The doors to University President Steven Knapp’s new home opened to the public for the first time on Friday, at a low-key event showcasing the extensive renovations to the historic building.
Guests sipped warm cider, listened to a classical pianist and mingled with presidential administrative fellows and GW officials as they wandered through the five first-floor rooms open to the public. Only a handful of students visited the residence on Friday, though Knapp said the open house event was “just the beginning” of the events he plans to hold in his home.
The Knapps, who keep a pet parrot named Raphael upstairs, may have left their sheep and horses on their Maryland farm, but their love of wildlife is reflected throughout the house, from the dining room’s wallpaper adorned with owls and small animals to embroidered throw pillows in the living room featuring birds.
The University president said he hopes to continue the tradition of his home’s past use as the F Street Club, where visiting dignitaries, U.S. presidents and other important figures would gather to have “off-the-record” discussions about current events.
“For example, if we had an important speaker on campus,” Knapp said. “We would invite them, some faculty who specialize in the topic, interested students and maybe some community members after the event to have a conversation.”
Knapp moved into the historic building, formerly used as the University’s Alumni House, in the summer after the completion of renovations that included interior and exterior work as well as the addition of features to make the house more environmentally friendly.
“I think we did a wonderful job with this house,” Diane Knapp, the University president’s wife, said. “Before, there were broken shingles, a horrible air-conditioning unit on the front and ceilings drooping from the offices upstairs. I think the renovations were a gift to the city.”
The University provided much the furniture and decorations, drawing from the Alumni House, GW’s art collections and other spaces on campus – including monogrammed chairs once owned by President Ulysses S. Grant. Other items were donated by alumni – like a decorative area rug from the Middle East – or passed along by former University president Stephen Joel Trachtenberg.
The back sun room, which Knapp said his wife envisioned from the beginning of the project, underwent the most dramatic transformation. French doors were added to two formerly solid walls to increase natural light and provide an entrance to a canopied patio and a garden with stone walkways.
A colorful mural hand-painted by three artists from Baltimore covers the walls of the sun room. The mural, commissioned by Diane Knapp, starts in one corner of the room with local foliage and woodland creatures and becomes more exotic as a guest’s eyes travel around the room. The result is a panorama that includes a house cat crouched behind an unsuspecting frog and a lion basking in the African sun.
“That big cat is mine,” Diane Knapp said, referring to the lion. “If I leave, I’m cutting it out and taking it with me.”
The house, built in 1849 for a U.S. Navy captain, is a pale yellow with blue shutters that evokes the GW’s official buff and blue colors. Diane Knapp said the color combination was a “happy accident” and had to be approved by the city because of the historical nature of the house.
Diane Knapp said, “I’d like to think that even though GW donated more than half of the furniture and decorations that the house still has our touch on it.”