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Jill Hudson Neal | Photo: Greg Powers | November 27, 2012
BET mogul Debra Lee artfully melds style and substance—and politics and power—in Massachusetts Heights.
Debra Lee knows a thing or two about the art of concession. After all, you don’t rise through the ranks of a startup cable channel (BET Networks) to become its chairman and CEO without the ability to build a consensus with your handpicked team.
But when the divorced mother of two grown children decided to build her dream house in Massachusetts Heights, she realized she could finally lead a project that didn’t require any compromises. “It’s quite something to be able to plan and execute something as personal as your home, without having to take everyone’s opinion into account,” Lee admits with a laugh. “I was intimately involved in the whole process from beginning to end, and it was designed for me. Not many people get the opportunity to choose exactly what they like and not have to ask for permission to do it. It was very freeing!”
The result is a 20,000-square-foot modern masterpiece tucked into a steep hill at the edge of Rock Creek Park, where she entertains everyone from the stars of her network to President Obama. It’s an admittedly large dwelling that has an immediate “wow!” effect on visitors: four floors, an eight-car garage, junior suites for Lee’s children, a private screening theater and a wine-tasting dining room, to name a few standouts. The inside feels cohesive and deeply personal, and reflects the busy mogul’s unbridled love for right angles, natural light and organic materials. “Design and style have always been a real passion in my life,” says the South Carolina-born gradaute of Harvard’s law and Kennedy schools. “I wanted to be a fashion designer coming out of college, but my dad wanted me to be a lawyer! Now I get to indulge in design in my spare time.”
Before building the new house, Lee lived in the midcentury-modern home of former Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke. She filled the home, designed by noted architect Edward Durell Stone, with furniture by Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. She loved living in the park, where she regularly bikes and exercises, but knew she’d like to tackle a custom project one day. As luck would have it, she was able to buy the property next door, and worked for three years with DC-based architect Michael Marshall of Marshall Moya Design to construct a home that would showcase her much-loved collection of glass art.
“There aren’t a lot of contemporary homes in Washington,” says Marshall, whose firm also designed The Howard Theatre renovation and the forthcoming luxury condo community at CityCenterDC. “So when we first met, and she said she wanted her dream home to be modern, I just wanted to cry from happiness.
“Usually we are trying to push clients in that direction, but she knew from the beginning where she wanted to go,” Marshall adds. “Debi is firmly committed to all things modern. And, of course, she should be—she’s a thoroughly modern phenomenon to her core. I couldn’t see her living in anything traditional.”
“I love looking at art,” says Lee, who spearheads the acquisitions of paintings and sculptures by noted African- American artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Romare Bearden, at BET’s equally modern headquarters in Northeast Washington. “I want art everywhere I can have it. And in this house, I wanted lots of light so that the colors of the glass could really stand out.”
Lee’s collection of bold, brightly colored pieces of blown and cast glass art add jolts of energy to the Zen-calm palette of the furnishings and museum-white walls. Marshall designed much of the home’s public spaces around particular pieces of glass, including the three-foot-tall celadon-green obelisk piece by Czech artist Zora Palová that is nestled in a slate-covered nook above the fireplace in the living room. And the dynamic shapes of the willowy glass-and-metal sculptures by French artists Baldwin & Guggisberg offer a witty contrast to the stark lines of Marshall’s architecture. Indeed, glossy shocks of color accent every corner in the house, including large-scale collector’s pieces by international artists, such as Dale Chihuly, Therman Statom and DC favorite Sam Gilliam.
As showcases go, Marshall felt it was equally important to “get [Lee’s] house to fit her lifestyle. She entertains a lot, so there needed to be space for her public life. But she also wanted spaces intimate enough to accommodate her kids and their friends.”
The open living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor are used several times a month for entertaining a revolving cast of Washington’s elite. Smaller, cozier spaces, like the softly lit family room and outside terrace, are used for family time and intimate gatherings with close friends.
Marshall and his business partner, Paola Moya, used the property’s Rock Creek Park setting to its full advantage. They brought in Pennsylvania-slate flagstone for the floors and fireplace in the living room, which looks out onto the park. Instead of a traditional placement on the property lot, the house curves at the front to follow the line of the street. A terraced garden nestles into the steep hill, where lush jasmine and rose bushes, inspired by the smells and hues found in Spain’s Alhambra, are set among tall trees, providing privacy for the backyard.
Deborah Kalkstein, owner of the modern furniture and interior design firm Contemporaria, worked with Lee and Marshall to furnish the manse, using custom collection pieces from Minotti and Capellini to give every space a clean and coherent feel. “The house is large, but it’s not cold. It gives you a peaceful feeling, because it all flows together so well,” Kalkstein says. “Debi has a great eye, and she appreciates design that is very edgy and peculiar. She sees furniture as art, so it was so fun to work with her. She’s not afraid.”
Though she appreciates the compliment, Lee says it may be overstating things a bit. “People have asked me if I’d like to build another house. I think I have a lot of houses in me, but they’d have to be for someone else.You’d have to pay me to take on another project like this!”
The check is in the mail, Ms. Lee.