Developer Douglas Jemal made a commitment more than a decade ago that mollified the District’s crowd of historic preservationists, who were all atwitter that a new office building would require the demolition of what they deemed an architectural gem.
The Waffle Shop, with its menu of short-order fare, may not have been a beacon of the culinary arts, but many believed that its 1950s art moderne design — neon lettering, serpentine counters and chrome stools — was worthy of immortality.
Jemal not only agreed, he also promised to relocate what was then a 57-year-old greasy spoon — the last of a small chain — from 10th Street NW, across from Ford’s Theatre, to a new downtown address and find someone to serve up the waffles.
A year went by, then five and 10, and nothing happened.
But now, in what is the 12th year of this gastronomic version of “Waiting for Godot,” a construction crew is at the southeast corner of Sixth and K streets NW, putting up the walls where the Waffle Shop will be reborn.
A few miles away, in a Landover warehouse, another team is fabricating a replica of the Waffle Shop’s distinctive sign, which will glow anew in all its red, neon-lit glory. “Great pictures, great paintings take a long time,” Jemal said, explaining the project’s duration. “At the end of the day, what you will have there is art.”
As the District’s economy has boomed in the past decade, recent arrivals often celebrate what is new and fabulous — gentrifying neighborhoods , just-opened glass towers, the latest place to savor the pleasures of avocado toast.
But the impending reincarnation of the Waffle Shop is an opportunity to contemplate the city that was, a tableau of retail nooks and crannies, many with their own character and culture.
The Waffle Shop is among a trio of ghosts from the District’s past that are being revived at the corner of Sixth and K, as part of an agreement between Jemal and a coalition of preservationists.
To the right of the Waffle Shop, a brick shell of a Lord Baltimore gas station — constructed in 1927 and formerly across the street — is being reassembled, albeit without the gas pumps. To the left are the remnants of Hodge’s Sandwich Shop, a popular New York Avenue lunch spot whose regulars included Jemal before it closed in 2007.
“They had the greatest roast beef sandwiches in the world,” Jemal said. “And they sliced it right in front of you. You’re making me hungry just talking about it.”
The triptych of old buildings — a veritable petting zoo for architecture geeks — may seem incongruous in Washington’s contemporary downtown, with all its sleek, modern high-rises.
But preservationists say that it’s essential to retain reminders of the District’s history, not just with statues of dead presidents and generals but with small-scale remnants of ordinary institutions such as a diner, luncheonette and gas station.
“It’s a memorial to a way of life that was so common none of us reflected on it,” said Peter Sefton, a D.C. Preservation League board member. “We all took it for granted that there would be things like the Waffle Shop, and suddenly they were no longer making Waffle Shops and the older ones were disappearing. I wanted my kids to be able to go into a Waffle Shop and understand what life was like in those days.”
Jemal plans to lease the Waffle Shop and possibly the Hodges to a restaurateur who can cook up a breakfast special, as well as burgers and fries. He has already leased the Lord Baltimore, which will serve tacos in its next life.
As much as he appreciates nostalgia, Ryan Shepard, an administrator of the Old Time D.C. Facebook page, which uses historic photographs to commemorate the District’s past, said he’s not sure that reviving a venerated building is enough to capture the life and spirit of what unfolded within its walls.
“They were comfortable dumps,” he said of the Waffle Shop and Hodges. “The food was cheap, it wasn’t particularly good, but it was centrally located. The new version will be neither comfortable nor a dump nor cheap. It’s a little challenging for me to feel warm about anything when you’re paying $20 for lunch.”
As a developer, Jemal is well known in the District for helping to revive downtown and Shaw with new residential and office buildings. He is also known for incorporating older facades into the new buildings, as well as restoring shells such as the Uline Arena in Northeast Washington, where the Beatles played their first concert on American soil and a massive REI store recently opened.
Jemal initially agreed to relocate the Waffle Shop in 2007 after preservationists lobbied the District to designate it a landmark, a status that would have blocked the developer from razing the building to make room for a 10-story office complex.
In exchange for Jemal’s commitment to move the Waffle Shop, preservationists agreed to support its dismantling and relocation, as well as the office building he planned to erect.
At the time, Jemal told a reporter that it would take “24 to 36 months” to reopen the Waffle Shop, a promise that required regular revision as the years passed.
“We’ve been waiting to see it pop up, wherever it will be,” said Michael Berman, head of the Downtown Artists Coalition, one of the groups that fought to save the site. “Doug moves slow.”
Jemal makes no secret that he is patient when developing properties. But finding the Waffle Shop an appropriate new address was more difficult than anticipated, in part because it required agreement among a number of parties, including Jemal and the preservationists.
“You couldn’t just plop it anywhere,” said Paul Millstein, Jemal’s vice president for development. “It had to be the right spot, the right feel and the right fit. It had to be the appropriate streetscape.”
In the meantime, Jemal and the D.C. Preservation League reached agreements to preserve the old Hodges and the Lord Baltimore gas station. In 2016, everyone agreed that all three buildings would find a new home at Sixth and K streets.
Now Jemal’s challenge is to re-create the Waffle Shop, including the tiled mosaic on its exterior, the counters, stools and a ceiling that sloped down as patrons walked to the rear.
The “Waffle Shop Settlement Agreement” he signed in 2007 required him to “document” the interior and exterior before dismantling it and “salvage and reuse” remnants still in “good condition.”
But all that could be salvaged in the dismantling were a few already-worn scraps — a couple of stools, laminate from the counters, a few tiles.
Not to worry, though. Jemal’s team plans to replicate everything, down to the sloping ceiling.
“We’re putting it all back the way it was,” Millstein said.
It’s another question whether they can re-create the Waffle Shop’s grease-infused ambiance, born of more than 50 years’ worth of patrons showing up for a cheap serving of griddle cakes, eggs, maybe a couple of strips of bacon on the side.
“I won’t be the first in line,” Berman said. “But I’d probably go back if someone buys me the first lunch.”