Diner's Neon Might Glow Again
Friday, November 9, 2007
If the White House were dismantled and rebuilt, say, in Gaithersburg, would it still be the White House? How about Eastern Market or the Duke Ellington Bridge?[an error occurred while processing this directive]
The answer to that most existential of questions might lie in the future of the Waffle Shop, that longtime purveyor of eggs scrambled and fried and griddle cakes syrupy and golden brown.
Preservationists howled when developer Douglas Jemal, in need of land to construct a downtown office building, threatened to raze the 57-year-old diner, a classic of the Art Moderne style, with its sleek glass and metal facade, gold and red mosaic tiling, and steel and neon sign.
Jemal has agreed to another solution, which will save the Waffle Shop from the wrecking ball as it transforms the diner and the vista along 10th Street NW across from Ford's Theater.
Brick by brick, counter by counter, stool by stool, the developer plans to take apart the diner and reassemble it on another property he owns, most likely on Seventh Street across from the Washington Convention Center.
After it reopens, according to an agreement among Jemal, preservationists and the District, the diner will remain what its sign advertises, complete with serpentine counters and eminently affordable offerings.
"A Waffle Shop," Jemal said.
Although it is not unprecedented for developers to transplant old homes and facades, District officials cannot recall anyone moving an entire restaurant. Jemal promotes his agreement with the preservationists as a unique moment of compromise between forces often in cranky opposition.
He and the preservationists say, however, that it might be difficult for the Waffle Shop to be the Waffle Shop of yore in another location, with the same singular ambience, the grease-streaked counters, the hand-scrawled yellow signs and such regulars as Theodore Grenette, 70, who ate there so often the waitresses shouted, "G'morning, Mr. Ted," when he walked through the door.
The Waffle Shop shut down at the end of September after its lease expired. The proprietors, Hai and Sue Ngo, moved their pots and pans to another greasy spoon a few doors away, the Lincoln House restaurant. They even built counters to make the Waffle Shop faithful feel at home.
Grenette, among the patrons who followed the Ngos down the street, said he would welcome the chance to revisit his old haunt, even uprooted. "It will be the same place, with the same name," he said between bites of eggs, grits and toast.
Some of his fellow diners were not so sure. "When something dies, its soul goes to heaven," said a Justice Department employee who declined to give his name. "It doesn't matter where the body goes. If you're moving something, the integrity is destroyed."
With his vision of a 10-story office building, Jemal hopes to transform the block where Abraham Lincoln was shot and where legions of peddlers have sought to profit with their CIA and FBI T-shirts and JFK bobbleheads.
Besides the Waffle Shop, Jemal is evicting two souvenir shops and the K&B newsstand, where proprietor Walter "Buster" Riggin, 80, sells not only toothpaste and soda but also hookahs, handcuffs and pornography.
"Marital Aids, Martial Arts, Stun Guns," reads a sign in the window.
Jemal initially got permission from the District to level the Waffle Shop, although officials encouraged him to salvage aspects of the diner -- the sign, perhaps -- for the new building. A coalition of preservationists raised a clamor and applied to designate the diner a landmark, a status that would prevent Jemal from razing the building and constructing his own.
After months of negotiations, the two sides came up with what is known as the Waffle Shop Settlement Agreement. Jemal promised to save the diner, and the preservationists won't object to it being moved, even if the District's Historic Preservation Review Board designates it a landmark.
"It's never the preservationists' first choice to remove the historic building to another site," said Sally Berk, former president of the D.C. Preservation League and among those lobbying for the Waffle House. "But I'm very pleased that he wants to save the entire thing."
Jemal said he is not a Waffle Shop convert about the architecture. "It's not a nice structure," he said. "Look at it." But he recognizes its "sentimental value," and he wants to save everything he can, including the sign, chrome stools and wooden strips along the walls.
Whatever is too old or tattered, Jemal said he will replicate, including the front glass, the mosaic, the counters and the sloping ceiling. The structure is to be photographed inside and out and diagramed in detail before the building is disassembled.
Jemal said he hopes to reopen the diner in "24 to 36 months," and, to ensure its future, he promises a reduced rent for at least 15 years, after which he reserves the right to reassess it.
He said he doesn't know who will operate the diner, although the diner's faithful have their own idea about who will help make it feel like the real thing.
"The Waffle Shop is part of who I am," said Vermell Terrell, a waitress for 14 years. "When I walk down the street, strangers say, 'Hey, Waffle Shop.' If my people are there, I'll be there, too."