Where We Live: The Westchester, a D.C. building of a different era
By Amanda Abrams,
Walk into the Westchester and you’ve walked back in time to an earlier Washington.
The main building’s lobby seems to stretch out endlessly, a sea of classy carpet, mirrored columns and velvety settees arranged in duets and trios. Close to one end — near elevator doors etched with art deco designs — is a dusky restaurant from a different era, its wineglasses and china and white linen reflecting light from arched windows.
It’s not just the complex’s physical appearance. The collection of buildings that constitutes the Westchester boasts a staff of 43, including five porters at the ready and a cluster of engineers who tend the boilers and answer maintenance calls round-the-clock. To boot, a market, valet service, library and hair salon are in the basement. It’s high-rise living, 1930s style — and that’s exactly how its residents like it.
After all, they’re the ones keeping it going. The Westchester, in the District’s Cathedral Heights neighborhood, is a cooperative complex; that is, it is fully owned by its 800-plus residents, who are referred to as “member-owners.” And unlike most co-ops, which hire outside companies to manage their affairs, Westchester residents manage the operation themselves through a five-member board, a bevy of volunteer-run committees and a general manager.
The Westchester appears to have changed remarkably little in 80 years. Built in 1929 on a former cattle farm, the complex was initially envisioned to include almost 1,000 units within eight buildings. But the Great Depression got in the way, and construction was permanently halted halfway through, with just four buildings — holding a total of 550 units — circling a sunken garden.
Still, with its imposing art-deco-inspired towers, it was Washington’s largest luxury apartment complex for 20 years.
“This was the Watergate of its time,” said Michael Heinl, 61, the board’s treasurer and the complex’s unofficial historian. “It was quite hoity-toity in the 1940s and ’50s.”
According to the 1988 book “Best Addresses,” by James M. Goode, the Westchester counted 31 congressmen, 12 senators and 14 judges among its residents around the start of World War II.
Back then, many of Washington’s biggest apartment buildings held restaurants and other services, and the Westchester’s in-house dressmaker, cocktail lounge, drugstore (with attendant soda fountain) and full-service garage were not considered particularly excessive. What is surprising is how long those amenities lasted. The drugstore disappeared only 10 or 15 years ago, according to Heinl, and the gas pump was just dismantled a couple of years back. But the restaurant is still going strong, open to outsiders and denizens (the owner will even cook residents’ turkeys on Thanksgiving), and an exercise room has been added.
The only significant changes have been in ownership and management. The complex went co-op in 1953. Residents were allowed to buy their studios and one- and two-bedroom units, while a management company took care of the nuts and bolts of running the place. In 1986, the company backed out of the job.
That’s when the residents decided to give self-management a try.
“I was on the board at the time, and I said, ‘Look, we can probably do this ourselves and do it better,’ ” Heinl recalled. “And as it turns out, we have.”
The Westchester’s success is due to several things.
First, its size: a population of roughly 800 provides a critical volume of folks to seriously commit to running things.
Plus, the employees have a huge amount of institutional knowledge. “Many of our people have been here 20 or 30 years, and they know the players, their eccentricities and their needs,” Heinl said. Indeed, 19-year veteran Ann Benefield, the general manager, jokes that she is the newbie around the place.
But the biggest key to the complex’s success is money. These days, the units seem like a pretty good bargain for Washington’s real estate market. A studio boasting parquet floors and nine-foot ceilings is selling for $225,000, and a one-bedroom might go for $300,000. But those numbers do not take into account monthly co-op fees, which can be as high as $1,000.
That money adds up, covering comprehensive services and long-term repairs to keep the buildings in prime condition. The board, according to residents, has been remarkably conservative with funds, setting aside reserves to address major looming renovations. Recently, for example, the House Committee upgraded all of the buildings’ lobbies, replacing lighting fixtures and acres of carpet and reupholstering chairs and couches — an expensive job that was accomplished without requiring additional support from residents. Other big plans, such as upgrading windows and restoring masonry, are on the calendar.
“It’s an old building and needs a lot of work,” said Lyman Coddington, a 19-year resident. “But management is willing to pay to get it done. They’ve got a good long-term plan to do things right.”
Coddington is a retired Treasury Department official. Heinl is a retired aerospace engineer. That shared status is no coincidence; while there are some young families in the complex, Benefield estimates that the average age of residents is around 55.
Which is not so surprising. After all, the Westchester is a bit like a modern retirement community, providing a wide variety of services on site so that no one has to go out in a cold, icy night to pick up a meal. It’s just that this one evolved organically.
“It’s a very nice place to live,” said Trudy Werner, who listed herself as a “senior citizen” in lieu of giving her age. “It’s like a small town. There’s no downside.”
About the Westchester
Boundaries: At 4000 Cathedral Ave., the Westchester is bounded by Cathedral Avenue to the north, 39th Street to the east, Watson Place and Tunlaw Road to the south, and Glover Archbold Park to the west.
Home sales: The majority of the units are one-bedrooms, but the complex also has many studios and two-bedrooms. According to Kathleen Battista with Cathedral Realty, studios tend to sell for $190,000 to $235,000, one-bedroom units go for between $275,000 and $375,000, and two-bedroom units run from $550,000 to $700,000.
Schools: Stoddert Elementary School, Hardy Middle School and Wilson High School.
Within walking distance: 2 Amys restaurant, Cactus Cantina, Cafe Deluxe, Washington National Cathedral, Glover Archbold Park.
Within 10 to 15 minutes by car: American University, Tenleytown Metro station and stores, Friendship Heights, Georgetown, Rock Creek Park, the C&O Canal.
Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer.