Yvette Freeman of District Design & Development tends to work close to home, refurbishing houses in Shaw, Logan Circle and Columbia Heights in Northwest Washington. For her latest project, she didn’t leave her neighborhood.
“I saw this house and fell in love with it,” she said.
The 1873 house is one of the first five dwellings James H. McGill designed in LeDroit Park. The prolific architect designed 64 homes in the neighborhood, 50 of which remain today. His goal was to create an exclusive community of large cottages and villas on spacious lots in an urban variation of the A.J. Downing-landscaped estates in the Hudson River valley.
LeDroit Park began as a whites-only enclave. After the first African American resident moved into the neighborhood in 1893, white families started moving out, and they were pretty much gone by the beginning of World War I. That’s when LeDroit Park became home to the black elite. Oscar De Priest, the first black congressman elected after Reconstruction, lived in the house during his three terms in office.
“The house really spoke to me,” Freeman said. “I love the architecture. Of course, I follow McGill and know all of his work. I know a lot about the history of the neighborhood because I live and work there.”
Her brother, a real estate agent, reached out to the owners and persuaded them to sell the house to Freeman.
“It was really in bad shape,” she said. “They were excited that I was preserving a lot of detail and really honoring the work that McGill did instead of stripping it all down. I really tried to bring it back to life but keep a lot of what was really architecturally beautiful.”
McGill designed elegant and ornate houses for the upper classes.
“I love the fact that McGill was a detail person and I am a detail person,” Freeman said.
The details are what make the difference in a McGill house. Bricks are tightly packed with nearly invisible mortar joints. They are laid in eye-catching designs. The house has beautiful cornice and lattice work. It has tall windows and a turret. The trim is custom-milled with dovetail joints.
“For him, that was a way to distinguish the property’s elegance and uniqueness,” Freeman said.
Because the house had fallen into disrepair, not much of it could be saved. But Freeman was determined to keep what she could and to replicate what she couldn’t with authentic-looking materials.
“It was really a challenge for me to preserve what was historically beautiful about the house and bring it up to what is today’s standard and relevant,” Freeman said. “I didn’t want to disrespect her. I call it a her. For whatever reason, she’s a female to me. I didn’t want to disrespect her in any way.”
Although little of the original hardwood floors remained, Freeman cleaned up what was there and used it as a wall treatment in a bedroom.
“I try to leave a piece of the original house in every house that I do,” she said.
To make the house more suitable for today’s living, Freeman took down walls to open up the main living space. She dug out the basement and turned the attic into a family room.
“I was very fearful of disturbing Mcgill’s vision,” Freeman said. “In opening it up, I was very fearful it would take some of the charm and the history out of the house. It actually did the opposite.”
The four-bedroom, five-bathroom, 4,000-square-foot house is listed at $2.1 million. Open houses are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday from noon to 2 p.m.
Listing: 419 U St. NW, Washington, D.C.
Listing agent: Joe Freeman, McWilliams Ballard
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