Washington, D.C., is well known for its building height restrictions. They are largely responsible for both the good and bad in its commercial and multifamily residential architecture. Buildings bulk up to make the most of their sites, but you can always see the sky when walking at street level and you are never long in the shadows of towering structures. Inside those buildings, however, views are limited—unless they occupy a position on one of the wide avenues or a strategic corner. But travel across the Potomac River to Virginia, where height restrictions are more liberal, and you’ll find an entirely different prospect. Ah…here are the views—and what stunning views they are.
Architect Robert Gurney, FAIA, is one of the capital city’s go-to modernists, especially for residential architecture. And his significant subspecialty is transforming troubled interior spaces in Washington’s iconic multifamily buildings. Who else can conjure high ceilings where they don’t exist—in buildings as famously hamstrung as the Watergate Apartments, for instance. It’s no wonder why the owner of this lackluster penthouse called upon Bob to uncover the pearl in this oyster.
It was immediately clear the views were there—views that are “better than from the Washington Monument,” says Bob. In fact, it has a fine view of the Washington Monument, too—and the Capitol, Kennedy Center, Washington Cathedral, Key and Memorial bridges, and, of course, the twists and turns of the Potomac River itself. But those stellar views were frustratingly obstructed.
The nearly 5,000-square-foot unit—one of three penthouses—occupies the 30th floor of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners’ Waterview Condominium in Rosslyn, Virginia. From this height, you can look airline passengers in the eye as they jet along the river. However, because it is the top floor of such a large building, it’s also the terminus of a burdensome amount of bulky infrastructure.
“The apartment was advertised as having 10-foot-high ceilings, but it also held the roof drains for the building, fire suppression systems, plumbing lines, and ductwork,” Bob recalls. Intrusive bulkheads descended everywhere, like stalactites, contributing a cave-like feel to spaces that should have been expansive. Bob’s client, a divorced entrepreneur with shared custody of two children, wanted an expansive experience of the space and he wanted to capitalize on those capital views. Also on the list were two bedrooms for the kids, a playroom, a bedroom suite for him with a spa-like bathroom, a home office, a combination living room/dining room, and a media/game room.
The first order of business was to remove the ceilings and walls to see what obstacles Bob’s team would face in reconfiguring the space. “Once we stripped down to the infrastructure, I understood why we had all those dropped ceilings and horrible bulkheads,” he explains. “We did a lengthy survey of everything that dropped into the space, but much of it couldn’t be moved.
“Still, there were some places where we could get the ceilings to 10 feet and, in some cases, even higher,” he continues. “That led to the origami-like solution for the ceilings—we bent down where we had to and pushed up where we could. It allowed for a much more fluid solution than boxed bulkheads, and it gained us a bit more height. It turned a negative into a real positive.”
Bob amplified the ceiling’s floating effect by avoiding touching the walls, columns, or millwork: “The floating plane is almost like a cloud.” The shapes terminate in a deep reveal around the apartment’s service core, which contains mechanicals, the laundry room, and a powder room—all wrapped in cold rolled steel with some of the finish removed and installed with bolts perfectly parallel to the floor. “We wanted something light and reflective, but our client likes materials to be as authentic as possible, so we left a patina.”
To that end, concrete columns were cleaned to a raw, natural finish. Other substantial materials include the dining room’s thick-cleft slate wall, embedded with an ancient fossil as a focal point. Elsewhere, millwork yin-yangs between quarter-sawn white oak and wenge. “The logic was that different planar elements took different species,” says Bob.
The spa-like bathroom is a jewel box, clad in western red cedar, mahogany, honed absolute black granite, marble counters, and flamed black impala flooring. Another recessed fossil offers an organic focal point, albeit frozen in time—a static element amid the room’s changing light and views through the circuit of the day.
Although recently completed, the apartment is under renovation again. The client acquired the other two units on the floor and returned to Bob and his wife and partner, interior designer Therese Baron Gurney, to combine them all into one custom home. Until then, we’ll just have to imagine the next chapter of the continually unfolding story.
Plans and Drawings
ARCHITECT: Principal: Robert M. Gurney, FAIA; project architect: Nicole de Jong, AIA, Robert M. Gurney, FAIA, Architect, Washington, D.C.
BUILDER: Peterson + Collins, Inc., Bethesda, Maryland
INTERIOR DESIGNER: Therese Baron Gurney, ASID, Baron Gurney Interiors, Washington
STRUCTURAL ENGINEER: TCE & Associates, Inc., McLean, Virginia
KITCHEN SYSTEM: Julia Walter, managing director, Boffi Georgetown, Washington
PROJECT SIZE: 4,800 square feet
PHOTOGRAPHY: Maxwell MacKenzie; Anice Hoachlander
COOKTOP/VENT HOOD/WINE FRIDGE: Gaggenau
DISHWASHER/OVENS/SPECIALTY APPLIANCES: Miele
FAUCETS: Dornbracht, VOLO
HARDWARE: Halliday Baillie, CRL, Häfele, FSB
INTERIOR LIGHTING: Luminii, Litelab, Inter-lux, Selux
KITCHEN CABINETRY: Boffi
LIGHTING CONTROL/SWITCHES: Lutron, Meljac
RADIANT HEATING: Warmup PLC in-floor heating
SINKS: Kohler, Boffi (kitchen)
SUPPLY BAR/FLOW BAR: Titus
TOILETS: TOTO, Kohler
TUB: Bradford Products (spa), WETSTYLE (secondary)