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Woodward Building Pushes Out Eclectic Tenants

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 26, 2005

For 16 years, Colleen Corrigan has sold bathing suits -- skimpy, bright-yellow bikinis and matronly, navy-blue one-pieces -- from her cramped shop on the ground floor of the Woodward Building at 15th and H streets NW in downtown Washington. She shares the building's retail floor with purveyors of African masks and Christian books, a liquor store, and a barbershop.

The eclectic collection of merchants stands out in a neighborhood where retail spots are occupied by a cell phone store, a Starbucks, a high-end jeweler and a men's tailor that serves the government crowd.

As D.C. rents are skyrocketing and builders are driving every building to its most profitable use, the Woodward Building is the last of an era -- a building a block from the White House that still relies on window air-conditioning units, has a little lobby newsstand that sells coffee for 89 cents a cup and counts a private investigator among its tenants.

"I love this old building," Corrigan said. "I have 16-foot ceilings, big showcase windows; there's no standard awnings, and I can put my own sign outside. You can be unique here."

That will all end at the end of the year, after tenants will be forced to leave so the owner can gut it to create a property more in line with its upscale neighbors.

The Woodward Building's owner, SJG Properties, plans to fill it with 187 high-end apartments renting from about $1,300 a month for a studio to $4,500 a month for a 1,500-square-foot unit.

On the floor where Corrigan sells her swimsuits, the landlord hopes to lure a sit-down, white-tablecloth restaurant and nationally recognized retailers such as Ann Taylor or a men's clothing store. Once the $25 million project is completed, retail rents will likely about double, to $40 or more per square foot from an average of $23 per square foot.

The historic building was built in 1911 by the family that started the Woodward & Lothrop department store chain. In its day, the building housed some of the District's leading law and accounting firms and insurance companies.

It is on a stretch of 15th Street NW once known as "little Wall Street." Buildings around it already have been through their facelifts. A block away, the Bowen Building, constructed in the early 1900s, recently underwent an $80 million renovation that preserved its facade. The owner of the Woodward Building spent $20 million to redo the Southern Building, just across the street.

Until now, the Woodward Building, with its ornate marble columns and Roman numerals across the main entrance on H Street NW, has remained relatively unchanged. The lobby still has cast-iron chair rails and black iron handrails along a wide marble staircase.

In the past few decades, however, the brick and limestone building has grown dusty and moldy, the ledges outside its windows covered in pigeon droppings, as gleaming new office buildings have lured away its more prestigious tenants.

Upstairs, where the window air conditioners groan to keep up and the restrooms are not always in working order, the office tenants include a temp agency, a prison outreach program and the Vegetarian Society of the District of Columbia.

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