In our last Renovation by Room post, we looked at the restoration of the front façade of the Embassy Circle Guest House. It detailed the painstaking process owners Laura and Raymond Saba underwent to create a beautiful and welcoming first impression for their guests.
When they bought the property in 2003, it was in quite a state of disrepair. As Laura likes to say: “It was a ruin!” But after three and a half years of painstaking labor, the guest house became what it is today. In this post, the second in our renovation series, we’ll take a closer look at the work that went into the front entrance.
When Laura and Raymond purchased the house, the window above the front porch had collapsed inward, which meant that most of the porch, the exterior front door assembly, and the interior vestibule had been completely destroyed by water damage. “There was no possibility of restoring them,” Laura says. “They had to come out and be completely rebuilt — and that was no small task.”
“There’s one picture that just about made me tear my hair,” Laura says. “When the exterior front door assembly finally came out, you could see the interior set of vestibule doors for the first time — and they were beautiful — almost completely undamaged. I just looked at those doors and wanted to scream,” she says. “If only that window had been repaired! It would have saved us so much time and money.”
The Library of Congress feature
The front entrance is the architectural feature that gives the guest house much of its character. There was no doubt that it had to be rebuilt in a way that honored the original style.
Embassy’s front door assembly is elegant and ornate. The house has double-leaved exterior doors topped by a beautiful arch that houses a leaded glass fanlight. On either side of the doors are a pair of pilasters topped with ornate entablatures, friezes and cornice molding. Between each pair of pilasters is a leaded glass side lite. Inside the house, there is another, similar pair of double-leaved doors with an elongated, arched, leaded glass window. Pillars and arches appear again at the landing between the first and second floors.
“This particular architectural feature is all over the Library of Congress,” Laura explains. “The Library has dozens of double columns with ornate entablatures supporting beautiful arches. Obviously, the arches at the Library are much larger, and the pairs of columns are much taller. You could say that ours is the miniature version,” she laughs. “Personally, I love it. I think the Library of Congress is one of the most beautiful buildings in the United States. And, of course, we’re book lovers, so we love the connection.”
Recreating this look was a painstaking process thanks to the level of disrepair this part of the building was in. “Everything had to be taken out, and a lot of the pieces disintegrated in the process,” Laura says.
One particular six-inch trim piece was very important to the design, and Laura and Raymond wanted to recreate this feature. Thanks to years of being painted over, it was difficult to tell what the pattern actually was. “Maybe it was bamboo, or tree bark, or something like that,” Laura speculated. “Raymond had to find a piece that was as in good enough shape that it wouldn’t absolutely fall apart in his hands. Then, he had to take the paint off, layer by layer, to figure out what the design actually was.”
The effort was worth it: Once the piece had been stripped down, it showed a pattern known as Eternal Laurel Leaf. “It looked very much like a bay leaf, but at the tip of every single leaf there were three berries,” Laura says.
Of course, nothing is ever that easy. “Eternal Laurel Leaf is no longer made in that size, so we either had to have a flat band with no decoration, or Raymond needed to re-sculpt and then mold the pieces,” she says. “And that’s what he did. He’s an artist.”
Raymond’s mantra when renovating old properties is to simplify the floor plan and to let in as much light as possible. “Raymond really wanted more light in the front entry hall,” Laura shares, but Historic Preservation needed to sign off on his proposal to replace the wood panels in the front door with glass panels. “We finally received that permission. Historic agreed that we could put glass panels in the door if we maintained the proportion of the original wood panels.”
As part of the restoration process, the original stained-glass windows were taken out to be restored. “We went to Daniel Wolkoff for this work,” Laura says. “He’s a master craftsman. He took the windows apart, cleaned and re-leaded them, and removed the layers of paint from the tiny ornaments at the intersecting points. Et voila! They’re beautiful.”
The gold leafing of the numbers above the door comes with a lovely story, just like much of the rest of the house. “A very talented gentleman named Frank Arkwright had done a lot of gold-leafing for a friend of ours, but he’d been retired for a while,” Laura reveals. “So Raymond begged and pleaded and encouraged and cajoled until Frank said, ‘OK.’ He came and gold-leafed the numbers on the back of the windows so that they showed through. The whole neighborhood stood on the sidewalk and watched him do it. He made it look like a work of art.”
In the early days, the focus of the house was on the big concrete steps leading to the front door, but they were far from imposing and they had some features Laura was worried about.
“The steps were rather steep, and they sloped forward a little bit, so water would drain off of them when it rained,” Laura explains. “But in a climate where snow and ice can be a problem, slipping was an issue. The steps had to be rebuilt with safety in mind.”
Rebuilding the steps gave Raymond the opportunity to add a major focal element to the front of the house. “When he built the new steps, he added tiered planter boxes on either side,” says Laura. “The new look is much more elegant and imposing.”
In total, the process of renovating the front entrance took around six months. While the outcome made it all worthwhile, it was quite the endeavor. “It’s stressful figuring out how you’re going to turn a ruin into something that’s really lovely,” Laura says. “It’s so much more fun when it’s finished!”
All that hard work paid off, and now the Embassy Circle has a striking front entrance that gives guests a sense of the grandeur that awaits them inside.
—Written by Mekita Rivas