Best Addresses: Washington’s Grand Apartment Houses
The only two cities with more period apartment houses than the District of Columbia are Chicago and New York. Considering the District’s relative size, it is a genuine gold mine of these historic buildings.
James Goode meticulously catalogued them in his great book “Best Addresses,” and while there are dozens of architecturally noteworthy buildings, the height of their golden age came at the very beginning, from 1890 to 1918.
The most influential of these early buildings still standing is the Cairo at 1615 Q St., NW. Built in 1894 by gifted young architect T. Franklin Schneider, this fanciful, Moorish-inspired creation was the tallest, and probably the biggest, residential building in Washington. It drew heavy criticism for its style, its size and, most of all, its height. Firemen couldn’t get near the top in case of fire and mischievous residents would drop pebbles from the roof garden to the street below, scaring the horses pulling carriages.
The Cairo single-handedly brought about the 1894 building height regulations, which are in place to this day and make Washington the only major U.S. city to have kept its low skyline, a characteristic cherished by Washingtonians.
Our great apartment buildings are a product of the City Beautiful Movement that emerged from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The temporary “White City” in the great exposition was filled with inspiring examples of classic Beaux-Arts architecture created by Americans fresh from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Their devotion to classicism was complete, and visitors who saw the gleaming “city” were enchanted.
Meanwhile, the McMillan Commission in Washington decided it was time to complete Pierre L’Enfant’s great plan for the city, building the grand boulevards and classic buildings that would complement the White House and the Capitol. Enter the architects fresh from Paris and Chicago, who were ready, willing and able to design the great public buildings – as well as grand apartment houses for the white-collar workers moving to Washington to fill the ranks of the expanding federal government. The makings of a real estate success story were at hand.
The list of architects and apartment buildings is truly monumental, but here are a few favorites:
James G. Hill designed the Mendota and the Ontario, and T. Franklin Schneider went on to add an incredible list to his achievements, including the Iowa, the Albemarle, the Farragut, the Cecil, the Burlington, the Woodley, the Rochambeau, California House and California Court. Three of these fabulous buildings were razed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Jules de Sibour mastered Beaux-Arts techniques with the Warder (razed in 1958) and the McCormick Apartment Building, which until recently housed the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
We can thank B. Stanley Simmons for the design of the Wyoming on Columbia Road and Arthur B. Heaton for the Altamont. The architectural firm of Hunter and Bell was responsible for 2029 Connecticut Ave., NW, and Albert Beers designed the Northumberland and the unique Dresden, which perfectly fits its commanding site on the corner of Kalorama Road and Connecticut Avenue.
It was very fortunate that classical architecture had its renaissance at the same time that the federal government decided to promote the massive reconstruction of our city, making L’Enfant’s visionary design – of more than a century before – a stunningly beautiful reality.
Donna Evers, firstname.lastname@example.org, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman-owned and woman-run real estate firm in the Washington metro area, and the proprietor of historic Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Va.