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High on Their Lofty Spaces on the Hill

In the Old School, Tales of Love at First Sight

By Stephanie Cavanaugh
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page G01

Jamie Brown and Kyle Hamblin say they won't be buying another 17-foot Christmas tree this year.

"It touched the ceiling," said Brown, a trial lawyer. "They don't look as big on the farm."

Residents pose in a Bryan School Lofts stairwell. Clockwise from lower left are Eric Ansley, Ryall Smith, Richard Fullerton, Amanda Cropper, Anne Renaldi, Kyle Hamblin and Jamie Brown. (Monica Lynn Cavanaugh For The Washington Post)


BOUNDARIES: The Bryan School Lofts is at 1315 Independence Ave. SE, between Kentucky Avenue and 14th Street.

SCHOOLS: Payne Elementary, Hine Junior High and Eastern Senior High schools.

HOME SALES: The most recent sale was in March for $900,000. It was a two-bedroom, two-bath loft with two parking spaces. Sales prices in 2003 and 2004 ranged from $389,000 to $1.23 million.

WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: RFK Stadium, U.S. Capitol, Eastern Market, Washington Navy Yard, U.S. Marine Barracks, Union Station, Library of Congress and National Mall.

WITHIN 10-20 MINUTES BY CAR: Downtown, Georgetown and Northwest Washington, National Arboretum, Pentagon City shopping centers, Reagan National Airport, Old Town Alexandria.

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"It was fun once we got it up," said Hamblin. "Everyone wanted to come over and get their picture taken in front of it."

"And the smell, ah!" said his wife. "We didn't want to take it down."

As the couple discussed their home last week, Brown was nearing the end of her pregnancy with their first child. The baby wasn't even a twinkle when they stumbled on the newly finished Bryan School Lofts on Capitol Hill early last summer. They had been living in a two-bedroom condominium in Arlington.

"We were actually looking at houses here on the Hill," said Hamblin, who works at the Supreme Court and now walks to the office. "They happened to have an open house here so we just came."

"Literally just for fun," Brown added. "It was a weekend, a beautiful day. We came in and said, 'Maybe . . .' " Her husband jumped in, adding what is a familiar refrain among their neighbors: "We couldn't pass it up."

What they couldn't pass up was a studio the size of many Capitol Hill rowhouses -- 1,200 square feet of open space with a loft bedroom, granite and stainless steel kitchen, walled patio, and those 17-foot ceilings.

All the units on the ground floor of the old elementary school are studios, some with sleeping lofts, some without.

Brown and Hamblin quickly adopted the Hill as well. "It's such a community-oriented neighborhood that we fell in love with it," said Brown. "We spend a lot of our time just doing things around here."

About the only challenge has been furnishing the cavernous place. "Having one set of walls -- you create how you want your space to be. We tried to focus on pieces that would look good in any room, in case we decide later that we want to reconfigure the space," she said.

"The people that live here get pretty creative," she said, heading out into the hall to bang on the door of her neighbor, Eric Ansley, a high-tech guru.

Plunked in the middle of Ansley's studio is a nod to his adventuring avocation: an enormous square safari tent, its outside walls hung with seascapes. It's his bedroom.

A little more door-banging and roommates Anne Renaldi and Amanda Cropper showed off their soaring studio, with its glass-walled room under the sleeping loft filled with a gleaming array of exercise equipment. It looks like an exclusive gym.

It's a bit of a surprise at first to learn that three of the 10 homes on the Capitol Hill Restoration Society House and Garden tour this Mother's Day weekend are in the Bryan School Lofts.

But once you take a gander at the circa-1906 schoolhouse, it's a wonder the society isn't restricting its 48th annual tour to this building alone. The wonder is not only in the loft-style design by builder Jim Abdo, but the sheer gleeful creativity of the owners.

Allison and Steven Block's studio is on the tour this year. With clever use of screens and angled furniture, they have managed to carve out a living room, dining room and bedroom, as well as an office for Allison, who works from home for a consulting company. Her husband is also a consultant.

"It's going to be a very short tour," said Allison with a laugh. "Just stand in the center and turn around."

The Blocks also bought on a whim. They were already living on the Hill and saw their unit before it was built out, signing a contract within three days.

It took that long to conquer their one concern: "People think 'lofts' and they think sleek and modern, white furniture. But I have more traditional taste. I thought it would look weird but it's not. It's just neat," she said.

"We just knew this was such a unique opportunity," she added. "A unique space, a great location, and the light."

"The light is unbelievable," said Ann Wherley, a mortgage banker who occupies a third- floor unit with her husband, David, the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard. "You can lie like a cat in the sun. . . . You can lie there and watch the clouds go by. It's wonderful."

Their two-bedroom, 2,200-square-foot home is above the rooflines of the neighboring Victorian- and Edwardian-era houses. As in all of the Bryan lofts above the lowest level, the windows are 10 feet tall. The Capitol dome is framed above a froth of flowering cherry trees and the whispery green foliage of the elms just leafing out along Independence Avenue.

The couple's decision to move to the building from a house closer to the Capitol was "impetuous," she said. "I had never lived in a condo and I had the perception that it would almost be like apartment living. That maybe everyone would be in your face? I never. See. Anyone." She paused between words for emphasis. "It's almost like your own little world."

She rarely bumps into Ryall Smith and Doug Barton even though they live across the hall -- along with a coconut palm that sits on the Brazilian cherrywood floors and tickles the ceiling with its fronds.

"It is amazing how few people you see," said Smith, who was one of the listing real estate agents for the condominium. "There are only 20 units in the building -- four per floor above the first level and eight on the lower level. And there's two entrances."

Those would be the original doorways, one on either side of the building, with "boys" and "girls" chiseled into the limestone.

For 16 of his 20 years on Capitol Hill, Smith had lived in the same house. "This is the first place that enticed me to move."

The neighborhood on the fringe of the historic district would not have tempted him five years ago. "Who would have thought we would be living closer to RFK Stadium than the Capitol?" he said. "But it's absolutely great. Yesterday I looked out the window and saw 500 to 600 people walking down the street from RFK Stadium and we looked out the windows here and saw the fireworks going off after the game."

The upstairs residents may revel in solitude, but there's a lot of chumminess down below.

"It's funny," said Allison Block. "If you come downstairs to the basement level . . . where some of the younger people live, there are times . . . we leave our doors open and go back and forth and watch movies and play video games and drink. The dog runs back and forth. There is a poker party down the hall. It's an interesting contrast."

See each other a lot or not, this building has become a community in less than a year. Most of the residents will be pitching in for the house tour, working as docents in the apartments or as hall guides. Capping off the event will be a potluck dinner at the Wherleys', followed by a condo board meeting to discuss their latest project, landscaping.

By that time, board president Richard Fullerton and his wife, Trish Pingra, should be eager to get home. If past tours are a guide, more than 1,000 people will have traipsed through their two-bedroom unit, with its artfully sponged walls, grand piano, cello and the 1940s Wurlitzer jukebox where Tommy Dorsey's orchestra still plays "Song of India."

The pair of NASA executives gave up two houses and a long-distance relationship when they married last year, "I was in Texas and my wife was in Maryland. We merged six thousand [square] feet down to two," he said.

"We looked all around downtown and Northwest and . . . we actually commuted past this place every day. But we hadn't really looked in this area because it's all townhouses."

Then one day they saw a sign and "we came in to look at something in the basement . . . and this just happened to be available. . . . Someone had backed out of a contract and we took one look and, 'Okay, that's it!' "

Penthouse dwellers David O'Connell and Michael Minore are the rare owners who made a calculated purchase. "When we saw this place being constructed we put an offer in; that was two years ago, over a year before it was done," O'Connell said.

The attraction was the building's blend of old and new. The executives with Marriott International had been living in a classic Capitol Hill Victorian, "which we loved, but we only used half the house. . . . We wanted a space like this -- old looking from the outside but refurbished."

Their penthouse, one of four in the building, is spectacular. The ceiling has been broken through to the rafters and an open staircase climbs a breathtaking 19 feet to the rooftop family room, which opens to a wraparound terrace with views of the city and a good bit of the close-in suburbs.

Minore has just accepted a job in Massachusetts, however, and the duo will probably be selling.

Jamie Brown and Kyle Hamblin may want to take note: When baby makes three, a studio apartment, even one the size of a house, can begin to feel small, quickly. Ellison Brown Hamblin, the newest resident of the Bryan School Lofts, was born Wednesday.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company