Restoration of entry & stair halls, standing in the entry hall looking into the stair hall. (Photo © Dan Redmond)
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)
Entry hall before restoration, looking at front door.
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.
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Barbara A. Campagna, FAIA, LEED AP BD+C was formerly the Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust in the Stewardship of Historic Sites office. She is currently a sustainability consultant to the National Trust and can be reached at email@example.com.