Live and Learn
Real Estate Spotlight
G. Morris Steinbraker & Son: Three Generations in Georgetown
Nico Dodd • February 25, 2013
Tucked into Grace Street around the corner from Wisconsin Avenue at the C&O Canal sits an iconic Georgetown storefront: G. Morris Steinbraker & Son, experts in historic renovation and construction, soon to depart its old town. It is just past the clothing store Patagonia’s building, which was also built by business founder G. Morris Steinbraker.
Both David Steinbraker’s grandfather, G. Morris Steinbraker, and his father, the “Son,” were born at 3321 block of Q Street, NW. When he was in third grade at Holy Trinity School, David Steinbraker’s family moved to a new home, built by his father, in Kensington, Md. He began working for the family business during summers at St. John’s College High School in Chevy Chase, D.C., and began working fulltime after he returned to the United States from serving in the 101st Airborne during the Vietnam War. He did not go to trade school. He got his skills “all from doing it,” he said. “Working for your father, you start from the bottom.”
Steinbraker credits a lot of his business style to his father and grandfather. “I learned a lot from my father’s father.” He also cites craftsmanship and customer relations as important things stressed by his grandfather. “My grandfather kept telling me the customer’s always right,” he said. “It’s an old statement, but we sort of live by it.”
Steinbraker & Son does a lot of restoration and renovation work. No surprise, being in Georgetown. “Since we’ve been in Georgetown for so long, a lot of our customers live in Georgetown,” said Steinbraker, whose projects have included jobs at Dumbarton Oaks, Blair House, the City Tavern Club and the home of the late Sen. Charles Percy, R-Ill.
“One of my best clients is Jay Rockefeller, the senator from West Virginia. I remodeled his house. I also designed three bridges on his property,” Steinbraker said. “We actually did some work at his West Virginia house, too.”
At the Percys’ home, Steinbraker had to use creativity to get a project past the Old Georgetown Board, which has the power to approve construction projects in the historic district. “Senator Percy lived up here on 34th Street,” he said. “As he was getting older, they wanted to put an elevator in, and it had to serve all these different floors. I knew how the board was. They were very particular. So, I designed an elevator shaft that looked like a chimney.”
With old-school manners, Steinbraker & Son has made a name for itself by its high-quality craftsmanship. customer service through word of mouth — and its reputation. The company does not advertise or have its own website. It can be found on sites like the Georgetown BID’s website or Yelp.com.
Although he mostly has done large projects, Steinbraker will do any small projects to meet the needs of clients. “I will also hang a picture for a customer or hang a screen door,” he said.
Sixty-nine years after his grandfather built the Grace Street structure in 1944, David Steinbraker is moving his business out of Georgetown. The original building is being offering for lease. “I’m going to scale down a little bit,” he said. “I’m not going to retire fully.”
Georgetown is filled with such stories and such small businesses. While decamping to Maryland, Steinbraker & Son remains a third-generation Georgetown business with deep roots: once a Georgetowner, always a Georgetowner.
Real Estate for Real People
Emily Lindstrand • November 28, 2012
Washington’s dynamic new brokerage company Real Living | At Home promises a one of a kind experience for those who looking to buy a house in the area. With its extensive use of social media, Real Living aims to strongly engage with its clients and give them an authentic idea of what living in DC is like.
The company hopes that these objectives will foster true connections with clients.
“If clients are going to work with Real Living, I want them to know exactly what kind of agents we have,” company CEO and founder Darrin Friedman said, “And we have fantastic agents who really understand what it means to connect with today’s consumer.”
Founded earlier this year, Real Living is a full service brokerage company. Where they dif- fer from other companies of the sort is with their commitment to community and engagement.
“For us culture is everything. Vision is every- thing,” Friedman explained, “Responsiveness, taking care of our clients is everything. And we work through social media, different flavors of social media engagement, and also something as simple as a letter. Every new client gets a letter. It says welcome to our family of clients, if you need anything this is how you reach us. It’s more than just an island with one agent. There’s no such thing as an island with us.”
Real Living specifically targets potential home buyers and sellers between the ages of 24-44. According to Friedman, 70% transactions in real estate involve someone in this age group. As a result, proper communication with this group is key.
“You must know how to communicate, you must know how to market to know how to reach that primary age group or you’re really going to be left behind,” Friedman said.
In today’s age of smart phones and ipads, Real Living has found social media to be an invaluable asset in their goal of connecting with consumers. The company has been using Facebook and Pintrest to engage with clients. Their Pintrest site highlights their favorite house fronts and interiors in D.C., and they held a contest via Facebook page that entailed guess- ing a picture of a D.C. streetfront that was taken twenty-five years ago with a Starbucks gift cer- tificate as a prize.
“I have not yet put up a listing on our Facebook page,” Friedman said, “That’s not the point, that’s not true engagement.”
“We do have big goals,” Friedman said, “But we also view our goals as quality…I’d much rather grow organically and with talent than quickly with herds of people that just fall out.”
Vicki Johnston’s D.C.
Lisa Gillespie • October 11, 2012
Vicki Johnston knows D.C. real estate – she’s worked as an agent for eight years, but prior to that she worked in advertising as an account executive with a lot of local developers. When she decided to make the switch, an old client hired her to sell new condominium developments in the Metro area.
“New” has been Johnston’s focus in a burgeoning housing market in the District that continues to expand. There were approximately $3 billion in sales in 2011 with an average selling price of half a million dollars, according to figures from RealEstate Business Intelligence, LLC.
Johnston was assigned to Velocity Condos (1025 First St. SE) from Cohen Companies/ADC in November 2007 for the initial presale opening and has remained the sales manager since. Twenty percent of units are still on the market. The building was completed in 2009 and has 200 residential with retail below. A few studios and one-bedrooms remain – a 644 South facing studio on the 10th floor goes from $294,900, while a 787 South facing one bedroom goes from $398,900. Along with Velocity, she thinks the next hot spots in D.C. will be Southwest and Southeast. In addition, she also sells homes, which can range from $500,000 to closer to $1 million.
“My clientele are almost always referrals from friends, family and business associates and range from young 20-something first-time buyers to downsizers wanting to move into D.C.,” she said.
She has seen it all in the Metro region. Her most memorable home was in Del Ray, Alexandria, Va., where “the ‘half bath’ consisted of a toilet next to the water heater in the utility area of the basement. It was in full working order and even had a bath mat in front.”
One of her quickest sales was in Prince George’s County, a friend’s house that was more than 5,000 SF. She only had to “stage,” where the realtor populates the house with furniture, and had the home sold in just four days.
Johnston hails Buffalo, N.Y. and graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in marketing and advertising. She moved to D.C. soon after graduation and has spent most of her career supporting major developers in the region. During the past nine years, she’s bought, sold and remodeled nine homes and now manages two full-time rentals in the metropolitan area, along with two vacation rentals, one in Florida and one in North Carolina.
“I love my job because it’s multifaceted. I do data analysis, I stage, I get to be involved in construction and remodeling…I have to do some savvy negotiating, space planning, run numbers and help people budget expenses, etc.,” she said. Johnston lives at 4th St. and Massachusetts Ave. NW, in Mt. Vernon Triangle and also has a home on Lake Anna, Virginia. “The best part is seeing someone really happy and feeling like they accomplished their goal and are moving on to the next adventure in their life.”
George Gordon, Architect
John Blee • May 3, 2012
Meet the man behind several of Georgetown’s signature structures, including Patisserie Poupon, Bo Concepts and Patagonia. John Blee sits down for a chat with George Gordon, one of the neighborhood’s most prominent architects.
When you work with a client, how do you merge with their aesthetic? Or do you try to shift their taste in your direction?
We begin by listening to the client’s needs and vision for the project and interpreting them into a built form. For example, we recently worked with a restaurateur who wanted a sign and awning but on meeting him, we observed that the interior of the restaurant used a good bit of stainless steel. We designed a metal “awning” (instead of the fabric type normally seen) with a stylized sign of his logo in stainless steel. Although pricy, the client was thrilled with the concept and is eager to have the awning installed, extending the theme of his restaurant out over the sidewalk.
In designing a house what do you enjoy the most? What do you have to struggle with other than financial constraints?
In working with a client on a house or other owner/user residential spaces (apartments, etc.) what’s most satisfying — and actually most challenging too — is conceptualizing a design that envelopes the client’s lifestyle and image. It is easy to get a quick impression of how a person lives and what seems important to them, but in working with clients, the true concerns eventually emerge. Clients who have portrayed themselves as very traditional have been revealed to really dislike clutter, and in the design process gravitate toward a cleaner, more streamlined design. Clients who at first meeting almost demanded such finishes as granite countertops have reconsidered when a warmer, more welcoming palette of materials is presented to them. Summing up, it is a challenge to know when to listen and when to prod.
Where did you study, and who has influenced you as an architect?
I went to school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and received a rigorous, though a bit technical, education. The people who have had a great influence on me as an architect are the architects who I worked for when I started my career. All architects admire the greats. Architects such at Le Corbusier, Lutyens and Kahn. But the greatest impact was from working with very talented architects and observing how they worked their “majic.”
Do you do interiors, including placement of furniture, and if so, is that more complex in terms of client preference?
Not usually. We do measure a client’s furniture and show furniture placement on the drawings to give a sense of room size and layout. But actual placement not as often.
Is the contractor someone you carry over from job to job?
We do have a preferred group of contractors, and view recommending general contractors to clients as kin to marriage brokering. One contractor’s operation may be better suited to a client’s personality and preferred way of doing things than another. We try to make that pairing.
What’s your fastest turn-around for designing a house from scratch, from drawings to the client moving in?
Probably about a year. There are many decisions to be made and clients often want a bit of time to consider all the choices. After all, they are going to live among the decisions for a long time, so better to do the best at first pass.
Do you do kitchens, and if so, what’s the most expensive job you’ve done and what did it include?
We do kitchens, usually in conjunction with another program component, such as a family room or outdoor space. The most involved kitchens have included professional equipment, specialty appliances (such as a custom-made French range) and specific equipment for specific tasks: pizza oven, etc.
How do you work with light in your houses, how is that achieved?
We like to be involved in the design and fixture selection of lighting systems. There is a good bit of new technology, such as scene controls, that will allow the client to further customize their living experience and adapt the feel of spaces to various situations, family living, Sunday brunch, elegant dinner party. The selection of fixtures from a performance point of view and energy consumption is very important. And what makes the space come to life more dazzlingly than really nice lighting?
What is the house you’ve worked on that you are most proud of?
A waterfront house in Annapolis. It is a very quirky design, very tailored for the client and the setting. For example, there is a roof dormer in the master bedroom that exactly frames a view of the [State House] dome. The framing of views, connection to the water and the play of the spaces, interior to exterior, has produced a sequential experience that must be seen. Photographs do not adequately capture the progressing through the house from front door to pier on the water.
Name the five best buildings in the D.C. area you did not design.
The Institute for International Economics on Massachusetts Avenue, the lobby of 1999 K St., the Christian Science Center on 16th Street, the Gannett Complex in McLean, and the National Association of Realtors building on New Jersey Avenue.
Other than your own, what house in D.C. would you most like to live in?
The Marcel Breuer house in northwest D.C.
Hugh and Simon Jacobsen, Architects
Few Washingtonians need introduction to Jacobsen Architecture, the Georgetown firm behind some of the snazziest edifices in Washington and the world, including the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, the U.S. embassies in Paris and Moscow and several external additions to a little building called the U.S. Capitol. John Blee sits down to chat with father-son architecture aces Hugh and Simon Jacobsen.
When you work with a client, do you merge with their aesthetic, or do you try to shift their taste in your direction?
Our approach is that a client is not just another client or project, but rather an individual with a very unique set of circumstances, tastes, experiences, fears and enthusiasms who, out of all the architects in the world, has come to us to design their house and, hopefully forever, change their lives for the better. We listen with a kind of architectural stethoscope for the blatant design instruction and for the subtle murmur of something that they can neither explain nor describe.
In designing a house what do you enjoy the most, and what do you have to struggle with, other than financial constraints?
There is no greater satisfaction for architects and designers that when the initial presentation is complete, the client is no longer sitting in their chair but jumping up and down shaking your hand and trying to kiss you.
The struggle for us comes in the form of trying to get the project past the oceans architectural review boards in the international and national jurisdictions that we work in. We like to say “it is like giving birth to a barbed wire fence.”
Where did you study, and who has influenced you as an architect?
Hugh: Yale, much influenced by Lou Kahn.
Simon: The Chicago School of Architecture-UIC, influenced by Richard Meier and many deconstructionists and theorists of the Chicago School.
What is the easiest thing about working with clients, and what is the most difficult?
The easiest thing, of course, is being permitted to do what we do best, which is to streamline the project on time and on budget. The hard part comes when the client makes changes during construction, for whatever reason. We have very innovative and unique details and methods that are not intuitive at first sight to the builder. Much planning goes into the construction preparation and for it to change can be frustrating and expensive for everyone.
Do you do interiors, including placement of furniture? If so, is that more complex in terms of client preference?
We are one of the few firms in the world where the design of the building starts with the furniture (both ours and the owners’), in addition to art and light. Therefore, our completed building is a total envelope of a congruent aesthetic of a single company, rather than other firms, who seem to lock arms in an uncomfortable collaboration of people trying fruitlessly to coordinate the thousands of parts and hopefully getting them to fit together like ill-fitting puzzle pieces. In our work, the interiors and furniture is part of the architecture, and it doesn’t look as if someone stopped by at the last minute and lobbed in a bunch of stuff, hoping that it would work.
Is the contractor someone you carry over from job to job?
We are currently working in the Cayman Islands, California, Colorado, Maine, Nantucket, Washington, Melbourne (Australia), Florida, etc. We prefer to always work with the same builders when possible, for we go through a kind of teaching and explanation period on every new project and new builder. However, many of our projects are in “one-shot” locations, and in those places we are unable to use a preferred builder.
What’s the fastest turn around, in designing from scratch with a house, from drawings to the client moving in?
One year, and we still can’t believe it. The client didn’t make any changes!
Do you do kitchens, and if so, what’s the most expensive job you’ve done and what did it include?
Well, we have done million-dollar kitchens and we have done ten thousand-dollar kitchens. Our expertise is not building expensive kitchens, but really good ones. Yes, the $1 million kitchens do pop up, but we would rather spend that money on the roof or the pool — or just put the pool on the roof.
Light is what your firm is known for in his houses, how is that achieved?
To most people who know the work, it may appear that buildings just have a great deal of glass. Although this is key, it is only a fourth of the issue. We bring light inside, then it is prismed on reflective plains of the interior. The houses are positioned so that the sun doesn’t overpower the spaces, damaging art and fabrics, and we use walls of books, art and furniture to introduce color where the light then dances off all of the surfaces.
What is the house you’ve worked on that you are most proud of?
The ones we have underway now.
Name the five best buildings in the D.C. area you did not design.
The British Embassy, the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art, Society of Cincinnati, The Metropolitan Club, The US Capitol.
Other than your own houses, what house in D.C. would you most like to live in?
Simon: The Egyptian Embassy off Sheridan Circle.
Did you design your own home, and if you did, what are you happiest with about it?
Hugh: That it has survived 40 years of children, mumps, measles, holidays, teenagers, illness, prosperity and the occasional visiting Republican.
Simon: That people walk by and look in the windows. I think it is also on a local tour map, where it is listed as “some weird guy’s all-white house.” [gallery ids="99167,103004" nav="thumbs"]
Jennie Mann, Realtor
Jennie Mann is a rising star in real estate sales and works for McWilliams/Ballard. She is the sales manager for Yale Steam Laundry, an up-and-comer in the condo world located in the exciting tip of Penn Quarter, right next to the new Urban Safeway.
What is the most memorable property you have closed yet?
My most memorable property was an amazing 1200-square-foot open space loft in the Yale Historic Building with 16-foot-high ceilings, exposed brick, big arching window — the works. It was beautiful!
How do you like to celebrate with your clients after you have closed a sale?
For general brokerage clients you can’t go wrong with a nice bottle of Champagne and a gift card to their favorite furniture store.
Have you sold to or worked with any local celebrities on a deal? And if so whom might we know?
I have, but I never kiss and tell.
What was the first thing you bought with your commission money besides paying bills?
The first thing I purchased with my commission was a quality handbag — a big quality handbag! I needed one that would fit my laptop and files.
Are you single or married? If single, do you date other agents ever or have you? If married, what does your spouse do?
I’m engaged to a wonderful man who is the co-founder and creative director of a branding agency located in Georgetown.
What is your dream home in the District to live in (on or off the market)?
In the District I would love to live in my good friends’ condo. They own a super modern penthouse unit [near Thomas Circle]. I admire their great taste, from their choice of artwork to their well-designed terrace. However, thanks to my Estonian fiancé’s influence, my ultimate dream home would have to be a pre-fab home. Pre-fab homes can be custom-designed to fit the homeowners’ lifestyle, plus they reduce waste and save on energy. I value function over wasted space. Less is definitely more. I think people add clutter and spend too much money on unnecessary decorations for their home. Who needs 15 vases and 20 decorative pillows? For example, someone once gave me a teddy bear for Valentine’s Day and I kept thinking to myself, “where the hell am I going to put this?” I sent it to Goodwill the next day.
What is your favorite thing about being an agent in the business?
The best thing about my job is that every day is different. I learn something new every day. I meet people from all different walks of life and having a flexible schedule doesn’t hurt.
How do you get your face out there? Do you use advertising, marketing, charities, or community involvement?
I used to attend a lot of networking parties and events. However, these days I find that the best way to generate business is through referrals from friends and family.
What are some trends you see in the market?
Being environmentally responsible is a big trend. We have a more conscious buyer these days. People are actively seeking out green buildings with LEED certification and using sustainable materials for their homes. It’s a trend that I hope will stay around for good.
Tricia Messerschmitt, Realtor
Ari Post •
Q: Where do you live? And why did you pick that area?
I live in Cleveland Park, and I picked the area because it’s the essence of Washington, the best of all worlds. It’s so close to Georgetown, but it provides the nicely balanced mix of urban and residential with good walkability.
Q: What is the highest ticket you have closed yet?
Well, it was above $5 million. And I’m on a team of team of realtors, the Mcfadden group, whose tickets are even higher. I can’t even guesstimate. But personally, $5 million.
Q: Any memorable closing celebrations?
There have been. A closing is a very joyous time. Often times it includes champagne. Sometimes it’s a multiple-day celebration. But it’s always a very happy occasion for people and it is a good reason to celebrate. It’s an important achievement, buying home.
Q: Do you have a favorite area in Georgetown? A street, or a block?
I love Montrose Park, at the very top at R street. When I first arrived in Washington nearly 20 years ago, it was one of the first places that I went to. I was sitting there having a picnic, being rained on by these beautiful, little, delicate pink blossoms. It was my first experience with the cherry blossoms, and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I just fell in love the place at that moment. I just thought, “How can you not love this place?”
I also have an affinity for the Four Seasons hotel. I was their public relations director for ten years. It will always hold a special place in my heart.
Q: Have you ever treated yourself to anything special upon closing a deal?
With my very first commission in real estate, which was only five years ago, I treated myself to a new set of golf clubs. That was a nice splurge.
Q: Where you golf around the area?
I golf around many different places. Whiskey Creek, Osprey’s. I’ve played in probably most of the courses around the area.
Q: Are you single or married?
I’ve been going steady with the same guy for nearly twenty years, Chris Plante, and he probably doesn’t want me to say his name, but he’s a radio personality around here. His father is a forty-year Georgetowner.
Q: What would be your dream home in the District?
I have been looking for it, trust me. Every time I look into a home, I think, is this my home? And I haven’t found it yet. But I’ve found the location, and I want to build it there. And it’s close to Georgetown. And that’s all I’ll say right now.
Q: What is your favorite thing about being an agent/in the business?
I love the fact that every single day I meet new and interesting people. It really is the part of the job I thought I was going to be the worst at. I thought I was going to sort of struggle most in dealing with people who are going through what could be the most stressful and challenging purchase of their lives. And it turns out to be the part of the job I absolutely relish. I like helping them through the process and coming out the other end. It’s the part of the job I get up every morning and look the most forward to.
Q: How do you get your face out there do you use advertising, marketing, charities, or community involvement?
I try to be as active in my community as I can be. Not necessarily for business reasons, but because we have a dynamite community. It’s such an interesting, smart dynamic community. I support the arts, I’m involved in the Cleveland Park Association and getting involved with the trust fort the National Mall. Finding ways to meet more people and learning things about the city. The joy of this business is that I’ve come to know Washington really well, and I love that we have a fascinating city here. It’s also fun to introduce people to Washington. They often have preconceived notions of what Washington is; federal buildings, marble, bureaucracy. But when they see Georgetown and neighborhoods with true communities, they’re often very surprised. It’s a fun part of the job to watch newcomers discover what a livable community this city is.
Robin Waugh, Realtor
Robin Waugh, a specialist in the luxury market, has recently joined up with Tutt, Taylor & Rankin Sotheby’s International Realty, bringing with her experience and fantastic energy. We sat down to chat about being a realtor in today’s market.
Where do you live? And why did you pick that area?
My principal residence is located just across Chain Bridge, for easy access to D.C. I have a third of an acre lot with beautiful gardens, a spacious four-bedroom, three-bath, two-car garage brick home. Though I am always looking in D.C. for a beautiful space at the right price!
What is the highest ticket you have closed yet?
$3 million is the most my clients have spent, though a few almost pushed higher.
What are some of the special/extra things you have done for a client in order to help them purchase or like you more?
Each client is unique. I try to understand how they perceive the process and work diligently to make it happen! On the listing side, I “stage” my listings creatively, hopefully lending them a “wow” factor for a top-dollar sale! I truly enjoy celebrating a successful transaction with my clients. One of my most memorable client celebrations was a delicious chef’s tasting dinner with wine pairs at CityZen. We were seated right behind Robert Redford and Tony Bennett arrived later that evening. Our dinner was fabulous, though I was in awe of celebrities in our midst. Of course, kids and animals hold a soft spot in my heart — prezzies and treats go a long way — they’re easy to please!
Have you sold to/worked with any local celebrities on a deal? And if so, whom might we know?
You may know them, books have been written about them and by them; however, most prefer discretion, which I must honor.
What were your highest commissions made so far on a deal? And what was the first thing you bought with the money earned, besides paying bills?
I have had some very nice paychecks, the commission is customarily 6 percent; when I have both listing and sale sides it’s a bonus! I work very long days and weeks, and so I would compare our salaries with most other hard-working professional groups in D.C. That said, jewelry, art, designer clothes and shoes are my selfish splurge. I love that I can give back to local and national charities.
Are you single or married? If single, do you date other agents ever or have you? If married, what does your spouse do?
I live with my significant other, who is consults to a bank in Milan, Italy. We’ve had some incredible trips to Venice, Rome, Lake Como, NYC and more!
What is your dream home in the District to live in?
It’s one I admire from afar! It’s of my dream garden in an historic 1831 Georgetown property with rear veranda’s overlooking Marc Chagall’s 30-square-foot mythical mosaic hung on their brick garden wall surrounded by dogwood and magnolia trees, climbing roses, ivies and elegant border plantings … ahhh!
What is your favorite thing about being an agent/in the business?
That there’s always a new challenge involving the inherent complexities, architecture, design, construction, families, communities, negotiations, marketing. One must be very creative to stay competitive. Plus, I feel privileged to represent some of the most beautiful private homes!
How do you get your face out there do you use advertising, marketing, charities, or community involvement?
I advertise using both print and online campaigns. I am involved in several local and national charities, including various social events. Last month, I was on the host committee for the fifth annual “Turn Up the Heat on Ovarian Cancer,” with over forty women chefs contributing. This month it’s a fundraiser for Clark Ray for D.C. city council, on March 9 at Peacock Café in Georgetown. I’ve lived in D.C. since 1983 and I enjoy meeting new people. We have an ever-evolving community of exciting and vibrant people; I love how we maintain a sense of community with a global perspective!
Outerbridge Horsey: An Architect of Georgetown
The name Outerbridge Horsey sounds more like an honorific title than the personal name of a tall, red-headed Georgetown resident who is fond of his job, community, wife and two greyhounds. Yet its bearer, who is the seventh in his family to inherit his name, seems to think little of it, other than the fact that people find it easy to remember. Horsey’s is a well-known name throughout the neighborhood; he is an active and passionate member of the community and is the principal of a Georgetown-based architecture and design firm, Outerbridge Horsey Associates, PLLC.
The firm specializes mostly in residential additions remodeling around the D.C. area, although they do some institutional work. Horsey estimates that he has worked on 15 to 20 houses in Georgetown itself but his work is scattered around the east coast – his most recent project was the remodeling of a house in Nantucket.
Samantha: So what first drew you to architecture?
Outerbridge: I grew up abroad. I grew up in Japan, Italy, Rome, Prague, Czechoslovakia and Sicily. And so I think that laid the foundation. Then when I went to college, my first year of college, I was a classics, Greek and archaeology major. I’d been on archeological digs for a continuous two summers and enjoyed it tremendously; I studied Greek in high school. But when I got to college I found that archaeology in the classroom was not nearly as interesting as it was in the field and I fairly quickly, my first year in fact, migrated over to the architecture program called Designing the Environment at Penn, the University of Pennsylvania, and went on from there.
And then I came back here, I majored in design in the environment – it’s just sort of a mixture of landscaping and architecture, landscape design. And then came back here for a year, took some classes at Georgetown and applied to architecture schools and ended up back at Penn again for my master’s degree. So it’s worked out very well. But I have a feeling all that exposure to, especially in Italy, to beautiful buildings and ruins and even archaeology, sort of, was the foundation.
S: And why have you continued doing it?
O: Because I love it. I’ll never be rich, but that’s okay, I’m rich in loving what I do and I think that’s the most important thing. My wife, fortunately, is interested it and appreciates it and tolerates my love for it. I get up every day and I love to do what I do every day, most of it anyway. And it’s great, you know, there’s always something new. Every client, every site, every project, doing something new so it’s never dull. Not to say there aren’t some tedious times running a business and making sure the little details are attended to by the builders and all that, but the whole process is really pretty enjoyable from the beginning, meeting the client, to seeing the project through construction to finalizing the details and seeing the building emerge. So, it’s fun.
S: What has your favorite project been that you’ve worked on and why?
O: Well, the house in Nantucket is certainly the most memorable one…well, there have been several, actually. The house in Nantucket and the complete redo of a Watergate apartment. I’d never worked on the renovation of an apartment, I’d only worked on new apartments. The house in Nantucket was great because it’s a fairly tight regulatory review process […] so they start very early in providing parameters for new buildings throughout the island in Nantucket. It’s very fortunate that the entire island, I believe, is governed by the town council and all the building departments and so on and so forth – all their regulations apply all over the island.
They started in the 70s and they wrote this book called “Building with Nantucket in Mind,” which basically lays out all the dos and the don’ts and the cans and the can’ts, and it’s really quite helpful. But within that there’s a great deal of flexibility that you can work with, but that sort of gives you the vocabulary. Everything has to be natural, white shingled, and it all works, you can see why they did it.
Have you ever been to Nantucket? I’d never been before three years ago, but all the house sizes are different and there are certain parts of the island that are very dense, but there’s a sort of, not homogeneity, but, nothing jumps out at you, which is important. Other places you go, houses are very different, paint colors are very different, the materials are very different, the aesthetic style is very different, and it can be somewhat discordant. And Nantucket’s not like that. So that was interesting to work within those parameters and working with the Historic District Commission was interesting, it went pretty well, actually, surprisingly, and in the end they thought very highly of the design which I took as a compliment. […]
S: What was your vision for your firm when you first opened it, and have you lived up to that dream or has it changed?
O: I was trained as a modernist at Penn and at the time I came out there was very little modern architecture even in D.C. But the training I had, I guess you could call it a classical training in architecture, and we were both familiar with architectural design and the history of architecture. […] But I ended up, when I went to work in Philadelphia for a year and I came back here knowing I wanted to start my own firm and I worked for a couple of firms doing my apprenticeship for three years.
I think the vision I had was just designing beautiful buildings without any particular emphasis on style or period, design. Traditional architectural design tends to have a stylistic period that they sort of focus on, but I like almost all of them, all the architectural periods and styles, so I’m less concerned about being particular to any one. So designing in a variety of styles and designing some modern buildings has ended up what we’ve done and I’ve been very pleased with that. You know, I’d be nice to do a little bit more modern work and we actually are doing a little bit more now, which is nice. I think the vision is pretty much the same.
It’d be fun to design my own house some time, but I haven’t quite gotten there, I’m not sure that’ll happen. I think every architect wants to design their own house, some are lucky enough to do it, others aren’t.
S: And speaking of your house, you are a Georgetown resident. What do you like or dislike about the neighborhood?
O: I love the area. My wife has lived her whole life in Georgetown so that’s been important but my parents moved here in the early 70s and I was in high school at the time just going to college, so I didn’t really live here the whole time. I came back here for the summers and enjoyed it immensely but I didn’t really live here full time till the early 80s when I came back from architecture school. And I’ve always lived in Georgetown, my jobs have always been in Georgetown. When I worked for other firms, they were both located in Georgetown.
I like the river, I like the parks, I think it’s a pretty remarkable environment in that it offers something, a lot of diversity, to people of all ages. Children to teenagers to young professionals to older people. I think it’s the sense of community, village-like atmosphere. In those days there were a lot more stores that catered to the neighborhood than there are now and that was a nice aspect that has been lost, I think, which is too bad. But what we gained in exchange for that is more vitality in the commercial district, which I think is important, there were always doors shuttered in the old days. And that wasn’t a blight, but there’s a much more vibrant commercial district and that’s good for the community, good for the city, it brings people from the city into our neighborhood which is good too.
When we first were married my first house was up the street here, 31st and N, and our whole sort of outlook was towards the river, walking down there, and we moved five blocks about six years ago, we moved to the north to 32nd between Q and R, and our whole focus sort of changed. It’s now at the parks on the north end of Georgetown, plus we got two dogs so that kind of encouraged that interest in the parks.
S: You’re also a very active member of the Georgetown community.
O: I have been at times, it’s true.
S: And what compels you to speak up, so to say?
O: What compels me to get involved? I guess it’s a disposition, a personal disposition I have. It probably runs in my family to do something for one’s community or public service in some way even though I have my own firm I guess I’m just personally inclined to want to participate and want to help and give the necessary time.
S: What kinds of projects have you spoken up for in the past? You were just featured in the Georgetowner speaking about the Tudor Place and everything going on there.
O: That’s right, I’m trying to find what’s best for Tudor Place in the neighborhood. But I guess the early things that I was involved in, probably the most meaningful ones, were the Georgetown Ministry Center where I was involved for many years. I was president of the board for four years at the very early stages so that was very interesting, it was very much needed, it still is needed and they’re doing a fabulous job now. […]
And the other early initiative was Trees for Georgetown which I helped to start along with two other people, Flow Stone is still around and very involved with various things in the community and Ann Witherspoon who is now living in California. And the need at that time was that the District of Columbia had no money at all for their tree replacement program. Their funds were completely dry, the nursery was empty, and the tree maintenance division of the government was really down to a skeleton staff. And they had the whole city to deal with, so we started to raise money to plant trees and worked hard at it. We got contractors working in concert with the government and it was very successful, we raised enough money to plant empty tree boxes every year. […]
There are other things, I was on the Citizen’s Association Board for five years, so there was a period when I was very involved.
S: But not so much anymore?
O: I did get involved with another board downtown for five years which took a lot of my time but now I’m back focusing on my practice which needs me more than ever in these trying times. [gallery ids="100261,106959,106954,106968,106972,106949,106976,106980,106944,106964" nav="thumbs"]
Courting Design with Solis
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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