When we embarked on our newest senior living development at the historic Fairfax building, we sought an architectural partner who could preserve the essence of this 1927 gem while reimagining its future. With their commitment to retaining existing fabrics and stellar track record in adaptive reuse, Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners (BBB) emerged as the perfect fit.
Similar to our award-winning Inspir Carnegie Hill property in New York City, we tasked Beyer Blinder Belle with reimagining what a senior residence could be. Our goal was to develop a best-in-class community for older adults seeking not just quality care, but a vibrant lifestyle made possible by thoughtful, innovative design.
We sat down with Jill S. Cavanaugh, Partner at Beyer Blinder Belle team to discuss their vision for breathing new life into this historic property.
Q: What are the main considerations and goals for a historical preservation or restoration project?
A: Our founding partners in the late 1960s valued stewardship of buildings, at a time when neighborhoods were too often razed in the name of urban renewal. For them, retaining heritage buildings meant keeping cities vibrant and livable for everyone. That mindset still drives our firm decades later. We feel a real duty to sustain what made buildings meaningful in the first place—their purpose, architectural features, historical associations. If it's a landmark, certain architectural or event-based details give it lasting importance. Our role is upholding that essence and legacy, whether it's a neoclassical or postmodern treasure. The Fairfax has incredible stories bound up in its walls. We aimed to retain enough key features so residents can write their own next chapter.
Q: For the Fairfax in particular, it’s sort of a place that has not only been a prominent building on Massachusetts Avenue since the 20s but it was also a place that people would go to for special occasions to celebrate an anniversary or birthday. Is that some of the essence and integrity of the project you were looking to keep?
A: Yes. This building is impressive architecturally, but the real story is its history and of what it bore witness to, what it hosted.
The Fairfax first opened its doors in the 1920s, built to help soldiers returning from the war transition to civilian life. Through the years it remained in residential use. By the 1960s, the Fairfax had become a stunning fixture on Embassy Row and the place to see and be seen. That era marked the so-called "gilded age” of Camelot-era DC politics, when lawmakers and celebrity luminaries like The Kennedys began rubbing elbows here at swaying parties. It was during this scintillating, pivotal time that the Fairfax established itself as one of the preeminent buildings on Massachusetts Avenue. The list of famous patrons and defining historic moments witnessed within these walls is long and distinguished. I It was very important for us to help bring that illustrious pedigree into the next century, creating spaces where new memories might be made by those carrying on the Fairfax's legacy.
We wanted to retain familiar, heritage elements while bringing innovative features into the fold - creating a bridge between past and future. Even the most storied buildings need contemporary comforts and conveniences to stay viable for generations to come. The Fairfax now boasts integrated AV systems, updated IT infrastructure, and enhanced thermal performance and accessibility. We devoted careful attention to details that allow the building to function for 21st-century use. At the same time, we safeguarded treasured traces of bygone eras so residents are reminded of the rich life this place has already lived. Walking that line between preserving integrity and advancing modernity is where our team finds the most creative excitement and reward in adaptive reuse projects. We're able to interweave old and new stories into spaces where the next chapters will unfold.
Q: Other than the exterior façade, what were the other important elements that you tried to preserve in the redesign of the building?
As we adapted the layout for senior living, we remained mindful of its history first as a residence, then as a hospitality venue. Those uses translated well. For example, we preserved the corridors which now foster neighbor interactions. We also maintained the original hallway openings and junctions where possible - transforming those into bright common areas for social gatherings, rather than just adding more units.
On the first floor, capturing a semblance of high-end hospitality took priority. While modifications over time had erased some original architectural details, we preserved a few emblematic elements, like the vintage postal chute in the lobby. These remnants of past eras remain touchpoints residents can connect with. We're refreshing the building for modern use while retaining tokens of its rich history.
Ultimately, this is now residents’ home. So the renovated spaces balance grandeur with intimacy across different scales. Great millwork and considerate design allow for multidimensional experiences – from quietly cozy moments to lively events drawing crowds. Moving through the thoughtfully appointed floors, residents will enjoy an intuitive sense of orientation, with a feeling of progression versus repetitive, identical hallways. From warm finishes to fluid wayfinding, the interiors embrace residents in an atmosphere that evokes the building’s nearly century-long story.
Inspir Embassy Row is our second luxury urban residence due to open at the end of 2024. Formerly The Fairfax at Embassy Row, this esteemed property is being thoughtfully renovated to embrace the style and grace of a bygone era while reimagining the future of stately elegance in senior living in Washington, DC. Set amid stunning private and diplomatic residences in the heart of one of our nation’s most elite neighborhoods, Inspīr Embassy Row will redefine opulence for the distinguished residents who will call it home.