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Publication Date: 2013-03-15

House Tours

Grace Defined: Frank Babb Randolph’s Georgetown Town House

At home in Georgetown, Frank Babb Randolph combines Jeffersonian classicism with contemporary art. Sallie Brady sits down with the designer to learn more about how he brought grace and style to this townhouse.

“I have always said that Thomas Jefferson was America’s first interior designer,” notes Frank Babb Randolph. The gentlemanly Georgetown decorator spent his boyhood visiting his father’s U.S. Senate office in the neoclassical halls of Congress, and has made pilgrimages to Jefferson’s Monticello all his life. He says his own designs are informed by six decades of absorbing the architecture of the region.

A true Washingtonian whose father, Jennings Randolph, served 44 years as a member of Congress for the state of West Virginia, Randolph has a roster of power-player clients and designed the vice-presidential residence for Dick and Lynne Cheney. When it came time to rethink his own place, a three-story Georgetown town house — previously occupied by the Kissingers — Randolph, a charming mix of Cary Grant and decorator Billy Baldwin, looked to the diaries, drawings, and lifestyle of his hero, “Mr. Jefferson.” He also enlisted the assistance of architect Christian Zapatka, another passionate Jeffersonian and Georgetown local.

“I grew up with gracious entertaining,” says Randolph, whose drawing room is designed for gatherings.

It’s not surprising that the two used Monticello’s Palladian approach to solve some of the house’s design challenges. Built in 1959 — a time, says Zapatka, “when there was a real fervor for Federal architecture in Georgetown” — the structure had 13-foot ceilings and lots of bright windows, but “anemic trim. It lacked gravitas.” The solution was to borrow some of Monticello’s detailing, like classical crown moldings, baseboards, and niches (which replace bookshelves). The pair even recreated the grand pediment in Jefferson’s salon; it caps the center pair of towering French doors in the drawing room.

Once the backdrop was set, Randolph worked his signature magic, integrating treasured French, English, and American antiques and layers of soft neutrals. allowing plenty of breathing space between objects. “I want serenity, quietude,” he says. “I want your eye to go to those big windows.” The designer is so keen on light-drenched rooms that he only hung curtains in the dining room. “Mr. Jefferson,” he points out, “had no curtains in his drawing room. Almost all of his rooms were open.” Throughout the house, Randolph injected energy by introducing contemporary art. “Just look at those dusty pink slipper chairs that came from Cole Porter’s Paris apartment,” he says. “Boy, do they sing next to that contemporary painting!”

And you can be sure Cole Porter’s repertoire is often playing at Randolph’s. An avid host, he sets up a large bar in the first floor hall to greet guests before they head upstairs. To keep conversation flowing, there are round, candle-lit tables in the dining room, never anchored by chandeliers, which would dictate fixed seating areas. Flexible seating groups are another of his key tenets. “I tried to make the furniture in the drawing room mobilier, as the French say, so I can move it around. If you read Mr. Jefferson’s diaries you’ll see he did the same.” The designer also likes to change his rooms with the seasons, and always rolls up the drawing room carpet for the summer. Guess who did the same?

This article originally appeared in Veranda. Interior Design by Frank Babb Randolph. Architecture by Christian Zapatka. Photography by Max Kim-Bee. Produced by Olga Naiman. Text by Sallie Brady.

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