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No Folly: A Balancing Act in Woodley Park

By Deirdre Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 17, 1996; Page E01

Woodley Park is a community trying to balance its urban and residential nature.

Although it is not considered as trendy as Dupont Circle, the business strip is filled with Thai, Lebanese and Indian restaurants and the small grocery store sells canned vichyssoise, boxed lentil pilaf and all-organic soups.

The neighborhood has two hotels and numerous apartment buildings, but many of the streets are so quiet that one cannot hear the nearby traffic.

For 13 years Ian Gordon has lived in a row house on Garfield Street, less than a block from busy Connecticut Avenue. A cushioned wicker chair and lounger are on the front porch; the house inside is painted a cool white.

Gordon's 87-year-old home is part of Old Woodley Park, a region of the neighborhood designated as a historic district in 1989 by the District Historic Preservation Review Board to preserve the neighborhood's architecture. As a member of the local community association and Advisory Neighborhood Commission, Gordon works to keep the peace between residents and businesses.

"You get animosity between the community and the hotels," Gordon said. Both the Sheraton Washington and the Omni Shoreham are in Woodley Park, the Sheraton on Woodley Road and the Omni on Calvert Street. Residents often have complained about the amount of traffic, inadequate parking facilities and buses idling in front of the hotels at all hours.

But the community and the businesses have cooperated, he said, with the hotels directing traffic and parking so visitors don't disturb the residents, especially during large gatherings, such as the annual convention of the International Monetary Fund/the World Bank Group at the Sheraton.

For many residents, Woodley Park's attraction is that it is not just a residential neighborhood, but one with the amenities of city dwelling. Aside from its own commercial establishments, Woodley Park is within walking distance of attractions near Dupont Circle and in Adams-Morgan. Metro's Red Line runs through the neighborhood, and the National Zoo is nearby. Four embassies call Woodley Park home.

The neighborhood is bound by Calvert Street on the south, Klingle Road on the north, Cleveland Avenue and 34th Street on the west, and Rock Creek Park on the east. The 1990 census listed the population at 6,950 residents.

The main commercial district along Connecticut Avenue greets tourists and residents leaving the Woodley Park-Zoo Metro stop. It is filled with restaurants, many with seating on the sidewalk from April to October. A few antiques shops can be found in between restaurants, along with a liquor store, pharmacy, bank, dry cleaners and two small grocery stores.

"I like a city to be a living place, where you can walk to places and talk to people without having to get in your car and drive 20 minutes to do it," resident Gerhard Menckhoff said. "Some people here don't like development. They feel the businesses should be as far away as possible. Those people want to be in the suburbs."

Menckhoff, who works with the World Bank, and his wife, Patricia, moved into the area 15 years ago. He originally is from Switzerland; his wife is Bolivian. When they moved into their home on Cathedral Avenue, their youngest daughter was 11. The neighborhood's charm, the proximity of urban life, the international influence and the access to private schools drew them to Woodley Park.

The Maret School is the only private school in the neighborhood, but St. Alban's, National Cathedral and Sidwell Friends are close by. At Oyster Bilingual School, the neighborhood public school, every class is taught in Spanish and English. The Aidan Montessori School moved in last year, buying a building from St. Thomas Apostle Church on Woodley Road. The school serves the growing number of young families in the area.

On weekend afternoons, the neighborhood is filled with young people. Professionals just out of college share a newspaper at Caffe Northwest on Connecticut Avenue, while a father and son trudge up Woodley Road, sweaty and tired after playing in Rock Creek Park.

"I see lots of young mothers pushing baby carriages, which leads me to believe they are coming back," said Sidney Epstein, former executive editor of the Washington Star, who bought his house on Cathedral Avenue in 1942 for $25,000.

Despite the influx of new families, housing is far from cheap in Woodley Park. "It's more expensive than Chevy Chase because of its proximity to town and the Metro," resident Holly Todd said. "You don't get as much for your money here."

The Menckhoffs bought their house 15 years ago for $260,000, and Gerhard Menckhoff estimates that it is now worth about $500,000, although he said he could have gotten $800,000 for it at the height of the real estate market five years ago.

Although the average list price for houses on the market since January 1996 is $472,783, one house under contract, a contemporary, two-bedroom row house on Cathedral Avenue, sold for $800,000, according to local real estate listings. The condominiums are less expensive, with an average price of $106,737.

The area's housing includes a combination of detached residences, many of them Federal homes; row houses; apartment buildings; and condominiums. Harry Wardman, a District real estate mogul, designed many of the houses, apartment buildings and hotels in the area. Gordon and Todd own Wardman homes.

In 1918 Wardman built the original Sheraton Hotel, then called the Wardman Park Hotel. When he announced his plans to build the 1,200-room hotel, Washingtonians dubbed it "Wardman's Folly" because they thought no one would go to a hotel in what was then considered the countryside. Instead, the hotel brought the city to Woodley Park, providing prosperity and publicity for the quiet wooded area. Wardman Tower, a hotel addition built in 1928 on the grounds of Wardman's old home, is the only building of the original hotel left.

In addition to the celebrities the hotel brought in, several other prominent people have lived in the neighborhood. Woodley mansion was built by Philip Barton Key, an uncle of Francis Scott Key. Before becoming the Maret School, the house was used as a summer home for presidents Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James Buchanan and Grover Cleveland. Jack Kent Cooke owns a home on McGill Terrace in Woodley Park but put it on the market for $5 million in 1994. The house has yet to be sold.

The area's landmarks and attractions bring the neighborhood revenue and publicity. While hotel guests and zoo visitors bring too much traffic and there is not enough parking in the community, most residents, like Menckhoff and Gordon, say they think the extra people bring in business that improves Woodley Park.

"I like the trend toward a civilized, urbane environment," Menckhoff said. He plans to stay in the neighborhood, "until I can't walk to the Metro anymore."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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