For Morrison Architects, renovating the baronial Argentinian Embassy wasn't their first rodeo. Located at the corner of 1600 New Hampshire Ave. NW and Q Streets, veteran embassy architect Eric Morrison said that per the original design, the unique angles of the site were manifested beautifully inside the "proud and significant" structure. At the same time, the building was badly in need of a more contemporary office design, updated HVAC and electrical systems, energy efficient lighting, fire safety elements and cutting-edge technology, with the challenge to preserve as much of the original turn-of-the-century grace and patina as possible.
"Everyone has visions of Buenos Aires with these old buildings," Morrison said. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (who is Morrison’s client) own building in Buenos Aires is a fantastic old building with top-of-the-line systems right now, so we wanted to do that. We didn’t mind if the old wood had high heel marks – maybe that was from the tango over the years,” he posited. Even so, Morrison said the structure had not been touched very much since it was built and in many places moldings, trim and cornices were clearly deteriorating. “It needed to be brought back to its original glory,” he affirmed, identifying Monarc Construction as a vital partner in the Embassy’s overall redesign, renovation and restoration.
Comenzamos (we begin)
Initiated in 2006, a phased renovation of the approximately 40,000 s.f., four-story, 32-room occupied space involved deft relocation choreography of the ambassador, diplomats and support staff from floor to floor during construction. In both the Embassy and the ambassador’s residence, the latter of which the architects are just beginning to renovate, the piano nobile (or main floor) is on the second level. In the Embassy, this space is devoted to the ambassador’s office, his secretary’s office and a few meeting or ceremonial rooms. The “newer” oval salon, a 1930s addition, is also on the second floor, with diplomats and support staff working one floor above. According to Morrison, when the time came for (now former) Ambassador Hector Timerman to move temporarily upstairs, in the end he’d become so comfortable on the diplomat’s floor with its new lighting, data communications and HVAC system upgrades he was reluctant to leave.
Where lighting was concerned, original sconces and some of the older chandeliers were restored. Offices received suspended TA fluorescents by Lightolier that bounce light off the ceiling and also channel it to the bottom. According to Morrison, when the project was conceived, neither CFL’s nor LED’s were mainstream even to the point they are today. With energy efficiency naturally targeted, the building had an old gravity heating system and had not been designed for ducted a/c. The challenge, Morrison said, was to incorporate HVAC changes without ponderous bulkheads. This was achieved by either hiding ducts with built-in shelving on the ground floor to heat and cool it and the second floor, or by utilizing various leftover attic shapes and chases in the original plans, due to oddities from angles created by New Hampshire Ave. and Q Streets, to impact the third and top floors.
Las Ventanas, colores, espacio y mas (windows, color, space and more)
Regarding the Embassy’s century-old windows, HPRB mandated restoration vs. replacement, largely in regard to the wood, which was a big undertaking, Morrison recalled. As such, among other tasks, weather stripping was applied and improved thermal quality (the windows had none) was achieved. Sixteen marble fireplaces were generally left alone, except for epoxying existing cracks, and where larger rooms and spaces had been chopped up the Embassy was persuaded to open them up again, with the inclusion of more modern work stations. Yet to be installed, anticipated Herman Miller and Knoll furniture systems will accord a little more privacy to staff members who desire it, with the design lighter than traditional, cumbersome Embassy furniture.
“Colorations were another big part (of the process),” Morrison said, adding that walls had a faux antique quality as though someone had purposely given them a distressed look. Desiring the same crisp and clean aesthetic as when it was newly built, the Morrison team, which also consisted of Principal Pamela Rodriguez and project architects Miriam Frank and Ryan Sullivan, opted for simplicity instead.
Espiritu de la madera (spirit of the wood)
In paneled rooms, Morrison said the original architect had used quartersawn oak, which of course implied old growth in terms of any effort to match it today. Unfortunately, over the years workmen had destroyed some of the paneling during various repair projects, replacing it with rotary oak plywood or Home Depot plywood instead of acquiring the right quartersawn, Morrison observed, all of which had to be rectified. “We didn’t want to just sand this wood down and then lose the quality or patina it had gained over 100 years,” he said.
Floors and doors were also quartersawn oak, with the latter cleaned and waxed as opposed to staining. The floors were in relatively good condition, though the oval salon’s herringbone pattern had to be replaced (with a similar pattern) because it had settled eight inches at one end. Leveled within the room, molding, trim and wainscoting had to be adjusted accordingly. Original staircases, in good repair, were also quartersawn oak, and a new utilitarian exit stair providing a second egress was added at the rear of the Embassy.
El teatro y exterior (the theatre and…as it says!)
As the Embassy’s ground level contains an active, 50-seat movie theatre and entertainment space where D.C.’s Argentine community congregates, updates included a built-in screen and state-of-the-art audio visual system to enhance events such as last year’s World Cup.
On the building’s exterior, a rapidly deteriorating cornice – one of the Embassy’s largest features – had been covered with a protective screen for a couple of years, as pieces were falling to the ground. “We had to change the modillions, with Monarc’s craftsmen, and also the florets,” Morrison said of the endeavor, also recalling that in many instances Monarc was charged with the painstaking reproduction of century-old plaster molding inside for continuity purposes. The team also removed nearly all of the roof’s slate tiles and then replaced them again, following repair of the substrate and the addition of a waterproof membrane. “We had just a little bit of new slate where we lost some pieces in the back, where you don’t see it,” Morrison said, adding that the new slate is recovered material.
“Overall, it acts like a modern-day embassy – it has everything – it’s a nice, modern office building,” Morrison said, “but we like to think we’ve maintained the quality it had before.”
For design story suggestions, email Beth: bh @ dcrealestate.com