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.
(Hollis & Knight) - The cut-glass Bancroft Palace Hurricanes ($42) at Hollis & Knight are beautiful for candles or flowers.
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.