Traditional Building Portfolio



Gothic Lineage

A developer/architect pays homage to an innovative Victorian forebear in an up-and-coming historic district.

Project: Butterfield House, Washington, DC

Project: Developer/Architect/Contractor: SGA Companies, Bethesda, MD; Sassan Gharai, chairman; Susan M. Petersen, project architect

By Eve M. Kahn

Growing up in London in the 1970s, Sassan Gharai was a tireless sightseer. "I would walk and walk through neighborhoods for hours," recalls the Maryland-based architect/developer. "I went to high school right between Parliament and Westminster Abbey – I could not have been a more Central London kid. And I loved finding out the stories behind the buildings, making connections between the architects, figuring out the reasons behind the shapes and materials, putting together pieces of the puzzle."

He unexpectedly put together another piece of the London puzzle in the 1980s, while studying architecture at Catholic University in Washington, DC. In a class about 19th-century English architecture, "I heard for the first time about William Butterfield," Gharai recalls. Butterfield (1814-1900), a Gothic Revival specialist, designed steep-roofed, austerely planar, patterned-brick buildings such as London's All Saints Church and Oxford's Keble College. As Gharai launched a career developing mixed-use and residential complexes around Washington, DC, he kept finding out more about Butterfield: reading his correspondence with clients and colleagues, walking past his Georgian townhouse on London's Bedford Square and researching his influence on now-more-famous architects like Richard Norman Shaw and William Morris.

So as soon as Gharai had a chance, he named one of his own innovative brick buildings after Butterfield. The 50,000-sq.ft. mass of Butterfield House now snugly occupies the 9,600-sq.ft. lot of a former Shell gas station in the Capitol Hill historic district. Despite its pragmatic quotient of 28 condos and 24 underground parking spaces, the project is full of lofty and playful references to architectural and local history.

Gharai knew in advance that the site would require some soil cleanup – "but we'd solve that problem by digging out deeply for the garage," he explains. A thornier planning obstacle was the footprint. At one corner, the property has one of those only-in-Washington, DC, weird angles (60 degrees), caused by the intersections of urban planner Pierre Charles L'Enfant's 1790s radial avenues and street grids. So Gharai decided to tuck a faceted bay into the triangle point – in Washington, DC, bays can legally extend just past the property line, so the projection helped Gharai squeeze in a few bonus square feet. Then he repeated the faceted form along the façade, "creating a uniform rhythm," he explains.

The recurring bays have steeply pitched pediments, which alternate with shed-roofed dormers along the synthetic slate roof. The lively silhouette suits the neighborhood's uninterrupted rows of gabled Victorian townhouses, and helps disguise the height (six stories) of the steel-frame building. "At the roof level," explains Susan M. Petersen, the project architect at Gharai's firm, SGA Companies, "we had to be careful to step back the steel columns, to keep them from protruding."

To clad the steel skeleton, SGA devised a mixture of bricks (from the Red Cliff line in the Tuscan Series by Glen-Gery Brick of Wyomissing, PA) trimmed in charcoal-gray cast stone (from Edwards Cast Stone Co. in Dubuque, IA) along the pediments, bay balconies, lintels, and string courses. Mortar formulas were tinted to match the bricks, "which creates the feeling of a monolithic mass," Gharai notes. A few black bricks are scattered in the red planes, and red cast-stone columns, in pairs of cylinders, support the steeply gabled porticos and have been stained to mimic Glen-Gery's Red Cliff hue.

The red-and-black palette will gradually be joined by verdigris: SGA spec'd copper flashing and downspouts from Prospect Waterproofing Co. of Sterling, VA. "Once the copper patinas up," Petersen predicts, "the building will definitely feel like a long-time piece of the neighborhood. People already mistake it for a renovation of an existing building." Gharai describes Butterfield House's overall color scheme as "very Washingtonian. It relates to Adolf Cluss's 1880s Arts and Industries Building."

The bricklayers, from Calvert Masonry in Manassas, VA, varied Butterfield House's surface textures: basket-weave patterns in the porticos, stack bond areas between windows, and spines of corbels swelling gently between bays. Gharai explains that the corbels "are not structural, they're attached and decorative, just like the ones Butterfield used." While SGA expected the corbels' serrated, cantilevered edges to pose the greatest challenges to the masons, "it was actually the stack bond that turned out to be trickiest to get to the level of quality we were looking for," Petersen recalls. "Those sections had to be redone a few times until the lines were perfectly straight." The masons, Gharai adds, "did a great job in the end – they put up with all my fussiness."

For all his devotion to traditional ornament, Gharai worked a few contemporary-flavored details into Butterfield House, including the cylindrical portico columns and some horizontal spans of exposed I-beams under the arched windows. Early on in the design process, he recalls, "I asked myself, ‘How would Butterfield's type of Gothic architecture have evolved, if Modern architecture had never happened?'" The industrial-seeming beams are decorative, not structural, and have historical precedents, he explains: "You see that detail on a lot of 19th-century buildings, and not just factories – you see them sometimes in the work of Frank Furness, who's another one of my architectural heroes along with Butterfield."

As SGA maneuvered its proposal through the approvals processes, it received virtually unanimous support from neighborhood groups and review boards. "The neighbors were delighted that we'd been so respectful of the context, and not out to maximize profit or make some maverick architectural statement," Gharai says. In his company's 12-year history, he adds, "this is the closest I've come to building exactly what I'd originally envisioned." Customers, too, have been thrilled. Open houses have attracted hundreds of people, as brokers point out the wainscoting, thick moldings, solid cherry floors and doors, a roof garden with views from the Anacostia River to the Washington Monument and super-insulated walls that keep utility bills low (Gharai has fielded calls from surprised occupants wondering if their meters might be broken). The interiors, with slanted walls and alcoves within the bays, have the charming asymmetry of units carved out of reused Victorian buildings, like schools or parish houses.

SGA sold out three-quarters of the units within the first few months of sales, "which is particularly amazing in this real-estate-market downturn we're in," says Gharai. Petersen reports that she enjoys meeting with the new owners: "They tell us that they love living in this work of art, that it has amazing personality." Gharai adds that at open houses, "I've overheard people say, ‘I have to live here!' There's a real heft and gravity to the building that people notice. They respond to the level of detail, the craftsmanship, all the angles and ins and outs. I'm fascinated that there've been such visceral reactions. The traditional design and human scale tap into something very deep down in people. We've touched on some kind of archetype of what a building should be. And Butterfield House will only get more graceful, and develop new character, with age."  

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