Workbook: New Life for a Historic DC Building

For a new outpost of Matchbox, the firm Studio3877 transformed a 1907 Washington, DC, building into a warm bistro. Photography by Ron Ngaim/Courtesy Studio3877.

“It was in rough shape from years of use and misuse and had seen better days,” architect David Shove-Brown says of an 8,000-square-foot, 1907 building in Washington, DC, that he and his Studio3877 partner David Tracz had been asked transform it into the latest outpost of Matchbox. Over the years, the building had done duty as a bowling alley, a jazz club and a car dealership and still retained a great character, so, he says, “It was pretty clear we wanted to be true to the building”—with a straightforward approach to its history and materials that matched the restaurant’s approach to ingredients.  

Almost immediately, the architects pulled demolition permits to see what might be hiding in the building.  They discovered steel girders and antique brickwork that was incorporated into the new design, which spans two stories, plus a mezzanine level added by the architects. Its expansive size allows “every experience to be different,” Tracz. “Every time someone goes in, we want them to say, ‘I didn’t see that the last time.’”

The architects even included touches that speak to the building’s history, including brass details behind the bar to evoke its time as a jazz club and the bar itself with its echoes of a bowling alley. “For designers who tend to be more contemporary, it was interesting for us to be involved with a project like this,” says Shove-Brown. “It was the most historic preservation work we’ve ever done. We had a chance not to recreate the past but enhance it.”

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