I think of them as the grand old dames of Washington. Each time I drive down Connecticut Avenue, I marvel at the elegance of the apartment buildings that line this busy, tree-covered street in the northwest quadrant of the city. If I crane my neck, I can see the greenery of an otherwise-obscured rooftop garden on a building just north of Dupont Circle. Another's exterior offers me showy exterior details—and a hint of the labor involved in maintaining them, given the ever-present scaffolds. As I pass another, I peer through its opening entrance doors, hoping for a glimpse of the interior fountains mentioned in a recent Washington Post article.
Every city, from New York to San Francisco, has buildings like these, and wherever I go, they capture my attention and imagination. They also provide the inspiration for Landmarks, one of the new departments we introduced in January. Each month, we highlight one of these special places and reveal a little of the history behind the façade.
It's a fascinating exercise, whether we're considering a property for the magazine or simply driving by the building. So many decades have passed since these apartments welcomed their first residents; I can only begin to envision the changes that must have taken place in the neighborhood, to the building, and among the residents themselves.
But the buildings know. Like coy dowagers, they give hints of what life used to be like in the properties of the past, with their restaurants, ballrooms, and artfully decorated lobbies. Such amenities may be long gone, converted years ago into modern must-haves—gyms, movie theaters, fitness centers, and the like—but the memory of them still offers a window into a city's history and the people who lived there.
Unfortunately, that view—especially in cities—isn't always so delightful. While some apartment buildings, like those on Connecticut Avenue, have continued to offer residents an enviable address, apartment properties in Washington and other cities clearly have suffered as jobs and housing have moved beyond city boundaries. Too often, the money vanishes, so does the maintenance. Glass gets cracked and stays that way. Paint peels from windows and doors, leaving bare spots. Grass gets trampled and isn't replaced. Finally, a once-proud building is left to crumble and collapse, along with the neighborhood that surrounds it.
It doesn't have to be that way. These structures matter, historically and economically, as cities work to rebuild the economic base many of them lost years ago. As renters and condo buyers return to urban neighborhoods, they want multifamily residences with a sense of place—some history, some meaning—not just downtown versions of the suburban communities they deliberately left behind. These buildings can provide that.
Reviving such properties isn't easy or cheap, of course. Renovating and rehabbing an older apartment building is expensive and time-consuming, as detailed in our Facelift department each month. But these stories also show that such projects can be personally and financially rewarding for those who persevere. Renters and buyers value the unique features, the neighborhood begins to rebound, rents and prices rise—and those grand old ladies finally get the respect and appreciation they deserve.