It wasn't the nine bathrooms that were daunting to Robert and Karen Reed when they began to renovate their newly purchased home.
It was the nine kitchens.
"There were two on every floor except for the first floor, which had three," Robert Reed said. The 5,400-square-foot Capitol Hill dwelling, built in 1876, had been divided into a nine-unit apartment building in the 1960s -- each with a separate living room, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. But down those dingy corridors, through the gypsum board walls, and behind the rows of doors, the Reeds saw the bones of an airy, graceful mansion that would be perfect for the couple and their four young sons.
"From the beginning, we saw a house, not an apartment building," Reed said recently, as sunlight streamed through the now-open living space on the first floor. "We had a sense of how it was going to work, where the living room should be and the dining room. It was all there."
The Reeds are among a small but growing number of District homeowners who are buying multifamily residences and turning them back into single-family houses.
Real estate agents and city historians say it's because of the city's changing demographics. During World War II, many houses were converted to multifamily units to ease a housing crunch caused by a flood of war workers. More homes were converted to small units in the 1960s and 1970s, when families fled to the suburbs.
"It was two forces working together -- single workers moving into the city and families leaving for the suburbs," said Kim Prothro Williams,an architectural historian . "Almost all of the homes in the elite residential areas, like Dupont Circle, were originally built as single-family homes. The conversions to apartments started as early as the 1920s and really accelerated from the war years all the way through the '70s."
But now, real estate agents say, more couples are staying in the city after they have children and are seeking larger homes for growing families. With housing short in desirable older neighborhoods, some people are snapping up the multi-units and converting them back into owner-occupied residences -- often keeping at least one rental unit to help pay mortgages.
"The demand in neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill and Dupont Circle is for single-family homes," said Don Denton, managing broker of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage on Capitol Hill. "When you get a property where they've divided it by slapping up doors and walls, it's not that hard to switch it back."
For the Reeds, renovating their nine-unit building was far from simple. The sagging, free-standing dwelling was originally built for one family, but it had been used as a boarding house and as a school before it was converted into apartments. The wiring, plumbing and heating systems were haphazardly installed over the years and there were nine separate electricity meters.
The first thing the couple did when they bought the property in 2000 was to fix up the two basement units so they could move in while the house above them was transformed. They lived downstairs for almost a year with their four sons, an au pair and a cousin.
Reed said the upstairs part of the house was gutted. On what he calls "demolition day," a crew of more than a dozen men arrived with crowbars and went to work, ripping out walls and fixtures.
"They were literally flipping these huge, heavy refrigerators down the stairs, one after another," Reed said. "They ripped out linoleum, took out all the doors, the walls that weren't original to the house, some of the walls that were original to the house. It was just crazy."
The upper stories were turned into a hollow shell, with gaping windows and a sagging front porch. On Halloween, trick-or-treaters thought it was a haunted house built for the holiday and asked the family how much it cost to enter.
Not all such renovations are so difficult. Real estate agents and builders say that in most cases walls that were erected to divide units can simply be pulled out and the floors underneath kept intact. The original stairwells are usually left standing. Extra kitchens can be drywalled after the fixtures are removed, and used as small bedrooms, dens or laundry rooms.
Still, there can be some unexpected snags.
For example, Matt Braiman still receives multiple electric and gas bills every month for his residence on Capitol Hill, which used to be three apartments. Homeowners say they often receive catalogues, phone books and junk mail in duplicate or triplicate.
Ed Grimm, executive director of the Historic Dupont Circle Main Streets program, bought a 4,000-square-foot house on O Street NW in 1998 that had been used as offices for an Australian import business. Perplexed when he couldn't get his wireless Internet service to work, Grimm discovered there were 25 phone lines leading to the house, which was also wired for a high-powered security system.
"With all those electronics, trying to ground anything was a nightmare," he said.
On the plus side, homeowners of converted apartment houses say there's a major convenience during renovation: They can live in one of the units while the rest of the residence is under construction.
"We always had at least one kitchen we could use," Braiman said. "We heard of people having to cook in their bathrooms, but we never had that problem."
Many owners of converted residences choose to keep one or more of the old apartments for extra income. The Reeds, for example, rented out their two basement units after the family moved upstairs into the newly renovated house.
District assessment records show 284 residences in the District that have been converted from multi-family units to single-family residences in the past four years. That figure does not include houses whose owners retain at least one rental unit. Such a home is still considered multifamily dwellings, even though most of the space has been converted for use by one family.
"Having a single apartment in the basement doesn't change the nature of the residence," said Williams, the historian. "It's still an owner-occupied home."
Denton said he has also seen an increasing number of homeowners appropriate "garden apartments" and English basements found in many D.C. rowhouses and turn them into family rooms and master suites.
"The houses are small and you can't build up and you can't build out," he said. "When you have a first child, or a second child -- the only way to go is down."
Braiman and his partner rented out the lower-level unit in their Capitol Hill home for several years, but when they started a family, they took over the space.
The Reeds have the option of using their two lower-level rentals in a variety of ways as their four sons, ages 5 to 12, grow up. Right now, the boys have almost the entire top floor of the house. What was once two cramped apartments is now a wide-open dormitory lit by rows of dormer windows.
"We knocked out a lot of walls in this house," said Reed, whose house will be among those featured on the Capitol Hill Renovator's Tour on Oct. 15. The space is designed so that walls can easily be put up to create separate rooms if his sons want more privacy as they get older.
Real estate agents say the use of space in many of the old multi-units is flexible, and can change as family needs change. Rental units can be used for extra income, or to house adult children, live-in nannies or aged parents. Or the units can be incorporated as extra living space for growing families.
While the challenges of remodeling a multi-unit are perhaps greater than those of the average fixer-upper, owners say the rewards are greater, too: more space, potential rental income and lots of bathrooms. And when it's time to sell, they have large single-family houses in neighborhoods where families want to buy.
"We didn't seek a multi-unit," Braiman said. "We just found a house we liked in a neighborhood we wanted at a price we could afford. It just happened to be divided into apartments."
For the Reeds, now that the nine old refrigerators are gone and there is one spacious kitchen with a soapstone-topped island, the work was worth it.
"This is the house of our dreams," Reed said.
Below: The Reeds turned to a local lumberyard to reproduce many of the exterior fixtures. Left: Before the renovation, the main hall stairs were covered in blue paint.
Below: The staircase, shown with the original newel post now restored to its original wood beauty, is partly carpeted.The Reed house, shown in this 1886 photo, was originally built for one family, but had been used as a boarding house and as a school over the years.