The wrought iron bench nestled beneath a small, shady tree at Rep. Jim Kolbe’s Capitol Hill row house looks so inviting that it has recently been used as a wait station by an elderly woman whose bus stops in front of the house. The fact that she walks through a closed gate and onto his private property amuses, rather than agitates, the Arizona Republican legislator and exemplifies the welcoming feel of his home.
Kolbe becomes absorbed in picking up leaves that have scattered across the rose bushes lining the walk to his doorstep before being called back to the present moment to lead a house tour. His fussing doesn’t stop there; he adjusts pillows, bedding, knickknacks and bookshelved items throughout the visit.
“I love this house. I really love this house,” Kolbe says of his Washington home away from home. “I love the fact that it’s got all this space in it. I love the yard ... the fact that it’s an end house, you’ve got windows on all three sides.”
The yellow house on East Capitol Street was built in 1860 and remained in the same family for 89 years. The next owner was New York’s late Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, for 15 years, followed by a U.S. Navy admiral before Kolbe. The congressman, a Navy veteran himself, moved into the home he calls “the best house in the world for entertaining.”
The house has had its share of renovations but maintains its original qualities. And Kolbe points each out in grand detail.
When it’s on, the basement light seeps through, illuminating the original floorboards of the first-floor living room. Kolbe plays the original window shutters like an accordion to show how they retreat neatly into the wall. The banister circling the three flights of stairs dates back to the construction of the house, leading down to the first-floor light fixtures with curious valves. This original lighting once twinkled by wick and gas, and now by bulb and electricity.
Additions to the house are hardly noticeable. But Kolbe’s sleuthing determines that the two identical, side-by-side fireplaces in the living room originally would have been in different rooms. A wall must have existed early on, dividing the room into two quarters.
Between the fireplaces is a primitive painting from Haiti. It is of a large woman in a hat and gloves smelling a flower — acquired during one of Kolbe’s many work trips. “It just tickled my funny bone when I saw it. I loved the colors, and I loved the whole thing,” he says.
Six countries are represented on the first floor alone: a richly colored Pakistani carpet, a traditional Mexican jaguar’s head made of beads, a hand-painted decorative bowl from Turkey, figurines from Benin, Africa, a decorative dish from Jordan and floral vases from China.
On the second floor, a print from Hong Kong hangs outside his bedroom.
In the bedroom, dozens of books are piled in corners and on tables. The space above his bedroom closet bears Kolbe’s Navy sword and scabbard on a plaque.
“I was on a destroyer on the West Coast in San Diego, and then I was in Vietnam on Swift boats for a year,” he says.
A big selling point for Kolbe was the kitchen because of its wall-to-wall cabinet space. It is strikingly modern compared with the rest of the historic quarters. The conservative congressman appears to be more at home in this room than any other, pausing to lean on the counters holding the Joy of Cooking, the patriotic USA Cookbook and Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior.
The kitchen overlooks the patio, where a nest of carpenter bees has recently been evicted thanks to a housemate. Kolbe has two boarders who occupy the top floor and a connecting apartment behind the house.
With little time to commit to his cooking hobby, Kolbe’s refrigerator contents are scant. “There’s a fundraiser tonight. I’ve got some beers and leftover pasta,” he says, lightheartedly pointing to a few Bud Light bottles and assorted cans.
Below the kitchen, exposed brick in the basement introduces where the original kitchen was, which now resembles a forgotten catacomb of storage space.
How different is his Washington home from his home turf?
“Oh, completely. My home in Arizona is a tract home built in the 1950s, and it’s very comfortable. There’s one story,” says a winded Kolbe who has just finished storing his luggage on the top floor.
Kolbe spends only three to four days each week in his Washington home.
“It does seem like a constant battle of keeping the place up,” he says. “I liken it to the Golden Gate Bridge. As fast as you get one end painted, then you have to get started on the other end. There is just a constant battle of things that have to be done to an old house.”
Minutes before his meeting, Kolbe moves so quickly that no one notices when he picks up the garden shears. He steals through the front door and begins trimming roses, bringing back two crimson blooms that he places in a small vase atop the antique marble table in the foyer.
With a satisfied look at his centerpiece, he turns and rounds the corner in seconds, leaving the house behind to report for congressional duty.