By Beth Herman
Le Mans. Indy. Iditarod. The Preakness. The moon. When we think of legendary races, the quest to renovate the venerated Hay-Adams, 800 16th St. NW, doesn't readily come to mind.
But for an intrepid pit crew that included the hotel’s owner/developer, architect, designer, general contractor, an alliance of engineers and other consultants, adding a 9th story to the Washington landmark hotel took on a whole new meaning when the finish line was only 90 days from demolition, due to an immovable International Monetary Fund guest booking. With feats that included demolishing an 8th floor rooftop farm containing all of the hotel’s mechanical systems, emergency generator, elevator machine room and other structures, the decision to jettison the Hay-Adam’s rooftop tented function space— used for more than a decade for weddings and other fetes— in favor of building permanent event space, plus a penthouse for systems and machines, was three years in the entitling process and a scant few months in the brunt of its execution.
"We realized that the Comprehensive Plan for the District of Columbia allowed for another story to be built,” said B.F. Saul Co. Senior Vice President of Real Estate Development J. Page Lansdale of the iconic structure, “but I could talk for hours about the design challenges.”
Created in 1928 as an Italian Renaissance-style apartment-hotel by renowned developer Harry Wardman and architect Mirhan Mesrobian, the then 138-room Hay-Adams with singular views of Lafayette Park and the White House became the District’s pied-a-terre-of-choice for international glitterati like Ethel Barrymore and Charles Lindbergh. More recently, literary giant Laura Hillenbrand and her husband exchanged wedding vows in the hotel’s storied sanctums, and in 2008/early 2009, famiglia Obama made the venue its pre-inaugural address.
For Lansdale, Principal Lee Becker and project manager Brian Farrell of Hartman-Cox Architects, the HITT Contracting team who’d done a previous Hay-Adams renovation a decade ago, structural engineers Thornton Tomasetti, mechanical/ electrical guides Girard Engineering and designer Thomas Pheasant, among many others, building an addition at warp-speed on an 11,000 s.f. historical footprint galvanized them for what some say was unprecedented, exhaustive time-and-teamwork challenge. Closing the hotel in June, 2010 and retaining management staff for the projected October reopening, among their many objectives was to essentially set a time record, Lansdale indicated.
In order to meet the challenge, long lead items such as structured steel and elevator equipment had been ordered prior to June, as the team sought to augment two passenger elevators and one freight elevator by engaging an empty shaft from the 1920s that had never been utilized for a fourth cab. Desiring an express elevator from the lobby to what would be the new Top of the Hay, a high-speed conveyor was installed in the space.
In order to “turn the hotel back on” for the October IMF mega-reservation, booked one year earlier, framing the addition—plus new plumbing and mechanical systems, elevator system, life safety systems, fenestration, restroom construction (the former tented space had no facilities, with event-goers descending to the 8th floor) and more—had to be done immediately, with workers toiling seven days a week in two 10-hour shifts. With the cessation of construction noise and vibration in 90 days, painting, carpeting, tile, mill and stonework, fitting out the kitchen and the balance of the finishes, would go on into December on a more traditional work schedule, over a live hotel.
Rounding curves; avoiding debris
Built more than 80 years ago and listed on the National Historic Register, the team had to be “convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt,” according to Lansdale, that the existing structure and its foundation could support the load of both a 9th floor penthouse—which would house the elevator machine room, mechanical systems, etc.—and the new event space. Investigating load and accruing wind shear, structural engineers Thornton Tomasetti bored through existing footings, into the soil, to produce a detailed analysis.
"I will say it wasn’t an immediate response from them to say ‘no problem,’” Lansdale conceded, adding that the prospect of underpinning the entire building, to make it structurally sound enough to support the event space and penthouse, may have made the project cost-prohibitive. “That was the first hurdle,” he said when the structure was ultimately deemed capable.
A dearth of building information from the 1920s precipitated a column survey next by Thornton Tomasetti and HITT Contracting, which revealed between 55 and 60 existing columns, to comply with D.C. construction mandates that the new steel columns had to land directly on the center line of the old ones. “It was a tremendous piece of design and engineering on behalf of the designer and contractor working together,” Lansdale said, noting only two locations were missed. “If you fabricate something that doesn’t fit at all, you’ve really lost time and energy,” he said.
Citing another design challenge, Lansdale said among zoning requirements was that the new structure had to have a 1:1 setback from the existing roof parapet. With the desired ceiling height to be quite formidable, the space would become “skinny” and almost unusable. Embarking on a series of studies to maximize the space’s volume and meet the requisite 1:1 setback, the result was an 8-ft. perimeter roof edge line, but with a vaulted skylight system that reaches about 13 feet at its apex.
Staying on track
Usual (and not so usual) zoning quagmires included a conflict between the District’s Comprehensive Plan, which allowed for a story to be added, and existing zoning, which precluded any additional height. A rezoning application ensued before Lansdale, et al, could submit to the Commission of Fine Arts and Historic Preservation Review Board. Where the separate penthouse construction was concerned, a Board of Zoning Adjustment application was required, with the letter of the law stating that this structure, also, needed to have a 1:1 setback, but from the addition beneath it. “There was no way to build (the penthouse for systems and machines) without a waiver of that requirement,” Lansdale affirmed, noting it was ultimately achieved, though the equivalent of a short prison sentence—beginning in 2007—was spent navigating zoning and review board processes.
With 11,000 s.f. of separable space, in addition to a kitchen, that becomes five function rooms, public spaces and restrooms, design features and finishes include Crema Marfil marble, custom stained wood, Charles Edwards brass lantern fixtures and fabric wall panels. The addition’s perimeter faces 16th and H Streets and has what Lansdale said is a giant French door system with double-hinged doors that fall back on themselves, leading out to a balcony with sparkling vistas.
“This was a good project to do because architecturally, it really cleaned up the roof compared to what it was before with a tent and exposed mechanical system,” Lansdale said, noting the first events were accommodated in January. “The penthouse part of the design organizes and takes everything out of sight, and if you’re standing on the street, the only thing you see is a set back 9th floor event space that is actually very beautiful. It’s a completely different ‘skyscaped’ look for that particular address.”
For design story ideas, please contact Beth at bh@ dcrealestate.com.