The Washington Post Co. explores the sale of its downtown headquarters


The Washington Post’s headquarters are located at 1150 15th St. NW. (Alex Wong/GETTY IMAGES)

Washington Post Co. executives are considering relocating the company from its 63-year-old headquarters in downtown Washington, exploring the sale of the building that saw The Washington Post evolve into one of the country’s top newspapers.

Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth made the announcement in an e-mail to staff Friday morning, saying the goal was “to give us a more modern, bright, open and efficient building that better supports and advances our mission into the future.”

Other major metropolitan media companies have recently sold their dated headquarters, reflecting changing times. While newspapers’ financial prospects have faded and their staffs slimmed, the prospects for their downtown real estate have improved. That’s particularly true in cities such as the District that have experienced a financial comeback and demographic influx led by young professionals.

The New York Times Co. moved into a new 52-story headquarters in Times Square in 2007 but sold and leased back the space it occupies there two years later to pay down debt. Last week the Detroit Media Partnership announced that it planned to sell the headquarters of the Free Press and Detroit News. Gannett has leased parts of its headquarters in Tysons Corner to at least five other companies.

The Post Co. once printed newspapers at its headquarters, located about four blocks north of the White House, but as readership shifted to the suburbs in the ’70s and ’80s it opened printing plants in Springfield and Prince George’s County, dismantling the downtown presses.

Weymouth said that when the printing presses were relocated out of the building more than a decade ago, that freed the company to consider alternative arrangements.

“Our preliminary analysis ­suggests that a move will make good operational and economic sense,” she said.

The Post Co. is no longer just a newspaper company. Its largest unit is the Kaplan ­higher-education company, and it owns television stations and a cable operator. The newspaper has been undergoing steady change as it has merged its print and digital newsrooms and invested in new technology.

The company reported higher earnings in the third quarter of last year thanks in part to its cable television stations and advertising related to the election and the Olympics, but the newspaper continued to bleed circulation and advertising revenue. Last year it reported having 18,000 employees, 2,500 of them in the Washington area, but it is consolidating and closing Kaplan campuses, and the newsroom has undergone several rounds of buyouts.

Through a spokeswoman, Post Co. executives declined to say where the company might move or how much its downtown Northwest properties — at 1150 15th St., 1515 L St. and 1523 L St. — might be worth. The D.C. government assesses them at nearly $80 million. Weymouth said in her e-mail to employees that the next steps were to “engage the market for our current headquarters, identify sites where we could relocate, design our new space, and develop a realistic timeline for a move.”

The Post Co. selected two firms, Studley and JM Zell Partners, as real estate advisers. Executives at Studley declined repeatedly in recent days to explain the scope of work for which The Post Co. had selected them or to confirm their selection.

Over the years, The Post Co. has been shedding some of its real estate holdings. It sold a parking garage next door to its 15th and L streets NW headquarters, and also said goodbye to the printing plant in Prince George’s.

Developers have begun inquiring about The Post’s headquarters recently because a building next door, at 1100 15th St. NW, has been on the market and is on land the Post owns.

Michael Darby of District-based Monument Realty said last month that he was gathering investors to try to buy the building at 1100 15th St., a purchase that could give him a leg up on acquiring the rest of the block. He said the sale of The Post’s headquarters could be used to finance space elsewhere in the region. “At that point in time we would help them relocate and then do a new redevelopment there,” he said.

Other developers and landlords are likely to try to compete to lure The Post Co. to their properties. When National Public Radio, for instance, decided to sell and relocate from its headquarters near Mount Vernon Square, the broadcaster nearly opted to leave for Silver Spring before deciding to build a new headquarters in the NoMa neighborhood of Northeast Washington.

The Post was not always located at 15th and L streets. In her autobiography, “Personal History,” the late publisher Katharine Graham described The Post’s original plant, on E Street a few doors down from the National Theatre: “The entire building was perilous and problematic. Everything in it was old, except some of the people.”

The company financed construction of the $6 million L Street headquarters using loans provided by Graham’s parents. The new buildings had air conditioning, but Graham recounted a melancholy scene when it came time to move. “There was a very alcoholic, emotional party as everyone finally left the old E Street building behind. The ­party — more of a wake, actually — was, as someone put it, to ‘mourn the death of a building’ which, with all its inconvenient horrors, was still much loved.”

The move in 1950, however, set the stage for the paper’s evolution into a journalistic force, and in its heyday, subjects of its coverage were known to wait outside for the first edition to roll off the presses. The fifth-floor newsroom was later canonized in the 1976 film about Watergate coverage, “All the President’s Men,” which inspired a generation of future journalists but did not feature the actual newsroom, at Graham’s insistence. Filmmakers instead constructed a Hollywood replica featuring details down to the stickers on the desk of then-Executive Editor Ben Bradlee’s secretary.

“This building has given us so much and has watched history unfold,” Weymouth said in her e-mail. “It is hard to imagine moving after so many years. And yet, once we removed the presses from this building over ten years ago, we were no longer tied to this particular location. We understand that this is a big undertaking and a change for all of us. We take all of this seriously.”

Jonathan O'Connell has covered land use and development in the Washington area for more than five years.
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