Robert Wennett, a recently transplanted New Yorker, sat in his condominium loft near Washington's 14th Street corridor and marveled that he had found a piece of the Big Apple in downtown Washington.
"Everyone told me that there were no lofts in Washington," he said as he sipped juice from a black-stemmed wine glass. His starkly modern one-room apartment has exposed metal support beams, high ceilings and wide-planked floors. "Lofts are a big hit in New York and I was lucky enough to find this one by just walking around the neighborhood," he said.
Wennett and four other residents bought the building's five lofts as soon as they went on the market in April for prices ranging from $140,000 to $265,000. Wennett, the first to move in, is the only New Yorker; the others are from the Washington area.
The condos were carved out of a century-old commercial building on the city's shortest avenue: block-long Johnson Avenue between R and S streets NW. A half block away is 14th Street, a longtime major commercial corridor in the city that was extensively damaged during the riots in 1968. For the past two decades, 14th Street has been a hodgepodge of empty buildings, vacant lots and a few stores. Drug dealers and prostitutes have taken over sections of the street.
The lofts, called the Dupont-Soho Condominium by developers David Miller and Ken Campbell, are a rarity in the city because of the lack of warehouses and small factory buildings suitable for loft conversion, and because most other lofts here are rental units used by artists.
Miller said his company, Columbia Associates, bought the building at 1737 Johnson Ave. for $165,000 last year and put more than $400,000 into the renovation. He said he and Campbell had previously worked only on Victorian houses.
"We had been looking for the right building for a long time," Miller said. "We needed big spaces, high ceilings and an industrial feel to the building. We didn't want to try this kind of development in a Victorian row house."
The building is a nondescript, three-story concrete-block structure that most recently housed Wood's Auto Repair. Large new windows and bright blue paint make the building stand out on the small street.
Each of the lofts is basically one large room. The four smaller units each have 1,100 square feet of floor space, 14-foot ceilings, the original 12-inch-wide pine floorboards, outdoor decks and elaborate security systems; indoor parking is provided. The largest unit measures 2,200 square feet, with two huge skylights and a spiral staircase leading to a 1,500-square-foot deck.
One of the units retains the five-foot gears that were used to raise the building's hand-cranked elevator. The elevator itself did not survive the renovation, but the gears mounted on the ceiling create a built-in industrial sculpture.
"The first two people who looked at the unit with the gears said they wanted them out," Miller said. "We were determined to keep them, and the third person grabbed the unit because of the gears. They are the focal point for that loft."
Across the hall in Wennett's unit, paint that long ago was spattered on a wall by artist Sam Gilliam has been turned into high art. Gilliam, who used the top floor of the building as a studio in the mid-1960s, left walls speckled with gray, red, orange and blue paint. When the loft was painted white recently, Miller instructed the painters to carefully preserve two large patches of the colorful spatters.
The lofts commanded an up-scale price for condominiums of their size, said Steve Mowbray, a Realtor who has sold real estate in the 14th Street area for more than 10 years.
"There is a demand for a special product, and people are willing to pay a high price for something as special as those lofts," he said. "The type of person who would buy a loft near 14th Street is a forward-thinking person who can overlook the rustic aspects of the neighborhood."
Not everyone was taken by the open space concept of the lofts, Campbell said. "Some people who looked at them had to ask, 'Where is the bedroom?' " he said. "And others wanted to cover over the bare brick walls with plasterboard."
Wennett, 25, said that he looked at about 300 apartments and houses in April when he came to Washington to take a job as an acquisition officer for a realty firm that buys and manages shopping centers. "I looked at everything available," he said. "I knew this was what I wanted as soon as I saw it."
Wennett said he wasn't put off by the nearby drugs and prostitution. "I like transitional neighborhoods because they tend to be eclectic," he said. "I don't want to live in a gentrified neighborhood. I've walked on 14th Street, and what is there is everyday life in New York."
The everyday life of 14th Street may be changing more quickly than expected now that a trendy restaurant is expected to open around the corner from the new condominiums.
Herb White, former owner of Herb's Restaurant near Dupont Circle, said he has a contract to buy 1714-16 14th St. NW. "If everything goes right, we will be open by next spring," White said. "We will have performance space, a gallery and a restaurant."
Miller applauded White's decision, but worried that the new interest in the area will exhaust the supply of buildings suitable for lofts. "Everything is getting bought up around 14th Street," he said. "We'd love to do some more lofts but there may not be anything left that we can afford to convert."