Owner’s redesign of Georgetown reflects a love of the Orient Express

Lorna Gross redesigned a historic 1870 townhouse in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC to look like a custom-built train car on the Orient Express.
Lorna Gross redesigned a historic 1870 townhouse in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC to look like a custom-built train car on the Orient Express. (William Waldron)

The historic property’s two-year renovation balances its 19th-century history with modern flourishes

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Colonel John Cox was a wealthy 19th century merchant who served as Georgetown’s first elected mayor from 1823 to 1845 – nearly three decades before the District of Columbia was named after him.

Years before embarking on a political career, Cox, who rose to the rank of colonel during the War of 1812, was a prolific property developer, eventually building five houses in Georgetown in 1817, one for himself and the others for his sons, all side by side.

The five dwellings on N Street Northwest between 33rd and 34th Streets exemplify the distinctive architecture of Georgetown during the Federal period in their solid brick construction.

Set back from the street, creating what are known as “gateyards”, the residences all had flat facades, large black shuttered windows, dormer windows, and decorative garlands neatly tucked into recessed panels. Their austere uniformity helped the street become known as “Cox’s Row”, a stretch of homes collectively listed on the District of Columbia’s Inventory of Historic Places and part of the Georgetown Historic District.

One of the city’s few rows of Federal houses, it’s where Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette stayed during a visit to Washington in 1824. And where Senator John F Kennedy and his wife, Jackie, lived through his 1960 campaign for president – eventually leaving their brick townhouse on Cox’s Row for the White House after winning the presidency.

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The 1870 Federalist townhouse that writer and historian Greg Jackson bought five years ago sits on Cox’s Row, directly across from the stately homes Cox built on N Street. And it is not a hazard.

“It’s arguably one of the most historic streets in a city filled with historic streets,” says Jackson, a religious scholar specializing in American culture. “For me, as someone who loves and understands the history of the city, it was an easy decision to be in this neighborhood.”

Far from easy, however, the two-year renovation that took a four-bedroom townhouse was in dire need of updating and repairing to become what it is today: a fully redesigned that deftly balances its 19th century history with contemporary flourishes. (Cox, on the other hand, built each of his homes in about a year.)

While Jackson’s townhouse is historic in itself – it was built for Colonel Charles Beatty, owner of the ferry from the Virginia coast to the foot of Frederick Street at Water Street in Georgetown – it had fallen into disrepair over the years and required major work.

Before she could even consider interior renovations, Jackson says the house was plagued with structural issues. Years of flooding severely damaged its foundations, requiring months of extensive repairs.

“When the team reassembled the floors, we quickly found that the joists were rotten,” he says. The contractors eventually had to dig under the kitchen and dining room to a depth of about three feet in order to raise the rear of the house and repair the foundation.

“It wasn’t until we raised the floors that we could see that the foundation walls were so badly eroded that they were only an inch of brick in places.”

Repairing the home’s elaborate plaster crown molding in the living room and hallway also presented challenges. Rather than simply replacing them with wooden moldings, which would have been the easiest route, he sought to restore them.

“The cast that survived was pretty mind-blowing,” Jackson says. Artisans spent weeks slowly filling in and rebuilding the ridges and textures of the casting, he says.

“In some places, pieces were missing; in other places, several feet of molding were missing entirely,” he says. “The process of building the plaster and shaping it by hand was extraordinary and the beauty of the detail and curved lines could not have been replicated using wood or foam moldings.”

Jackson enlisted North Bethesda, Md., interior designer Lorna Gross to help renovate the interiors of the property.

A New York native who grew up in Louisiana, Gross eventually opened her practice in the DC area where she quickly gained a reputation for designing homes that comfortably blend history and modernity.

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Gross says that when the collaboration with Jackson began – planning how each floor of the five-story building would be redesigned – she quickly realized that her extensive knowledge of architecture and home design went far beyond her regular customers.

“He came to the process with a full understanding of what it would take to bring his ideas to life for the project,” says Gross. “He had some pretty unique ideas from the start, but he wasn’t afraid or intimidated to work together to make it happen.”

These unique ideas included an unconventional interior scheme for the first level of the house: Jackson wanted the entire floor to look like a custom-built train car on the Orient Express.

He says the idea was inspired by his days living and studying in Europe in the 1980s and the trips he made on the long-distance passenger train service before it went out of business in 2009.

At its height in the 19th century, the Orient Express traveled throughout continental Europe and western Asia, with terminal stations in Paris, London and Istanbul. Nicknamed “the king of trains, the train of kings”, the international rail service embodied the golden age of travel and inspired authors from Graham Greene to Agatha Christie to tell stories about its famous passengers, both real and fictional.

“As a college student traveling through Europe, it was as legendary as it was luxurious,” Jackson says. “He just radiated that kind of bygone era of luxury.”

For Gross, this presented a welcome challenge. “I love projects that go beyond cookie-cutter ideas of what an interior should be like,” she says. “Greg gave us a real chance to create a little story with the interiors and I embraced that from the start.”

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Gross went to great lengths to achieve the look of a train carriage from a bygone era. She had antique furniture and lighting from the 1930s installed on the first level of the house, a long, narrow space with two fireplaces reminiscent of the Art Deco period.

The interior remodel included the removal of walls just beyond the first level entrance, allowing visitors to see directly down a long hallway into the outer courtyard through new steel windows and doors.

Gross chose a pair of antique chandeliers to replicate deco equivalents from the era along with wall coverings which were used to create a warm backdrop for the mix of antique and contemporary furniture.

The kitchen has also been completely remodeled and is now wrapped in Art Deco-inspired black to add some drama, Gross says.

“The goal was to create something unique without it looking kitsch,” Gross explains. “It should feel authentic but not immediately obvious.”

Jackson says he didn’t want the Orient Express motif dominating the entire house.

He and Gross collaborated to make areas of the 2,382-square-foot residence reminiscent of a posh living room, which Gross describes as “a Hollywood gentlemen’s living room that Cary Grant might have frequented.”

The guest bedroom doubles as a home office and media lounge and includes a Philip Jeffries wall covering and a walnut coffee table from the 1930s.

A powder room offers a pocket of modernity among the house’s largely antique furnishings. Like almost every room in the house, it includes luxurious wall treatments that add a decorative touch that creates a warm atmosphere.

“I think the most important thing Lorna brought to this was a keen eye for historical detail,” Jackson says. “She really understood how to make the design a unique expression of my taste without losing any of the most important parts of the house’s history.”

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