DC's pre-War Apartments
WC & AN Miller REALTORS A Long & Foster Company Bethesda All Points Office 4701 Sangamore Rd. Bethesda, MD 20816 Office Phone: 301-229-4000 Cell/Direct: 202-320-6077 E-mail: Jim@TheSweeneyTeam.com Website: www.TheSweeneyTeam.com
After more than 30 years in the real estate business in Washington, DC, I pretty much know where to find homes of any particular style, size or vintage. I do, however, particularly relish the pre-War apartment buildings of Washington, DC. In the 1890's, The United States was emerging as a world power and Washington was growing. The Chevy Chase Land Company installed a street car line along Connecticut Avenue to entice people to invest intheir new suburban development in Chevy Chase, MD. Over a period of forty years, grand and lavish apartment buildings appeared in the NW quadrant of the city, particularly along the rapidly developing Connecticut Ave. These buildings were intended to make a statement to Washingtonians and lure them to a new way of living outside the center city.The architecture varied widely and included examples of Italianate, Rococo, Gothic, Tudor, and Belle Epoch. Buildings welcomed residents and guests with driveways through long grassy lawns, through ports-cochere, under balconies and through grand entries of lavishly carved stone. Facades featured ornate brickwork, cornices, lentils and even playful gargoyles and grotesques. The interiors were often equally as sumptuous. Lobbies were reminiscent of luxurious hotels, with fine furniture, rich paneling of stone and wood, ornate ceilings and grand staircases and elevators. The apartments themselves were surprisingly varied in size from what is now referred to as junior one bedrooms to 4 and even 5 bedroom apartments with adjacent quarters for live-in servants. Some apartments had grand entry galleries. Solariums and porches with French doors were very common.
These apartments were intended to invite Washingtonians to enjoy a new, urbane, and sophisticated style of living. It is a marvel that they are still with us today, and still delight our eyes as we travel the city. They are alluring to both Baby Boomers and GenXers, natives and newcomers. After over 30 years in the real estate business in Washington, DC, these buildings are my favorites.
Streetcar access was the transportation breakthrough which spurred the development of Washington's apartment buildings in the 1890's. Most of these first grand building were located in what is now Logan Circle, Adams Morgan and Kalorama. The architects and developers of these first large apartment buildings in the 1890's were attempting to recreate in smaller spaces the best features of American housing. They accentuated living rooms, dining rooms and solariums with eye catching architectural details. Bedrooms were sizable but closets were small. Refrigeration was rare in the 1890's so kitchens featured a built-in ice box with a small exterior door opening into the hallway to accommodate delivery of a block of ice every few days. In the 1890s, the majority of American homes still lacked indoor plumbing so the bathrooms were rather luxurious and commodious. Electricity was still rather rare so many of these apartments were lit by gas jets embedded into the walls. The automobile was in it's early infancy so parking was not necessary. These apartments offered great space but they were ahead of the progress of technology: no electricity, no parking, and no room for a refrigerator! Within 20 years they became "functionally obsolete". They had to be refitted with electricity which was often as unsightly as today's cable wires. Eventually the grand exteriors of these buildings became fronts for low income housing and some fell into even worse repute as dens of urban depravity.
In the 1970's, developers began to see the profit potential in the redevelopment of these buildings. However, because the interiors of the apartments were so "functionally obsolete", renovation rather than restoration became necessary. The exteriors and the lobbies were restored but the interiors were often gutted and the apartments rebuilt and reconfigured to be smaller units in a later 20th century style. The Iowa at 1325 13tht. NW, the Cairo at 1615 Q St. NW, the Balfour at 2000 16th St NW and the Portsmouth at 1735 New Hampshire Ave. NW are prime examples.The introduction of the electric street car to Washington, DC in 1890 spurred growth of the city north of Boundary Road (current day Florida Avenue) and up the hilly ridge which extends from The Palisades west of Georgetown eastward to Capitol Hill.
Horses were not an efficient means of moving crowds of people up a long hill but the electric streetcar was. Rock Creek Railway began electric streetcar service in 1890 from a terminus at Florida Ave. between Connecticut Ave. and 18th Street. NW. The line ran up 18th Street to what is now Adams Morgan and the eastern edge of Kalorama and spurred big development in both neighborhoods. By 1920, numerous large apartment buildings had been erected between the ridge and the Rock Creek gorge and many still stand including: The Mendota at 2220 20th St. ( 1902)The Wyoming at 2022 Columbia Rd. (1905)The Ontario at 2853 Ontario Rd. (1905)The Netherlands at 1852 Columbia Rd. (1907)The Woodward at 2311 Connecticut Ave. (1909)The Dresden at 2126 Connecticut Ave. (1910)The Plaza West at 1669 Columbia Rd. (1910)1882 Kalorama Rd. (1911)1844 Kalorama Rd. (1912)The Altamont at 1901 Columbia Road (1915)The Cliffbourne at 1855 Calvert St. (1915)2029 Connecticut Ave. (1916) All of these buildings still exist today as condominium or cooperatives and offer apartments valued from $300,000. to well over $1,000,000.
In 1897, construction began on a bridge over the Rock Creek gorge at Connecticut Ave. Later renamed for the late President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, William Howard Taft, this bridge was the largest unreinforced bridge in the world. It’s completion in 1909 opened upper Connecticut Ave. to the street car and heavy development during the substantial growth of the city after World War I. The Wardman Park Hotel was completed in 1918 and the Wardman Tower in 1828. The Shoreham Hotel followed in 1930. Before the stock market crash in 1929, the following grand apartment buildings lined upper Connecticut Avenue:Woodley Park Towers, 2737 Devonshire, The Broadmoor, 3601 Connecticut Ave.,Tilden Gardens, 3930 Connecticut Ave., 3901 Connecticut Ave. 4700 Connecticut Ave., 4701 Connecticut Ave.and 4707 Connecticut Ave.,
James C. Sweeney Associate-Broker