Photo Information

Maj. Pete Dahl, construction project manager, inspects the basement of the Home of the Commandants, which is undergoing repairs, Feb. 16. More than 20 supports in the basement prevent the building from collapsing. (Photo by Cpl. Austin Hazard)

Photo by Cpl. Austin Hazard

Under Wraps: The restoration of the Home of the Commandants

15 Mar 2011 | Cpl. Austin Hazard

WASHINGTON – The construction on the historic Home of the Commandants is little known outside the D.C. area and military leadership, but even Marines at Marine Barracks Washington may have wondered what was being done to the iconic structure under the giant tarp.

Much of the original building that was completed in 1806 still stands today, though far worse for wear.

In 2008, it was reported that Annette Conway, wife of former commandant Gen. James T. Conway, noticed red sand here and there in the basement of the house. After formal review, it was discovered that the red brick, hidden behind a layer of drywall, was crumbling and wearing away from two centuries of weathering. The building was on the verge of certain collapse.

More than 20 emergency support beams were put in place to support the building, countering its corroding 200 year-old brick foundation and heavy wooden crossbeams.

"It took an army of gentlemen to put up huge supports all throughout the basement," exclaimed Mrs. Conway. "After they shored up the basement with support after support, it was like a big maze down there."

But several other structural deficiencies had to be addressed as well, and the project turned into a much larger overhaul.

Special permission from Congress sanctioned the restoration and repair of the national historic landmark.

"In addition to construction, MBW had to remove $2.75 million in appraised art, furniture, carpets and draperies from the house in order to conduct construction," said Maj. Pete Dahl, project manager and Barracks logistics officer. "A good deal of the artwork and historic furnishings are currently undergoing conservation repairs in specialty shops contracted by the Marine Corps."

The building’s furnishings will be returned upon the completion of the project, slated for May 13. Once its contents were removed in November, the construction process could begin.

"One of the first things that had to be done was remove all of the paint from the 15,000-square-foot house, all 37 layers of paint," Dahl explained.

Dahl also noted that a paint study done on the house indicates that the commandant’s home was not always white, or even brick red. According to the study, the building has experienced shades of grey, brown, a red orange color, and even yellow before the most recent application of white paint.

The removal of the outside paint was the cause for the building’s mummified appearance. Since the process used is most effective at certain temperatures, the tarp is weatherproof and somewhat insulating, which kept the scaffolding area warmer during the cold winter months.

Throughout the brick restoration process, which largely took place in the basement where the damage was most severe, an unrecorded 19th century fireplace and several bricked up windows were discovered behind the drywall of the basement. These features went undiscovered for so long because there is no known original floor plan for the house. The fireplace has been restored and will be kept visible and intact.

Nearly all of the original brick was preserved in the building’s design, though much of the mortar was replaced, said Dahl.

"This is the last time anyone will ever see the red brick of this house," Dahl noted. "This is the first time it’s been visible in almost 200 years, and once we paint over it, it will be the last. The paint we’re going to use is mineral based, instead of oil based. It will seep into the brick and become permanent."

The building was repainted to match its former elegant off-white appearance.

Though the brick and basement support system were the initial cause for the repairs, they were not the only ones. The commandant’s dining room ceiling, which was visibly bowing under the weight of the upper floor, was also repaired and redesigned to match the 19th century style of the rest of the house.

"It’s amazing that the second and third floors didn’t crash into the dining room," Mrs. Conway remarked.

Other facets of the building were reworked and restored, as well, including the outer wood trim and stonework for various parts of the structure.

However, the aesthetic and structural aspects of the house were not the only ones to receive treatment.

"The mechanical systems are also being upgraded, which includes modernizing the heating and cooling systems," said Dahl. "This will make them more energy efficient. Solar panels are also going to be installed on the roof, so they are out of sight. These panels will cover approximately 15 percent of the house’s energy use, making this a green project, too."

Some security upgrades include additional guard houses on the premises and bollards, which can obstruct vehicles that may veer off the road and collide into the property.

Approximately 500 people worked on the project on the construction teams, while another 150 worked on the developing and management teams.

"The last thing you want is for anything to happen to the Home of the Commandants. I’m relieved that its structure and integrity are able to be restored," Mrs. Conway said with a sigh. "We would have lost an important part of the Marine Corps’ history."

Gen. James Amos, the current commandant, and his wife, Bonnie, are expected to move out of their current home at the Barracks, which is meant for the assistant commandant, and into the newly restored Home of the Commandants in June.

"I think she’s just beautiful," said Mrs. Amos of the building’s final appearance. "She’s just very regal, elegant, and stately. They’ve done an incredible job. I’m very excited to move into the Home of the Commandants."

With the Amos family moving in, the building will have housed every commandant since Lt. Col. Franklin Wharton, the Corps’ third commander.