Apartment Living

The Woodner Has One Foot In Glamorous Past, the Other In Area's Promising Future

The Woodner
The Woodner (Sadie Dingfelder - Sadie Dingfelder for The Washington Post)

By Sadie Dingfelder
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 24, 2007

From outside, the Woodner looks like just another blond-brick apartment building, similar to its neighbors on 16th Street NW.

But its interior hints at the former hotel's glamorous past. Behind the receptionist's desk in the rental office, there's a stainless-steel sink running the length of what used to be a bar. A staircase, which twists just enough to give a gown room to fan, spills into a generously proportioned room that was once a dining room where Jayne Mansfield sang. Now a local nonprofit organization uses it for meetings, said Joseph Milby, the general manager.

"It was the largest air-conditioned building in the world when it opened" in 1952, he said. "All the local celebrities would come here in the '50s."

These days, the 12-story Woodner houses a small town's worth of tenants in its 1,089 units, most of which are efficiencies.

There are a couple of sprawling three-bedroom units that rent for $1,500 a month. There also are apartments rented to people who qualify for subsidized housing through a program run with the Green Door, a nonprofit agency in the District that helps people with mental illnesses.

Residents vary widely in age and ethnicity, too: Children run through the lobby past elderly residents waiting for their families to pick them up for the weekend. In the building's grocery store, shoppers greet one another in Spanish as often as they do in English.

"The little kids are so cute," said Sheila Whitehead, 55, who has lived in the Woodner for two decades. "I like talking to the elderly people, too."

"For me, sitting in the lobby -- it's better than watching cable TV," said Sandra May Southerland, 53, a 12-year resident of the building.

In addition to providing cheap entertainment, the Woodner's size allows it to have a variety of amenities, including a pool, a grocery store, a video store and a restaurant.

The pool is P-shaped, and no one knows why, Milby said. It's heated and surrounded by a recently renovated deck. Two stories above the pool is another, doughnut-shaped deck, which residents use to sunbathe or picnic. However, they are no longer allowed to sip champagne while dangling their feet in the pool. And the roof, which used to sport shallow wading pools, is closed off.

"Insurance companies have ruined all the fun things in life," Milby said.

Still, the apartment's many young residents make good use of the Woodner's outdoor spaces, said Beatrice Campucano, whose 10-year-old daughter spent much of the summer by the pool. Campucano also said she appreciates the Woodner's in-house grocery.

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