Washington's swath of old auto showrooms, a magnet for car shoppers before World War II, is hopping again -- not with customers in search of wheels but with construction crews carving out loft condominiums. Nearby, old repair shops and garages have been customized into chic living spaces.
More than 600 upscale residences are completed, under construction or planned for an area just west of Logan Circle, many in buildings erected early last century to sell, service or fix cars.
"It's an authentic loft," Rebecca Menes says of her new home at Rainbow Lofts, a converted auto body shop on Church Street NW.
(Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
The projects are reshaping the area defined by 14th, Church, P and 15th streets -- once the apex of the District's Auto Row but known in recent decades for street crime and vacant storefronts.
"I remember when this street was drug dealers, prostitutes," said Merrick Malone, a principal with Metropolis Development Co., which has four projects in the area.
Michael Clayman, 59, grew up in the District. He moved to Church Street last year from Montgomery County, where he raised his children. For most of his life, he said, his new neighborhood "was a place we generally avoided."
Now, Caribou Coffee operates a busy cafe at 14th Street and Rhode Island Avenue, and Starbucks serves lattes from the first floor of a new building around the corner on P Street.
A large art gallery has opened in a 1920s building that started out as a Hudson Motor Co. showroom. A gutted Nash showroom will be rebuilt into luxury condos dubbed "Phaeton on 14th" -- after the vintage auto of the 1920s and 1930s, not the super-deluxe sedan introduced by Volkswagen this year.
Three auto showrooms -- originally for Mott Motors, Hurley Motor Co., and Wardman Motors -- are being reborn as the Lofts 14 and Lofts 14 Two, Metropolis projects whose 122 condominiums won't be completed until next fall but sold out months ago, some for more than $1 million.
Developers say that the 14-foot ceilings, expansive windows and architectural flourishes of the former auto palaces are ideal for loft conversions -- and unusual for Washington, known more for rowhouses than industrial buildings.
As early as 1917, the showrooms were a presence on 14th Street, a busy commercial corridor served by one of the city's first streetcar lines. Their grand facades and fine interiors were designed to convey a sense of elegance and luxury to would-be motorists. Side streets, such as P and Church, featured more basic buildings, mostly garages and auto-parts stores.
Unlike U Street, a hub of African American commerce and culture, the area around 14th and P was mostly white, with some black-owned businesses and homes.
Many showrooms changed hands during the Great Depression, but Auto Row survived through the middle of the century. Most dealerships then followed residents to the suburbs, helping to launch a period of decline that was accelerated by the riots after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968.
As fires raged near U Street, the National Guard set up in the 1400 block of P Street. One former body shop owner said its presence kept nearby buildings intact.
Seeds of rebirth were planted in 1980, when the Studio Theatre took a risk on the neighborhood and located in a former hot-dog cart warehouse at 1401 Church St., now part of a Metropolis project. The theater moved across the street to another rehabbed building in 1987 and recently expanded that site to incorporate an old showroom and garage.