The 18-room mansion on T Street NW is made more massive by the decorative bays and dormers, the broad porch and wide lawn. Set on a double lot in historic LeDroit Park, the four-story red brick house is a classic example of Victorian excess--just what the owners wanted.
Communications consultant Alan Rogers and lawyer James Roberts bought the house about three years ago and are restoring, by hand, the extensive gingerbread trim in a flower and clover design. Inside they are salvaging or replacing the original pine floor boards that had rotted through in places, replicating the original 72 window sashes and putting the eight fireplaces back in working order.
Although LeDroit Park was declared a historic district more than 20 years ago, for a long time there were as many boarded-up houses and vacant lots as there were occupied homes. That is beginning to change.
"This is such a fantastic neighborhood, but so many of the great houses have been demolished by neglect," Rogers said. "The one next to us was even larger than ours, but it was torn down."
The 120-year-old house that Rogers has worked full time on repairing and restoring for the past 18 months had been vacant for 30 years. He decided to be his own general contractor after receiving renovation bids he thought were excessive. So far he and Roberts have carved an apartment out of the basement and finished the first floor, but they still are stripping wood and repairing plaster on the top two floors.
Down the street, Michael and Arlene Patrom and their 24-year-old twin daughters, Jennifer and Dionne, bought a smaller mansion in September. The Second Empire house with a mansard roof also was built on a double lot and came with two carriage houses.
In this case, the house had been occupied and was in good structural shape, Arlene Patrom said. However, it was "leaning crooked," she said. The Patroms had one side of the house jacked up 5 1/2 inches and then had to replaster throughout the eight-room house.
The Patroms, retired Air Force officers who now work for the Defense Department, are enthusiastic about the 10-foot-tall windows, original hickory floors throughout the house and the six white marble fireplaces with black slate mantels. Arlene Patrom said, however, that they gave up a more stable neighborhood in Mount Pleasant to buy in LeDroit Park.
"We saw that the neighborhood was a little rough so we installed bars and an alarm system," she said. "We look forward to the day when we can take those bars off, and the way things are going, that will happen in the near future."
They all have bought in a neighborhood with an extraordinary social history. Built and marketed as a suburban community outside the District--Florida Avenue at the time was called Boundary Street and was one of the official city borders--LeDroit Park was marketed as a gated and fenced white enclave.
According to a history written by the LeDroit Park Historical Society, in an 1877 development prospectus, the community was described as "of a varied exterior character as architectural skill can devise--no two being alike--and are noted for the convenience and completeness of the internal arrangements. All have open halls and stairways, liberal sized rooms, pantries, china closets, bedroom closets, bath rooms, cellars and are supplied with ranges, bells, gas and sewerage."
In post-Civil War Washington, sewer service still was a luxury and gated communities a rarity.
The developers assured prospective buyers that "no cheap structure will under any circumstances be permitted," and boasted of the ease of commuting between LeDroit Park and the Capitol, Post Office and Treasury.
By 1887 about 65 houses had been built and the buyers included James McGill, the subdivision's architect; Henry Gannett, a geologist and Cosmos Club president; and Benjamin Butterworth, an Ohio congressman.
The fenced-off subdivision had a village-like atmosphere enhanced by extensive landscaping dissension with neighboring Howard Town, a black community where a number of Howard University professors lived. Dissension turned to resentment over racial segregation, and in July 1888 the fence was torn down by protesters.
Although rebuilt, the fence came down for good in 1891 and the village of LeDroit Park became another neighborhood of the District that had now expanded well beyond Boundary Street.
Rowhouses were built on undeveloped blocks and the old street names of Maple, Spruce and Harewood gave way S, T and 4th streets to conform to the original street grid laid out by Pierre L'Enfant.
African Americans managed to overcome restrictive covenants and transformed the neighborhood into an elite African American community that attracted Robert Terrell, the first black judge on the D.C. Municipal Court, and his wife, civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell. University founder Anna J. Cooper, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and statesman Ralph Bunche also lived in LeDroit Park.
Just this week, the vacant Terrell house at 326 T St. NW was named to this year's list of most endangered historic buildings by the D.C. Preservation League.
Cooper's gracious house, with its wrap-around porch, stands at 2nd and T streets NW and is occupied. Cooper bought the house in 1916, when in the midst of her doctoral studies at Columbia University she unexpectedly became the guardian of five great-nieces and great-nephews. She needed a place that "would be a home to house their Southern exuberance--a place with room enough all around."
She built a gazebo--an octagonal sun room--on the corner of the wide porch for the pleasure of her new family. Ever the determined the student, Cooper went on to receive her PhD in Latin from the Sorbonne in 1925 and returned to Washington to open the Frelinghuysen University for working black adults at her T Street house.
According to a newspaper obituary, she died peacefully at home on Feb. 27, 1964. Two of her great-nieces and a nephew were living with her.
At about that time, LeDroit Park began to lose its luster. Racial integration in the 1950s meant African American residents could move to any neighborhood they could afford, and many chose to move away. The big houses, such as the one Rogers and Roberts bought, either were made into rooming houses or left vacant.
Howard University, contemplating an expansion into LeDroit Park, bought up dozens of houses, but mostly left them vacant. Longtime resident Terry Brown, alarmed at the deterioration of her community, founded the LeDroit Park Historical Society in 1977. The same year the neighborhood received city and federal recognition as a historic district, giving some protection to about 100 buildings.
"What happened was, I lucked out," Brown said. "I went to Walter [Washington] and asked him for help. He thought it would be nice."
Washington, the first elected mayor in the District during this century, also is a longtime resident of LeDroit Park. Brown said his support was needed at the hearings held to determine the neighborhood's eligibility.
Since then, at least one famous person has moved to the historic district. In 1991 Jesse Jackson and his family bought a house at the corner of 4th and T streets NW from the university. The federal-style house was painted white, gates were added and flowers planted in the front.
For years Brown has patrolled her neighborhood with a notebook, keeping track of the condition of various empty buildings and calling in the city inspectors if someone attempts to alter a historic facade.
Howard University recently decided to renovate the houses it had bought over the last 20 years and sell them as residences.
Brown welcomes the activity. She said she is going to begin calling regular meetings again of the historical society. "I'm seeing the changes," she said. "Not much happened in the '70s and the '80s. I'd say things are improving."
WHERE WE LIVE
BOUNDARIES: Elm Street NW on the north, 2nd Street NW on the east, Rhode Island and Florida avenues NW on the south and a zigzag line on the west that follows Bohrer, U and 5th streets NW.
NUMBER OF HOUSES: 100
PROPERTY SALES: Seventeen in the past 12 months, from $49,500 to $270,000, said Gloria Thornburgh of Tutt, Taylor & Rankin.
WITHIN WALKING DISTANCE: Howard University, U Street corridor with shops, restaurants and the historic Lincoln Theatre, for shows and concerts.
A SHORT DRIVE AWAY: Dupont Circle, Adams-Morgan, Capitol Hill.
CAPTION: Alan Rogers stands outside the 18-room mansion that he and James Roberts are restoring. They have worked 18 months on the 120-year-old house.