What kind of builder would construct on speculation -- four $1.1 million town houses in the midst of a recession?
"I would think he'd have to be crazy," says Washington homebuilder Samuel P. Pardoe, who nevertheless is building four turreted French country-style units--among the most expensive town houses ever built here--on the Virginia bluffs of the Potomac River, just north of Chain Bridge.
In October, workers will finish the four attached houses, using enough bricks to cover about 30 average-sized homes. Each town house has a fully equipped guest house in back and has as much floor space as five average suburban dwellings, said Pardoe, who in the past has specialized in luxury houses in the District. The master bedrooms--with a fireplace, two bathrooms each and walk-in closets--have two-thirds the floor space of the average new American house, he added.
Each of the houses will have two kitchens, three dishwashers, a jacuzzi, a closed-circuit television system and cable hookups in each room. Owners will be able to host 50 dinner party guests on the third floor "sky terrace"--with the roaring Potomac providing the background sound about 160 feet below.
Among the neighbors are Virginia Gov. Charles Robb and Lynda Johnson Robb, who live in a colonial-style residence a quarter of a mile down the road, and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who lives in a sprawling contemporary house just beyond.
With a couple million dollars worth of First American Bank construction financing hanging over his head and with few serious inquiries so far about the houses, Pardoe says "it behooves me to get the houses done." But he seems only mildly worried about his chances of tapping the luxury-home market.
"I think it's the safest market going," said Pardoe, who has spent 22 years building and selling luxury houses to Washington lobbyists, congressmen and physicians. "If you look at what's selling in town it's the highest priced homes." He hopes to have all four houses sold a year from now.
Pardoe says he has shown the half-finished houses to a top ABC newscaster and to a member of President Reagan's cabinet. "I have had more interest than I ever anticipated," he said, noting that last Sunday about 20 people drove up the winding lane to look at the project.
Pardoe estimates that there are 4,000 to 5,000 residents of this area who could could hand over $1 million dollars for one of his houses without so much as flinching. "I think you'd be amazed," he said, "There is a tremendous base of funds here."
Pardoe also believes that the far upper end of the real estate market rides above the ripples of recessions like the one now battering the U.S. economy. His assertion is given credence by National Association of Realtors' statistics that indicate that $200,000-and-up houses claimed almost a third more of the home sales market in January than they did for the same period a year ago.
A gadget-lover--his own Georgetown house contains a usable two-story fire pole and a bathroom water faucet operated by an electric eye--Pardoe contends that it is the little touches that nudge the buyer to make the final decision to buy.
He says it was the Batman wallpaper in one of his houses' bedrooms that set a small lad to sobbing with desire--and thus was the final straw that caused the boy's father to buy.
Perhaps that's the reason Pardoe will spend about $8,000 to wallpaper his new town houses, and, in keeping with a long-standing practice of incorporating the antique with the new, will cap the skylights above the upstairs bathtubs with stained glass scavenged from a London pub. That will be in addition to the built-in television a few feet above the tub's faucet.
Another unique touch that may snare the fancy of a high-roller: Pardoe wants to install a stock market ticker tape machine in one of the units.
Angelos Demetriou and Associates designed the buildings, following the general design of Pardoe's own town house on Q Street NW in Georgetown.
Neighbors of this looming addition to the Potomac shoreline for the most part seem nonchalant about it.
"I'm the culprit that got him involved," said Marty Schnider, a savings and loan association official who lives near the site and who notified Pardoe of the impeding sale of the land last fall. Schnider said the two-acre plot, which formerly held a tennis court for an adjoining estate, is one of the last riverside building sites available in that area.
Pardoe said Arlington County zoning regulations would have allowed him to build two single-family houses facing the river and two houses facing Chain Bridge Road to the west, but that he chose to go with town houses so he could build all four dwellings facing the river. "We created value by being able to build four houses on the river," Pardoe said.
While some would question the wisdom of asking people to pay $1 million dollars to share a wall with someone else, Pardoe thinks the smaller houses will be easier to maintain and says that he expects the owners to bond together in hiring groundskeepers.
Several Washington-area builders and real estate experts vouched for Pardoe's sensitivity to the pulse of the local real estate market.
"Sam Pardoe hasn't made a mistake in his life," said Bethesda builder Robert T. Foley, "If Sam's doing it, it's probably good." CAPTION: Picture 1, Washington builder Sam Pardoe has crossed the Potomac to build four $1.1 million town house on a bluff overlooking Chain Bridge. He maintains that the buyers are out there.; Picture 2, no caption, Photos by Craig Herndon -- The Washington Post; Picture 3, Each unit will have a backyard pool overlooking the Potomac. District water filtration plant is across the river. By Craig Herndon -- The Washington Post