The House that Frank Islam Built
Potomac philanthropist and political fundraiser has built one of the largest houses in the country
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Philanthropist Frank Islam stands in front of the Potomac mansion known as Norton Manor that he shares with his wife, Debbie Driesman. Islam came from India as a teenager and became a self-made multimillionaire. Photo by Michael Ventura
The clatter of cutlery ceased at the lavish fundraising dinner for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as host Frank Islam stood at a podium and urged his guests to give generously to “the next president of the United States.” He sat beaming as the microphone was passed to Clinton’s stand-in, a Democratic congressman from Florida named Patrick E. Murphy. Suddenly, Islam winced, his broad smile wilting like the lettuce on his forgotten salad. Murphy had just referred to the grand lower level of Islam’s Potomac mansion as a “basement.” Islam looked at his tablemates—the candidate’s brother, Tony Rodham, and Rodham’s wife, Megan—to see if they registered the gaffe. Softly, he muttered, “It’s not a basement.”
The Islam residence, christened “Norton Manor” for its Potomac street name, has, in the words of its designer, a “lower level entertainment space” featuring an entry hall, a lounge, a wine room, and a large room called “the bar.” That night in July of last year, about 65 guests were arrayed at round tables in the lounge, dining on Norton Manor-embossed china while surrounded by 13 murals, including five of familiar Washington landmarks such as the U.S. Capitol and Lincoln Memorial, and one depicting the United States Institute of Peace, where Islam and his wife, Debbie Driesman, are patrons. Eleven painters worked for nearly six months to adorn the lower level, which alone accounted for several million dollars in construction costs.
Driesman says the double staircase was her husband’s idea. It winds below an 800-pound crystal chandelier and serves as a dramatic welcome to the three-level mansion, whose rotunda in the front hall is similar to the one at the U.S. Capitol. Photo by Michael Ventura.
Islam, 64, and Driesman, 62, both relatively new to philanthropy and political activism, desired a space in their 47,000-square-foot home where they could comfortably seat 70 or more guests for fundraising events, and also host politicians, visiting dignitaries or the boards of the Washington institutions on which they serve. Islam says Norton Manor cost upwards of $60 million, but he is coy about the precise amount. He’s more forthcoming about the koi in the magnificent pool on the house’s south side: 150 of those beauties priced at about $200 a pop.
Who is Frank Islam? He is a self-made multimillionaire who immigrated to America from India as a teenager and has taken a deep dive into the pool of Washington influencers. He isn’t well known, except among the politicians and institutions that have received his largesse. Since 2007, he and Driesman, the daughter of a Canadian mechanic, have contributed nearly $1 million to candidates and their campaigns, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Islam doesn’t have children—or hobbies. He takes pleasure in his business investments, and the investments he makes in people. He is known mostly for the house, which he calls the “Pride of Potomac,” and seems both pleased and a little bit resentful of this, as if newspaper legend William Randolph Hearst’s sole claim to fame was his sprawling San Simeon estate above California’s coast. Recently, Islam pointed out that Wikipedia has misstated the size of Norton Manor, thus lowering its ranking on the list of largest American homes. Critics of the home’s extravagance simply do not understand that, as Islam contends, the house is merely a tool; he sees the mansion as his means put to a good end. “We use the home for propagating and promoting the goodwill message to our community. And we employed a lot of people when the economy wasn’t doing well.”
By dint of hard work, an unshakable belief in his ability to succeed, and the interest of an early benefactor, Frank Fakhrul Islam has, in his own words, made the American dream his reality. Although he has an investment group, Islam’s main occupation these days is making success accessible to others by promoting his views in blogs and books and—most notably—by financially supporting political candidates who share his vision. Recently he has been hosting a series of dinners for Clinton. Although he is an active donor, Islam says he deplores the current campaign finance system and favors public financing and strict spending limits. Local Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen, whose Senate candidacy is receiving support from Islam and Driesman, is well-versed in the view from Norton Manor. “Frank is very engaged in the details of public policy,” Van Hollen says. “If you look at his writing and his blog, that sets him apart from most of those involved in the political world.”
Left: A Barry Entner-designed chandelier hangs over the north terrace hall. The rug, which contains the initials of Islam and Driesman, is one of 12 hand-knotted designs created for Norton Manor. Right: The game room has white leather walls studded in art nouveau patterns and a painted ceiling. For large dinner parties, it sometimes serves as a buffet room. Photos by Timothy Bell.
Islam is a contributor to the Huffington Post, and also writes occasional columns and articles for Foreign Policy, the International Business Times and India’s Economic Times. He hosts his own TV show, Washington Current Review on MHz Networks, and is called upon frequently to speak in a variety of business, education and nonprofit venues. He is the author of Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again and Renewing the American Dream: A Citizen’s Guide for Restoring Our Competitive Advantage.
Friends say Islam has a big heart to go with his big smile—that he can be approachable and engaging, very much a regular guy. When Warnock Studios, the contractor for much of the decorative painting in the house, emailed clients to say that another job had been delayed, leaving the company’s employees without work, Islam agreed to provide a new project. “Frank and Debbie were the only ones who even responded,” says owner Tom Warnock. “They absolutely went out of their way.”
Friends also say Islam likes to be in control, whether massaging a business deal or a magazine profile. (He provided his own list of suggested questions and answers before an interview with Bethesda Magazine.) And he “does not suffer fools,” in the words of William Askinazi, his attorney and friend. “I’ve never seen Frank lose his temper,” Askinazi says. “But he gets impatient and angry if people fail him.”
“I’m a perfectionist,” Islam says. “One thing that bothers me are people who don’t deliver on commitments either substantively or in a timely manner.”
In theater, they call it deus ex machina—god from the machine—an event that resolves a problem for the protagonist. Islam’s deus was Wolfgang Thron, a German immigrant and well-regarded mathematics professor at the University of Colorado. While traveling in India in 1969, Thron visited Aligarh Muslim University, near the arid provincial town of Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, where Islam lived with his parents, three brothers and two sisters. Thron was looking for exceptional students, and his gaze fell upon the teenage Islam, who was already enrolled at the college where Islam’s father and grandfather had studied. “Thron believed I was a person who, given the opportunity to succeed, would benefit others,” Islam recalls.
Nervously, Islam informed his father that he had been invited to go to America with Thron. “My father ruffled my hair and said, ‘You have an opportunity that I never had—it’s time to close the door on despair and open the door to prosperity,’ ”
Islam says. “My mother wiped the tears flowing down my father’s face.”
The conservatory is the couple's favorite room–a place where he reads and she watches the History Channel on TV and plays mahjong with friends. Photo by Timothy Bell.
Thron hosted his charge while he finished high school in Boulder, Colorado, in 1969 and arranged for Islam to attend the University of Colorado. Years later, Islam and Driesman endowed a university scholarship in Thron’s name (he died in 2001) to benefit students in the math department. “Without his help and support,” Islam says, “I would not be where I am today.”
The University of Colorado in Boulder was, like the city around it, not very diverse in the 1960s and 1970s. Southeast Asians, never mind Muslims, were rare. Islam became part of an ethnic coterie and shared an apartment with a Pakistani grad student named Jawaid “Jay” Bashir. “We spoke the same language, ate the same food, grew up in the same social environment, so it didn’t take long to become friends,” Bashir says.