What rose from the ashes was Islam’s American dream. The sprawling neoclassical house—which has about the same floor space as the average Giant supermarket—has many features that resemble the White House, including east and west wings. The estate includes a main residence with nearly 32,000 square feet of living space; a five-bedroom, 7,000-square-foot guesthouse; and a teahouse, spread over roughly 9½ acres. The three-level mansion features 14 bedrooms, 22 bathrooms, a movie theater and a gym. It has 60 chandeliers, the showstopper being an 800-pound cascade of crystal that hangs from a dome above the double staircase in the front hall—a rotunda similar to the one at the U.S. Capitol.
Islam says family members—all of his siblings are now in the U.S.—occupy the extra bedrooms every couple of months. He doesn’t use the gym, preferring to walk the perimeter of the grounds; two circuits equal 1 mile. The couple’s favorite room is the conservatory, where Islam consumes autobiographies and books on history while Driesman watches History Channel programs. She has a standing Friday morning date to play mahjong there with a dozen friends. The movie theater is used sparingly. Driesman cooks for herself when Islam is out; otherwise, a chef from Elif Catering Service prepares their meals, or their driver takes them in a Cadillac Escalade to Renato’s, Rasika, The Oval Room or The Bombay Club. Three full-time security guards are on duty, and the maintenance contractor comes weekly.
“Frank wanted the double staircase,” says Driesman, who was the on-site project manager and design arbiter for Norton Manor. “He also wanted office space and a large entertainment space.” The house is four times the size of their previous custom home on Palatine Drive in Potomac, and construction took more than twice the 2½ years that had been projected. The construction cost also was twice the estimate. Big houses can create big issues: a clash between sprinkler heads and ornate plasterwork, a late decision to expand the rooms at the back of the house, and eight months to complete the dome. Islam and Driesman hired a team of architects, landscape architects and decorators to design the house and gardens, then fired them all because, Islam says, “they did not share our vision.” Gibson Builders, the District firm responsible for construction, recommended D.C. interior designer Skip Sroka and GTM Architects of Bethesda to complete the project.
Move-in day was in June 2013. In 2014, Norton Manor—described by Sroka as “an American palace”—was the main attraction of that year’s Potomac Country House Tour. More than 1,000 visitors, in Driesman’s recollection, trooped through the grandeur of rooms filled with scenic murals, ornate marble fireplaces, handblown glass chandeliers and gilded plaster ceilings, as well as a replica of the Resolute desk that was first used in the Oval Office by Islam’s hero, President John F. Kennedy. The tour wended its way through manicured landscapes that incorporated pavilions, fountains, mature trees, 1,600 boxwoods and a shrub-bordered lawn inspired by the Rose Garden at the White House. And, of course, the koi pool, which lends itself to head-shaking wonder.
Head shaking and tongue wagging of other kinds started almost immediately as the lamps were lit on Norton Manor’s pavestone driveway. Photo features in magazines and newspapers drew comments on social media such as “a waste of money,” Driesman recalls, or noted the home’s total occupancy: two. Neighbors have benefited from an increase in property values, and mostly have become accustomed to the parade of cars in the winding driveway. “It’s a big place for a couple of people. I think it was a goal for them, almost like a mission,” says Bashir, a regular visitor. Driesman does have a regret, she says. She wishes the driveway was wide enough to permit two-way traffic.
Islam says the couple hosted 14 events in 2014, and more in 2015 due to the Clinton soirees, one of which featured former President Bill Clinton. Guests have included Vice President Joe Biden, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and nearly all of the region’s Democrats, including former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Ben Cardin of Maryland, and Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett. Last May they held a large dinner for the Wilson Center, a highly respected think tank based in Washington, D.C. Islam serves on its National Cabinet. “Frank and Debbie are enormously curious, enormously generous,” says Jane Harman, a former U.S. representative from California who now serves as Wilson’s director, president and CEO. “Frank lives large, but behaves in a modest way.”
At the dinner, Islam introduced the guest speakers—Harman and Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Though he takes speech lessons before each of his events from former local television reporter I.J. Hudson, and though his remarks are crafted by Ed Crego, his book and blog ghostwriter, Islam was still tense, as if these are moments beyond his control. His pride showed as he swept his eyes across the room, the long-ago teenager from a dusty provincial town in India watching his guests dine on Norton Manor china and flatware in a room much too grand to be called a basement.
Collins rose from her seat, a twinkle in her eye. “When they told me that 75 people would be at this dinner, I thought: Where will they all sit?” she said. “Little did I know.”
Steve Goldstein is a freelance writer and editor. To comment on this story, email email@example.com.