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The Washington Post
October 2006

Bringing His Work Home:
D.C. Developer Jim Abdo Turns a Handyman's Special Into a Gem of Simplicity
By Eugene L. Meyer

Water poured in from the roof, cascading into the front hallway. Ceiling plaster was landing in the entranceway. Two living room windows were boarded up. The place was dark, uninviting.

This house was a mess.

Many home buyers run from a house in this condition. But Jim Abdo, a Washington developer who has turned some of D.C.'s grittiest buildings into some of its finest, thought the house of concrete and terra cotta block and steel had "great bones and tremendous potential," he says about four years later. No inspection clause? No problem.

You might say the 9,000-square-foot mansion on Benton Place NW off Embassy Row was a handyman's special, a real fixer-upper. Right after settlement, in a driving rainstorm, Abdo climbed through a hatch onto the pitched roof, which has a surrounding parapet. He found that a scupper meant to drain the water was full of leaves, causing the water to seep behind the roof flashing and into the house. With one hand, Abdo scooped out the debris. A flood of water swirled down the drainpipe. Problem solved.

Weeks before, he had handed over a $150,000 cashier's check as a deposit on the home's $2.55 million purchase price. Only then did he tell his wife, "Honey, guess what. I just bought the house we're going to move into."

Mai Abdo was "a little surprised," she says, but not upset. "He took me to dinner and casually mentioned he put a contract on a house. I didn't think he was serious. Right after dinner, he took me over to the house. I was so excited. I did a cartwheel in the front yard. He has a knack for real estate."

Jim Abdo, 46, is a builder and a dreamer who has helped revitalize lower 14th Street, converted the old Bryan School in Capitol Hill into high-end condos and is now turning the former Capital Children's Museum near Union Station into residential Senate Square.

But this project, a single-family detached house, was different. This was his home.

The 1920s mansion was once the Washington home of Col. Robert R. McCormick, the legendary editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune and briefly the owner of the old Washington Times-Herald. Soon after the colonel's death in 1955, the newly independent African republic of Ghana acquired the three-story house as its embassy and, later, the ambassador's residence. The house remained diplomatic property until Abdo came along.

While helping to remake the face of inner-city Washington, Abdo lived for years in the penthouse of a three-floor walk-up north of Dupont Circle. Through mutual friends, he met Mai, and the couple married in 2002. When Mai became pregnant, it became clear their walk-up days were numbered.

After settling on the Benton Place house in August 2002, the Abdos moved four times while it was being renovated, going from one of his rental units to another because each had been committed to tenants. They moved into their home on April 17, 2003. Daughter Sophie arrived April 23. (The couple now also has a 2-year-old son, Griffin.)

To meet his growing family's needs, Abdo quickly turned the ambassador's basement bar into a romper room, with wall-to-wall sponge tiles and an inflatable kiddie pool with 2,000 plastic balls for them to jump into. It is, to be sure, a big house, and it is not cluttered. "We are both minimalists," Jim Abdo says. "We don't want to fill up the house. We love the simplicity of it."

Abdo set out immediately to open up the house, to let in light and improve the flow. Rooms were connected by narrow doorways or not at all.

Inside, the house has a minimally furnished living room with a grand piano. It leads into a formal dining room, which flows into a rear family room, where a 72-inch plasma TV hides inside an 1860s French sideboard cabinet. Wall-to-wall French doors open to the patio and pool area. An interior door leads to a breakfast nook, formerly the butler's pantry. It adjoins the kitchen, which has Viking appliances and an island counter of pedregosa, a porous stone, on top of an antique pharmacist's table. An old metal pot rack hangs overhead. Abdo intentionally left it outside in snow and rain to make it appear "a little more distressed." This was "very consistent with what we do: pristine and elegant but very edgy, merging the old with the new. We wanted to do that with this house."

Outside, Abdo turned the overgrown back yard into a well-landscaped area with inviting patios, a pool with a 52-foot lap lane and two pool houses. There is a separately heated eight-person spa and a misting system "so, if it's a really hot summer day, you can have a cold margarita in the fog," Abdo says. Three illuminated fountains create an almost mystical, rippling effect.

Having his own construction company cut down on delays, Abdo says, but the project still took nearly 10 months.

The Abdos got help from designer Darryl Carter. He helped choose fixtures, colors and fabrics, and he found some of the antiques now on display in different rooms. Carter said the Abdos "have an appreciation for both the modern and traditional, which fit right in with my point of view, so it was a very easy relationship."

Design on a dime? Not exactly. The house was "a total gut job," Abdo says. The current assessed value is $4.2 million.

"It's really a gem," Abdo says. "There are deer, red fox. It blows your mind. We can walk to Dupont Circle in 10 minutes. We love it."

The house adjoins the Canadian ambassador's residence. To the rear is the residence of the ambassador from the Dominican Republic. The former finance minister of Pakistan is also a next-door neighbor, while Vernon and Ann Jordan live across the street, as does Robert Lehrman, of the former Giant supermarket family. The late Herbert Haft's former house is on the corner.

Abdo is equally excited about his newest residential rehab. It's the former Nigerian ambassador's residence, a mansion of 10,000 square feet at 3100 Woodland Dr., also in the neighborhood. He bought the building for $3.25 million in 2005, after it sat vacant for five years. "There were raccoons living in it," Abdo says. "It was a disaster."

This one he plans to sell, and he already has several inquiries. But for now, he's turning away prospective buyers. He says it's not quite ready for showing.