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In Memoriam: Jean Wye

Jean Burlingame Wye passed away after a short and brave battle with ovarian cancer on April 11, 2023.  Jean was born in 1946 in Zanesville, Ohio and spent her younger years on a 300-acre farm.  Her tireless work ethic, honesty and down to earth personality took root in her early days on that farm in middle America.

Long before HGTV made renovation the trendy thing to do, Jean was pursuing her woman-owned and operated home renovation business. Hill resident Sheridan Harvey says “Jean was a Capitol Hill fixture and friend. She spent 40 years renovating, fixing, improving the homes of many, many people on the Hill.”

From Ohio to Capitol Hill
Jean attended Kent University in Ohio receiving a degree in Home Economics.  Chris Wye, her husband, says from the first time he noticed Jean during their college days it was her sweet and kind personality that drew him to her.  Once they met, they were never apart and soon married.

Jean supported Chris while he was finishing his PhD by teaching home economics. With his degree achieved, they moved to Washington, DC for government work. Jean scoped out the Urban Homesteading program run by the US Department of Housing and Urban Renewal. By selling abandoned homes at a very low price, the program encouraged citizens to occupy and rebuild them.

Jean and Chris bought 1107 Maryland Avenue as their first home on Capitol Hill.  “We lived there for eight years,” says Chris.  “We gutted the entire house and lived without running water at the beginning, and there was a pack of stray dogs living in the basement.”  It was this renovation effort that sparked something In Jean, and off she was helping others with fixing up their historic properties.

A One Woman Show
Jean was passionate about her work and was usually out of the house by  7 a.m. and not home until 7 p.m.  She worked six days a week, and on the seventh day, she would roam the Hill attending real estate open houses with her daughter to see what other homes looked like.  “My mom wasn’t the typical mom; she really didn’t like to cook or clean,” says Pam, “but she was selfless in always helping my brother and I whenever we needed her help.”

Pam is a real estate agent, a principal in Donovan & Wye for over 12 years in partnership with Compass Real Estate. She credits her success to Jean’s enthusiasm for homes. Jonathon Wye says his mother included him in her projects at an early age, teaching him how to use a drill and a jigsaw. He is so appreciative of all the construction skills shared by his mom and dad.  He now operates his leather goods store on Bladensburg Road, NE. selling his belts, wallets, guitar straps and other leather goods worldwide through the internet.

Jean was often seen driving around Capitol Hill in her old wood-paneled station wagon.  She loved that it could hold a 4×8 foot sheet of drywall.  Photo: Rindy O’Brien

Both children say Jean was always excited to start a new construction project, and her work gave her great satisfaction.  She loved the problem-solving issues presented by old Capitol Hill homes.  Jonathan says she was always calm, no matter what she discovered along the way.  She always said you never knew what you might find when you opened a wall.

Jean was constantly on the ladder, working side by side with her crews.  Her skills ranged from construction manager to hands-on worker to interior design.  But she chafed if identified only as an interior designer. When asked towards the end of her life whether she’d like to travel or do other things in the time she had left, Jean told her family that what she really would like was to do one more project.

Over 50 homes transformed
Chris says 40 to 50 Capitol Hill homes would have used Jean’s services, along with other projects like updating John Weintraub’s office in the old Frager’s store and the computer labs in some of our local schools.  Maureen Shea, one of her long-time clients, says there isn’t a corner of her home that wasn’t touched by Jean, and in the best way.  Jean never advertised, never had a business card.  People loved working with her, and she got her clients through word of mouth.  Maureen says she was introduced to Jean through a neighbor who had used her.

Margaret Brown also found Jean through the Hill grapevine. “I was a young homeowner when I bought my home in 1971,” says Margaret, a retired Library of Congress staffer. “For over 50 years, Jean helped me.  She was very careful in her work, so honest, and straightforward.”  One of the last projects Jean did for Margaret was help her rearrange several rooms, thinking through how to make the best use of the space.  “She not only had the skills to do the job, but she had an architectural eye, and she had a great curiosity about the history of the homes she worked in.”

Jean was very cost conscious for her clients. Chris says she always worried that she was charging too much.  She didn’t provide estimates for her work, but Maureen says, “You didn’t worry because you knew she would be honest and fair with the final billing.”

Jean was one of Capitol Hill’s best, truly an unsung hero. Chris summed up her life and work the best, “She was a sweetheart and loved connecting with people, and all her work always came from her heart.”

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