It is Friday night, and two elderly women chat in the lobby balcony of their apartment building. They try to discern God's will in the space shuttle catastrophe. Their talk tapers to life in Washington, then to their residence, the Kennedy-Warren. One woman wonders aloud if many young people are moving in.
At that moment, a woman in her twenties emerges from an elevator that is marvelously inlaid with Art Deco designs.. She exchanges a chuckle with the doorman, deftly drops a motorcycle helmet on her head and strides outside.
Oblivious to activity below, the women discuss the building's dining room and hair salon. Two nurses who care for infirm residents leave for the night. Minutes later, a stylish young woman swirls in from the crisp evening, anxious to meet a waiting friend. All the while, an elderly man has sat directly in front of the main doors, staring ahead.
The curtain falls on another day at the Kennedy-Warren apartments, on Connecticut Avenue next to the National Zoo.
When the Kennedy-Warren opened in 1931, it was the place to live, according to longtime Washingtonians, news clips and recent books on local architecture.
Today it maintains a sophisticated countenance, with uniformed doormen, a large, colorful ballroom, and a garage laced with antique cars. The building is home to a Superior Court judge, a former ambassador, Kennedy-Warren residents of 30, 40 or 50 years and young professionals attracted to its architecture.
"We would just walk up Connecticut Avenue, looking at this huge building and wondering about it," recalled Bill Ivory, who became a resident in 1982 with his wife Jennifer. While researching the building for the newsletter of the Art Deco Society of Washington, Ivory found that Congressman Lyndon Johnson moved in in 1937, and that H.R. Haldeman had an in-town hideaway there during Watergate.
Built by E.S. Kennedy and Monroe Warren, the Kennedy-Warren was born when Art Deco was the rage and Depression was the reality. The latter halted construction of a southern wing that architect Joseph Younger had planned and had included in a watercolor that still hangs in the resident manager's office. Not long after the southern wing plans were scratched, Younger committed suicide.
Younger had designed Rizik's F Street Store, the Sixth Presbyterian Church, and luxury apartments at 1661 Crescent Place NW. In "Washington Deco," historian Richard Striner and architect Hans Wirz call Younger's final work "a monument to a promising but tragically brief career."
Aluminum spandrels of intricate circles ornament the golden brick facade. Above the entrance is a crown-shaped display of golden stained glass, highlighted by aluminum swords. Inside marble columns soar into the lobby's upper deck, and meet the rosettes-in-squares pattern of the interior railings.
At 3133 Connecticut Ave. NW, the Kennedy-Warren sits in Cleveland Park, recommended last week for historic district designation by the city's Historic Preservation office. The building's Connecticut Avenue neighbors include some of the city's finest examples of Art Deco architecture, such as the Uptown Theater.
Even without the southern wing, the Kennedy-Warren is an imposing structure, shielded from bustling Connecticut Avenue by a brick wall, a garden and a circular driveway that sweeps under an elliptical, ornamented aluminum marquee.
"We would take guests on tours of the building to see all the Art Deco details, and the ballroom," said Jane Leavy, a resident from 1977 to 1980. "And for the real aficionados, we would go to the lower levels of the garage, and see the Packards, the Studebakers and the old Cadillacs," resting comfortably under protective covers, layers of dust, or both.
The building suggests a bygone era of elegance, when the appropriate pace on Connecticut Avenue was a promenade, not a Walkman-powered prance. The contrast is apparent in the lobby, when women who have dressed in matching coats and hats for simple errands greet younger tenants in ski jackets and running shoes.
And though some of the senior residents have known each other for several decades, they still address each other with a very polite "Miss Smith," or "Mrs. Jones."
"I used to ride a bus down Connecticut Avenue, before I moved here, and the driver would always announce that we were passing the 'Cane-edy Warren.'" laughed a 30-year-resident, now over 80 herself, who said that the building "always had the reputation" of housing many senior citizens.
"But the younger people have changed the whole mood," she said, creating a more casual ambience.
"About 50-50," is the way resident manager Jim Sakes describes the mix of elderly and young tenants in the building's 317 units, priced from $450 to $1300 per month. These range from efficiencies to three-bedroom apartments with a dining room and fireplace.
The building boasts a still-popular Art Deco ballroom, with an elevated alcove for the band, silver goddesses peering from the pillars, and the omnipresent zigzag motif. About six times a year, nostalgia buffs dressed in vintage attire tango and jitterbug at dances sponsored by Empire Productions.
Springing to call cabs and help with packages are Kennedy-Warren doormen in stiff white hats and maroon jackets. Ben Jones, a 38-year employe, inspects residents as they leave. "He'll often stop me at the door and tell me I mustn't leave without my boots," laughed a woman who has lived there for 25 years.
Margee Kendig, a 25-year-old public relations account executive and two-year resident, calls the building "a special place" whose sense of tradition generates camaraderie among staff and residents.
"When I come in the door after work, I feel like saying, 'Hi everybody, I'm home.' It's just that kind of place."