A dog dressed as Santa, a tree decorated with family portraits and a snow scene populated by odd creatures were on hand to greet visitors to the annual Logan Circle Christmas House Tour this month.
More than 1,600 tickets were sold for the afternoon tour of 10 houses and condominiums, including some buildings under construction, all decked in Christmas decorations. Logan Circle has the District's premier collection of high Victorian houses and was home to the wealthy at the end of the 19th century. Today, it is a historic district and many of the grand houses have been reclaimed from decades of neglect.
A condo at One Logan Circle appeared to draw the longest lines on the tour, with 47 people waiting at mid-tour to see a two-bedroom apartment with multiple Christmas themes. Long the neighborhood's most prominent wreck, the building is now a visible sign of how things are changing.
Resident and interior designer Marie Abercrombie greeted visitors along with her 11-year-old Westie, named Pumpkin Head Jones, who was dressed in a red-and-white Santa outfit. The dog didn't seem to mind the outfit, which went from neck to back leg toes.
"He loves to get dressed up," Abercrombie said as visitors cooed to the dog. "He knows he will get a lot of attention."
But Santa Paws was just the beginning of the attractions.
Abercrombie had created five different themes within her 1,600-square-foot apartment. The dinner table, set for New Year's Eve in the large bay window, was all in sterling silver and glistening crystal set off by silver-colored fruit and silver candles.
In her formal living room, a leather couch faced an oversized chair across a silk oriental rug. The mantel decoration was in keeping with a skinny, eight-foot-high tree covered in wide gold ribbons and angels. It was paired with a piece of artwork that Abercrombie keeps on display year-round, a combination photograph and drawing showing her Victorian building before restoration.
The kitchen mantel went patriotic with a Santa covered in swirls of red, white and blue antique ribbon. The five-foot-tall antique hallway mirror had streamers of gold and amethyst mesh ribbon. The library at the rear of the apartment was reserved for a traditional holiday look--two green trees decked out in gold stars.
However, it was the one undecorated room--the bedroom--that captivated visitor Donna Clarke, who lives in the nearby neighborhood of Truxton Circle.
"That blue paint is lovely!" she told Abercrombie as they talked across a stream of people passing through the living room. "I'd love to know what it is."
Clarke said later that she likes to go on all the house tours in the area.
"I have a Victorian too, so I like to see what people have done to personalize them," she said.
Richard Dunlop, who lives in the neighborhood, said he, too, always goes on house tours, but said he gets discouraged about the amount of work it takes to turn a house into a showplace.
"Every year, I want to go home and burn the place down," he said.
The houses on the circle, as well as those on some nearby blocks, are in the Logan Circle Historic District and were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. The circle itself is a major element of the L'Enfant plan for the city. Fine examples of the Second Empire, High Victorian Gothic and Romanesque Revival styles were built there from 1874 to 1887.
Abercrombie's building was constructed in 1877 by the son of incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant as two mirror-image houses on the point of land created where Vermont and Rhode Island avenues NW meet on the south side of the circle. The Grant House--as it was known--and other mansions along the circle began to deteriorate in the 1950s when many District homeowners abandoned the city for the emerging suburbs.
A couple bought the Grant House about 1970 intending to restore it, but when they became involved in a protracted divorce, the house continued to crumble. By the mid-1990s the forlorn building with its sagging brick walls, broken windows and tall grass marred the neighborhood where many other large homes had been restored.
Eventually the dispute was settled by a court-ordered sale. The property the couple thought was worth $1 million was sold for $250,000.
The new owner, developer P.N. Hoffman, set about dividing the 12,000-square-foot building into eight condominiums. Most were sold for prices ranging from $245,000 to $325,000 before the company even began work. Each featured original floor-to-ceiling windows and fireplace mantels.
Since then, the same company bought vacant lots at numbers 27 to 30 Logan Circle, where a hotel stood until it burned to the ground about 1950. "Logan Mansions," with 14 units priced from $285,000 to $579,000, was one of the under-construction buildings on the house tour. Visitors climbed temporary wood stairs to look at rooms roughed in with signs indicating their eventual use: kitchen, bedroom, bathroom.
According to literature prepared for the tour, the original design offered by the developer did not meet the expectations of the community association or the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board. After many meetings, a compromise was reached that resulted in a project that closely matches its historic neighbors in the Queen Anne and Second Empire styles, built with red brick and pressed stone facades.
"The community association came to us and asked us to be a part of the house tour," company spokeswoman Rene Nazelrod said. "There had been a lot of interest in the space even if it was incomplete."
She said 12 of the 14 condos have been sold and residents are expected to move in beginning in March.
Other vintage houses on the tour included a three-story Victorian row house on the 1600 block of 13th Street NW, owned by Ron Mezo and Dennis Gomes.
Mezo, a human resources director, said they had rented an apartment across the street when they first moved to the neighborhood in the 1980s. They were house-hunting and knew what they wanted.
"This wasn't it," he said. "It was in the middle of the block and there wasn't enough light."
However, when they walked into the house they liked it, said Gomes, a creative producer for the U.S. Postal Service.
Getting the onetime rental property up to home-tour standards took three years. Decades of grime was scrubbed and stripped from floors and walls. The woodwork was restored and the walls took on deep hues as the pair sponged on layers of paint to get just the right colors.
The owners have created themes in most of the rooms, ranging from the Italian lassitude of the living room, with its upholstered furniture, swags and fronds, to the Majolica pottery-inspired decoration of the former coal room in the basement.
Christmas touches were added to the living room with a collection of angels displayed on a large tree in the front bay window. The basement is now a cozy family room where a traditional Christmas tree fills one corner. Nearby is the "Land of the Misfit Toys," as Mezo and Gomes have named it, where a train with square wheels and an elephant with spots are part of the Christmas decorations.
In the 1400 block of Q Street NW, Wayne Dickson and Carol Felix Dickson put their large, red-brick, Italianate row house on display. The couple, who run a retail design consulting business from their home, carefully placed a few well-chosen decorations in the dining room and library and filled the living room bay window with a blue spruce that touched the ceiling. The tree was decorated with large colored balls interspersed with small family photographs in gold frames.
Wayne Dickson, a fourth-generation Washingtonian with roots on Capitol Hill, said he and his wife moved from Foggy Bottom to Logan Circle 14 years ago at a time when prostitutes caused a traffic jam on their block each Saturday night. Although they knew the area was dangerous, they were drawn by the architectural jewels, such as their house, and also by the potential for the neighborhood to become "small-town America," a place where restaurants, grocery stores and specialty shops would open.
The Dicksons were willing to do more than talk. Two years ago, they approached Fresh Fields, asking it to put a store in their neighborhood.
"We put together five couples with expertise in economics, public relations and retail," he said. "We made a videotape of the neighborhood for Fresh Fields. We wanted them to come here. Over a year's time, we located a good commercial property and we put the owner in touch with Fresh Fields."
Their work paid off; the gourmet grocery chain is building a store in the 1400 block of P Street, on the site of a former garage. Dickson said the store is scheduled to open in September.
He said the demographics they collected for the Fresh Fields project has convinced him and his wife that other retailers should be interested as well.
"We are forming our own company to attract retailers," he said. "We'd like to see bankers, a nice pharmacy, optician, baker, upscale wine store. Fresh Fields is the spark and now we can expect an explosion."
BOUNDARIES: Massachusetts Avenue NW on the south, S Street on the north, 15th Street on the west and Ninth Street on the east.
PROPERTY SALES: Since Dec. 1, 1998, 69 houses have sold for prices ranging from $52,000 to $615,000; 101 condominiums sold ranging in price from $27,000 to $270,000, according to Connie Maffin of Pardoe/ERA Real Estate. Maffin said there are seven houses available in the $230,000 to $530,000 range and 11 condominiums for $65,000 to $315,000. That does not include some newly constructed high-end buildings.
SCHOOLS: Garrison Elementary, Shaw Junior High and Cardozo High schools.
WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: The shops and restaurants of Dupont Circle and the U Street corridor, as well as several Metro stations.