for the Washington Post's At Home magazine
By Stephanie Cavanaugh
Talk about sleeping your way to the top.
The former home of President Warren Harding in the Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood of Northwest Washington was a shambles when serial developer Blair Rose and his partner, mortgage banker Greg Busch got their hands on it three years ago.
They sold their townhouse in Dupont Circle to buy the 7500 square foot mansion but instead of renting until the place was habitable they house hopped.
“It’s like bar hopping,” quips Rose, “but with houses.” With several properties around the city in some state of repair or other, there was always another place to flop. “Once there was a shower and a toilet and one room without dust, we were there.”
Would he ever do it again? “Only for this house,” he says, shaking his head. “Otherwise, My God, I would not have my sanity—or my partner.”
And this house? What a place for a final flop. The magnificent Georgian revival hob nobs with the former homes of presidents Roosevelt, Hoover, Taft and Wilson. It’s a neighborhood where adjacent house numbers jump several digits to account for their multiple lots, and the quiet is as lush as fois gras.
The Rose-Busches were immediately taken with the classic proportions, spacious rooms, enormous landings on each level, and the graceful staircase that winds through the center of the house. “Sometimes these homes fall apart on the third floor,” says Rose. “Third floors were used as storage rooms or for housekeepers…Not this one. It retains its generous proportions throughout.”
It’s also perfectly symmetrical, even when it’s not. For example, a set of French doors that open from the living room to a Juliet balcony over the anteroom (“a name I only heard once I had one,” laughs Rose. ‘It’s a fancy mud room.”) are matched by a fake pair, inset with mirrors and leading to nowhere, at the other end of the room.
“This was like a museum when we came,” says Rose. “Nothing had been changed since it was built in 1916.” The original triple-wide Frigidaire was in the kitchen, along with call buttons for the servants, and a horizontally mounted radiator that served as a plate warmer. The elaborate plaster moldings were still in place, as were the original brass fixtures, the claw foot tubs, and the chestnut paneled library on the second floor.
There was also a trove of memorabilia from the previous owners, Lt Commander Page Clagett and his wife Dorothy Tirrell Clagett, whose parents bought the house from the Harding’s when they moved on to the White House. A popular hostess and diplomatic aide with the State Department in the 1950’s, Mrs. Clagett’s meticulously kept diaries detail evenings that included entertaining Vice President Nixon, and strolling down the block to the Embassy of Afghanistan, where President Eisenhower and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie were dining. There were personal mementoes as well, like her debutante photo, taken at 16, at the foot of the grand staircase.
But the place was an elegant ruin. The childless couple were in their 90’s and in failing health when they decided to sell. They’d lived here for years with a caretaker and, says Rose, took no notice when serious leaks began to cause the plaster ceilings to buckle and fall. Returning it to its original grandeur would take a year, and more than a million dollars.
Like most of the fifteen houses Rose has completed over the past five years, the Harding home is neither a true restoration nor a complete renovation. “With each property I look at the architecture and try to keep the original character of the house while updating for modern convenience,” he says. “So in five to ten years you can walk in and not be able to pinpoint when the renovation was done…there’s nothing about the cabinetry or light fixtures that make you say….mmmmm, 1974.”
Besides the remains of the ceilings, which were surgically removed to preserve the ornate crown moldings, little has been changed in the entry, living room and dining room. Here and throughout the house, the original floors, woodwork, shadow-box and crown moldings, and brass fixtures were restored wherever possible. When new doors and trim were required, the originals were painstakingly replicated.
The kitchen and baths underwent complete transformations. Typically utilitarian spaces in 1916—guests hardly hung out in kitchens back then—they are now Hollywood versions of the originals.
“Words can’t express what this used to look like,” says Rose, breezing through the butler’s pantry with its walnut cabinets and into the kitchen where the cupboards are white wood, glass fronted, and decked out with nickel hardware that gleams like old silver. (If you’ve debated chrome vs. nickel, stop. There’s no comparison).
Though neither of the owners cook, a six burner Viking gives the kitchen a timeless air. The range sits between two sets of new French doors leading to a sweeping terrace and the garden—an area once nearly filled by a garage that abutted the rear wall of the house.
Also gutted was the powder room and each of the four baths. A small bath and second floor parlor adjacent to the master bedroom became the master bath and a pair of wood-paneled dressing rooms that feel true to the era, even if they “never would have existed in 1916,” says Rose.
In the white marble floored bath, crystal legs support a double vanity overhung by a wall of mirror that reflects the crystal chandelier, the titanic double slipper tub, and a glass enclosed shower with two shower heads, big enough for “you and three of your closest friends,” Rose cracks.
For a guest bath upstairs, Crackled white “subway” tiles –you see them in New York subway stations— surface the walls, and a new nickel rain shower from Samuel Heath, a British firm that provided all of the homes period fixtures, is suspended from the ceiling above the original claw foot tub.
With few exceptions, the home’s restoration was done by Rose’s own crew, “they’re on my creative wavelength,” he says, “they want to be artists.” And Rose himself chose the furnishings, which complement the stateliness of the house but welcome a constant flow of guests as well as Chuck, a part shar pei, part lab mutt, and exact match for the palomino suede library couch. No accident. “A lot of the colors are based around him,” he laughs.