FROM ABOUT 1909, the Louise Hand Laundry, at 1405 12th St. NW, laundered the table cloths of the embassies and the white shirts of the White House. Even people who still had large staffs of their own used to send their treasured pieces to the Louise Hand Laundry. An old brochure said of dress shirts: "Each pleat is lifted slightly, rather than ironed flat and the result is a smartness that justified the pains."
The brochure shows long rooms with high beamed ceilings, hanging lights and pipes, hardworking women and a smattering of men, all wearing spotless white wraparounds, some using irons heated on a hot water stand, others rinsing in a wooden tub. It makes your back hurt just to look at those workers, though you can see by their attitude they were proud of their reputation as the most meticulous laundry craftspeople in the city.
But time moved on, and in 1977, to many people's sorrow, the laundry closed.
Washington has not been so well-pressed since.
Architect Robert Lewis passed by the vacant building one day, and thought "Wow! I've got to live there." He went to see a friend, artist Sanford Shapiro, and said, "Buy the building with me, but I have to have the upstairs half."
Shapiro looked at the 14-foot ceilings on the first floor and said, "Great."
It was all easier said than rebuilt. "We spent one month just moving out washing equipment. The basement was just full of hot water heaters," Lewis said. It took them nine months to make the place habitable, and another month to finish the upstairs. Though they've been in for a year and a half, there are still things to do.
On the outside, Lewis left the original laundry sign across the top and the incised stone with the name. "When we had everything torn up at the beginning of the remodeling," said Lewis, "one man came up with a full laundry bag and wanted us to do it. He got mad when we said we couldn't."
Many preservationists would question Lewis' decision to fill in four of the windows on the front with glass block, hardly suitable to the age of the house. (The prominent electric meter as well seems disfiguring.) Lewis said: "We really didn't decide to use the block until we found there was no Pella window in that size. dSo since we had used glass block on three sides to raise the second floor for the studio, it seemed all right to carry it around.
Lewis and Shapiro also are planning to convert the wing, now roofless and floorless, into a garage with apartments above. In the Logan Circle area, a garage sells for $15,000.
Though the building has a front door, Shapiro and Lewis have their entrance around on the side. To see Lewis, you walk up the iron stairway. To see Shapiro, you knock on the lower door, but it isn't really necessary, the house's menagerie of dogs and cats already have announced your arrival.
Inside, after being tasted by the two dogs and scorned by the cat, we saw the old laundry had been washed away in a tide of renovation.
"We had to do everything," said Lewis. "There were no fireplaces, so we had to dig new footings for that, and of course, completely new electricity, heating and plumbing."
Lewis and Shapiro paid $85,000 for the building and its side lot with the derelict wing. They figure the remodeling cost $180,000. But each apartment has been appraised at $160,000 each.
Lewis took a year off to superintend the remodeling, but both of them worked on the building. Both had done renovations before, including one other project together.
Both floors have been done as a single open room, with privacy divisions kept to a minimum. No room is completely enclosed with the exception of the baths. (And a door to one hasn't been installed yet.) There is an interior staircase with a locking door between to separate the two if need be. But they recently gave a joint party for 400, wandering around both floors.
In Shapiro's section, you enter across a gravel bed for plants and then onto the gray tile which covers both floors. On every wall are Shapiro's portraits -- a stern angry-looking Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, a raucous, fat, Elizabeth Taylor -- he's hard on them.
"I'm painting ugly Los Angeles houses now," said Shapiro. "Maybe I can sell some to rich Californians, though I'd started them before the election."
Furniture is grouped to make two prime areas. The living room is graced with a handsome Art Deco sofa that once belonged to Lewis' parents. "Everybody at home was going to throw it out," Lewis said. In a dark gray flannel, it looks wonderful. There's another comfortable easy chair and two leather Breuer chairs grouped on a rug in front of the fireplace with its simple wooden mantel.
You go up three wide steps to a more intimate sitting room behind the fireplace. Actually, the seating area is a balcony overlooking Shapiro's bedroom, a full flight down.
"We didn't know the space was there." said Shapiro, "until we took out the rotted floor and found a great pile of sand and a huge oil tank. When we got it all out, it was a really large space.
Shapiro's bath is here as well, separated from the bedroom area by a glass block wall, which makes the headboard for his bed. On the walls are a hugh collection of male nudes he's painted.
On the other side of the living room is the dining area -- oak table and Mies van der Robe chairs. Beyond is the kitchen, with a huge Vulcan stove built into a niche, and a wall holding the refrigerator and counter space. Behind the kitchen is Shapiro's studio and its adjacent bath.
"I like it in here. I have a sofa, so if I'm working late, I can just sleep in here if it seems too much trouble to walk down to the end of the flat," Shapiro says.
On the next floor, Lewis' flat is organized in much the same way. He has his architecture studio, which he shares with Michael Holt, just above the artist's stuido. The architecture studio is a story-and-a-half-high -- about 20-feet wide, with light coming in on three sides through the glass block clerestory. An arched glass ceiling, 4-by-38 feet, runs the length of the living room to bring in light, flanked by two huge aluminum tubes that carry the air conditioning.
In the living room, the sofa faces a wicker chair and two blond-and-black web chairs, all on an Oriental rug in front of the brick, mantel-less fireplace. A few steps divide the dining area from the living room.
The kitchen, since Lewis doesn't like to cook as much as Shapiro, is smaller, with a row of glass block as a screen.