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Wardman's World
Developer's Rowhouses Defined the District in the Early 20th Century and Are Still Prized Today

By Sandra Fleishman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 15, 2005

You may have heard the name Harry Wardman.

Perhaps it calls to mind the 1,300-room Wardman Park hotel at Connecticut Avenue and Calvert Street NW. It was one of the D.C. developer's biggest projects.

Or maybe you know his exclusive Hay-Adams, Jefferson and St. Regis hotels downtown. Perhaps you've heard people brag about their elegant solid-brick Wardman houses in neighborhoods such as Woodley Park, Kalorama and Georgetown.

But what those caught up in the scramble for housing in the District may not know is how many other well-regarded Wardman residential buildings still exist -- and on a more modest scale.

In the first three decades of the 20th century, when Washingtonians thought of the suburbs as anything north of Florida Avenue, Wardman and a team of architects created about 3,000 residential buildings across the District. Of them, about 2,000 were rowhouses meant for middle-class workers and their families, according to a new exhibit on his work on display at the District's John A. Wilson Building. Even though they weren't marketed to rich people, the houses still have the generous size and solid construction that were considered Wardman trademarks.

Many of the rowhouses are still standing, even if their heritage has been lost to time, the exhibit's curators say. That includes small stands of houses on 14th Street NW at Newton and Meridian streets that have been converted over the years into stores, funeral homes and check-cashing services, their fine features hidden, their once-valued wide front porches lopped off or bricked in.

Wardman rowhouses in well-to-do neighborhoods are promoted by real estate agents for their quality materials and construction. So valuable are they in some communities that agents have taken to calling copycats "Wardman-style" houses. Some rowhouses in Woodley Park are even protected by preservation rules.

But in other neighborhoods, the developer's rowhouses aren't generally protected, appreciated or even recognized, say preservationists.

"We're concerned that some neighborhoods and the larger community don't know about the history of the homes and how well built they are," said Caroline Mesrobian Hickman, the granddaughter of one of Wardman's top architects, Mihran Mesrobian, and one of the exhibit's curators.

"You worry that with all the development pressures in these neighborhoods that people will tear them down and put high-rise condos up instead," Hickman said.

The exhibit, "Celebrating a Century of Wardman Row-House Neighborhoods," focuses on Wardman rowhouses in three neighborhoods now experiencing significant renewal efforts and developer interest.

The neighborhoods, all in Northwest Washington are: Columbia Heights, up 14th Street between Monroe Street and Spring Road and stretching to 13th Street; Bloomingdale, north of Florida Avenue to McMillan Reservoir between Second and North Capitol streets; and Brightwood, between Georgia Avenue and Fifth Street, from Quackenbos Street to Tewksbury Place.

All three neighborhoods grew up along the trolley car lines that were built as the federal government dramatically expanded in the decades after the Civil War. The government demolished residential buildings downtown to make way for government offices, pushing the population beyond L'Enfant's boundaries.

Columbia Heights, where Wardman built 650 rowhouses from 1902 to 1913 and where he popularized the idea of wide front porches and tiny front yards, is under the most redevelopment pressure now, said Hickman's fellow curator, Sally Berk, who did her master's thesis on Wardman and has been studying his work for about 20 years.

"There's an enormous amount of pressure in Columbia Heights," architectural historian Berk said. When one front-porch house was "drastically added onto" so that it no longer looked like the other houses in its row, "it was a warning sign, a warning flare that the value of the Wardman front-porch rowhouses . . . was not particularly recognized even by the people that live there," she said.

"If you take out one of the houses in a row in Columbia Heights . . . and you build something higher, because the zoning there allows a bit more height, it takes away the continuity . . . and it interrupts a context that really facilitates family life and community," Berk added.

The "same threat that exists in Columbia Heights exists in Bloomingdale, but to a lesser degree," she said.

Wardman built 180 rowhouses in Bloomingdale from 1903 to 1908, some of which were rowhouse flats, or two-family houses, an idea that quickly faded.

In Bloomingdale, he debuted his concept for front-porch rowhouses, set back from the street as opposed to sitting near the sidewalk as in the L'Enfant concept.

These "semi-suburban houses" were "really important," Berk said, because they offered an alternative to those looking at single-family detached houses farther out in Takoma Park or Cleveland Park. "People were looking to get out of the city environment . . . and with these houses they got little front porches and little front yards, suburban villas at an affordable price," she said.

Brightwood was where Wardman's career started, with detached houses in 1899, and where it ended, with Fort Stevens Ridge, which he started developing in 1924, the curators write. Fort Stevens Ridge was a 700-unit rowhouse development built to help house the surge of government workers during and after World War I. It was an automobile-oriented development; the neighborhood featured garages in the basement, accessed off the alleys.

The neighborhood is the least threatened -- for now, Berk said.

The houses at Fort Stevens Ridge are smaller and less ornate than Wardman's others, built for blue-collar workers, Berk said, and the neighborhood has changed very little in the past 100 years. But as the District moves toward its goal of revitalizing Georgia Avenue, "I predict that what we're seeing in Columbia Heights right now, we'll see in Brightwood."

Wardman perhaps also offers lessons to developers in these again heady and hot real estate times.

Wardman's career took off like a rocket because of the deep housing shortages after the Civil War and World War I. The son of English textile workers, Wardman was only 17 when he came to New York alone. He moved to Philadelphia and took a job as a floorwalker in a department store. After arriving in Washington in 1893, he worked as a skilled carpenter, specializing in staircases.

By 1925, he had worked his way up to being one of the District's most successful developers. He claimed he housed 10 percent of the District's population, and by the beginning of the Depression he had amassed a fortune of $30 million, historian James M. Goode said.

Wardman "bought and sold land at a furious pace, sometimes keeping property for only a day but always selling at a profit," say the exhibit materials. "According to the 'Real Estate Market' report of The Washington Post, Wardman's transactions for the week of June 11, 1905, totaled $300,000." That's about $6.2 million in today's dollars.

But Wardman lost most of his fortune when the crash came in 1929. He was able to keep building on a smaller scale afterward because he had put some of his land in his wife's name and because his reputation kept him alive in the business community, writes Goode in "Best Addresses," a history of D.C. apartment buildings. He "was on the way to making a complete financial recovery when he died of cancer in 1938," Goode writes.

The value of the Wardman name, though, has continued through the years, say the curators and local real estate agents.

"I can't say that his name adds a particular dollar amount, but it does add a certain amount of panache," says Brooke DeCamp Myers, broker-owner of City Houses in Dupont Circle. "The name Wardman has always denoted a certain type of architecture and a certain level of detail on the interior."

The big problem now, some real estate agents say, is that some homeowners may try to sell properties as Wardmans when they really aren't.

"Sometimes an owner says they were told by a previous owner that the house is a Wardman. We try to track it down." And if it isn't? "Sometimes, you just have to say 'I'm sorry, but it isn't,' " Myers said.

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