Terra cotta grotesques adorn the roof of 2101 Connecticut Ave. NW. A luxury apartment building that opened in 1928, it is now a co-op. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Every time my husband and I walk past the otherwise elegant condo building at 2101 Connecticut Ave. NW, we wonder why alien gargoyles are perched atop the building. They appear to be holding their heads and screaming. Any chance you could solve the mystery?

Barbara Nielsen, Washington

Those striking figures do come from another world, but it’s not outer space. It’s the spirit world — at least allegorically. They aren’t bigheaded aliens, but rather monstrous quasi-Atlases.

As James M. Goode wrote in his book about Washington’s finer apartment buildings, “Best Addresses”: “Designed as horned grinning demons, each holds a massive ball over his head — ‘threatening’ to toss down a stone boulder on intruders to protect the fortunate residents within.”

The correct term for such a sculpture is a “grotesque,” although most people erroneously call them “gargoyles.” (A gargoyle includes a spout to carry rainwater away from a building. A grotesque just looks cool.)

It seems obvious to us today that a fancy building like this one — on the east side of Connecticut, between Kalorama and Wyoming — would be a desirable place to live. But things were a little different in 1927, when construction started. If you were a wealthy Washingtonian back then, you were expected to live in a big house, a mansion of the sort that had started sprouting around Dupont Circle in the 1880s, or a townhouse, maybe. But 2101 Connecticut was an apartment building, something that reminded some potential customers of a fetid, light-starved tenement.

That’s the impression the building’s developer, Harry M. Bralove, was trying to fight. Financiers, he said, were slow to invest in apartment buildings. They feared “epidemics of smallpox breaking out in such buildings, and the owner, together with the mortgage holder, finding himself in the unhappy position of a building without a tenant,” Bralove said in 1928. “Even today, among some investors and financial houses — and certainly in the minds of the neighbors and citizens’ associations — the apartment building occupies a position second only to the livery stable or garage.”

To combat that impression, architects Joseph Abel and George T. Sanmyers spread 64 airy apartments over eight floors. From above, 2101 Connecticut looks like a double H: H-H. That allows each apartment to have windows on three sides. And those apartments are big, each with as much square feet — 2,600 to 3,200 — as a house and with three or four bedrooms, along with accommodations for staff.

Bralove’s brochure touting 2101 Connecticut stated that the building would possess “a charm and dignity usually found only in a private house.”

Several private houses had to be torn down to make way for the project, including that of Samuel W. Woodward, one-half of the department store team of Woodward & Lothrop and a developer of apartment buildings in his own right. (His partner, Alvin Mason Lothrop, had a house just down Connecticut Avenue. It still stands and today is home to the Russian Trade Representative.)

When 2101 Connecticut opened its doors in 1928, rent was $175 a month. The entire building cost $2 million to build, which is about what a single unit there would cost nowadays. It became a co-op in 1976.

Over the years, 2101 has drawn its share of celebrated tenants: politicians, ambassadors, generals. Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark and his wife, Mary, lived there. So did J. Harry Covington of the law firm Covington and Burling.

The grotesques are a delightful feature in a building that’s bristling with them. The arched entrance, Goode writes in “Best Addresses,” is “defined by a pair of handsome limestone piers, each decorated with a baroque scroll at one side and a pineapple finial. . . . The entrance entablature is decorated by four parrot gargoyles in the spandrels, and six lion heads are set into the frieze above.”

“It’s one of the best apartment houses in Washington,” Goode told Answer Man.

The 16 gargoyle guardians on the roof are five feet tall. And while they look like they’re capable of braining pedestrians with those balls they’re holding, if would be hard for them to run after you if they missed: They don’t have legs.

What don't you know?

Toss your questions to Answer Man. Write answerman@washpost.com.

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