the number of nuns living at the covent dwindled, and real estate values in the area boomed, the nuns also moved up the street -- and their convent became the next building on the block to go condo.
The 15th Street convent, rechristened Bishop's Gate, is the baby of Urban Land Corp.'s Joe Marsh, a Dior-shirted, pipe-smoking builder who has been renovating and putting up new buildings in Washington for a decade. The architect is Linda Michael of Michael & Michael, of Alexandria.
When completed, the project will have two-bedroom unit and nine one-bedroom condominiums in the convent, 16 condo units in the school building and a three-story luxury home converted from the chapel. On cleared land nearby, 43 new town houses will be built. All will face out on a landscaped brick courtyard, accessible through a card-controlled gate. The old basement of a never-built cathedral will be turned into an underground parking garage.
The units in the convent building have a variety of styles. In Vergason's, the church flavor is rich: in the cavernous onetime hallway that now will serve as a living/dining area, the original heavy oak doors with crosses engraved in the marble over them remain.
Other units are more modern. Two attic units, their skylit ceilings showing the pitch of the roof and their support beams exposed, could easily pass for modern lofts. One downstairs unit has an indoor garden with a fountain in the living room and another garden in the master bedroom. The church heritage lingers throughout, however, in marble hearths and mantels, in leaded glass windows, and, in some units, in stained-glass windows bearing the emblem of St. Augustine's.
Prices for these units range from $79,000 for a one-bedroom, one-bath, to $112,500 for more ornate units.
The sale of the convent and school property, for $1.4 million, brought a necessary transfusion of funds into a parish that has been trying to keep a black school going, said Father Raymond Kemp of St. Paul and Augustine's Church.
"I feel really bad about the displacing," said Father John Mudd, a priest in the archdiocese. "Although it didn't displace any homeowners immediately, it's part of the renaissance ot the neighborheed. . . ."
Part of the proceeds from the sale went to fix up a new residence for the nuns. While non-church residents will be moving into their historic convent, the nuns will be living in a townhouse.
"A funny coincidence," said Michael Vergason, "is that the firm I work for, EDAW, Inc., is moving into a renovated church in Alexandria." The Presbyterian church, on S. St. Asaph Street, became vacant when the congregation moved out of the neighborheed and is being renovated for office space by Linda Michael, the architect who designed Bishop's Gate.
"So,"said Vergason, "Ihll be living in a convent and working in a church."