When Washington, DC–based interior designer Lorna Gross was asked to overhaul a historic 1870 row house in the upscale Georgetown neighborhood, she expected the usual challenges that come with marrying a 19th-century structure with modern sensibilities.
What she didn’t expect was a client who arrived with some unconventional ideas of his own.
“He wanted the home to resemble a bespoke train car on the Orient Express,” says Gross, whose penchant for calming hues and elegant finishes has helped her cultivate a clientele that stretches far beyond the Beltway. “I love projects that give you a little bit of a challenge,” she adds. “Especially ones that allow you to create a bit of a story.”
That story was hatched by Greg Jackson, a writer and historian who hired Gross to help reimagine the home’s interior design. Jackson was inspired by his days of living and studying in Europe and trips he took on the long-distance passenger train service before it ended operation in 2009.
During its 19th-century heyday, the Orient Express traveled the length of continental Europe and into western Asia, with terminal stations in Paris, London, and Istanbul. Nicknamed “the king of trains, the train of kings,” the international rail service embodied the golden age of travel and inspired authors from Graham Greene to Agatha Christie to spin tales of its celebrated passengers—both real and fictional.
“It really had a kind of glamorous club feel with some truly unique spaces,” Jackson says. “You felt like you were being transported back to the 1930s while you were traveling.”
To achieve the look and feel of a train car from a bygone era, Gross had antique furnishings and lighting from the 1930s installed on the home’s first level—a long, narrow space with two fireplaces that feels reminiscent of the Art Deco period. Walls were removed just beyond the first level’s entryway, so that arriving visitors could see directly down a long corridor into the cozy exterior courtyard through new steel windows and doors.
A pair of antique chandeliers was reimagined to replicate Deco equivalents, and wall coverings were used to create a warm, inviting backdrop for the eclectic blend of antique and contemporary furnishings. Even the kitchen got the Art Deco treatment: Completely renovated, it was enveloped in black to ramp up the drama.
“The challenge was to create a story without it looking kitschy,” says Gross, who utilized a bespoke approach that translated to a rich, luxurious materiality. “You want it to feel like the Orient Express, but as a designer, you don’t want it to be immediately obvious that it’s a train car.”
While the Orient Express was the main inspiration for the home’s design, Gross says areas of the four-bedroom residence are also reminiscent of a swank Hollywood gentlemen’s lounge that Cary Grant might have frequented. The light-filled guest room—which also serves as a home office and media lounge—includes a blonde-wood Phillip Jeffries wall covering and a 1930s walnut cocktail table. The petite powder bath is bathed in color and pattern while offering a pocket of modernity among the home’s largely antique furnishings. Almost every room of the house includes luxurious wall treatments, adding a decorative flourish that creates a cozy atmosphere.
“Lorna had an extraordinary eye for historical detail that a historic home in Georgetown requires,” Jackson says of the property. The house is located in an area lined with some of the city’s finest examples of Federal period architecture. “She also really understood how to make the design a unique expression of my tastes as the homeowner.”