Fifteen years ago, Paul Pasquarella decided to plant a tomato. "I'm Italian," he said, waving his arms about in illustration.
So he and his partner, Michael Honeycutt, trekked off to look at houses and gardens. Then they saw a two-bedroom co-op unit at Tilden Gardens in Northwest Washington, the very unit once occupied by former president Harry S. Truman, his wife, Bess, and daughter, Margaret. Suddenly, growing tomatoes was irrelevant.
"This place, when it hits you, it's immediate," Pasquarella said.
"Love!" his neighbor, Grace Fleming, sighed in understanding.
There are many reasons Fleming and her husband, Phil, a semi-retired lawyer, enjoy living at Tilden Gardens -- not the least that he inherited the three-bedroom place from his parents, who bought it in 1972. The Cleveland Park location offers "convenience to restaurants, banks, shops, library, the zoo, Metro," Phil Fleming said. "Our grandchildren come to visit and we all walk to the zoo and have a wonderful time."
But plenty of other buildings are similarly well-located, buildings that even boast such modern amenities as central air conditioning, rather than window units poking anachronistically from double-hung windows. Tilden Gardens offers something a little different. This is a place that speaks to the heart, residents say.
Ask Jan Benedetti what attracted her to her one-bedroom apartment five years ago, and the editor at the Bureau of National Affairs replies: "I loved it. I love it. It's beautiful."
That it is. Built in the late 1920s and chronicled in the book "Best Addresses: A Century of Washington's Distinguished Apartment Houses," the six-building complex is set on a five-acre, triangular plot. Three acres of terraced gardens and walkways of crushed stone surround the brick and limestone buildings with their gables and dormers and numerous chimneys. Fronting on Connecticut Avenue NW and bordered by Tilden and Sedgewick streets, Tilden Gardens was Washington's largest luxury co-op until the Watergate was built in the 1960s.
A co-op is a complex where residents own shares in a master corporation rather than owning their individual units. The board of directors has more control than in other types of communities, including the right to approve or disapprove buyers.
There are just 158 units and an unusual ratio of green space to dwellings, said Alan Friedman, the co-op's board president. He moved there in 1987 with his partner, Lou Altarescu. "Under zoning, they could put 975 apartments up."
The complex has scarcely changed over the years. The owners like it just the way it is, a bit out of time. And would-be buyers say the same when they apply to the board of directors.
"We get these biographies from prospective owners, and almost always they will say that they always admired the property, they always considered it as an ultimate goal," Pasquarella said. "That's what we hear over and over again."
Changes are subtle, restoring not renovating. "A lot of people are bringing back their apartments to look like it would have in the '30s," Friedman said. "They're putting in crown molding, French doors on the dining room . . . that's a big selling point in Tilden Gardens, the dining room." Most of the units have them, along with enclosed sun porches and double foyers, like entering an airlock into a curio cabinet.
"They were built beautifully, with thought and intelligence and a love for detail," Pasquarella said. "When the place was originally done, the kitchens had beautiful wood cabinets and glass doors. People are now going back. It costs a fortune, but that's what they want. They might remodel a kitchen or a bathroom, but basically the grandeur and scope of the rooms are kept the same way."
All of the apartments are sizable. "Particularly if you have to dust," said Friedman, whose two-bedroom flat, one of the smaller ones, is about 1,150 square feet.
The common areas also are preserved in the style of their heyday. Dark wood has a mellow glow. The heavy brass grates on the old Otis elevators are kept polished to a mirror sheen.
"Can I tell you a little story about that?" asked James Brown, the building engineer. "I was in the Marine Corps and we shined brass." he said. "When I first come here, I said, is this stuff brass? The doorknobs, the hinges, everything was brass. And we started shining brass from then on. Been doing that for 30-some years."
Not by himself, though. There are nine full-time and three part-time employees on the building staff, including Brown, his wife, Vicki, and the general manager, Merlin Jacobs. A landscaping company keeps up the grounds.
Some of the top-floor units are centrally cooled because owners can put their condensers on the roof, but most have window units -- or nothing.
The baronial party room, with its stone floor and hearth that's big enough to roast a pig, is cooled with a box fan.
Several neighbors gathered there one day recently to discuss their community.
"These buildings were built when there was no air conditioning. There are lovely cross breezes," said Phil Fleming. "You would think it would be hot but . . . "
"We have windows on three sides," said his wife, completing the thought.
It doesn't take much to heat the units in winter, either.
"These walls are just like Fort Knox," Brown said.
Then again, it is a co-op, and alterations are tightly controlled.
"When you want to do work, you have to submit plans to the board and the board gets to say yea or nay," Pasquarella said.
"We think this is our little kingdom, but it really isn't," Phil Fleming chimed in. "You have to live with rules. Some of us aren't happy with all of them, but when we signed to come into this place, you're given the bylaws."
Friedman added, "In the end . . . it's a community -- nobody ever wins outright. Everything here is a series of compromises. Carpeting gets decided on that you might absolutely hate, but like it or not, you're going to live with it."
The no-dog rule, for example, causes some growling.
However, Friedman said, "People don't want barking dogs. They moved in knowing there's no pets. You do have next-door neighbors and neighbors who live upstairs and downstairs."
And parking is a major challenge. "They did not build enough parking spaces," Phil Fleming said. "Each building has a waiting list that you get on and in the fullness of time, as the Quakers say, your name will be reached."
"We waited nine years," Pasquarella said. "If you look at the list now, the person at the top has been on the list for eight years."
"There is a complicated structure for handling the list," Fleming paused, trying to explain.
"It depends on the phases of the moon," concluded Pasquarella, to peals of knowing laughter.
Then there's the fairly strict rule about sublets. You can't up and move to Tahiti for a year, renting your place to a stranger. "If there's a compelling reason for someone to sublet -- compelling meaning a job transfer -- generally we work with the person," Friedman said.
"People who sublet do not treat this as their home," Pasquarella said. "They don't have the same respect for it. Or the financial interest in it. Virtually all our occupants are owners."
As with all Washington real estate, prices have skyrocketed in the past few years. Benedetti paid $128,000 for her one-bedroom unit five years ago. "I had it appraised two years ago, and it was $250,000. Now they're going up over $300,000."
Said Pasquarella, "Frankly, I don't know how the twentysomethings afford to buy here, but they do. When we came here 15 years ago, we were about as young as you got. There were some very old people."
"You can say that again," Brown mumbled. "They got younger as the years passed. . . . When I first came here, there were elderly people, mostly retired people. Now, everybody goes out every day and goes to work."
It's a nice mix of people, they agreed, ranging in age from infancy to over 90. "It's a cohesive group that gets along," Phil Fleming said. "State Department, private industry. "
"The resumes of the new people are amazing, amazing," Benedetti said. "Presidential commission, Yale, Princeton."
"When new people come, they write up an autobiographical statement, which gets circulated to the entire community," Phil Fleming explained.
"You read these things a couple of months before they move in," Pasquarella said, "and then you've forgotten about them and then you meet them in the laundry room."
"And you go back and read it . . . after you've seen them washing their underwear," Friedman concluded with a laugh.
"I'm resigned to the fact that I will never have a washer and dryer in my own living space," Grace Fleming said.
"But it's like meeting by the river," Benedetti said. "You get to know the neighbors."
The gardens are undergoing extensive restoration; new benches and pergolas dot the pathways.
A restaurant, which closed in the early 1970s, won't be restored, however. "It was a regular dining room. A restaurant," Brown recalled. "We had one old woman who needed a wheelchair and I had to put up a ramp so she could get down steps every day. And they did room service."
"If you wanted your meals delivered to your apartment they would do that," Friedman said. "People . . . would have a dinner party and have drinks and hors d'oeuvres in the apartment and go downstairs for dinner."
Even though the restaurant is gone, the residents still have access to one other uncommon amenity. There are two guest rooms on the property that owners can reserve for $51 a night. "It's a bargain," Friedman said. "And you can have your guest near you, but out of your house, which is a nice thing."
"It's a beautiful building," Pasquarella said. "I can't think of living anywhere else. Cannot imagine now living in a house. Even not having a tomato."