Courting Design with Solis

May 3, 2012

The physical structure of the Washington Design Center demands attention and respect in the Capitol Hill landscape the same way a bright red couch would demand it in the middle of a neutral-toned living room. Large and imposing, the massive building hosts 50 showrooms of interior design overload. Make no mistake; this isn’t a visit to IKEA. No particleboard bookshelves loaded with 200 copies of the same cookbook can be found in these walls. The rooms are designed by the best interior decorators in the D.C. area with only the best resources.

Started nearly 30 years ago and formerly a piece of the Kennedy family’s property portfolio, the center is meant to encapsulate everything Washington designers and design-o-philes need for inspiration. Visitors can tour the rooms and choose items smorgasbord-style, or they can pinpoint their ideal aesthetic and corresponding dream designer in the center’s massive rolodex.

In 2002, the center established the designer “Hall of Fame” as part of its 20th anniversary celebration. The center’s committee chooses professionals who have made a significant impact on D.C. design to be immortalized in the growing list of names. Membership in the “Hall” comes with priceless perks such as collaboration with other designers on center projects, participation in outreach programs for the community and the chance to design the center’s ever-changing entrance lobby.

Every nine months or so, the center chooses a name from the “Hall” to bring a fresh face to the building’s entrance. Much like the front window displays at Barney’s New York, the finished product is a signature for the chosen designer, a hallmark of their creative vision, condensed into a single square space. Both an honor and a challenge, the task is not one to be taken lightly.

Currently showing off their signatures to entering visitors are Jose Solis Betancourt and Paul Morgan Sherrill of Solis Betancourt & Sherrill. Betancourt is the founder of Solis Betancourt, Inc. and Sherrill, his partner, joined the company in 1992. With a portfolio boasting such names as Architectural Digest, House & Garden, House Beautiful, Southern Accents, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine and HGTV, the pair has plenty of experience and skill to pull off a perfectly designed room. The challenge was combining both of their visions—modern yet accessible—into a welcoming and current presentation.

“Lobbies can be so cold sometimes,” remarked Betancourt. “We really wanted to make this warm and inviting.”

“The lighting can get harsh in building lobbies,” agreed Sherrill. “With all the people coming through, it was important that we created a relatable environment.”

The two men might share a basic direction in design, but their beginnings are quite different. Betancourt grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, immediately latching onto art and spending his childhood days drawing and painting. His professional life pulled him between New York and D.C. several times before finally landing him here for good. Starting at the architecture program at Cornell University, he left New York in 1990 to work at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in D.C., but later returned to New York for a position at The Saladino Group. “I still go back and forth quite a lot,” he says. “There are many more resources, design-wise, in New York. But I’m learning how to find my way around the D.C. design community a lot better, especially in Georgetown.”

Merrill, a product of the South, grew up with artistic grandparents, who he says served as his inspiration to study art. He joined the design program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and graduated with a degree in art before moving to D.C. in 1992 to work with Betancourt. Also familiar with the resources in other cities like New York, Merrill is able to see the developing trends in Washington when compared to surrounding communities. “It’s becoming a lot more contemporary in D.C. lately,” he says. “And this is just compared to 20 years ago.”

Merrill and Betancourt applied that taste for modern furnishings when beginning their lobby project. The first thing Merrill says he noticed was the shape of the room, which apparently lent itself to a very structured design. “They’ve been doing this Hall of Fame designer showcase in the lobby for a few years now, I guess. And I always noticed that a number of the designers did a rigid design, focused mostly on architecture. I don’t necessarily agree with that.”

They decided to give the room a hint of drama, with loud, dynamic textures, sweeping, swagging draperies and a sensual color palette that felt very “now.”

“When you first enter the space, there is this existing niche in the wall,” says Merrill. “We painted that a rich mahogany color to give it that strong, important axis.”

Next, they focused on the somewhat intimidating height of the room. “It’s two stories high,” he says. “We did some really elegant draping to add drama and placed some lighter elements in front of it so you can see the silhouettes.”

“What we really wanted was a strong focal point,” says Betancourt. “And we created that by being very purposeful with our colors.”

Specifically, they utilized rich, saturated earth tones. The camels mixed with the dark wood shades simultaneously convey strength and elegance, giving the room a double dynamic: passionate yet logical, irresistible and smart, warm and powerful. The chosen chandelier is also a perfect example of this dual accomplishment, being both sculptural and classic.

Also arranged with precision and purpose is the furniture. “We wanted to express symmetry and balance, so we put the sofa at a diagonal angle,” says Betancourt. “It’s almost a circular arrangement so that breaks up the rigid feel of the room.”

“The rugs are important to that feel, too,” says Merrill. “We layered some of them on top of each other and it looks really interesting.”

As they finished up their project, Merrill and Betancourt were able to enjoy a practice reaction from the design center employees before the room was presented to the public. “I think they all really enjoyed it,” says Betancourt. “They all said that they found the drama of the draperies and color palette very pleasing to the eye. But what was most satisfying to hear was that they felt they could relate to the room and the pieces in it.”

“That’s what we were going for,” says Merrill. “Something graphic but sophisticated, something that straddled the line between modern and elegant. That balance is so important to respect, especially when dealing with public spaces.”
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Ghost Stories (On the Rocks) at the Congressional Cemetery

Anyone who walks the historic streets of our capital city will undoubtedly have a few unexplainable stories to share…even if one of them only involves tripping on one of those wayward bricks and stumbling away with a forehead raspberry. Smacked heads or not, strange stuff happens in old D.C. neighborhoods and the spook quotient naturally spikes around Halloween.

One Washingtonian especially versed in good D.C. ghost stories is Cindy Hays, executive director of the Congressional Cemetery on E Street, SE. In fact, she relishes the graveyard’s best tales from the crypt.

 “One of our ‘residents’ has apparently been seen in town,” she says. She’s speaking of Robert “Beau” Hickman, who died in 1873 and lived in the old National Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. “When he died penniless, his drinking buddies decided he deserved better than the Potter’s Field where he had just been buried, and went to retrieve him,” says Hays.

According to legend, upon returning to the cemetery to collect their friend and give him a proper burial, Hickman’s posse came face-to-face with a group of grave robbers who were collecting bodies for medical experiments, a common, “no questions asked” practice at the time. Despite saving their friend’s remains from an undignified second purpose, the friends were spooked and ready to exit the cemetery as soon as possible. They quickly dug a grave for Hickman and ran out to soothe themselves with a drink.

However, it seems they were followed by their grateful (though deceased) companion. “Beau, it seems, missed the good times too much to stay put for long, and began to haunt their card games at the old hotel. After the National was torn down, Beau was often seen standing at the corner at 6th & Penn looking for his old friends.” Apparently, the cash-poor but spirited man managed to be stylish, even in the afterlife. “He’s been spotted in modern times, looking as dapper as ever,” says Hays. “He is easily recognized by his beaver hat, cane, and diamond stick-pin.”

Hickman is one of the ‘residents’ who will be making a comeback for the cemetery’s Halloween “Ghosts and Goblets” event. The cemetery has hired actors to dress in costume and lurk by the graves of the people they are portraying. Those with tickets to the event will go on a torch light tour of the headstones, where the actors will be ready with spine-tingling stories of dirt, death and drama. “We’re calling it the ‘Sinners and Scoundrels’ tour,” says Hays. It’s going to be pretty scary to visit the actual burial sites of these people at dusk while hearing their stories.”

Begged for more salacious details of the Congressional dwellers, Hays delves into the tale of Mary Hall, a famed nineteenth century Capitol Hill madam with a penchant for leaving her mark. “Her story came to light when the Smithsonian began construction on the new American Indian Museum,” says Hays. “As the foundation was dug, archeologists found a surprising number of champagne bottles and gilt dinnerware shards.” Evidently, capitalism was good to Hall in the capital city. Having managed a thriving booty business for years, she had some extra funds to plan for the inevitable. She bought 18 plots at the cemetery in 1867 for her family and friends.

Hays says when she first toured the cemetery years ago, she found the graves of Hall’s mother and sister marked with a lovely, twelve-foot-tall angel statue. “I found a long, dirty pink silk scarf around the neck of the angel. Thinking it unsightly, I had it removed immediately.” But the change in décor didn’t sit well with someone roaming the grounds. Hays found a new scarf draped around the angel’s neck a month later. “How did this happen?” Hays still wonders. “To get to that neck would require a ladder. We don’t allow driving in the cemetery, and there are families walking their dogs all hours of the day and night.”

Chilling, sure. But a cemetery director gets used to the natural—and the supernatural. Sure enough, Hays’ most startling story came at the most inconvenient time: while planning a high-profile funeral.

“An event manager had been hired by the family to plan an extravaganza,” she remembers. “He was describing in great detail what he wanted to do as we walked out of the chapel. The afternoon air was totally still, not a breeze to be felt. As we turned the corner, all of the drawings and loose papers flew from his hands into the air. Some were propelled as far as half a block away.” Hays imagines a spirit was none too pleased by the conversation. “Whoever she was, she was obviously not happy about what she was hearing that was being planned in her cemetery!” Hoping to avoid another paranormal protest, the funeral planning was simplified. “The extravaganza was significantly toned down and we had a very dignified service, with no more outbursts.”

There are plenty of stories at the Congressional Cemetery and visitors can get their fill at the Halloween party Oct. 29. A skeleton key scavenger hunt and a demonstration of the chapel’s immense organ are on the schedule, along with, uh, spirits and a buffet. Tickets are $75 a person and can be purchased on the cemetery’s website at [gallery ids="100329,108537,108540" nav="thumbs"]

Oehme van Sweden, Designing the Cultural Landscape

Where would our social calendars be without weather dates? A little thing like a history-making-earthquake-and-hurricane combination wasn’t about to shake up D.C. schedules…at least not too much. When the ground shook the district, Virginia and Maryland in August right before Hurricane Irene attacked the East Coast, several things had to be rescheduled, including the dedication of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s memorial on the National Mall. But in true Washingtonian fashion, the city simply shrugged, sent workers to deal with the boo-boos on the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral, and carried on with plans to dedicate the new civil rights site.

The long-awaited event was originally planned for Aug. 28, which was the 48th anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. President Obama was scheduled to speak and the country was eager to see the finished product – a massive undertaking of fundraising and design nearly three decades in the making.

Luckily, as the hurricane flooded the streets and toppled trees on that crucial date, another vital anniversary was waiting around the corner as a backup date for the dedication. Oct. 16 marked the Million Man March, held in 1995 on the National Mall to gather the country’s black men in a show of collective voice. Since the memorial is the first one on the mall representing someone of color, choosing a Civil Rights-specific date was crucial.

Standing proudly at the ceremony on Oct. 16 was landscape architect Sheila Brady. A principal at Oehme van Sweden, Brady was a key element in choosing the oaks, pines, magnolias and cherries that surround the newly-dedicated monument. Though many projects are clamoring for the mark of an Oehme van Sweden architect, Brady says she’s the lucky one.

“It’s been a great honor,” she says. “It’s about five years now that we’ve been working on it. The crowd is so inspired and thrilled.” When ROMA, a design group based out of San Francisco, won the competition for the MLK Memorial site, Oehme van Sweden was asked to implement the ideas for the landscape. Brady came on as a director during the development stage. “So we took ROMA’s ideas and visions, respected and honored them, and designed a plan that was fitting for the memorial,” says Brady.

The 30-foot-tall granite statue of Dr. King is imposing and serious. Arms crossed and holding a purposeful look on his face, MLK appears to be waiting for the next step. Those standing before it instantly have a sense of duty: to continue working toward total equality, justice and peace. Just in case the mission isn’t clear enough, King’s most famous quotes are inscribed around him. “There’s so much emotion and honor there and it’s inspiring,” says Brady. “The rest of the mall structures are presidents and war memorials so this is a whole new message for people who visit D.C.”

Though born in New York, Brady has been a Washingtonian for most of her life, tapped well into the socially-conscious heartbeat of the capitol city. Her family set up house inside the beltway in Bethesda when she was 13. Interested in art and design early on in her life, Brady attended and graduated from George Washington University and the Corcoran School of Art and Design. Having developed an interest in traditional architecture, she started to attend exhibits and showcases. That was how she found the work of Dan Kiley. “I was fascinated with this group of plants that he assembled,” she says. “That was the first time I heard the term ‘landscape architect.’” That was the day the tide turned on Brady’s future. “Right there, I was sold. I went into landscaping and I haven’t looked back since.” With her new thirst for natural design, Brady went on to Harvard for a masters in design and eventually found her way to Oehme van Sweden.

At the time, the well-respected D.C. firm had been around for 15 years, founded by Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden. For anyone familiar with the art of landscape design, both men are well-known as pioneers of the “New American Garden” style of landscape architecture. Rather than confining the foliage to structured shapes and precise spots, the “New American Garden” is meant to showcase the natural form of the plant, allowing it to grow slightly wild and choose its own path. But rather than acting as an antithesis to more orderly designs, the look is meant to act as a compliment; soft edges against the hard.

Now, after 25 years with the firm and securing a spot as a design principal, Brady has an impressive portfolio of her own. But despite the pedigree, she’s hard-pressed to come up with any favorites in her distinguished career.

“They’ve all been such great projects, from start to finish,” she says. After a few moments of reflection, she admits that the 40-acre botanical garden in Roth, New York was a priceless lesson in serenity and public service for her. “We had this chance to educate the public on literally thousands of different plants,” she says. “That was really special for me.” She’s also partial to memorials, like the MLK project and the World War II structure, another collaboration with ROMA. “You’re on this sacred ground of the monument’s core,” she says. “It’s a reminder that you’re working in orchestration with memory. It was an experience of a lifetime.”

As for the MLK memorial, she says the selected trees and plants were chosen to create a lasting, year-round impact. For instance: “the American Elm variety we chose is called the Princeton Elm and it’s resistant to Dutch Elm disease,” she says. “So that’s kind of symbolic of the memorial’s message. And the ground plane is this wonderful evergreen. So it’s going to be beautiful and strong in all types of weather and conditions.” Overall, the memorial’s green design was concocted to inspire reactions from generations to come. Brady says the plants, the statue and the general design of the memorial are all a testament to things in life that simply won’t be shaken by adversity. “It’s made to endure millions of visitors. It all works together to become a unified, beautiful site.” [gallery ids="100355,110047" nav="thumbs"]

Start of the Season: Q&A with Middleburg Christmas Parade Director Jim Herbert

No matter where you live, the season doesn’t feel complete without tuning in to see that annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade every year on television…or, if you want to be part of the festivities, watching it go by in person. While the spectacle of those high-budget floats, top-tier music and celebrity appearances must be thrilling to experience live (and this writer is especially jealous of those who got to see Tim Burton’s “Bee” balloon make its debut), the body-crushing crowds and merciless winds somehow put the whole experience into the “not worth it” category. Okay, maybe it’ll go onto the “just once” bucket list.

But even with all the chaos, you’ve gotta love a parade. Luckily enough for Washingtonians, Middleburg, Va. keeps one of the holiday’s treasured traditions more relaxing with the Middleburg Christmas Parade. For 33 years, a group of grassroots organizers and selfless volunteers have been keeping this small-town tradition alive and it’s become something of a draw for tourists around Delmarva. With its Christmas cheer and small town atmosphere, the parade is the perfect backdrop for those one-of-a-kind holiday memories.

The Georgetowner spoke with the parade’s head organizer this year, Jim Herbert, about the parade’s unique personality and how it speaks to the overall feeling of this irresistible historic town.

Georgetowner: What makes the Middleburg Christmas Parade so unique?

Jim Herbert: Honestly, we have everything but the kitchen sink. And even there, we have something close in that a dog grooming business has someone dress up as a Dalmatian and sit in a bathtub, trying to wash his spots off. Because they make dogs spotless. Get it?

GT: Good one.

JH: Yeah, you gotta have a sense of humor in this parade.

GT: So it’s all local people putting together their own floats?

JH: People and businesses, yes. What makes this parade special, essentially, is that every float or part of the walk represents something that the people of this town really care about.

GT: So what is Middleburg, in a sense? Why should people want to find out what makes this town tick?

JH: Well some might see it as just a part of horse country. It’s an 18th century village and yes, we’ve got a lot of big horse farms. But what we’ve really got here are clauses of care and concern where people reach out and help each other. For example, we have a lot of animal rescue organizations that come out to be in the parade. We’ve got the Methodist Church hosting a breakfast to help an organization called Seven Loaves, which helps out need families. They’re the busiest they’ve ever been in this tough economy.

GT: But that horse country atmosphere is a big draw for your town. So will that be a part of the parade too?

JH: It’s actually one of the most visually stunning parts of the event. The Middleburg Hunt Review, which we’re pretty famous for, has its own event right around this time and we combine it with the parade. They have their biggest meeting of the year, usually about 90 to 100 riders turn out with their hounds on the west end of town. From there, they send a pack of hounds down Main Street and ride through at about 11a.m., when throngs of people are waiting to see them. It’s breathtaking and so significant, a real piece of history. For me, it feels like when the troops go by in front of the grand stand. It’s really beautiful to see.

GT: What else does the parade have going on?

JH: Oh, so much: polo teams, high school bands, acrobats. I’d like to say I had entries this year from A to Z, but it’s really only A to W. I want to be honest.

GT: It sounds a little like New Orleans.

JH: It is like New Orleans! Only we’re a little more family-friendly. [gallery ids="100401,113229,113207,113221,113215" nav="thumbs"]

In With the Old

November 21, 2011

The notion of “antiquing” in quaint outskirt towns might seem like a bit of a cliché. It does tend to conjure up images of a Sunday afternoon spent rummaging around bins of old photographs, trying on estate jewelry and looking for that perfect mid-century hallway bench. Some might say such activity is best left to the ladies in fanny packs.

Yet antiques have taken on a whole new place in our culture. Now partnered with the green movement of recycling goods and appreciating local markets, having a piece of the past adorning one’s home or office has become a requirement for stylish decor. A modern kitchen without reclaimed tins and crates for storage? Unheard of. And where would the new metal bed from CB2 be without the oil portrait circa 1932 hanging above it?

So it’s not exactly a unique notion to spend weekends choosing from history’s glorious remains. What breathes whole new life into the activity, however, is throwing antiquing into the frenetic culture of the fast approaching Black Friday.

Black Friday. Those two little words strike fear and dizziness into the hearts of holiday shoppers everywhere. Just watching those department store commercials surrounding Thanksgiving is cause for high blood pressure. Three floors of anxiety-ridden super-shoppers with armfuls of swag and hearts full of vengeance are enough to make the most focused and determined of us assume the fetal position. When did a loving, thoughtful tradition become grouped into the category of dreaded annual events like dentist appointments and tax season?

It happened right around the time large corporate chain stores decided to turn the process of shopping – at its best a slow, thoughtful, even cathartic process with lunch scheduled somewhere in the middle – into competition. Mark-ups then mark-downs are planned to reel in rowdy crowds for that terrifying annual Friday. But do the gifts really mean anything? Do your in-laws really need another set of matching pajamas from Sears? It’s simply not worth it.

This year, forget about it. Antique shopping is the new Black Friday.

Antique shopping requires a more heartfelt approach than clearing off a shelf of scented candles at Bed Bath & Beyond. There’s a sense of quiet victory in finding a tea set for your favorite aunt. And perhaps, if you strike antique gold, she’ll turn the saucer upside down to discover it was made the same year she got married.

With the perfect gift-giving accomplished, it’s okay to be a little self-serving while scooting delicately through the aisles of fragile relics. For those hosting a Thanksgiving dinner, go ahead and look for that perfect mid-century hallway bench. Who cares if it’s going to be covered with coats and hats for most of the weekend? You’ll be using the Victorian pie server you found as an excuse to show off your new estate ring.

Must-Browse Antique Districts


1) East Washington and Madison Streets
Middleburg, Virginia
With the Middleburg Antique Emporium, Hastening Antiques, Ltd., JML French Antiques and the like, downtown Middleburg is a worthy hour-long drive on 50 West for some quality relic-hunting.

2) King and Market Streets
Leesburg, Virginia
Historic downtown Leesburg has an impressive collection of collectibles stores tucked into its main cross streets. Its proximity to the old (and still in-use) courthouse gives shoppers a taste for Federal-style finds.

3) East Main Street/North Massanutten Street
Front Royal, Virginia
This town has two main neighborhoods for vintage goods. East Main Street hosts treasures like Vintage Swank and Helen’s while North Massannutten is home to Strasborg Emporium, Bull Run Relics and Heirloom. Make time for both stops.

4) Caroline Street
Fredericksburg, Virginia
No need to wander if antiques are the mission in Fredericksburg. Every storefront waits right on Caroline Street so it’s a straight shot to places like Beck’s Antiques and Books, Market Square Antiques and Picket Post.


1) South Carroll and East Patrick Streets
Frederick, Maryland
Downtown Frederick is easy to find from route 270…and so are the stores. The highest concentration of old goods is found at the intersection of South Carroll and East Patrick Streets, where mainstays like Cannon Hill and Old Glory await.

2) Main Street
Ellicott City, Maryland
This old suburb of Baltimore is like-minded to Fredericksburg in that they keep their antiques together on display. The row of vintage retailers goes in a straight line up Main Street, starting with Retropolitan, Ltd. to the west and ending with Vintage Girls to the east.

3) West Howard Avenue
Kensington, Maryland
The West Howard Antiques district has become something of a legend since its establishment 40 years ago. As a large tourist attraction for the town of Kensington, the area doesn’t disappoint with its tiny maze of stores. Finding each address takes a little exploring, so don’t ignore the alleyways and staircases.

4) Dorchester Avenue
Cambridge, Maryland
The Packing House, a giant warehouse situated on the Eastern shore, is a mega-mall of antique dealers – more than 100, to be exact, in the 60,000-square-foot facility.

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DC Jazz Festival 2012 Circle of Friends

October 27, 2011

For its 6th year, the DC Jazz Festival Trustees Dinner was held in the Benjamin Franklin room at the U.S. Department of State on October 5th. Ann Stock, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, was the evening’s host, and she was joined on stage by ABC7/WJLA-TV Anchor Leon Harris, along with DC Jazz Fest chairman Michael R. Sonnenreich, executive producer Charles Fishman and executive director Summy Sumter. After an introduction by Fishman, the Freddy Cole Quartet performed for the crowd with their special guests Paquito D’Rivera and Hilary Kole.