A Grand Home, a documentary about the Northumberland Apartments
A Grand Home, a documentary about the Northumberland Apartments



The Northumberland Apartments occupies a significant lot on New Hampshire Avenue, N.W. The irregular shape of the lot, created by the intersection of this major diagonal avenue and the grid of L'Enfant's 1791 plan for the Federal City, dictated the shape of the building. The Northumberland's eclectic, classical facade blends harmoniously with the buildings in the area and contributes to the visual variety and richness of the New Hampshire Avenue streetscape between Sixteenth Street and Florida Avenue.


The building remains an unaltered element in a neighborhood identity created by Victorian rowhouses, large apartment buildings, and churches and institutional buildings. The variety of building types and styles, and the unusual spatial configuration of the short blocks and irregularly-shaped lots, creates a richness of streetscape seldom found so intact in the city today.


The Exterior 


Albert H. Beers designed the Northumberland in an eclectic early-twentieth century adaptation of eighteenth-century classicism. Its design and conception were French in origin, illustrating Beers' familiarity with the current fashion in apartment design. The quality of construction, materials, and craftsmanship found in the building is exceptionally high. The Northumberland stands in its original state; this unaltered condition contributes significantly to the building's importance. The Northumberland is perhaps the only such example of an early-twentieth century luxury apartment building left intact in Washington.


The Northumberland is approached by a semi-circular driveway. The building is red and white brick and dressed limestone and features an eclectic collection of classical architectural elements. The facade is divided into three horizontal bands. The upper and lower bands are white brick and stone and are each two stories high. The configuration of the fenestration is the same on both levels, although the scale is smaller in the upper band. The windows are paired vertically - an arched window above a square one - and contained within a quoined Gibbsian surround that encompasses the windows and the spandrel between. Similar limestone quoins are also found at the corners of the two bands.


The middle band of three floors is rough red brick. The rectangular windows are unusually large and are capped by pressed brick jack arches with stone console keystones.  An eleborate metal bracketed cornice forms a projecting cap for the building and eloquently defines the roofline. The variety and richness of the materials and textures contribute to the impressive dignity of the Northumberland. Other detailing, including limestone ledges and quoins, add a decorative element.


Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the facade is the Palladian-inspired recessed entry. The curved space, framed by two pairs of Ionic columns and pilasters, is 16 feet (4.9 m) high and over 22 feet (6.7 m) wide. Above is a 4-foot (1.2 m) high entablature capped by two classical stone urns. The wide door, with its elliptical fanlight and sidelights, is set in a deep niche.


The fenestration plays a major role in determining the feeling of the facade. The windows are unusually large for the period, some measuring over 6 feet 6 inches (1.98 m) square. The variety of sash types, including 16/1, add to the richness of the design. Consoles and metal ornamentation provide additional embellishment. The consoles are two types - metal under the projecting cornice and limestone above the windows. The Former are decorated with deeply chased acanthus leaves. The latter are classical in style and serve as the keystones in the jack arches above the windows. Other decorative metal details include four types of molding (dentil, egg and dart, ogee, and plain), a large floral frieze, and chamfered metal panels.


The Lobby


The Northumberland Lobby is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places separately from the building, also on the Register, as a distinct national treasure.


Although the lobby looks as if it is marble, it is really all plaster. The only marble elements are the short staircase treads and risers to the left and right first floor hallways and the treads of the main staircase up to the second floor only. The marbleized concrete mixture forming the columns has the aesthetic advantages of marble without the cost or structural problems of marble.


The lobby "marble" is really a nearly-lost art form known as "scagliola" (from the Italian scaglia, meaning "chips"). The Northumberland lobby is done in the Marezzo scagliola method (often called "American" scagliola), Colored batches of plaster are mixed into a dough-like consistency, adding animal glues and natural gums to keep the substance malleable as the artist forms it into shapes and molds. The golden lobby color recalls "Sienna" marble and its deep golden hue. The technique, especially popular in the early 1900s, contribute today to the grandeur of the Willard Hotel lobby and Department of State Benjamin Franklin Dining Room.


The Northumberland lobby is no particular architectural style. Architect Connecticut-born and DC resident since 1903 Albert H. Beers, in his early 50s and at the peak of his confidence and talents in 1909, borrowed and mixed details from different periods. The style is not Edwardian, Beaux Arts, nor Jacobean, but rather a "fantasy" composed by the architect. It is a compact, intimate space of approximately 1,000 square feet with 13 foot high ceilings -- certainly not the largest lobby space in Washington. Yet, in a city with scores of beautiful apartment lobbies, many feel it ranks as one of Washington's most inviting and elegant. The lobby is a very formal space, each side an almost identical match -- including elevator cabs. The ingenious architect artfully concealed that it is narrower on the left side than on the right.


Some basic lobby details of note always seem to start with the heraldic reliefs above each ornamental fireplace, a three-dimensional barrage of Celtic swords, twin banners, helmet with glorious feathered plumes, a mace (ouch!) and shield. The entire composition is entwined with a victor's wreath of laurel leaves.


Wall ornamentation show garlands decorated with pomegranates, considered a sign of hospitality. Flickers of 23 carat gold leafing are found throughout, cleaned, restored and replaced during the lobby's 1978 restoration.


Current research suggests that the two fireplace wooden mantles may have been marbleized at a date later than the original lobby construction. Chipping of the marbleized paint is exposing what seems to be a mahogany finish. The building is currently researching this information to aid in further restoration efforts.


Lobby furnishings have been added and refined through the years to best reflect the lobby's appearance in 1910. The large temple vase to the left of the entrance is Japanese, done in the Chinese style. The two cloth-covered wingbacks are handmade and hand turned, and date somewhere between 1895 and 1904.  The grandfather clock is one of the few original lobby items, and was purchased by Harry Wardman at the William Moses and Sons Furniture Store (engraved on the clockface). The clock is a dual mechanical movement that chimes the hour and traces phases of the moon. (An interesting side note is that William Moses was a Northumberland neighbor, having built 2108 16th Street for his family in 1893, just across the street from the Roosevelt Hotel, now the Camden Roosevelt apartments).


Other elements of interest are the receptionist's area, from which mail is sorted and carried to the apartment by hand, a charming anachronism. The area also houses the original Northumberland safe. The three stained glass windows on the first floor landing, embellished with the letter "N", are artfully curved to follow the lines of the staircase turret. The formal, restrained lobby chandeliers have been called Edwardian. The original flooring features developer Harry Wardman's signature Greek key tile in maroon, altered directly at the front door where the maroon tiles spell out 1-9-0-9, the year the Northumberland was designed. The Northumberland celebrated its Centennial in 2010.


-- Profile courtesy of Russell Theodore Adams, resident Northumberland historian

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© The Northumberland Apartments 2039 New Hampshire Avenue, NW Washington, DC 20009 (202) 462-3280