The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Repurposed rentals give old buildings in D.C. new life

An artist’s rendering depicts the planned apartments at the Hecht Co. warehouse in Northwest D.C., which was built in 1937. (Antunovich Associates rendering)

When Erik Wyche saw his apartment building in Adams Morgan, it was love at first architectural sight.

As it turns out, the 1940s-era building now home to The Citadel apartments once housed a roller skating rink and a bowling alley. It even became a film production center in the 1980s.

“An interesting backstory always helps,” says Wyche, 28, who lives in The Citadel (1631-1681 Kalorama Road NW; 202-898-1880). “It gave it a little bit more character.”

Wyche says he was drawn to that character, as well as the building’s more modern elements: “As an architectural designer, I can appreciate a lot of those things.”

That old-meets-new vibe comes from the transformation that its developers, Douglas Development Corp., spearheaded in 2006 and 2013. The result: The run-down Art Deco-style structure became a chic 39-unit apartment building that also houses a Harris Teeter and a CrossFit gym. Units range in rent from $1,935 for a junior one-bedroom to $2,650 for a loft studio.

These conversions are part of a real-estate trend that is yielding a whole new crop of historic places for renters to live.

Such changes are far from simple, especially when the intended building has historic status. Take, for example, the former Hecht Co. warehouse at 1401 New York Ave. NE, which was built in 1937. It is an Art Deco-style warehouse, with a 12-point star-shaped cupola crowning a corner, and it is a D.C. Historic Landmark.

That means that any alterations are subject to review by the D.C. Historic Preservation Office. The review process ensures that the character of a landmark is retained and enhanced, says Steve Callcott, deputy preservation officer with the D.C. Office of Planning.

Callcott has been working with Douglas Development and Antunovich Associates, an architecture firm, on the project, which aims to turn the space into 300 apartments.

Antunovich Associates intends to retain elements of the cement warehouse’s “historic envelope,” including decorative glass blocks on the facade, upper windows and masonry, architect Ben Keeney says.

So the exterior will keep its look, Keeney says, but “we’re really going to freshen it up.”

Part of the building will also be repurposed into a mixed-use retail and office space. Rental rates have not been set, but the project is slated for completion in 2015.

Plenty of similar efforts are being planned: The D.C. preservation office reviewed at least 10 projects over the past year that involved adapting historic buildings to residential use, Callcott says.

Another project on Capitol Hill is set to begin major construction in June. Developers are transforming the former Capitol Hill Hospital at 700 Constitution Ave. NE into luxury apartments, while restoring the facade of the 1920s-era building. Other parts of the building will be restored as well.

Tom Borger, chairman of Borger Management Inc. and one of the project developers, says he expects to deliver 143 apartments, a mix of studio and one- and two-bedroom units, by summer 2015. Rental rates have not been set.

While many residential conversions have been celebrated for revitalizing often-vacant buildings in D.C., some have caused a stir.

Neighbors were shocked, according to 2012 newspaper reports, when they learned the building that once housed Frazier’s Funeral Home would become luxury apartments — even though the funeral home, established in 1917, had closed in 2008.

Kyle Thompson, 23, who lives in a unit there, says he and his roommate hadn’t known how well-known the funeral home was. Passersby often ask him questions about it, he says.

He has noticed a divide between people who are sad to see local institutions go and people who are “really excited about the revitalization of D.C.,” Thompson, a program assistant for a nonprofit, says.

“It’s like a new D.C. moving forward,” he says.

The building, at 389 Rhode Island Ave. NW, is part of the LeDroit Park Historic District, which encompasses dozens of buildings built between 1873 and 1910. Developers converted it into six two-bedroom units. Rents range from $2,300 to $2,900, according to Towne Residential, which showed the six units.

Thompson said he didn’t even know it had been a funeral home until they toured the building, which opened for leasing this year.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Thompson says of the macabre history. “I haven’t seen [ghosts] at all yet.” LEA RADICK (FOR EXPRESS)

Owning History

In D.C., conversions of historic buildings aren’t limited to just apartments — condos are also on the rise. One transformation is occurring in Adams Morgan at the former Italian embassy, which was built in 1925 and is on its way to becoming 115 to 130 residential units.

The project started in 2011 but ground to a halt because of financing, says architect Michael Lee Beidler of Trout Design Studio. However, he says the developers hope construction will resume this year. “Il Palazzo” is expected to be completed in 2016.

Plans include the restoration of the building’s exterior as well as the entry hall, ballroom and library, Beidler says. His team also aims to create a new eight-story residential tower behind the original building. The plans call for luxury apartments on the site, as well.