At Home With Old-Time Industry

By Amanda Abrams
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 21, 2009

One hot night last August, Anna and Daniel Kahoe were entertaining a friend at their Mount Pleasant house and talking about their dream of living in an old industrial building one day.

The couple, who own Good Wood antiques store on U Street Northwest, love the clean lines of industrial objects and described their fantasy of having a big open space they could decorate and play with.

To their surprise, their guest had a suggestion: A colleague in Atlanta had a nephew who was considering selling an old laundry building near Logan Circle.

"We looked at it that night," Anna Kahoe said. Standing in front of the building at midnight, she fell in love: the letters across the top dating to its laundry days, the long line of windows abutting an alley, the faded grandeur. Washington isn't known for industrial real estate, so finding the building in one of their favorite neighborhoods felt even luckier.

The 4,000-square-foot building wasn't on the market yet, but the Kahoes, who are in their early 40s and have no children, had to have it. "We stalked it until we got it," said Anna Kahoe -- even though paying $1.4 million, and more for extensive renovations, meant putting their Mount Pleasant house and another property on the market just as the economy was crashing.

After four months of renovations, the couple moved in a few weeks ago. For the Kahoes, who love old things, all that effort was worth it. As they had envisioned, their new home is full of character and has a long Washington history.

Once the Louise Hand Laundry, it has stood on a residential block of 12th Street for more than 90 years.

Margaret Nicodemus started the Louise Hand Laundry in 1912, according to historical records. In the early years, she probably took in laundry at her house: She was a widow, and the laundry business was one of the few entry-level economic opportunities available to women at the time. The business thrived, and in 1918 the building was purpose-built in a neighborhood that was then populated by Washington's well-to-do.

In 1943, Nicodemus sold the business to Beulah Hall, a Nebraska native who had been selling life insurance. Hall turned it into the laundry of choice for Washington's elite. Although the neighborhood declined through the 1950s and was largely abandoned after the 1968 riots, the Louise Hand Laundry workers maintained their reputation for fastidiousness. Laboring in long, open rooms and beginning each day with prayer, the women used only pure soap and handled silk and lace with the utmost care.

Four White House administrations -- Roosevelt through Kennedy -- entrusted their linens to the laundry, and the Smithsonian sent its 17th- and 18th-century costumes there to be cleaned. Unlike the era's garden-variety laundries, the Louise Hand Laundry didn't offer pickup, and neighbors remember watching limousines pull up to the building to drop off clothes.

But the increasing popularity of dry cleaning took its toll. When Beulah Hall retired in 1977, no one stepped up to buy the business.

The building was another story. By the late 1970s, a wave of what were then known as young urban pioneers began moving into the Logan Circle area and renovating the neighborhood's stately but run-down homes.

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