Nestled among the McMansions of Potomac, the nine-acre Norton Manor surpasses many of its neighbors in extravagance. Philanthropists Frank Islam, 63, and Debbie Driesman, 61, devoted nearly six years to building the grand estate, complete with a 40,000-square-foot residence, a five-bedroom guest house and a backyard tea house totaling another 7,000 square feet and koi and reflecting pools.
Manicured landscapes within the grounds incorporate pavilions, fountains and a shrub-bordered lawn inspired by the Rose Garden at the White House. Inside the neoclassical, stucco-clad home, an entire level is dedicated to entertaining spaces for political and charitable events.
“We wanted to provide a venue for giving back to the community,” says Islam, an information technology entrepreneur. “One of the main drivers of the design was having a space where we could host philanthropic activities and seat 60 people in a single room.”
Since moving into their 14-bedroom, 23-bathroom estate in 2013, the homeowners have regularly staged events for the Democratic Party. They held a June dinner attended by Vice President Biden and a fundraiser for Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) this month.
Islam and Driesman have hosted nearly all the region’s Democrats, including Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown; Sens. Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia and Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland; and Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett.
One of their few Republicans guests, the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, dined at the home in July. Ambassadors from Finland, Kazakhstan and Afghanistan have visited along with jazz musician and 2013 Kennedy Center honoree Herbie Hancock.
Next weekend, they will open the doors of their mansion to the Potomac Country House Tour. Visitors will have the opportunity to experience the grandeur of rooms filled with scenic murals, ornate marble fireplaces, hand-blown glass chandeliers and gilded plaster ceilings.
From the entrance hallway, they will pass through the kitchen, its walls painted to resemble Delft tiles, to the blue-and-gold family room. Guests will proceed to the faux-trellis-decorated conservatory with its views of the koi pond and garden terrace.
Then they will walk through the formal dining room and adjacent salon to the spectacular domed stair hall at the center of the house. From there, visitors will view his-and-her offices with a replica of the Resolute Desk from the Oval Office.
The tour will end in the Art Deco-style entertaining space on the lower level, where paintings of Washington’s famous monuments are interspersed with decorative patterns inspired by Radio City Music Hall.
“This house is an American palace,” says District interior designer Skip Sroka, who decorated the rooms with mostly made-in-the-U.S.A. furnishings. Global accents include chandeliers from Argentina, Nepalese rugs and English fireplaces.
Sroka developed the decor over three years of construction, rather than waiting until the house was completed. “It required incredible coordination to keep all the moving parts of the project from colliding, hours of meetings to solve dozens of problems,” he says of the ambitious design. “All the mouldings, marble flooring, decorative trim had to be integrated with the lighting, ductwork, smart-home features, security and fire suppression systems. We couldn’t pop a sprinkler head through an ornate ceiling.”
The sumptuous rooms, say the homeowners, pay homage to achieving the American dream. Islam, who came to the United States from India when he was 15, started his technology company QSS Group in 1994 with a $50,000 bank loan. In 2007, he sold the firm to Perot Systems Corp. for $250 million.
Islam and Driesman, the daughter of a Canadian mechanic, now run a foundation focused on educational, cultural and policy issues, as well as being involved in various civic and political causes.
According to public records, they paid $2.4 million for the property, which is now assessed at about $13 million.
“We are guided by the saying ‘to whom much is given, much is expected,’ ” says Islam. “It’s our responsibility to give back and share.”
The building of their impressive estate started modestly, with two ranch houses on adjacent four- and five-acre lots. After buying the properties in 2007, Islam and Driesman invited the local fire department to burn one of the original homes as part of its training program and had the other demolished.
“I’ve always liked formal, French design,” says Driesman, who sought to reflect it throughout Norton Manor. Inspiration came from a trip to Newport, R.I., where she and her husband toured Gilded Age mansions modeled on Versailles and an 18th-century chateau outside Paris.
Developing similarly ornate settings in Potomac proved challenging.
The homeowners first hired one team of architects, landscape architects and decorators to design the house and gardens, then fired them.
“They did not share our vision,” says Islam. “They were not interested in our feedback.”
At the recommendation of Gibson Builders, the District firm responsible for construction, the homeowners turned to Sroka and GTM Architects of Bethesda to complete the project. Lewis Aquatech, a Chantilly, Va., design-build firm, was brought on to create the outdoor spaces.
“Two acres behind the tea house were wooded and unusable,” says Don Gwiz of Lewis Aquatech. “Frank called them the ‘forbidden land.’ ” Gwiz says it took about $1.5 million to transform the area into a picturesque landscape with artificial streams, waterfalls and three stone bridges.
The front garden is more formal, centered on a reflecting pool covered in Italian glass tiles and limestone fountains. Dozens of mature trees, 1,600 boxwoods and 11,000 outdoor lights are scattered throughout the grounds.
“A crew of five men, working five days a week, are on the property maintaining it,” says Gwiz.
The estate took nearly six years to finish, says builder Jim Gibson, because of design complexities and unexpected setbacks during the project. After the homeowners decided to extend the sewer line to their property, he says, it took about a year to get county and state approval for the connection under a main road, delaying the building permit.
Completion was slowed again when the owners decided to expand the rooms at the back while the house was under construction. Just to finish the dome over the double staircase took about eight months.
“The biggest challenge was hanging an 800-pound chandelier from the center of the dome,” says Gibson. “We worked like Michelangelo and his team on the scaffold up there.”
The builder compares the steel-framed house with its east and west wings to a commercial building. “Everything is bigger and sturdier than a typical home.”
Norton Manor is eco-friendlier than most houses, too. Heating and cooling costs are reduced through 26 geothermal wells buried near the front of the house. Spray-foam insulation in the walls and rafters, and about 100 solar panels on the home’s roof improve efficiency.
“Since the house is much bigger than our previous home, we expected our power bill to be quadrupled, but it only doubled,” says Driesman.
She and her husband, who declined to reveal the costs of Norton Manor, are still putting the finishing touches on the design. They recently hired the Warnock Studios to paint a mural of a citrus grove on a fountain wall outside the entertaining rooms.
The Alexandria-based company is among the six firms responsible for the many paintings and decorative wall treatments throughout the property. This handcrafted artistry extends to the chandeliers created for several rooms by New York glass sculptor Barry Entner, whose colorful works are collected by the homeowners.
Islam and Driesman are now considering hiring an artist to paint the letters “PR” on one of the doors on the entertaining level. As Driesman explains, “We need a sign because no one can find the powder room.”
Deborah K. Dietsch is a freelance writer.
Staff researcher Eddy Palanzo contributed
to this report.