Project Executive Dan McCarthy Discusses South Cathedral Mansions’ Architectural History

Dan McCarthy South Cathedral Mansions


“If you want to know about the details of the building, brick by brick, talk to Dan,” Brad Gilchrist, Managing Partner of SCM, said. Dan is in the process of executing the vision that the South Cathedral Mansions team has created, focusing on details, such as window frames and grass for the property’s dog run. His work takes him out in the field, hard hat on, creativity engaged. Walking across the area where the Wardman Room is being developed, he stands in the midst of rock, rubble, and brick, and points to a piece of original flooring. “I’m thinking we’ll keep this,” he turns and says to Brad. “We can incorporate it into the new floors in certain sections.” Brad agrees with the idea, and the two of them continue to discuss new innovations for the space, which merge original and modern designs.

Through the maze of construction, he navigates his way expertly through wooden beams, walls for future loft apartments, and dimly lit hallways undergoing renovation. As he walks, he’s able to provide a clear vision of what’s in the works. And, even more exciting details about what’s to come.

What is your position at South Cathedral Mansions?

I’m the Project Executive here at South Construction Mansions. My personal involvement on this project goes back to April of 2014.

How would you describe your background in construction, as it relates to South Cathedral Mansions?

I’m trained in architecture. I have a bachelor’s in Architecture, and practiced for seven years. Towards the tail end of my career, I did a lot of historic preservation architecture and realized that I could make more money building than designing. So I “C’Aed” (Construction Administrated) a couple of jobs, including a few rowhouses in DC. Then, I moved to a competitor company before being hired by Snead to specifically run this project.

What kinds of projects have you worked on before? Anything similar to this property?

A couple, though nothing this old. Primarily, I worked on DC apartment buildings in Columbia Heights and Capitol Hill. They were in gentrifying neighborhoods, and typically smaller, anywhere from 21 to 45 units. They had similar Prohibition-Era architecture. But the building materials here are not something I’ve seen anywhere else in the country, believe it or not.

Terracotta gyprock walls are not very common. Harry Wardman and Mihran Mesrobian utilized pretty much the same construction technique everywhere they built things, so it’s all a terracotta floor system instead of concrete or wood. It’s harder to work with, but the structural floor systems will remain.

What are some of the attributes of the original floor system that make it worth keeping?

Basically, what you do is replace all of the hardwood flooring and tile. We were lucky enough that there was a significant amount of pine in this building, which isn’t typical. It was a plentiful material back in the twenties when this building was built. But not so much in the fifties and sixties when the rest of DC started booming. We were able to salvage roughly 60% of the original pine flooring for use in the rest of the project.

From your perspective, what part of SCM’s history do you find most interesting?

For me, it’s about the way some of the spaces were used. The apartments as they were laid out were not particularly functional for people in their late twenties and early thirties. It’s been exciting to basically wipe the slate clean on everything that was there and reorganize the property so it functions for modern living.

I am enjoying being able to go back and see the building techniques and materials used, and how they’ve changed. Now we use metal studs and drywall everywhere, whereas they used solid gyprock walls with an inch and a half of plaster on each side.

What has been done to keep the history alive here and help residents feel like they’re “Landmark Living”?

A lot of the design and materials we are using might not be a carbon copy of what is going back into the building. But trim profiles, mosaic tiles in the lobbies, and some of the carpet are part of a design aesthetic that is really an homage to the Roaring Twenties.

Even the windows. We can’t utilize these old steel casement windows, because the energy efficiency isn’t good. So we worked with the Commission of Fine Arts and our window manufacturers to really get a product that residents would be happy with.

Can you talk more about the window manufacturing, since it’s such a big project?

The windows were the first contract we awarded in September of 2014.  For a while, they were our largest contract. We worked with them hand in hand for about eight months straight to design a custom window that still met what you would expect an efficient window to be. They provide modern soundproofing and insulation, and are being manufactured in the U.S., locally, within 100 miles. We’re putting a brand new modern window in that looks like the old windows that are 90-years-old.

What do you want potential residents to know about your property?

We’ve gone above and beyond what you would typically do in an apartment building in DC. A lot of the stuff that we’re putting in is more what you find in a condo or custom rowhouse build. We’re over-insulating the exterior walls, and we’re putting different drywall on the outside so there are lower maintenance costs.

This is the first time the building has been truly renovated in 90 years. We do not take this opportunity lightly. We have gone to great lengths to ensure that this building will operate without the need for other improvements, and be the equivalent of any classic ground-up building in Washington, DC for another 90 years.

What feature are you most excited about?

For me, it is the windows. That is where you will really notice a change in the building. It is the little things. We are adding the brick patio out front, and the landscaping will also change the way not only the residents see the building, but the way the tourists that walk by see it. Everybody walks past South Cathedral Mansions and asks, “What’s this building? What’s going on?” South Cathedral Mansions is grand, and once we start making those exterior improvements, people will definitely stop and look and take pictures of the building even more.

We’re also doing landscaping. DC enacted these storm water retention policies, and we’re incorporating all of that into the design. All of the new plantings will be low water usage. You will not have to worry about soggy grass if you have pets or kids running across the lawn.

The kitchen in the Wardman Room will also be amazing. It will be better than some commercial kitchens.

Do you have any spots you recommend in Woodley Park?

I usually grab lunch once a week at Tono Sushi. I used to go to Nanny O’Briens and Cleveland Park Sports Bar in my younger days. Vace is really good. It is a small Italian market that has pizza, sandwiches, and fresh pasta.

Learn More about South Cathedral Mansions

South Cathedral Mansions apartments are in the works! To learn more about the property, contact us