When Edward J. Eyring first walked into the old Fulton Hotel on I Street NW, the stench in the dilapidated building hung thick like fog.
Every inch of the four-story building's floors was divided into pint-size cubbyholes with only enough space for a mattress. Clothes were scattered around. Graffiti covered the walls, including a scrawled grocery shopping list: TV dinners, Coke, tampons, crack stems and vodka. The toilets hadn't been flushed.
"That's just the way they lived," Eyring said. "Like crack stems were normal. . . . I wouldn't have [wanted to] come in here because it smelled. They hadn't flushed the toilets for who knows how long.
"If I look at a dump, it looks like a dump," Eyring said. "It takes all that's in me to make it look like a dream."
Fortunately for Eyring, president and executive director of Gospel Rescue Ministries of Washington, D.C., he didn't tour the building in Chinatown alone. He was accompanied by his wife, Mary Jane, the ministry's co-director. She was filled with optimism that it would be a women's refuge, a natural extension of the men's residential mission around the corner.
"I wanted to cry at the thought of how degraded people had become to even be able to walk into a place like this," she said. "My heart ached for them. I was revolted by the filth. It represented the total despair and lack of hope that people who frequented this building must have had."
Now, three years later, the dump the Eyrings first encountered in the 500 block of I Street NW will open soon as the Fulton House of Hope, a newly renovated, 25-room, 6,500-square-foot boarding house for about 48 homeless and drug-addicted women. It has newly painted walls, an oak stairway and a skylight that gives the place a contemporary, cozy look.
It looks much the way Mary Jane Eyring had envisioned.
"I could see an elegant, gracious staircase coming down, all opened up, that didn't have a wall around it," said Mary Jane Eyring, who describes herself as a visual person. "I could feel the sense of elegance the women could have walking down it. I have spent much of my life taking space and thinking of its use and making it functional."
The building, once frequented by prostitutes and crack addicts, became the property of the federal government after a drug raid five years ago. Eyring's ministry received the hotel under the U.S. Justice Department's Weed and Seed Program, a project to rid communities of crime and undesirables by replacing them with drug treatment and crime prevention initiatives.
"This is a cleanup product," Edward Eyring said. "That is the weed part. We're cleaning up the streets. . . . We're taking women off the streets."
Edward Eyring, an orthopedic surgeon with a doctorate in physical biochemistry, and his wife, an English and Bible studies teacher, have been married 41 years and have five children and nine grandchildren. They moved to the District from Knoxville, Tenn., in April 1996 to take over Gospel Rescue Ministries, a 93-year old nonprofit, nondenominational, faith-based ministry.
The group's former director had high hopes for the building, which was acquired in late 1995 when it was seized by the U.S. attorney's office under the federal asset forfeiture laws. The Rev. John Woods told Edward Eyring, six months before he started work, that the mission anticipated spending about three months and $35,000 to fix up the decayed building.
Eyring laughs now. That was in October 1995--four years and $1.2 million ago. Much of the money came from private foundations and individuals. Although the mission paid only $27,000, or 10 percent, of the building's appraised $275,000 value, the reconstruction costs were far steeper than anyone estimated.
In October 1998, when the last city permit was secured and ground was broken, the hotel's walls began to crumble, literally. When workers removed the wallpaper, they found that bricks were missing and the outside walls had to be fastened to the inside walls with heavy bolts. It took an entire winter to put a roof on the building.
Replacing the two staircases in the hotel cost about $100,000. The woodwork on the roof alone was another $50,000 because the cornices were handmade to match the original architecture of the historic building. Eyring estimates that it will take about $300,000 a year to run the facility, which is expected to open by Christmas.
But it is all worth it, Eyring said, noting that the Fulton House of Hope is on some of the "hottest commercial property in Washington, D.C."--two blocks from MCI Center, two blocks from the site of the new convention center and eight blocks from the Capitol.
Unfortunately, it also is less than a minute away from drug dealers who may prey on the women, who are fragile and battling addictions, according to David Mincey, a resident at the men's mission who is helping oversee the renovations at the old hotel.
"It would take three to four seconds to go across the street to get some crack," said Mincey, a 49-year-old former drug dealer. "We're in a combat zone."
The Fulton House of Hope is not a drug treatment center, but a place where women can live and bond with others as they receive treatment and job training at the nearby Gospel Rescue Ministries.
"If you don't change the whole person, they just relapse," Eyring said. "The problem is to get them to the point where when they first go out, they don't go and get crack."
Edward Eyring hopes to work with ex-offenders, particularly those who have completed their prison sentences and find themselves tossed back into society with no jobs, homes or money.
He finds it most satisfying that some of the women who once plied their trade in the Fulton when it was a "$10-a-night flophouse" now have asked to return for spiritual healing.
They'll find a different building than the one they last saw. The boarding house's rooms can house as many as three occupants. Each room is equipped with outlets for telephones and computers. Huge wooden cabinets for their belongings already are in place. There are seven bathrooms and central air and heating.
In the next few weeks, carpet installation will be completed, furniture will be situated and an interior decorator will add finishing touches.
Mary Jane Eyring recalls how she would pass a busy strip near the University of Tennessee where a little house sat rejected in the midst of nicer buildings.
Many times this thought crossed her mind: "I would love to take a building and restore it as a metaphor for what you can do with people's lives."
The old Fulton Hotel afforded her and her husband that opportunity.
"I knew what our dreams were in terms of transforming lives," she said. "I have seen in the ministry here what God has been able to do and what love has been able to accomplish."
CAPTION: The former Fulton Hotel, in the 500 block of I Street NW, has been renovated and will open as a women's shelter. Edward Eyring, below, president of Gospel Rescue Ministries, admires the building's new staircase.
CAPTION: David Mincey, a volunteer at Fulton House of Hope, checks the water pressure in a new shower stall. The shelter is set to open in a few weeks.