In the heart of the Sursum Corda housing development, just across the way from the community center and overlooking the crossroad for much of the neighborhood's foot traffic, sits the house at 1135 First Terrace NW.
Over the years, the three-story, five-bedroom house has been a family home, a rendezvous for rowdies and an uninhabitable vacant building. Now, after 18 months of renovation by volunteers, it is a family home again.
"It's like something out of a storybook, something I'd dream about," said Mary Russell, who moved into 1135 during the weekend with her daughter and four grandchildren from a two-bedroom apartment in Northeast Washington.
The restoration of 1135 is a welcome bit of news for Sursum Corda, a small village of town houses at L and North Capitol streets.
Sursum Corda -- Latin for "lift up your hearts" -- opened in 1969. The privately owned complex, originally planned by a nonprofit church-based housing coalition, was put forward as a way to provide rental housing for the District's low- to moderate-income residents.
Over the years, however, the village of concrete town houses set around small plazas and walkways has faced numerous problems. In the mid-1980s, there was a management company that failed to make needed repairs, leaving many residents living in dilapidated homes. In recent years, Sursum Corda has been visited by violence and drug trafficking.
Sister Diane Roache, a Roman Catholic nun who took over management of Sursum Corda in 1988, said that the renovation of 1135 is part of a two-year effort by members and friends of the Sursum Corda Cooperative Association to fill all of the village's vacant units.
Roache said 1135 was vacated in the summer of 1988, and that its location gave its abandonment a symbolic significance.
"It's at the heart of Sursum Corda," she said, and was "a constant reminder of something not working well."
James G. Banks, former public housing chief for the District, said vacant housing is "against the best interests of the community."
Roache said the renovation effort at Sursum Corda has reduced the number of vacant units in the village from 30 to 10 since 1988.
All the renovation work, projects that have varied in scope from repainting to extensive remodeling, has been done with the help of volunteers from community and religious groups such as D.C. Cares and Habitat For Humanity, she said.
In the case of 1135, Roache said, a married couple with several children had lived there. The mother died in 1986, by which time some of the older children were living there with children of their own.
About a year later, some neighbors say, drug users began hanging out around the house.
In 1988, Roache said, the father turned in the keys and left. The rest of the family left too. But the house was so badly damaged -- holes in the walls, missing light fixtures -- that it was in no condition to be leased.
There was no money in the Sursum Corda budget to fix it, so it was boarded up, Roache said.
Then in March 1989, Ed Wilkes, a communications engineer from Fairfax Station , heard about Habitat For Humanity's work at Sursum Corda.
After volunteering on weekends for two months, Wilkes approached Roache with the idea of having his church, Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Fairfax, renovate a house.
When Wilkes, who described his repair skills as "handyman stuff," and other volunteers first entered 1135, they found "a disaster."
During the previous winter, the pipes had burst, and "there was an inch of slime on the floor," he said. "The first couple of weeks, everyone wore rubber gloves."
Improvements include new walls and ceilings, new bathrooms, a new kitchen and newly varnished stairs.
Wilkes estimated that about 75 people have worked on 1135 at one time or another, and that Lord of Life Church contributed $7,500 for the effort.
According to Roache, the work by Lord of Life volunteers enabled the Russells, who were on a waiting list, to move into the house a year earlier than they would have otherwise. "This is truly a family helping a family," Roache said.