Changing the World, One Building at a Time

A D.C. Developer Balances Preservation and Progress

Developer Jim Abdo has served on the board of trustees of the DC Preservation League.

Credit: Abdo

In downtown Washington, D.C., the old Capital Children's Museum faced an uncertain future. The museum, housed in an 1870s Catholic convent, needed a new space and ultimately found one, in nearby Maryland.

But what about the 19th-century buildings that once housed the Little Sisters of the Poor, their red-brick fronts, cupolas, and spires evocative of the Victorian architecture that made its mark on the nation's capital?    

Enter Jim Abdo, a D.C.-based developer who has made a career out of walking the line between preservation and modernity. Abdo tries to preserve the past while incorporating the latest interior finishes. "It's what you see, but also what you don't see, that's important," says Abdo, who recently served a three-year stint on the board of the D.C. Preservation League. 

Abdo paid $27 million for the 2.4-acre museum site in 2004. But instead of razing the buildings, he renewed them, creating the 44-unit Landmark Lofts at Senate Square, which opened in April. Less distinguished, more recent structures were replaced by two high-rise towers with 432 rental apartments. Some of the old bricks and wooden timbers were trucked across the Potomac River to a new residential building Abdo constructed in Arlington, Va.

Abdo's most recent project, Landmark Lofts, transformed a 19th-century building into luxury housing in a riot-damaged area of Washington, D.C.

Credit: Capitol Hill Restoration Society

"Jim does great, with his understanding of how history can fit into a modern fabric," says former Washington mayor Tony Williams, among the first owners at the $220 million Landmark Lofts project, two blocks north of Washington's iconic Union Station. Arched windows in Williams' second-floor, 2,146-square-foot unit overlook an interior courtyard. 

As proud as Abdo is of saving the building, he's just as proud of the structure's modern appointments: its green features, its units that conform to the existing space. In his 25-year career as a builder and developer, Abdo has gone where others have hesitated: into rundown neighborhoods and derelict buildings that cried out for drastic action.

Raised in Ohio, the son of a Palestinian immigrant, Abdo, 49, built up a small chain of pizza parlors in South Carolina and covered the Pentagon for Radio Free Europe before becoming a builder. He began in 1997 by converting an 1890 four-unit brownstone in D.C., then two years later renovated an abandoned, rat-infested, 70-unit residential building into 22 condos.

Abdo next turned his focus to refurbish old buildings in an area devastated by the 1968 riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The Landmark Lofts anchors the western edge of another former riot corridor, H Street NE, that had long languished for lack of investment and is now undergoing a renaissance, with Abdo a catalytic player.

Several blocks east of the Capitol, Abdo turned an abandoned early-20th-century school into the high-end Bryan School Lofts, 20 condos that sold for as much as $1.4 million each—a project that won for him the Mayor's Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation.

"Jim has done several good preservation projects in town," says Rebecca Miller, executive director of the D.C. Preservation League. "He likes to go into areas that are unknown to most people. He's kind of a pioneer in that way."

New code requirements present some challenges. "In some instances, in saving old buildings, you simply can't conform them completely," Abdo says. "So you go in for variances or modifications. You meet with officials and figure out alternative ways to create safety that is a necessity while allowing the integrity of historic structure to remain."

Formerly a deteriorating convent, this D.C. building has reopened as Landmark Lofts.

Credit: Elise Bernard

Abdo applies the same principles to his own homes, seeking out distressed buildings and bringing them back to life without sacrificing their essence. His primary residence is a 1920s brick mansion off Embassy Row that once belonged to Col. Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and, briefly, owner of the Washington Times-Herald. It later became an ambassador's residence and was a 9,000-square-foot "total gut job" when Abdo bought it in 2002 for $2.5 million. Abdo knocked down walls and added French doors to let in light. In typical Abdo style, an 1860s French sideboard hides a 72-inch plasma TV.

Abdo's country home in Rappahannock County, Va., is a 1907 bungalow with mountain views. He restored the house but also opened it up inside by removing the attic ceiling to expose wooden joists and create a large open space with skylights and a loft with a spare guest bed. He also returned the enclosed front and back porches to their original open condition.   

Even when Abdo starts from scratch, he maintains an awareness of the site's historical context. Recently awarded the contract to develop a new "south campus" on nine acres at Catholic University, Abdo plans to build new restaurants, shops, and housing in keeping with the scale of nearby 1920s buildings. To learn more, he studied Forest Hills, in Queens, N.Y., and Lake Forest, a Chicago suburb: older neighborhoods with similar architecture.

"We're not going to mimic or replicate historic structures and try and make it look like an antique main street," Abdo says, instead striving for "buildings of integrity" that blend in with the older Brookland neighborhood around Catholic University. "We'll be putting in a clock tower and a wonderful open piazza with a fountain where professors can meet their students, where people in the neighborhood can enjoy a meeting place."

How does he reconcile preservation and modernity? "The goal is to strike a balance," Abdo says. "I'm intrigued with and enamored by historic structures but also recognize they have to evolve and meet the demands and needs of today."

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Submitted by Anonymous at: May 2, 2009
Is high end condos on par with the vow of poverty the way previous owners at the Little Sisters of the poor lived?, That the convent is saved is noteworthy, as a similar convent in architecture (Alfred Giles for the one in Texas) belonging to the Incarnate word in San Antonio was razed.

Submitted by Nan at: July 24, 2008
Excellent article about a builder of genious and taste--my son, of whom I am pardonably proud.

Submitted by jjones at: July 20, 2008
Thank you, Jim Abdo!! It is so wonderful that there is someone who is trying to preserve our wonderful old buildings while incorporating new life into them. To bad there are not more people with your outlook. Thanks again for the wonderful job you are doing!

Submitted by dave at: July 17, 2008
Great article! Everyone in Downtown DC should read it. Why not reprint it in THE DOWNTOWNER newspaper? Possible? Call Dave Roffman, 202-338-4833, he's the editor and would love it!

Submitted by eileenkny at: July 17, 2008
Thank you, Jim Abdo!! It's great to see someone who cherishes what was while envisioning what can be.