Once upon a time more than a century ago, there was a house built on Gates Road that might have come out of a fairy tale. It had a handsome stone and shingle exterior with a turret on its curved side. A stone porch circled one side and a porte cochère provided coverage for vehicles, perhaps carriages, at that time. The house overlooked a beautifully wooded piece of land that extended west to Connecticut Avenue. It was built in 1897 and named the Owl’s Nest, which seemed to suit its whimsical design. A pillar at the entrance had an owl carved in the stone and a stained glass interior window also featured an owl. It is the only landmarked building in Forest Hills.
The architect was Appleton P. Clark, who was responsible for many other noteworthy buildings in Washington. It was built for William L. Crounse , a journalist and trade association representative, a typical Washington insider of his day. He may have wanted a serene respite from city living.
The tree-filled property, set on a slightly elevated ridge, was then considered to be on the outskirts of Washington – happily removed from the humid, swampy land along the Potomac. In real estate parlance, it was referred to as a “modern country dwelling.” Not long before, the city limits had ended at Florida Avenue in the northwest section of the District.
Now, more than one hundred years later, it is the Forest Hills residence of the Donatelli family. Surprisingly, over the intervening time period, it has changed hands infrequently.
After thirty years, Mr. Crounse sold the Owl’s Nest to a military man, a veteran of the Spanish American War. Next, the property was rented to a Belgian diplomatic family who lived there until the outbreak of World War Two. After the war, it was acquired by Alvin Brown, a local developer who lived there without doing very much updating. In the 1990s, he sold it to a private elementary school that planned to raze the building. The school encountered zoning problems as well as strong neighborhood opposition over traffic concerns. The school sold the property to a local developer who decided that he did not want to undertake the extreme renovations necessary. Finally, it was purchased by Chris Donatelli, who intended to preserve the building and to make his home there.
Chris Donatelli is a young Washington developer with a passion for history and a commitment to affordable urban housing. When he bought the house in 2006 it had fallen into disrepair, but he saw the potential for an elegant home and hired an architect, George Myers, who undertook a painstaking renovation. What followed were more than two years of overcoming bureaucratic hurdles, finding the historically correct materials and requiring untold patience to complete. It is now the only landmarked home in Forest Hills.
Chris is especially well-qualified to take on this task. He grew up in Bethesda and has lived in Potomac and in the District. He values the urban life and has completed redevelopment projects in Columbia Heights and other city neighborhoods in transition. He has a solid commitment to making Washington a livable and attractive city.
His renovation of the Owl’s Nest has been done with extraordinary care. Everything from the stones to the shingles was carefully chosen to replicate the original design while extending the footprint with a seamless three-story rear addition where there had previously been a ramshackle extension on stilts. He has also built a pool and retained many of the old trees which add to a welcoming outdoor experience so rare in the middle of a city. No high fences or gates block the view of the Owl’s Nest from the street.
When he looks out the window from the sitting room in his new addition, he imagines what the original owners must have seen from this vantage point before Connecticut Avenue was lined with apartments. Even now the view is wonderful.
It’s a perfect house for his four children. They have discovered nooks and crannies, window seats and private corners for their fun and games. Last October, the Donatellis set up a moon bounce and slide on their front lawn for a birthday celebration. Despite the modernity of this display, it was not inconsistent with the pleasure the family takes in this historic residence, now after more than a century, a comfortable and magical place to live. It’s truly a dream house as well as a testament to architectural history.
Click on the first photo below to bring up the large slide show viewer. To return to the article, click on the image.
Some of the background for this article came from Chapter 4 of Images of America: Forest Hills, by Margery L. Elfin and Paul K. Williams.
The “after” photos in the slideshow are courtesy of architectural photographer Kenneth Wyner (KenWyner.com)