If you are searching for a 19th-century curly maple chest, your andirons need polishing, your car is due for a tuneup and your club chair needs a slipcover, head over to the west side of Howard Avenue in Kensington.
Kensington’s warehouse district has been known for decades for its cavernous antique emporiums and gritty auto body shops. Tucked inside is an international community of craftspeople who can rewire a chandelier or restore a cabriole leg.
Although curbside charm is not the calling card of this industrial neighborhood — a highway salt storage dome stands in the middle and train tracks border one side — adventure and treasure are. Antiques dealers are born storytellers. You can while away an afternoon listening to the saga of an English sideboard, although it might be a bit drafty in the warehouses in cold weather.
Regulars include interior designers. “I like to mix antiques with modern, so I always find unusual things here,” says designer Sharon Kleinman of Transitions in Potomac. She spends a lot of time at Hollis & Knight (4229 Howard Ave.). “It’s my go-to place for accessories,” she says.
Although it’s a no-frills retail experience, part of the appeal is one-stop home shopping: You can browse for old paintings after dropping off a sofa at Agi’s Upholstery (4929-B Howard Ave.). At Heritage Restorations (4233-F Howard Ave.), owner Stephen Rice will lavish your family treasure with as much love as he did on a campaign chest once owned by President Grant. You can also hit the Amicus Green Building Center (4080-A Howard Ave.) for cork flooring and LED lighting. Or you might peruse vintage silk purses ($150), 1960s earrings ($25) and French art deco vases ($450) at L’Enfant Modern & Antiques (4130 Howard Ave.).
The street keeps evolving. By the 1980s, more than a dozen antiques warehouses had replaced some of the auto body shops and storage facilities the area had been known for. They brought loads from England, France, Belgium and Sweden. Small businesses that do framing and reupholstery moved into the tinier spaces. Today, the neighborhood is in a state of flux. There are fewer antiques dealers, not only because of the economy but because some original dealers are retiring and their vast spaces are being taken over by other businesses.
Sandra Ellington opened Onslow Square Antiques (4125-4131 Howard Ave.) in 1979. Her 12,000-square-foot warehouse, jammed with 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century partner’s desks, corner cabinets and mirrors, has a customer list that includes Madeleine Albright and Ethel Kennedy. Vice President Biden’s official residence has a 19th-century mahogany desk from Onslow. Ellington just announced that after 40 years in the antiques business, she no longer wants to maintain a large store. You have until the end of April to scout her $75 Haviland soup bowls decorated with gold United States seals or a 1925 billiard table for $18,500.
Sparrows French antiques opened in 1985 in a former lumberyard. “We fostered the image ourselves that we were in the warehouses because it showed we were not paying for expensive retail space,” says Lori Chaikin, showroom manager. The Sparrows storefront closed in 2009, but they sell by appointment in their warehouse at 4216 Howard Ave.
Although there are fewer dealers, there is still plenty to hunt through. “Part of the mystique of antique shopping is to discover something and get a deal,” Chaikin says.
“You can still do that here.”
Acanthus Antiques (4132 Howard Ave.) is not a warehouse but a carefully edited collection of decorative art from England, the United States, Asia and elsewhere. There’s lots to look at, including landscape paintings, portraits, porcelains, art glass and 18th- and 19th-century furniture. Recent offerings include a watercolor of a seascape for $150, a $6,500 18th-century Philadelphia Chippendale chest and $2,400 French bronze sconces. “I like this neighborhood,” says Lawrence Perlmutter, co-owner of Acanthus, which has been on Howard Avenue for 12 years. “It has a long tradition of antiques dealers.”
When Great British Pine Mine (4144 Howard Ave.) opened in 1983, there were more than a dozen warehouses importing antiques from all over Europe, says co-owner Alan Robson. Back then, British pine armoires, kitchen tables and country chairs were all the rage. Today, with customers looking for style deals, he doesn’t limit himself to Britain. He scouts more affordable pine and painted pine pieces in Central and Western Europe, including the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Austria, the Netherlands and Hungary, and also carries some reproductions. Hungarian painted trunks, most of them 100 to 200 years old, are $850 to $1,500; antique kitchen chairs are $150 to $200 each.
Hollis & Knight , formerly of Georgetown, sells high-style European and other antiques, plus lots of decorating staples: pillows, lighting, rugs, window treatments and mirrors. Accessories are a specialty, such as garden stools for $675 or a $500 brass samovar. The cut-glass Bancroft Palace Hurricanes ($42) are beautiful for candles or flowers. Bethesda designer Kelley Proxmire is a regular. “There is a nice mix of items here, old and new, and plenty of things that have classic lines, yet look updated,” she says.
The antique “trogs” (breadmaking bowls) at the Great British Pine Mine are hand-turned wooden troughs carved from beech, elm or birch. The trogs ($95 to $225) come from Romania, Hungary and Ukraine and have a nice primitive look and patina.
Did you ever stick one of your grandmother’s silver spoons or forks down your garbage disposal? For $35 and up, Joseph Grenon, owner of Awesome Metal Restorations (4233G Howard Ave.), will rejuvenate it.
Food is not a specialty of the warehouse district. For a nice meal, drive a few miles to Black Market Bistro (4600 Waverly Ave., Garrett Park) for lunch in a Victorian-style house. For a quick, cheap bite, locals rave about the pizza and steak and cheese at Continental Pizza (10532 Connecticut Ave., Kensington).
The charm is inside the stores, not outside. Don’t wear your Manolos; you’ll be hoofing it on uneven pavement and scaling inclines.
Sign up for e-mails from stores you click with. They will keep you posted on hours and special sales. Several shops, including Hollis & Knight and Onslow Square, are having March sales. If you have more time, visit the east side of Howard Avenue, known as Antique Row, where there are lots of “smalls,” as they’re called in the biz. It’s a villagey setting. There is also information at www.explorekensington.com.
Howard Avenue is about two miles north of the Capital Beltway. Take a left off Connecticut Avenue. There’s plenty of free parking, though no sidewalks.
Every shop and business seems to have its own hours; some are open only a few days a week or by appointment. This part of Kensington pretty much shuts down at 5 p.m. Call first.
Chat Thursday at 11 a.m. Designer Nicole Curtis of HGTV/DIY Network’s “Rehab Addict” joins staff writer Jura Koncius for our weekly online Q&A on decorating and household advice. Submit questions now and join the chat live.