Inside the Wisteria Mansion apartments, where many elderly people live, residents have been congregating in the hallways during the past few days, whispering among themselves about the death of Anna Dolan, a frail but spry 84-year-old woman whom neighbors found suffering from hypothermia--exposure to cold--in her room last week.
In recent years, the resident manager at the Wisteria, which is located downtown at 1101 L St. NW, has been reducing the heat from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., a not-so-unusual energy conservation measure. But now, Washington is going through one of its harshest winters this century and when dawn comes at the Wisteria and the radiator pipes begin crackling it signals not just that the heat has arrived but that the elderly residents have made it through another night.
"It gets so cold I have to burn my foot heater all the time, or else I'd be where Anna Dolan is," said one 73-year-old resident who asked that her name not be used. After being found in her room, Dolan later died, from a combination of exposure and a bad heart.
Winter is a terrifying time for many elderly, for whom heat represents security in ways that younger persons often find difficult to understand. To have someone die down the hall is even more frightening. The fact that city inspectors found the building's temperature to be a perfectly livable 68 degrees after Dolan's death did little to assuage the fear.
As tenant Ruth Wright put it, "When you get old, you don't even know you're getting cold."
"Basically, you get a big blast of heat at 10 p.m. and no more until dawn," said Pat Guthrie, public relations director for the Wisteria Mansion Tenants Association. "For a person like me who stays up late, it gets cold."
Many of the tenants appear soft-spoken, with some seeming withdrawn and lonely. A good number are widows, accustomed to being taken care of for so long by their husbands that now they spend their days just sitting in their tiny rooms, which often are filled to the brim with antiques, china and silverware of days gone by.
"I guess we're not the complaining type," said Wright, who lives in the apartment next to Dolan's. "A lot of things we take as a matter of course, don't even worry about it. When you think about it, her Dolan's way was probably better than going the nursing home route, with all the hassles with doctors and family--the slow death."
Dolan was described as a small woman who walked with a cane and spent her days at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, where she played bridge, and at Sholl's Cafeteria, at the corner of 14th and K streets NW, where she ate breakfast regularly. She was said to have lived in the building for about three years.
Dolan was found semiconscious in her bed Friday afternoon. She was taken to Howard University Hospital where her body temperature was recorded at 94 degrees, compared to the normal 98.6 degrees. She later died. Her death was attributed to "exposure to cold associated with atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease [a poor heart]," according to the D.C. Medical Examiner. The death was ruled an accident.
It was the second time so far this year that hypothermia has contributed to the death of someone inside a Washington apartment. D.C. homicide detectives said yesterday they are still investigating the apparent exposure death of Thomas Brown, 84, who was found in his heatless apartment at 4328 Fourth St. NW on Jan. 10. He died two days later at the Washington Hospital Center.
Wisteria Mansion was once best known for the running vines--wisteria vines, which burst into color in the spring--that used to cover the building. What made it so popular, tenants said, was its relatively inexpensive rent, along with a secretarial service and an ample supply of heat and hot water.
Located just a few blocks from the construction of the modern D.C. Convention Center, the Wisteria now stands as a gray, threadbare, eight-story building. It temporarily ran out of heating oil just hours after an ambulance took Dolan away.
"In the years that I have been here several people have died. Old people die--asthma, heart attack," said the 73-year-old resident who asked not to be named. "But this is different because she froze to death and we know we haven't had heat and we have been paying rent."
No official agency has accused the managers of the property of turning off the heat altogether. "I can't believe they cut the heat off," said Robert Moore, director of the city's Department of Housing and Community Development.
Pat Rollins, the apartment manager, denied that heat ever was cut off completely, though she acknowledged that it generally is reduced at night. She declined further comment. Flaxie Pinkett, president of John R. Pinkett Inc., the real estate firm that manages the property, could not be reached yesterday for comment.
Some residents indicated that they feel they cannot comment freely on Dolan's death because the tenants are in the process of buying the building from the city-funded D. C. Development Corp.--a project about which Dolan was said to be enthusiastic. They want to obtain a loan from the city to effect the purchase, and say they feel that their chances of the loan will diminish if they criticize an agency so closely tied to the city.
"But what I hear people say . . . just let things die down easy," a resident said. "This is the only home they know and if they can't get the loan to buy the building someone else will, and we will all be kicked out. People are scared and they don't want the city to think we are just [stalling] for time."