Political history permeates Wendell Mansions, a 107-year-old Beaux-Arts apartment building in the Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood where architect Suman Sorg recently purchased and renovated a 4,000-square-foot residence.
Her unit, Apartment 1, was a former home to Gen. Chester V. Clifton, a military adviser to the Kennedy administration. Letitia Baldrige, the etiquette expert and public relations executive best known for her role as Jacqueline Kennedy’s social secretary, occupied the building’s top floor, Apartment 4.
The architect, an area resident for more than 30 years, grew to appreciate the stately Embassy Row neighborhood when her father relocated the family from India in 1968 for a job as special adviser in education to the Indian Embassy. “Our first home was the Fairfax Hotel across the street from the embassy. We lived [there] for over a year,” Sorg said, recalling her family’s early years in Washington. “I really love the tree-lined streets and so much is within walking distance — Dupont Circle, U Street, Adams Morgan — but it’s fairly quiet here.”
Sorg, principal of Sorg Architects, an award-winning architecture firm with offices in the District and New Delhi, has completed numerous local and international commissions, including historic preservation and adaptive-reuse projects, and was attracted to the apartment’s restoration potential. “The unique challenge in renovating the apartment was accommodating modern living requirements while respecting the historic character of the home,” said Sorg.
She had renovated her previous home on nearby Bancroft Place and was not averse to tackling another renovation, but she had specific criteria. “Since I travel so much, I really wanted a flat and not a single-family home, and needed a large enough space for a dedicated art studio,” she says. “There were three major components to this project — restoration of the main living areas and gutting several rooms to create functional spaces,” said Sorg, who acted as architect, general contractor and interior designer. “The kitchen hadn’t been updated since the 1950s and all the bathrooms were very outdated. I also had to address the lack of central air conditioning.”
The spacious residence gave the architect plenty of room to achieve her goals. A minimally intrusive renovation of the living, dining and music rooms, all on the Massachusetts Avenue side of the building, kept period details, including two fireplace mantels and the original chandeliers.
To brighten and modernize these rooms, original elegant wainscoting, moldings, doors and baseboards were refreshed with white paint. The old parquet and yellow pine floors were cleaned and refinished, while neutral-tone paint was applied to walls that serve as a backdrop for the architect’s growing collection of the brightly hued paintings that she creates.
One of the larger challenges was determining how to install the central air-conditioning system without disrupting the dwelling’s period character. “Traditional duct placement would have required placing [them] along the ceiling and disguising them with soffits. This would have diminished the historic character,” said Sorg.
Fortunately, the apartment’s first-floor location allowed Sorg to use the building’s ground-floor storage area for the system, and cool air is now forced through floor grates. New ceiling lights and fans are operated by remote control.
A long hall that parallels the Massachusetts Avenue side of the flat leads to the home’s cozy library and a guest bedroom.
Adjacent to the guest room is the new master bedroom and a large walk-in closet, created by converting two smaller rooms. A sunny, spalike bath was created from the home’s former sunroom.
“I really wanted a modern and comfortable master suite but referenced period details from other rooms,” says Sorg, pointing out decorative molding applied to the bedroom’s walls.
From the dining room, a second hallway leads to the kitchen, a powder room and a second guest bedroom. The hall terminates at the rear of the apartment with steps leading to a spacious new art studio carved out from a series of cramped, pie-slice-shaped rooms. Sorg began painting in earnest six years ago, and her museum-scale oils in vivid reds and pinks recall colors of traditional northern Indian saris.
Furnishings, reflecting her vocation, include a drafting table and low bookcases that hold art supplies and books. The apartment’s terrace — her unit is the only one in the building afforded outdoor living space — is accessed from the studio and provides a private area for informal dinner parties and entertaining.
A busy international travel schedule and long hours at the firm prevent Sorg from spending a lot of time in the kitchen, and although she says she enjoys cooking, the architect admits that function drove the design.
“I didn’t see the point in creating a larger kitchen. For my needs, the original footprint was quite adequate,” said Sorg. The design is a study in streamlined utility. Sleek, floor-to-ceiling white enameled cabinets by Mia Cucina line three walls and reflect light throughout the space.
A Sub-Zero refrigerator is recessed into cabinetry and faced with the same material. The renovation permitted Sorg to increase the amount of counter space, and a center island featuring a Smeg cooktop was installed for additional storage. Carera marble was used for the countertops and the island.
To visually expand the space, Sorg removed half of the kitchen’s west wall and replaced the section with two floor-to-ceiling half-inch glass panels that allow light from the kitchen’s only bank of windows to flood the hallway, highlighting artwork placed along its length. A strategically placed mirror next to cabinets on the kitchen’s south wall reflects light and creates the illusion of more space. To enhance natural lighting, small pot lights were added and a sculptural Blauet fixture above the island provides task illumination.
With the $300,000 renovation completed in less than eight months, Sorg began the task of furnishing the space. Her job was greatly simplified by using pieces brought from her former residence. “Nearly everything I purchased new, including lighting, fixtures and flat-screen televisions, were all bought online,” Sorg said.
Accessories and art provide pops of color in each room. The egalitarian mix of furniture includes a vintage Warren Platner table and Eames chairs, Crate & Barrel tables and contemporary sofas from Mobili and B&B Italia. The modern, artfully placed furnishings provide a bold contrast to the updated period details and highlight the 12-foot ceilings.
Although the political pedigree of Wendell Mansions is well documented, Sorg points out a lesser-known fact about the historic structure. “Anna Jennes-Miller was the real estate developer and resident of Wendell Mansions. I’m told that Apartment 1 was her former home and that she was related to Oliver Wendell Holmes,” Sorg said.
In homage to one of the District’s first female developers, a photo and biography of the Victorian businesswoman are neatly framed and hanging in the building’s lobby, also restored by Sorg.
“When I arrive home and open my front door, the space feels calming — the history is very grounding.”
Tracy Mitchell Griggs is a freelance writer.