Seven blocks from the heart of Old Town Alexandria is a 1940s garden apartment complex where solid, unpretentious, well-maintained buildings have a classic appeal second only to their park-your-car-and-leave-it convenience.
With only 197 units, Monticello-Lee lacks the bureaucracy found in many larger complexes. Communication with residents is through typed notices taped to each building's entrance or posted next to the interior mailboxes. The tiny front office has a definite drop-in-and-chat atmosphere.
Monticello-Lee is two separately owned properties under the same management. Four courtyard buildings were built in 1942, followed by the two buildings in the 700 block of South St. Asaph Street known as Wakefield A and B and a third building, the Patrick Henry, at 605 Jefferson St. A 1939 architect's rendition of Monticello-Lee hangs in the office. Except for the plantings in the courtyard, the property hasn't changed much from the original conception. Property manager Jacqueline Reynolds displayed a contagious enthusiasm as she raved about the character of the buildings the tidy grounds and the art deco lobbies.
"I've got to show you something," she said as she took a visitor to see the original teller's window that opened once a month to receive rents and the solid brass mailboxes too small for today's volume of mail.
While no longer used, these connections to the past have been preserved in place. "They're appropriate for the history of the community," said Keith Glidden, executive assistant of Scott Management Inc., which handles the property. A rarely used party room, converted to a combination laundry room and fitness center, is a popular amenity. Glidden said the idea for the dual-purpose room was to enable residents to use time wisely. "Put laundry in, jump on a treadmill and in 40 minutes you're both done."
In the large courtyard decorated with cherub statues and wooden benches, residents can enjoy a quiet haven hidden from street views. Courtyard entrances are adorned with white wooden pineapples perched on brick columns, a commanding clay vase or a Colonial-style wrought iron arch and lantern.
Louise Williams, who moved to the community six decades ago, recalls how in those days men played cards late into the night outside a row of ramshackle houses across South Washington Street. Today, residents gather at a sports bar in the same location to root for their favorite teams.
The same thing that has kept Williams in the community for 60 years -- the convenient location -- what brought Haraz Ghanbari, 24, to Monticello-Lee eight months ago. "It's 15 minutes to downtown," he said.
As a recent college graduate from Ohio, Ghanbari, now a photographer for the Associated Press, said the community's "relative affordability" was also a factor in his choice, although finding that one-bedroom apartments in this area often command more than $1,000 a month was a shock. Back home, he said, rents run about $400 a month.
Joan Amico, a retired copy editor from New York, does not have a car, but between frequent bus transportation and her own foot power, she can get to wherever she needs to be, including her volunteer work at the Alexandria Archaeological Museum in the Torpedo Factory. Safeway, Alexandria's Little Theater, City Hall, Old Town's shops and restaurants and Alexandria's waterfront are all within a mile. Direct bus service runs to National Airport or upper King Street's Metro station.
It's just three blocks to the bike trail that heads south to Mount Vernon, past the American Horticultural Society's headquarters at River Farm, or the Collingwood Library and Museum on Americanism.
Several residents jokingly complained of the budget-breaking temptations offered by Balducci's next door. It becomes easy to lean on the international array of ready-made food items available at this gourmet grocery as a solution to the dilemma: "I got home late and have no time to cook."
For those who cook, the compact kitchens at Monticello-Lee have gas stoves, raised-panel oak cabinets and double-door refrigerators. Most have a window.
Ghanbari particularly likes his light-filled one-bedroom corner apartment with views overlooking S. Washington Street. The changing scene of people going by is lively, he said.
All units have hardwood floors, plaster walls, radiator heat, built-in bookcases, walk-in closets, window air conditioners and ceiling fans.
There are 87 free parking spaces set aside for residents on a first-come, first-served basis. According to Glidden, the apartment complex doesn't issue parking permits but the spaces are monitored for unauthorized use.
Because other street parking in this area of Alexandria has a two- or three-hour limit on weekdays, the managers strongly recommend that each vehicle owner invest $15 a year for the city's residential parking sticker. As Glidden said, "Even if you don't plan on having to park on the street during the day, vacations and trips happen." The permit fee is much cheaper than a ticket -- and much easier than navigating the property's one dead-end side alley, where 15 of the 87 spaces are located, and where backing out can be tricky.
Judy Parker has a city sticker, so she can easily park right in front of her building. Parker has lived in three different buildings at Monticello-Lee over seven years and now has one of the largest two-bedroom units.
"Maintenance here is stellar," she said. "Whenever you need them, they are here." Jose Rodriguez, the head of maintenance, started as an assistant maintenance engineer nine years ago. "He makes this place work," said property manager Reynolds.
There are changes on the horizon. Glidden said, "As a management company we are exploring large-scale electrical and amenity upgrades that would facilitate future dishwashers, washers and dryers in each unit." The trick will be to bring Monticello-Lee into the 21st century without destroying the classic character of the community.