Washington's first telephone answering and secretarial service started there. It was the heart of the '60s antiwar movement, reportedly subjected to more federal wiretaps than a gangland headquarters. And it has been home to a unique array of Washington institutions and individuals: public interest groups from the Aviation Consumer Action Project to Zero Population Growth; graphic designers; pro bono lawyers; entrepreneurs; and even the National Football League Players Association.
But Arlene Kettle hung up on her 38-year-old answering service in 1984. The Vietnam War is a generation old. And now 1346 Connecticut Ave. NW is virtually empty. Pink slips have been issued to all remaining tenants -- save a handful with unexpired leases.
For the Dupont Circle Building is succumbing to the wrecker's ball of the 1980s -- "upscaling." The International Association of Machinists has sold it, and what has been for 40 years a moderately priced, no-frills yet respectable place to do business will become another of this city's "luxury" office complexes. Canned music may soon ring through its once quiet hallways, and automation will replace the men and women who take you on its ancient elevators to its 12 floors. There may even be a fountain and a doorman with a British accent.
The grande dame of Dupont Circle has been called the only office building in this city with a soul. Working there "was like being in a small town," recalls former tenant Albert Fritsch, a chemist and Jesuit priest who came to the building in 1971 and -- along with two other former "Nader's Raiders" -- founded the first national public interest organization devoted solely to science issues. "There was food and a movie theater and a bookstore downstairs and a travel agency upstairs. The elevator operators knew who you were and what floor to let you out. They would even make your trip express if you were in a hurry."
To video specialist Sam Love, who left it in December after 14 years, the Dupont Circle Building was "the closest we've come to a public-interest Pentagon." Love started out with Environmental Action, the group that put together the country's original Earth Day. He eventually became its director, before setting up the Public Production Group on the ninth floor. "What will be missed the most," he says, "was that there was a community here -- lots of complementary organizations which are now being forever scattered." Love himself benefited from the closeness in a very personal way; he and his wife first met in a building elevator.
At 1346 Connecticut, tenants floated between offices, sharing information sources, gossiping, borrowing staplers or subway fare. The second floor was the unofficial social center; TGIF parties were regular features at the end of one hall. Relating the latest off-color joke told by one particular tenant was an ongoing diversion.
It was in every sense of the word a full service building. In its prime you could buy breakfast and lunch, learn foreign languages, get something notarized, obtain appliances or life insurance and even visit a Christian Science practitioner without going outside. At one time, word had it, you could get literally anything from an office on an upper floor run by someone we shall call Frank. Frank offered many services, including the kind that occasioned a visit from the FBI. He often slept in his office, and opened the door for morning business by taking it off the hinges.
Arlene Kettle answered the phones and typed for dozens of the building's occupants. Widowed in World War II after just a few months of marriage, she started her pioneering effort in 1946, with a table full of black telephones -- each had its own series of Morse-code rings -- and a manual typewriter. The high technology of the early '50s brought her a plug-in switchboard, and she ultimately gave in and bought an electric typewriter. Her office space consisted of a cubicle with the board and typewriter (Kettle sat on a swivel chair in between, a nearby television tuned to the soaps) and a larger Dickensian sitting room for her clients. Her service was so personalized ("He'll be late today -- he sounded like he had a bad cold when I talked to him earlier") that callers were convinced she was part of the office. She never broke for lunch and had no backup. Someone once asked her how she availed herself of the ladies room. "Very quickly," was her reply.
Dale, a real estate investor who was in the building for 15 years, always had a smile and a kind word, not to mention a stock tip. Joe ran one of the three passenger elevators, and invariably told you how great you looked and practiced his Sunday hymns as he took you to your destination.
The Dupont Circle Building was home to hard-working people with big hearts, such as a printer named Stoneham. Five years ago he decided to retire and move to Florida. He dropped in on the office next door to render his final bill and say goodbye. After a brief conversation, it seemed clear to Stoneham that his neighbor was a casualty of the 1981 recession. So he put the bill back in his pocket and left, never to return.
And the building was home to hard-working little offices with big clout. Countless national campaigns and citizens' networks -- aimed at everything from controlling toxic wastes to protecting children's rights to improving airline reliability -- were launched out of offices often containing just two or three staffers and a few volunteer interns. A lot of midnight oil was burned there. Influential books and newsletters were cranked out. The Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam was one of several groups in the building that helped sway national opinion against America's Southeast Asia involvement.
The designer of the United Nations flag ran his graphic arts business out of the building. One of the country's most vocal critics of genetic engineering experiments operated from 1346 Connecticut. City Council Chairman Dave Clarke set up his practice there after law school. Feisty local politician and former Takoma Park mayor Sammie Abbott held court in the building.
The community feel of 1346 Connecticut had some historical roots. The building spent its first 15 years not as a 12-story office building but as a popular apartment complex, designed in handsome Art Deco style endcol by architect Merhan Mesrobian. The '40s saw its conversion to office space, as Dupont Circle moved from the edge to the heart of downtown. Its earlier incarnation was responsible, however, for some unique features that made it a different kind of office space. Most of the offices had their own bathrooms, albeit antiquated ones. The elevators were run by human operators. And the windows opened -- all 1,300 of them. It was easy to get a breath of fresh air in the Dupont Circle Building. It was also easy to get a breath of soot. And in late spring it was easy to swelter if your floor was at the bottom of the list for air conditioner installation.
These features, until rather recently, were liabilities for most office-space seekers; the central air conditioning/ automatic, music-filled elevator/ modern plumbing ambiance of newer buildings was preferred. Which made the Dupont Circle Building one of the best bargains in town for those who didn't mind its time-warp charm. Office space there was always priced well below that of competitors. This made it affordable for small entrepreneurs as well as struggling public interest groups.
Adriana Barbieri and Barbara Green started their graphic arts business there in 1978 with $500. Barbieri attributes their success in no small part to their location: "We were able to operate from good, cheap and centrally located space, and have a built-in support group within the building." Like the other tenants, Barbieri and Green looked long and hard to find comparable new space. "For a while it was avoidance and denial," says Green, who plied her trade at a drafting table opposite Barbieri, at a double window opening on the sweep of Dupont Circle. They finally settled on another converted apartment -- this time above the Cozy Corner restaurant. The view isn't as good, but then there is still a place to eat downstairs.
What ultimately did in the Dupont Circle Building was what made it so extremely desirable: Metrorail. A major Red Line station sits directly below it. Part of the building's ground floor was, in fact, torn out in the early '70s to provide construction space and, afterward, an entering concourse for the station. As the subway made downtown once again a sought-after location for offices, the building became a pricey, scuffed antique waiting for restoration.
Designer Hubert Leckey recalls that public transportation has long figured in the popularity of 1346 Connecticut. When he first rented space there in 1950, Dupont Circle was getting a brand new streetcar tunnel to whisk commuters downtown. "The confusion during construction didn't help us any," says Leckey, "but once it was finished it brought the building closer to people. The same for Metro. The building was pretty unattractive when its bottom was torn out, but when everything was working, that made it a hot item."
The sale of the Dupont Circle Building to Square 138 Associates marks the formal end of a gradual process stretching out over the past few years. First came the ban on bicycles inside the building. Then the rough-plastered hallway ceilings that sported industrial-grade light fixtures were lowered and replaced with light panels and acoustical tile. New carpeting started to appear in the corridors. Commercial groups replaced nonprofits as tenants. People like Arlene Kettle started to retire.
Now it is official: The Dupont Circle Building community is no more. The building will take its place with the Washington Senators, and with the D.C. Transit trolleys that once rolled past its doors, as a lamented, never-to-reappear part of D.C. history. The building itself will remain outwardly the same. Its pleasing two-tone facade is protected by landmark status. But like a great trophy of a beast stilled by a hunter, the stuff inside will be quite different.