• Property: Rainbow Lofts
  • Developer: Walnut Street Development
  • Location: Washington, D.C.
  • Cost of Renovation: $4.1 million
  • Length of Renovation: 17 months
  • Project Scope: Transformation of an auto body shop and parking lot into a 21-unit urban loft condominium.

Maybe parents don't always know best. Robert Montagne's dad was skeptical when he saw his developer son's newest purchase—an auto body shop in downtown Washington, D.C., that he envisioned as authentic loft-style condos.
"It [the building] was in pretty bad, rough shape, and my dad was looking at me like I was completely nuts," says Montagne, president and CEO of Fairfax, Va.-based Walnut Street Development. "But I ended up pulling it off."

BRICK ATTACK: Original brick walls, 13-foot concrete ceilings, hardwood floors, and built-in fireplaces create a true loft atmosphere at Rainbow Lofts. Sales started when the building was 75 percent finished because the developer wanted to clearly convey the units' distinctiveness.
BRICK ATTACK: Original brick walls, 13-foot concrete ceilings, hardwood floors, and built-in fireplaces create a true loft atmosphere at Rainbow Lofts. Sales started when the building was 75 percent finished because the developer wanted to clearly convey the units' distinctiveness.

That he did. Just two years later in October 2004, Rainbow Lofts opened it doors to reveal 21 unique "true" lofts, complete with 13-foot concrete ceilings, expansive windows, original brick walls, and exposed ductwork and steel beams. The units, which range from 613 square feet to 1,400 square feet, sold from the $200,000s to the $700,000s.

"I loved the concept of taking an auto body repair shop and turning it into real lofts," says Montagne, who spotted the operating body shop while he was developing another building a few blocks away. Montagne made a few calls, only to discover he needed to convince not just one owner, but eight cousins spread across the world who co-owned the property. "It took forever to get them all together and get a deal done," he says.

A year later, Montagne bought the shop—complete with a rusted-out 1965 Porsche—for $2 million. "After we bought that building, I called my wife and told her, 'Guess what I bought, honey? I just bought a Porsche,'" he recalls with a chuckle.

Shifting Gears

Sleek red letters on the condo's exterior spell out "Rainbow Auto Body & Painting Co.," a simple yet charming nod to the building's—and neighborhood's—past. The surrounding area, just west of Washington's Logan Circle, was once home to repair shops and car showrooms that thrived pre-World War II. As the area slowly deteriorated, the neighborhood became an easy target for crime and prostitution.

But today, the area buzzes with the sounds of bulldozers and other heavy machinery as hundreds of luxury condos and rentals take shape. Rainbow Lofts is one of the first authentic, adaptive-reuse loft projects to debut not only in the Logan Circle neighborhood, but in the entire city, says Steve Dickens, the project's architect. "There's just been this incredibly big deal in D.C. about all these lofts, but in terms of actual product, there have been hardly any of them," says Dickens, who was so impressed with the project, he purchased a unit to live in himself.