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

by HomeDecorBeauty

Lorna Gross redesigned an historic 1870 row house in the Georgetown area of ​​Washington, DC to resemble a bespoke train car on the Orient Express.
Lorna Gross redesigned an historic 1870 row house in the Georgetown area of ​​Washington, DC to resemble a bespoke train car on the Orient Express. (William Waldron)

Two-year renovation of historic property balances its 19th-century history with modern flourishes


Col. John Cox was a wealthy merchant in the 19th century who went on to serve as the first elected mayor of Georgetown from 1823 to 1845 — nearly three decades before the District of Columbia got its name.

Years before he embarked on a political career, Cox, who earned the rank of colonel in the War of 1812, was a prolific real estate developer, eventually building five homes in Georgetown in 1817, one for himself and the others for his sons, all next door to each other.

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

Set back from the street, creating what are known as “door yards,” the residences all had flat fronts, large black shuttered windows, dormers and decorative swags tucked neatly into recessed panels. Their austere uniformity helped the street to become known as “Cox’s Row,” a stretch of houses collectively listed on the District of Columbia Inventory of Historic Sites and part of the Georgetown Historic District.

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

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The 1870 Federalist row house that writer and historian Greg Jackson purchased five years ago sits on Cox’s Row, directly across from the stately homes that Cox built on N Street. And that’s no coincidence.

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

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

While Jackson’s row house is historic in its own right — it was built for Col. Charles Beatty, owner of the ferry between the Virginia shore and the foot of Frederick Street at Water Street in Georgetown — it had fallen into disrepair over the years and required extensive work.

Before he could even consider interior renovations, Jackson says the home was beset with structural issues. Years of flooding severely damaged its foundation, requiring months of extensive repairs.

“When the crew pulled up the floors, we saw quickly that the joists were rotted out,” he says. Contractors eventually had to excavate beneath the kitchen and dining rooms to a depth of about three feet in order to raise the back side of the home and repair the foundation.

“Only after pulling up the floors could we 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 moldings in the living room and hallway also presented challenges. Rather than simply replacing them with wood moldings — which would have been the easiest route — he sought to restore them.

“The surviving plaster was pretty stunning,” Jackson says. Craftsmen spent weeks slowly filling in and rebuilding the ridges and textures of the moulding, he says.

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

Jackson enlisted North Bethesda, Md., interior designer Lorna Gross to help overhaul the property’s interiors.

A New York native who was raised in Louisiana, Gross eventually opened her practice in the DC area where she quickly acquired a reputation for designing homes that comfortably marry history with modernity.

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Gross says when the collaboration with Jackson began — mapping out how each floor of the five-story building would be revamped — she quickly realized his depth of knowledge of architecture and home design went well beyond her usual clients.

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

Those unique ideas included an unconventional interior scheme for the home’s first level: Jackson wanted the entire floor to resemble a bespoke 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 took on the long-distance passenger train service before it ended operation in 2009.

During its 19th-century heyday, the Orient Express traveled the length of continental Europe and into 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 spin tales of its celebrated passengers — both real and fictional.

“As a college kid traveling around Europe it was as legendary as it was luxurious,” Jackson says. “It just radiated this kind of bygone era of luxury.”

For Gross, it presented a welcome challenge. “I love projects that go beyond the cookie-cutter ideas of what an interior should be,” she says. “Greg offered us a real chance at creating a bit of a story with the interiors and I embraced that from the start.”

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Gross went to great lengths to achieve the look and feel of a train car from a bygone era. She had antique furnishings and lighting installed from the 1930s on the home’s first level which is a long, narrow space with two fireplaces that harkens back to the Art Deco period.

Interior remodeling included having walls removed just beyond the first level’s entryway, allowing visitors to see directly down a long corridor into the exterior courtyard through new steel windows and doors.

Gross chose a pair of antique chandeliers to replicate Deco equivalents of the era as well as wall coverings that were used to create a warm backdrop for the blend of antique and contemporary furnishings.

The kitchen was also completely renovated and is now enveloped in Art Deco-inspired black to add a bit of drama, Gross says.

“The goal was to create something unique without it coming off as kitsch,” says Gross. “It needs to feel authentic but not immediately obvious.”

Jackson says he didn’t want the Orient Express motif to dominate the entire home.

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

The guest room also serves as a home office and media lounge and includes a blonde-wood Phillip Jeffries wall covering and a 1930s walnut cocktail table.

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

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

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