To understand how a limestone-and-glass building on 14th and R streets NW ended up with same name as your high school best friend, it helps to know the origin myth.
It’s a tale of Elizabeth Taylor. And also: a branding team.
An outspoken AIDS activist, Taylor visited this corner in the early 1990s to dedicate the opening of a Whitman-Walker clinic that had been named for her. The Hollywood legend’s black hair was piled into a formidable cloud and an enamel pin in the shape of a ribbon was affixed to her cardigan, as she mingled with those working to fight an epidemic ravaging Washington. It was as indelible a moment as the vice-ridden neighborhood had seen.
So when, 25 years later, a plan emerged to build 78 apartments on the very same, now-gentrified corner, the memory endured. A list of more than 50 possible names generated by branding firm Revolver New York was whittled down to a few. One was “Untitled,” so there’s that. The favorite was “The Liz.”
Everyone from the architect to the principals convened to debate one aspect, however: Was “The Liz” really what they wanted, particularly when every building seemed to have a “The” in the name? “Liz was not something to be possessed,” says Naseema Shafi, Whitman-Walker Health’s chief executive. “If we’re naming this after a person, and in honor of a person, we should really call it Liz.”
“Liz,” adds Andy Altman, managing principal at the developer, Fivesquares, “had the history and had a fun quality to it.”
Liz is hardly the only example of residential anthropomorphism to hit the market in recent years. Amid a crowded field of rooftop pools and 24-hour concierge services and doggy spas, developers in Washington and beyond are turning to cutesy human names to help their swanky apartment buildings and condos seem not only livable, but relatable — and many are picking names that match those of the millennials they want to attract.
“We’ve seen Nora, the Catherine. I’ve actually seen the Joshua,” says Jamie Matusek, president of the Austin-based branding marketing firm Catalyst, which, by Matusek’s guess, has helped name 500 apartment buildings and other properties nationally.
Bostonians live in the Harvey, or the Jack Flats. On New York’s West Side, sunlight pours into the halls of Oskar. The Washington area alone has the Jason, the Adele, Eliot on 4th, the Tiffany, AVA, the chichi-sounding Henri, the George, the Lacey.
A human name, Matusek says, can help imbue a cold, glass-and-exposed-brick faux loft with “authenticity.”
“It creates a personality for the building,” adds Amy Groff, the National Apartment Association’s senior vice president of industry operations.
Some names are more explicitly luxe. Take the Louis, erected in Washington in 2014, with the look of a Brooklyn warehouse. Ads in the windows of its empty storefronts shouted the name for months before the building’s opening, burrowing it into the capital’s subconscious.
That’s for Louis XIV, a wink to its 14th Street address. (Get it?) But it also sounds a bit like a nod to Louis Vuitton and its “Louis bag” ubiquitous among strivers. Either way, the name evokes money, the ostentatious and somewhat basic variety, and with monthly rents climbing into five figures, well, so does the Louis.
The label harks back to aristocratic prewar building names, which were often affixed to glamorous architectural showpieces to lure the upper crust. That’s who moved into the District’s Brittany. F. Scott Fitzgerald crashed at the exotic-sounding Cairo (Hotel, as it was for decades before going condo). Los Angeles has the standout St. Germaine, with its incongruous French turrets. And the Dakota set a bar for New York living — and for the city’s impenetrable co-op boards.
Decades later, the rest of us sad sacks moved into places called Evergreen Terrace or Meadow View or Park Village, unremarkable names that, at most, deceptively suggested that woods and panoramas lay outside our shag-carpeted, cookie-cutter one-bedrooms. We’d have been truly lucky if such buildings even had pools.
Then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, high-end apartments and condos began pouring onto the market, Groff says, and the branded building was reborn. To project luxury and stand out now, she says, “You have to get kind of creative with the names.”
The first examples, Matusek says, bore names that often included words such as “Commons” or “the Square” — signaling an emphasis on public space (community rooms, gyms) and a connection to a larger community.
More recently, we’ve seen other trends, including a rash of belabored references to buildings’ addresses — see: Ten Thousand, at 10000 Santa Monica Blvd. in Los Angeles, or Five-One-Five in New York or Seattle’s 2nd + John.
Developers have a pack mentality — which is another reason the human names have snowballed, Groff says. “If one community names their building the Catherine, then the next one down the street may follow suit, because that’s what marketers and developers do.” A Texas developer had another reason to call his Austin project the Catherine, however: That’s his granddaughter, Matusek says, and naming buildings after family — even dogs — is part of the trend.
Some residents of the U Street area might appreciate the Langston Lofts’ nod to the poet Langston Hughes, or that the Lacey isn’t Irish but instead pays homage to Lacey C. Wilson and his son, Lacey Jr., the black former owners of the 11th Street NW restaurant on whose grounds the building stands. Like the Ellington, named for Duke Ellington, on U Street, they’re examples of what urban-policy expert Derek Hyra has called “black branding” — a controversial trend within a trend in Washington that taps black culture to sell to white newcomers.
Yet the names of most of these developments skew vanilla. We wouldn’t be surprised to see one dubbed the Becky. Although Washington has the punny Mai Place, which may or may not be Chinese in inspiration, wither the Kamala or the Lakeith? What are the rules of nomenclature?
“When we look at naming a property, we look at not just what is unique and fun, but what is relatable to the area,” says Matusek. “What are the historical ties? What are the trends that are surfacing?”
She believes there’s a “vintage-hipster” current inspiring some named buildings, such as Chicago’s modernist Emme, or the Hepburn (evoking the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”-era Audrey) near Dupont Circle. And that phenomenon has gripped far more than apartments: Getaway’s tiny vacation houses have names with a certain antique quality, such as Hank and Lillian, and so do Warby Parker frames (Thurston, Rosemary, Eugene), the holy grail of millennial eyewear. In Washington, the Eleanor, a bar and restaurant with bowling and skeeball, took its name from the city’s congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton. And you can also eat at Olivia, Chloe and Elle.
“Before you know it, you have this wash of a trend, and it gets old,” warns Matusek. “Then it’s not memorable anymore.”
One day the Jason might feel as hackneyed as, well, a Riverside Oaks.