The AIA/DC awarded the Stephen Decatur House Museum in Washington, DC a Design Excellence Award for Historic Resources on Thursday, October 30 for the Restoration of Benjamin Latrobe's Entry Hall and Stair Hall. This is a beautiful and nuanced restoration project which demonstrates that if you couple a sound preservation methodology with a passionate and collaborative design and construction team, the result can be one which reactivates an entire building, even though its actual physical scope and budget may be small.
Benjamin Henry Latrobe, one of the giants of early American architecture, designed this Federal townhouse for naval commodore Stephen Decatur in 1817. The Decaturs only lived there together for less than two years before Decatur was killed in a duel on March 22, 1820. The National Trust for Historic Preservation acquired the building as a historic site in 1956. In 1960, it was designated a National Historic Landmark and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. Located across Lafayette Park from the White House, Decatur House remains at the center of Washington’s social activities and indeed its carriage house rental space is one of the most sought after special event spaces in the city.
The Restoration Project
(condensed from the AIA Application prepared by Davis Buckley Architects & Planners)
Over the past century, evolving ownership led to architectural and decorative transformations within the structure. The National Trust undertook the restoration of the entry hall and the main stair hall – two of the building’s most significant intact architectural spaces. These rooms retain features of Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s original design, including: projecting and receding moldings, a vaulted and domed ceiling in the entry hall, cornerblocks decorated with rosettes, and niches in the entry hall and on the staircase. The entry hall is approximately 81 square feet and the main stair hall consists of approximately 162 square feet, on two levels.
The restoration project: conserved the original architectural fabric found in the entry hall and stair hall; removed later features (including telephone and electrical elements, door and window hardware, and a late 19th century wood floor); replicated the original paint colors; and re-established missing original features. The architect researched the documentation in the National Trust’s files, and reviewed a 1990 Historic Structures Report, HABS drawings, paint analysis, and primary resources such as Latrobe’s design drawing “Detail of the Hall of Commodore Decatur” house in a collection at the Library of Congress. The priorities were to restore the character and articulation of Latrobe’s original design while preserving as much of the existing historic fabric as possible. Various technical measures were taken to achieve these priorities.
Historic Paint Analysis & Color Restoration: Samples from painted wood and plaster surfaces were removed using a micro-diamond edged saw fitted to a Dremel tool. Laboratory examination included photomicrography, polarized light microscopy, and an infrared microspectroscopy. Through these various levels of investigation, the total number of layers of coatings on each surface were identified and recorded. The original colors and finishes, confirmed to date from the original construction, were matched using CIE LAB coordinates and Munsell Color System conversion numbers. Based on these results, all wall, ceiling, door, window and trim surfaces were able to be restored to their dramatic original colors and finishes.
Restoration of Moulding Details: At the outset of the project, it was apparent that many of the lines of Latrobe’s projecting and receding wood and plaster mouldings, that are so integral to the design of these spaces, had been obscured by multiple layers of paint. The paint analysis confirmed this by a revealing as many as 31 layers on some surfaces. It also indicated that the multiple layers of paint no longer provided a stable substrate for additional layers of paint. Therefore the decision was made to remove all existing paint on wood and plaster mouldings, trims, doors and windows. This is an approach which is not typically recommended except in situations like this where the existing condition no longer provides the stable surface for further painting. An environmentally safe paint remover was used as well as low VOC paints.
Wood Flooring & Thresholds: Early in the project, we documented and removed a layer of wood flooring in the entry hall and the first floor stair hall, installed late in the 1800s, to reveal the original 1818, wide plank, original growth, pine floor. The floor also featured decorative border painting, and faux oak graining, likely applied between 1836 and 1860. The floor had also settled as much as 2-1/2 inches in some areas, leaving gaps under the base trim. The location of each board was documented and then carefully removed. Continuous leveling shims were added on top of each joist, and the boards were reinstalled. Unstable, damaged boards near the front doors, and existing narrow boards from earlier repairs were replaced with salvaged boards of similar vintage to the original floor. Since the adjacent rooms with higher floors were not part of the scope of this project, new thresholds had to be installed to achieve ADA compliant transitions. These thresholds were also fabricated from salvaged wood. All new wood used in the repairs were date stamped to document that they were added as part of this restoration.
Wood Doors: Once the paint was removed from the original wood doors, several showed gaps that had developed and been filled with unstable patching material as the doors over the years. The unstable fillers were removed and the doors were partially reassembled to be tighter and more square and plumb.
Door & Window Hardware: All existing hardware was inventoried and reviewed with a historic hardware consultant to assess its condition and determine its age. Each door, window, threshold, sill and jamb was also reviewed for signs of previous hardware that was no longer in place. All original hardware was refurbished to good working order. Modern, replacement hardware, was removed and replaced by salvaged and refurbished hardware appropriate to each application.
Electrical: All existing electrical outlets, switches and exposed wiring were removed. In the first floor stair hall, a ceiling lantern added to the space in the 1960s was also removed. Required smoke detectors and strobe lights were relocated to be less obtrusive.
The Design & Construction Team
I have worked on many preservation projects over the past 25 years, many much larger with budgets 100x greater. And they’ve all been special in unique ways, but I take great pride in my involvement with this team because of the collaboration, design and preservation intent and approach, the use of best preservation and sustainability practices, and the respect shown by all for this important architectural and social landmark. The team was led by Washington, DC-based architectural firm Davis Buckley Architects & Planners (Davis Buckley, FAIA, Thomas Striegel, AIA and Susan Block Moores, AIA). Matthew Mosca led the paint analysis and conservation efforts. Structural engineering was provided by Robert Silman Associates (John Matteo, PE). The Contractor, Oak Grove Restoration Company, worked as an extension of the design team and wonderfully executed the subtle preservation strategy . But none of the brilliance of the design and construction team would have been possible without the staff of the site who dedicated their time to ensuring that everything and everyone worked together perfectly – Cindi Malinick, the Site Director, and Katherine Malone-France, the Assistant Director and the Project Manager.
Not only was the project completed within the construction budget (under $150,000!), it was completed within a very tight time constraint – only 2 months were available for construction work between the major event seasons of the site. I invite you all to stop by the next time you’re in DC and tell your guide you really want to see that beautiful, elegant and authentic restoration of Latrobe’s original rooms!
The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.