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In a Circle of Transition, Residents Try to Restore Logan's Splendor

By Deirdre Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 21, 1996; Page E03

Connie Mafin was part of the generation of pioneers who moved into Logan Circle in the 1970s and started to revitalize the community.

Mafin and her husband, Bob, were married in the living room of their Logan Circle house, only months after they bought it in 1974. The house was in a six-unit apartment building that was in need of major renovation when they moved in. The house on Vermont Avenue NW now has been carefully restored, with contractors having done the major work, and decorated to match the Victorian architecture.

The building, which includes a carriage house, cost nearly $80,000 in 1974. Before they started remodeling the house in 1977, they rented out the six units. Their first tenants included a prostitute. The building now has a main-floor duplex apartment for the Mafins, a third-floor apartment and two basement apartments.

The neighborhood of Logan Circle was created in the 1870s under the direction of Public Works Commissioner "Boss" Alexander Shepherd, who was responsible for paving the roads and installing gas lines. A statue of Gen. John A. Logan, a commander of the Grand Army of the Republic and a senator from Illinois, was erected in in 1901. It wasn't until 1930, however, that the community's name was changed to Logan Circle from Iowa Circle.

As amenities were installed, Logan Circle became a fashionable address for the District's wealthier residents. The Northwest neighborhood is bounded by S Street to the north, Massachusetts Avenue to the south, Ninth Street to the east and 15th Street to the west. By the 1960s, however, professionals began abandoning the area, which consisted mostly of rooming houses and dilapidated apartment houses. The end of the decade brought a new wave of young professionals, who bought and began to renovate many of the houses on the circle.

Donald Smith moved to Logan Circle in 1974 and found a house in disrepair that was divided into seven apartments. The front door, for example, was hanging off its hinges. Smith said the landlord had not made many structural changes to the house and used only flimsy partitions and plywood to create apartments.

Smith worked to restore the house to its original splendor and during the renovation he discovered massive wood pocket doors and brass fixtures.

"When I first moved in here, I used to have dreams that there were whole areas of the house I hadn't discovered," said Smith, who lives in the house with his wife, Pat Durkin.

Smith bought the house for $60,000. Today, he said, the renovated six-bedroom home is worth about $500,000.

The renovation of Logan Circle is cyclical, Smith said. "When we moved in I thought we were at the tail end of the restoration," he said. "Vermont Avenue had largely been restored. It turned out we had a number of cycles to go. My feeling is that Logan Circle is poised to take another upswing."

While many people are drawn to Logan Circle by the architecture and the diversity, others are turned away by its drawbacks, chiefly prostitution and illegal drug sales. Many homes have been restored, but others are shadows of what they once were. Peeling paint, rotting woodwork and boarded doors and windows mark the homes that have yet to be redone.

Connie Mafin, a real estate agent, conceded that Logan Circle has its problems, but she said its reputation is worse than the reality. Prostitution, for example, has declined in recent years.

"The neighborhood is fringy by a lot of people's standards, but when you are paying $300,000, $400,000 or $500,000 for a house it's not fringy," Mafin said.

"Prices in Dupont Circle are little higher because it is perceived as a 'better area,' but I think they are very comparable" to other restored neighborhoods, associate broker Betty Pair of Tutt Real Estate said.

Pair said renovated and restored houses cost an average of $270,000 to $280,000, although prices on streets such as Vermont Avenue can reach $500,000. Condominiums cost an average of $62,575. Monthly rents for efficiency apartments, such as those at the Palisades building on Rhode Island Avenue, range from $560 to $595.

Logan Circle and the streets that radiate from it are dotted with Victorian homes built in the 1870s and 1880s. Stone railings lead to large oak doors, cupolas and spires adorn the roofs, and porches on several buildings have ironwork that twists into elaborate curls.

"These houses have great bones, as an architect friend of mine in Georgetown once told me," said Mathilda Cox, an interior designer who lives with her husband, Christopher Reutershan, on Vermont Avenue.

Cox said she moved into the neighborhood in 1988 because of her passion for architecture. She and Reutershan designed the home's interior to echo the Edwardian period.

"A house is an extension of yourself," Cox said. "Something that is all right this year may not be right next year."

One of the rooms on the third floor, an old apartment, has been converted into her design studio, while Cox continues to rent the two basement apartments.

Many of the houses, especially the Victorians, have basement or third-floor apartments. Amid the old are new condominiums that have sprung up, some in renovated buildings. The rental units help keep the larger houses affordable for their owners, Mafin said.

Ed Brubaker lives in a house that was built in 1872. In his kitchen is the original cast-iron stove.

"It's a great neighborhood for getting [a house] that has a lot of potential," said Brubaker, who moved into the community in 1988. "The houses are so wonderful, if you like Victorians."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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