The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Developers to convert former Italian Embassy into upscale condos

(Christine MacDonald)

Potomac Construction Group is getting ready to begin transforming the former Italian Embassy in Adams Morgan into “Il Palazzo,” an upscale condominium complex that will give new life to the long-shuttered historic site.

The Washington-based developers, working with architects from Trout Design Studio, plan an eight-story addition behind the original embassy building at 16th and Fuller streets NW, in what the Zoning Commission has referred to as “a modernist ‘hyphen’ connecting the old with the new.”

Once complete, the new complex would house 110 to 135 residential units, including at least one penthouse and six “affordable” units reserved for residents who make no more than 80 percent of the region’s annual median income. (Annual median income for a D.C. family of four is $107,300, putting the 80 percent cut off at $86,912.)

They also plan to add below-grade parking for 60 to 90 vehicles, while preserving as common space much of the original Neo-Renaissance embassy building, a designated landmark on the District of Columbia Inventory of Historic Sites.

Potomac Construction won approval from the D.C. Zoning Commission and the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board in 2011 but the property remained dark until about a month ago when workers started turning up regularly and filled a dumpster parked temporarily in the circular driveway, apparently in preparation for breaking ground.

“No work has begun to date. We had some minor vandalism and the guys went in to clean it up,” Matt Shkor, one of Potomac’s managing partners/principals, said in an e-mail. While the company still has some permitting to do, “[a]pplication will be filed very shortly,” Shkor wrote.

The former embassy’s history is an example of how neighborhoods change — and then change again. Built in 1925, it was designed by Whitney Warren and Charles D. Wetmore, architects better known for Grand Central Terminal in New York City. At the time, the 16th Street corridor was bustling with diplomatic outposts including the Mexican Embassy and Spanish ambassadors’ residence across the street, both of which are now cultural centers run by their respective governments today.

The Italian Embassy decamped for a new building off of Massachusetts Avenue NW, near the U.S. Naval Observatory, in the 1970s, a time when the Adams Morgan neighborhood — and other center-city neighborhoods in the District and around the country — had fallen on hard times as residents moved out to the suburbs in the decades after World War II.

By the time Potomac Construction acquired the site, however, neighborhood cachet, population and real estate prices were once again on the rise.

Christine MacDonald is a freelance writer.