IN 1973, the Maryland Avenue Development Assn. Venture (called Mad Adventure) was and unpropitious undertaking of 19 separate partners - most of them naive, misguided middle-class couples - who banded together to buy 19 houses on Capitol Hill to the tune of $655,000.
Though our legal agreement ended when we went to settlement on the house, in 1977 we still keep a close moral responsibility, born of continuing common experience. The horrors of buying have been replaced by the terrors of remodeling.
For example: One Saturday night a sodden group of 10 adults all of whom had better things to do, stood ankle-deep in one flooded. English basement, bailing, mopping and hauling out soaked carpeting for three soggy hours.
There was the suicidal willingness of five foolhardy homeowners to stand holding a temporary beam - the support for three stories of brick house - while a new beam was edged into place. And then they walked down the block and did it again in another house.
This block, in a rather ritzy section or the Hill, boasts one single long ladder, a single power mower and a single rose sprayer, shared by all.
Our close concern came from a year of meetings, of law suits, of strategy sessions and screaming arguments over beer and pretzels at the office of Barbara Held's real estate office. A good part of the Mad Adventure is still cohesive. Or, as Juliet Cimino, owner, and veteran of the MADA wars has put it, "You certainly don't find the high-rise mentality here."
To buy the houses, we beat out several well-respected real estate egencies, several other partnerships and one of the biggest developers in Washington. In fact, no one was more surprised than we when we actually got the houses.
The owner of the property, an uneven wedge of land between Maryland Avenue and C Street NE. conveging on Fourth Street at the top of Stanton Park, refused to sell the property in individual parcels. It was an all-or-nothing proposition, and none of us had a half million or so stashed away in a mattress. So we grouped.
Since then, we have developed into front-porch people - perhaps because during the restorations, the front porch was the only safe place to sit. We have birthday parties on front porches, we borrow each others' hibachis to use on front porches, we all read the Sunday papers on front porches.
The 19 houses in the package were built in the beginning of this century by the Lee family, owners of the funeral home hearby, as rental peoperty. (An occasional Lee was sometimes in residence.) Like many houses of the period, they were sturdily built with fine chestnut staircases, high ceilings and well-grained Southern-pine trim. They had, in their youth, pretentions to elegance.
In other ways, they represented a kind of urban version of Levitt's concept in basic design. On Maryland Avenue, for example, there was a choice of a round bay and a staircase on the left, or a square bay and a staircase on the right. Each had six bedrooms strung out along dingy corridors. Across the alley, the C Street houses had three, rather better-designed bedrooms. However, at the end of the block, the architect rebelled and installed battlements and a turret.
For years, the houses were rented to a succession of tenants, many of whom, in turn, rented to roomers. A number of former residents of the houses recall them with affection. Ann Klopher, 71, remembers that "Roosevelt used to drive by, and wave to us on the front porch. He had that bigh smile and long cigarette." She lived in the house we now own. May Menna confessed that she cried when she moved out of the house father rented for 27 years. "It was a beautiful block," she said.
But after World War II, the block started to slide. Some tentants used the walls for target practice and the front yards as weed-cultivation projects. By the late 1960s the effect was somewhat bleak, reminding one of our group of "a Midwestern penal institution."
But behind the facade we thought we had spotted much space for not much money. It was true about the space.
In the spring of 1972, dragging my two preschoolers, I hesitantly poked my way into one of the Maryland Avenue houses that has been abandoned to all and sundry. The sundry had used it as a crash pad and left assorted beer cans, out-of-date newspapers and a mattress beyond description. But for some reason, the night visitors had neglected to carve their initials in the woodwork and it was glorious. I was hooked. And , I thought, it was cheap. At that point, before we got into competitive bidding. the big houses were to go for about $25,000.
The VIsion of glorious wood and high ceilings led to the founding of the Sunday-afternoon meetings of the Mad Adventurers, as all us gathered in the real estate office to review our progress. The process took an entire year and involved several court appearances, the arrival and departure of several original members who lost heart (oh, sensible folks!) and some houseswapping. Houses were chosen by seniority of membership in the group. A tremendous lot of beer was consumed before we concluded the sale - with the large houses going for an impressive $38,000. It seemed horrendously expensive but that was just the beginning.
Some of the houses were in better shape than others. The rumored brothel was well maintained, but chopped into small cubicles. Several houses had been inhabited by individuals with a propersioty for putting new access routes through solid walls. Our night visitors evidently held a deep-seated grudge against the American Standard Plumbing Co., and expressed it by pullin all the fixtures out.
We decided on a complete renovation and commenced during an August heat wave by prying all the old trim off to send to the varnish stripper.
One year and one contractor later. we moved the two children, the dog and ourselves into the almost-completed basement apartment. Still to come were the rest of the concrete on the floor, the gas hookup for cooking and hot water, the refrigerator and other minor luxuries. On the other hand, we had lots of furniture - all of it in a one-bedroom apartment. It was the evening President Nixon announced his resignation, so we watched the tube and drank a celebratory glass of champagne. That night it rained and flooded the apartment.
As we were moving in, so were other renovators, and the shape of the different houses was emerging. On one side of us, lawyer Ken Loewinger was assembling a baroque collection of found objects and furniture with aggressive presence, including William Howard Taft's carved canopied bed. This wooden wonder required wires to the ceiling to support the huge canopy which had, allegedly, fallen on the President. (He stopped using it.) Architecturally, Loewinger made few changes compared to some of his neighbors.
On the other side of us, Clarence and Suzanne Fogelstrum knocked out a two-story hole in their dining-room wall to install a huge, triple-tiered window. The renovation, the design of architect Richard Crone, combines modern and traditional elements. Crone's layout for the basement rental unit became the model for several other units - and the window in the dining room turned up two doors down in the house of Ronald and Julie Cimino. We all did a good deal of borrowing.
A few of us worked with architects - we had Capitol Hill's resident guru, Robert Bell - while others used common-sense creativity and some plagiarism. Our house bears the unmistakable architectural signature of Bell, a vaulting semi-circular window over the French doors to the rear and a trapezoidal kitchen in the center of the house. We have the biggest skylight on the block and the biggest leaks.
Each house is remarkably individual, for all the borrowing. Bachelor Michael McGinn imported his bathtub from Harrods in London, and installed it next to his Finnish sauna. He has library bookshelves from a Reconstruction-era congressman's study and an arch in the dining room from a French chateau. His renovation, all complete save for the tinkering, still lacks his carved Adams ceiling.
Writer John Moore did not feel the need to scavange so far in the restoration of his C Street house. He has crafted the jetsam from the junk piles of the other houses into furniture and window frames and mantels, producing a original, airy effect, in a house which, due to its location at the end of the row, has only two rooms remotely rectangular. One has 11 corners.
In similar fashion, Ed and Adrien Helm have managed to install most of the defunct Stanton Grill - which served hot lunches across the park for years - in their kitchen. They have the old wooden storage shelves as well as a booth, slightly trimmed to fit.
For the moment, the communal alley is evenly divided between struggling grass and renovation junk - but slowly the grass is pushing back the junk. There is even a hesitant movement afoot to consider a microscopic swimming pool if only we can persuade some of the group to forego high privacy fences.
Our renovations are mostly complete - we don't have our light fixtures but that's so minor when you have hot water and a refrigerator. It has been some five years since I poked into our embryonic dream house and, looking back, I think it's worth it - now. But I, and everyone else on the block, wonder if we would have done it had we known. Yet here we are, those naive middle-class couples with the kind of housing we could never have had in any other way.
In addition, we have our close-knit little neighborhood. We meet in the backyard, gossip on the front porch and watch out for each other. As Adrein Helm noted. "This is not the kind of neighborhood where a truck could roll up to one of our houses and ship our all the furniture without anyone asking questions." We have a lot of the advantages of the small town, three blocks from the Capitol.
Each one of the Maryland Avenue houses cost $38,000 in 1973. Today, they would go for some $70,000 to $80,000 in the same condition, according to Arlene Roback, the real estate agent who played den mother to the venture. One of the houses was sold recently for a price rumored to be over $160,000.
There goes the neighborhood. Realistically, what $160,000 purchaser would want to drink beer on the front porch and gossip with paint-spattered neighbors? The successors to the Mad Adventurers will doubtless be toney folk, who draw their curtains and never walk barefoot outside.