Looking at the physically imposing but worn house on the corner of Piney Branch Road and Eastern Avenue, it's easy to imagine it was once considered an architectural gem. But it actually hit the heights, and then faltered, twice in little more than a century.
The first glory days were in 1887, when it was built. The three-story, 18-room Queen Anne Victorian was one in a long, elegant row of impressive mansions in the new Takoma Park. The gingerbread castle on the District line, probably the largest structure in the development, was commissioned by Washington real estate and insurance salesman Henry Cady and his wife, Lucinda. It fit well with promotional brochures describing the development as "heaven," the meaning of the Native American word "tacoma."
The second time came in 1987, when a 10-year effort by a Takoma Park family led to a successful restoration of the house--and a major spread in Historic Preservation magazine. Though by that time the house had for years been hemmed in by two busy streets, a garden-apartment complex and Metro tracks across the back yard, its veneer had been repolished and the original owners' furnishings kept virtually intact by Gerald and Sandra Kurtinitis. The house also appeared twice on the cover of The Washington Post's Weekend section.
Only 12 years later, the mansion's shine has worn down, as has Gerald Kurtinitis, now divorced. Kurtinitis has been trying for about two years to find a buyer who will maintain the historically intact interior as well as the exterior. Only the exterior is protected by the building's 1975 listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Kurtinitis has had financial problems recently and, at 56, said, "I'm no longer able to climb up those 60-foot ladders" to paint every year. He admits to being exhausted by the demands of the building. Outside, the paint is peeling, and part of the wraparound porch is filled with old filing cabinets and other cast-off furniture. Inside, clutter spills out of corners of period-decorated rooms. For a year, the mansion has been offered for sale by its owner for about $550,000.
Local historian Lisa Bentley, who lives in a nearby apartment building where Kurtinitis is property manager, sympathized with his plight in keeping up the huge structure and the problems he faces in selling. At the time he began trying to sell it himself--after a year with a real estate agent and no bites--Bentley began a one-woman campaign to keep the house intact. The mansion is known both as the Lucinda Cady House and the Cady-Lee Mansion for the original owners and their daughter, Mary Cady Lee, who died in the house at the age of 94.
But Bentley has found how tough a sell a historic property in a nonhospitable location can be. In checking with architects, nonprofit organizations, District and Takoma Park officials, historic preservation groups, National Park Service officials and neighborhood groups, Bentley has encountered more than one person who just couldn't get past the location.
"We even had a couple of Realtors who wouldn't even come see it," Bentley said.
"But," she said, "I cannot emphasize strongly enough that there is nothing like this" in the Washington area as far as period Victorian architecture. Leon Dessez, the architect who created the Cady-Lee mansion, also designed Admiralty House (now the official residence of the vice president) and was involved in plans for the Washington Monument.
The situation in which an owner burns out or gets in over his head is not common, said Bill Dupont, resident architect for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, "but, yes, it can happen." Usually, he said, when an owner runs out of steam, he sells to "other people who are interested."
The trust is pushing legislation to help homeowners. The recently vetoed tax bill contained a 20 percent tax credit, up to $20,000, for rehabilitation of houses in historic districts. Preservation lobbyists hope the credit will resurface in budget legislation.
But in a case where commercial development has surrounded a house, residential interest may disappear, Dupont said. A commercial buyer might be attracted by federal tax credits or by a lower price attached to easements limiting how the property can be altered. A certified rehabilitation is eligible for a tax credit equal to 20 percent of the make-over.
Dupont said the trust, which officially celebrates its 50th anniversary of preservation efforts Tuesday, offers seminars for those buying and renovating historic properties (the trust's World Wide Web site is www.nationaltrust.org). One major lesson, he said, that might be learned from the Cady house, whose decline he termed "very quick," is the importance of planning and budgeting for maintenance. Dupont was not familiar with the property, but said, "I would expect that investments for repairs would be good for 20 to 25 years before they would have to be redone. . . . The important point is to be aware of what you're buying and be aware of how long it will last."
Kurtinitis and his then-wife did most of their own renovation work during their 14 years in the house, with help from skilled friends. That included redoing the roof and painting almost every year. They joked, though, about the demands of the house: Whenever they had to have a plumber, it would cost $1,000. Since the divorce in 1989, Kurtinitis has had the responsibility for upkeep on his own, while his financial situation has changed.
Takoma Park architect Paul Treseder describes the mansion as "rare," not only because "it is one of the most elaborate houses ever built in the area" but because it has "the original interior settings."
The house, set on a hilltop, boasts 12-foot ceilings, carved oak molding, six of eight original mantels and some original chandeliers. There are porches on three sides and seven gables, plus a turreted sleeping porch.
When the Kurtinitises bought the house, they also bought the Cady family's oversize furniture and large family portraits of Henry and Lucinda Cady. The house lost much of the furniture in the divorce, but the family portraits, some furniture and an oversize mirror remain. And, as Historic Preservation magazine reported, a prime piece is a Chinese-inspired mantelpiece that, according to Cady family lore, was bought at the Columbia Exposition in 1893.
At the time of the Historic Preservation article, Sandra Kurtinitis said of her first glimpses of the house: "If we had seen only the outside, we could have walked away from it. But then we went inside and saw all of the oak woodwork that had never been layered with coats of paint. We could see enormous potential for bringing back to life a very elegant dwelling. But we had no idea that it would take as long as it did."
By the time of Mary Cady Lee's death in 1975, the home's glamour days were gone. The building had been divided into four apartments for her and three elderly relatives. Some of the living space took over a small first-floor ballroom.
As the neighborhood became commercialized and the roads widened, the virtues of living by a railroad in a suburban setting had changed to the realities of living by a Metro line, Eastern Avenue and Piney Branch Road.
The developer of the garden apartments next door attempted to buy the house to raze it, but community determination to get the house on the National Register stopped the wrecking ball, Kurtinitis said. With the eight heirs tiring of the battle over the property and unwilling to take any contingencies on the sale, Kurtinitis was able to secure it for $60,000. But he had to call about 200 banks before finding a backer because the sellers didn't want the contract to bear the usual provision for the arrangement of financing.
From 1975 to 1985 the new owners restored and upgraded the house. The District provided a $10,000 matching grant for exterior renovations, such as rebuilding the chimneys. Inside, the partitions separating the house into apartments were removed, as were an extra bathroom and kitchen. The former ballroom was turned into a library, with shelves found in a period pharmacy.
The kitchen and bathrooms were renovated into Edwardian style. Period wallpaper was hung, partly with the help of a documentary film company, which used the library as President Warren G. Harding's study.
Historian Bentley, who does computer consulting "to pay the bills," entered the picture soon after Kurtinitis started trying to sell the house. She prepared a four-page color brochure that all but beseeches someone to buy. The list of possible uses includes: "family residence, family residence with offices and third-floor apartment . . ., bed and breakfast, wedding and receptions, offices and conference center, museum and offices, and community center and offices."
Bentley said that Historic Takoma, the Maryland preservation group just over the District line from the house, is willing to put up some purchase money, and that District officials have been approached but have not committed any resources. But if they bought the building, she said, the continuing maintenance costs would still have to be addressed.