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.