The house, built on a bluff in Bethesda that overlooks the Potomac River, almost wasn’t worth saving. But developer Sassan Gharai couldn’t bring himself to tear it down.
It had once been the home to newsman Howard K. Smith, whose estate Gharai had developed into a community of 11 townhouses known as Brookes Ridge. A more practical developer might have razed the house, which had fallen into disrepair. But Gharai has a soft spot for homes with character. That doesn’t mean he didn’t question his decision at times.
“You know, for all the trouble that we went through, we could have probably built a few more townhouses,” Gharai said.
Now, seven years after he started working on the house, it is done.
The land, formerly known as Brookes Farm, was bought by Stilson Hutchins in 1896. Hutchins was a financier, journalist, politician and prominent figure in the nation’s capital for more than three decades. He also was the founder of The Washington Post and at various times owned every daily paper in Washington with the exception of the Evening Star.
The land was one of Hutchins’s many real estate holdings, but it is unlikely that he ever lived there. He died in 1912 at his home on Massachusetts Avenue NW. The Bethesda house was built circa 1920.
When Smith and his wife, Benedicte, bought the house in 1958, it was about to be condemned. Smith’s career spanned 40 years in radio and television. He was one of Edward R. Murrow’s CBS radio correspondents known as “the Murrow Boys,” and he later paired with Harry Reasoner as co-anchor of the ABC evening news. He was the moderator in 1960 for the first televised presidential debate, between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy.
The Smiths hired architect Shirley Kennard to help them restore and remodel the house based on a previous home in London. The mantel in the 30-foot-long great room was removed from their London house. The large windows across from the fireplace are exact copies of London house windows designed by John Nash, who is best remembered for his work on Buckingham Palace.
The windows were one of the many challenges Gharai encountered.
“That was a nightmare,” he said. “Those windows were crazy expensive” to replace.
The library next to the great room is the most stunning room in the house. Its oval shape was dictated by the property’s topography. The Smiths hired cabinetmaker Carl Neff to build the shelves out of Canadian maple. The shelves had separate areas for filing newspapers by name and days of the week and a series of pullout counter boards where Smith placed pages of his radio script. A woodworker spent six months restoring the shelves.
A four-inch-thick pocket door that weighs 1,000 pounds and runs on a ball-bearing track seals off the room. When closed, the library becomes soundproof.
Smith remained in the house, which he named “High Acres,” until his death in 2002.
Over the years, the house had been added onto so many times that it was an awkward mishmash. Gharai rearranged the spaces to make them more functional and let the original house shine through. He is most pleased with how the library, great room and dining room turned out.
“They are probably the most magnificent sequence of rooms in the city,” Gharai said.
The six-bedroom, seven-bathroom, 7,500-square-foot house is listed at just under $3.3 million.
Listing: 613 Brookes Ridge Ct., Bethesda, Md.
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