Curating the landscape

Washington, DC is filled with many great examples of 19th and early 20th century architecture. Often, I'll walk through Georgetown with my camera taking pictures of ironwork, woodwork and masonry, both larger features and intricate details and then I add the photos to my digital database.  This comes in handy when I'm looking for inspirations and examples for my projects; it’s much easier and more instructive to show a client a picture than a sketch or do elaborate construction drawings that a contractor may or may not understand in the end.  In this project on California Street in Kalorama, we went back and added significant historical detailing that had been removed in the century since the house was built ranging from limestone stairs to decorative lighting and handmade metal railings.

The architecture of the facade is very symmetrical in the Beaux Arts style and is historically protected by the L’Enfant Trust (a Washington, DC-based preservation foundation) so it was very challenging to alter or add anything to the front of the building. Thanks to an understanding historical review board (and a wonderful permit expediter) we were allowed to complete the vision of replacing the dilapidated portions of the site with new features yet stay within the historical material vocabulary and design vernacular.  

At the front door, a previous owner had added raw concrete steps which contrasted terribly with the beautiful creamy limestone of the lower facade and water table. There was a 1980s can light under the keystone above the front door and no handrails for the steps…the entrance had no drama or life.

We designed wider, more gracious steps that welcome visitors and accentuate the doorway without taking up too much room in the cobbled fore-court (which also doubles as a parking spot).    Working with Renaissance Development a masonry contractor (owned and managed by Christina Wilson who has a PhD in historic preservation) we were able to match mortar colors and construction techniques to surgically remove the old steps (while the door, sill, and trim all remained in place) and seamlessly merge the new stonework into the facade and renovated driveway paving.  Finally, a re-set and re-oriented granite paver parking court now set on a concrete base with inset irrigated planters allows both a stable driving surface and more greenery to soften the space. 

The design of the handrails flanking the steps also references existing design elements: the Greek key pattern is found on the existing window and door grilles.  Made locally, I worked with the fabricator to proportionally reduce the size of each metal piece to fit the scale of the railings.  

The clients requested easy-to-maintain plantings for the front, and we used three matching purple Acer japonica to help screen the courtyard from the street.  Planted on 5’ centers, their branches will soon intertwine to create a grove effect.  Using the purple leaves as a starting point, we added Narcissus ‘Holland Sensation’ and Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ (lots of sensations) for spring through early summer bloom, Astilbe ‘White Vision’ for early summer, and Carex ‘Icedance’ for all-season texture.

On the parking area side, Sedum ‘Fuldagut’ (Dragon’s blood) picks up the bronze tones of the maple, while our native Virginia Creeper, Parthenocissus quinquefolia will soften the view of the brick walls from the house, and turn red, yellow and bronze in the fall.

The final phase of the work will be to add a metal and glass port cochere to the facade, possibly wishful thinking given the historic protections, but then again a thoughtful design can sometimes change the most hardened beaureaucrat's  mind...wish us luck!