Two decades after rioting rocked the neighborhood near 14th and U streets NW, the city government, theaters, housing and stores have come back, restoring commerce to the area. And now a warehouse conversion has brought a quintessential District commodity: office space.
In its restoration, the 80-year-old M.A. Winter Building at 1436 U St. NW revives the old industrial feel of the neighborhood, shunning ceiling tiles and drywall for raw brick, exposed pipes, operable windows and lofty spaces.
"The whole idea was to keep the warehouse feel," said David Miller, partner with Ken Campbell in Columbia Associates, developer of the 30,000-square-foot, fully leased Winter Building.
Columbia Associates' experience had been limited to the refurbishing of town houses until, in 1986, it transformed a former auto repair shop to luxury loft condominiums on Johnson Avenue NW, a one-block stretch between R and S and 14th and 15th streets. Afterward, Miller and Campbell found a similar project near their homes.
"The Winter Building is maybe 100 yards from my house, and I'd walked past it so many times that I'd gotten to the point where I'd just ignored it," Campbell said. But a real estate agent contacted them, saying that the Maryland savings and loan disaster had forced the sale of the property. "It took us all of five minutes after touring it to know we wanted to buy it," Campbell said.
The previous owners had begun work, with plans for what Campbell termed "a boring office building," with eight-foot-high acoustical ceilings and drywall covering the brick interiors. But fortunately for Miller and Campbell, the renovation had stopped after the repair of extensive fire and water damage and the placement of a new roof.
"We thought this building would be perfect for residential," Miller said, pointing out the revival of the neighborhood, the building of the city's Reeves Municipal Center across the street and the planned opening of Metro's nearby U Street subway station in 1990. The building has parking for 12 cars, and commercial lots are nearby.
"We got a lot of 'I don't know, I don't know,' but in the end, no commitments," he said. For years, crime and drug sales have been a prominent neighborhood problem.
Miller and Campbell decided, with ABS Architects Group, designer of the Johnson Avenue lofts, to try an office building with ABS as the first tenant.
"We spent some time thinking about what architects really need, and built it," said ABS partner Milton Shinberg, standing in the upper deck of the firm's two-story suite. Below, sunlight settled comfortably on several drafting tables.
Many area luminaries recently visited the top-floor studio of former White House photographer Michael Evans for portraits featured in a Regardie's magazine cover story on Washington's power elite.
"Everybody had the same reaction: '1436 U Street, question mark, question mark, question mark,' " Evans said. But, he said, after arriving, "They all raved about the place."
Miller said that when he showed the building to prospective tenants, "At least 50 percent of the people said, 'I just couldn't have 14th and U on the letterhead.' "
Bebe Bahnsen said that when she announced the move of her public relations firm from Dupont Circle, "People were calling and saying, 'Business must not be going that well.' " But soon after she moved in, she held an open house, "and now they're saying, 'How did you find out about it?' "
Bahnsen found the $17.50-per-square-foot rental rate particularly appealing after seeing prime downtown space costing twice as much.
John Seward of Illuminations, a lighting store formerly housed in the Design Center in Southwest, heard of the building when Miller was shopping for lights. Seward mentioned his interest in relocating.
"The next day or so I went over, and fell in love with the place," Seward said. "The more we thought about this area, and the new businesses and the Metro, the more we liked the idea," Seward said. "We thought we'd be on the cutting edge."
Along with the main showroom, Illuminations will have space for lighting seminars in the building's former furnace room. He expects to move in shortly, as does the building's largest tenant, Greenpeace USA.