Inside and out, the gunmetal-gray building with the granite facade at 637 Indiana Ave. NW has a story to tell about the history and people of the city.
Now, another chapter is about to unfold. Owner Fred Litwin recently put the three-story building up for lease. When a tenant is found, he plans to close the family business, Litwin Furniture, a collection of antiques and other goods where he has worked since 1951.
"It is the end of the line for this kind of shop, economically and physically," he said. "I am 78 years old and I don't have the stamina."
It is also the end of an era for one of the oldest buildings in the city's 19th-century commercial district. Once one furniture store among many in a crowded quarter of small businesses, Litwin's now is one of only a few homegrown businesses amid an expanding sea of upscale shops, federal monuments and the city's courthouse complex. The long, narrow first floor is crowded with furnishings and objects, such as leather-upholstered chairs, marble-topped chests and elaborate table clocks. Dining chairs sit on a shelf halfway up the wall. Primitive art hangs near the front of the store.
For decades, the store, off Pennsylvania Avenue, sold sofas to federal workers who came in on their lunch hours, dining sets to embassies, and small pieces to young people just starting out. Over the years, Litwin advised local theaters on period furnishings and lent them furniture for their productions.
Litwin's building, near the Archives Metro station, is one of the oldest in the downtown commercial district. At the time it went up, around 1825, the neighborhood was changing from a mainly residential to a commercial district. The city's vast Central Market stood nearby, on land that now houses the National Archives building.
Grocers occupied the Litwin building until the late 1800s. Auctioneers followed, and furniture dealers took over in the early 1900s. The neighborhood, especially nearby Seventh Street NW, was a hub of mom-and-pop furniture dealers, jewelry stores, shoe stores and other small businesses. Litwin remembers that, when he was growing up, the 600 block of Indiana Avenue "was lined with stores like this." Many owners, such as his family, were Jewish immigrants.
"This is where they would come if they wanted cheap, secondhand furniture," he said. "It wasn't an antique row."
The area began to change under redevelopment pressure in the mid-1960s. Litwin and others fought off attempts to demolish the building as part of the redevelopment of nearby Pennsylvania Avenue. "I stood out there with petitions to save it," said his wife, Evelyn, who ran a suburban Maryland nursery school. Now, the building is protected by historic-preservation laws.
"If you walk around in that old part of town, there are very, very few Federal buildings left," said Tersh Boasberg, chairman of the D.C. Preservation Review Board, speaking of the Litwin building and two next door. "These are among the oldest buildings left downtown.
"Right now, we think of Pennsylvania Avenue as all government stuff," he said. "That government stuff didn't go in until the 1930s. Until then, this would have been the central part of downtown Washington, and it would have stayed that way right up until the First World War."
The older buildings in Litwin's neighborhood now are occupied by art galleries, posh clothing stores and a Starbucks. A new generation of immigrant-run small businesses is settling elsewhere -- in Chinatown, Rockville and Annandale, among other places.
When Laura Apelbaum was growing up three decades ago, her father worked for the government. "People used to walk over on their lunch hour and rummage through," she recalled. "My father bought some barrister bookcases from him, and now you can buy them at Restoration Hardware. It used to be all the rage."
Apelbaum is executive director of the D.C. Jewish Historical Society. She is eager to save another of the building's unusual features: a stained-glass window hanging in the store that came from a synagogue in Brooklyn.
The window is a colorful assemblage of more than 300 pieces with a Star of David in the center. Litwin bought it at auction in Rockville two decades ago and said one expert has dated it to around 1890 to 1910. He hopes it will go to a Jewish museum.
The building houses what may be the city's oldest working elevator, a small wood-paneled enclosure that operates with ropes and counterweights. Litwin said he believes the lift is the nation's oldest Otis, installed in the 1850s; other experts have said it may be from another manufacturer, dating from about 1870. Litwin would like to find a new owner before he closes up shop.
"It's awful when you have a love affair with a machine and find that nobody wants it," Litwin said. "We've called a lot of people involved with elevators to try to make a home for this."
Litwin, educated as an engineer, joined the family store in 1951 to work for his father. He and Evelyn moved from Hartford, Conn., where he held what he describes as a dead-end job in the radio and television parts business. It was supposed to be a temporary move, "and we grew to love it," he said.
"The continuity that it represents -- I find it interesting that certain things continue and other things go away," he said. "There's a certain kind of satisfaction to having some expertise in a particular area."
His family operated a furniture business in the building starting in the 1920s and bought the building in 1950. In the late 1960s, he hired a sandblaster to excise the paint and polish the granite facade on the building's first floor.
"My mother and father were very angry that I did it," he said, "until people began to compliment them."
He has never tampered with the roof, which still bears a faded sign for Uneeda biscuits. Lettering over the door now reads: "Merchants of Antiques and Fancy Furniture." Litwin resisted that description for many years because much of his merchandise is less than a century old.
"I never thought these things were antiques," he said. "But people began to refer to this as an antique shop. I kept correcting them, and finally I said, 'The hell with it.' "