There Goes the Neighborhood

Now it can be told. It is not — and never has been — tricky to sneak into The Washington Monthly‘s downtown office building on the corner of H and 15th Streets, one block from the snipers atop the White House.

On a grey Columbus Day, as on all federal holidays, the Monthly was open for business, but the building’s front door was bolted. When I realized I’d arrived without my security card to unlock the door, I simply trotted past the $10 sale racks to the left of the main entrance and pushed open the glass door of the Arrington Club Boutique, where Britney Spears was purring over the loudspeakers while a single shopper pawed through racks of string bikinis and sequined bustiers, occasionally glancing at advertisements posted for various “modeling” agencies. I smiled at the owner, Houston, who was busy finessing a mannequin’s Halloween witch costume, his purple shirt unbuttoned just enough to reveal a few stray chest hairs. And then I turned to my right, and pushed open a side door adorned with a poster of bikini-clad Carmen Electra. I was in the main lobby.

Lest you get the wrong idea about where I work, the storefront on the opposite side of the main entrance is occupied by the Agape Christian Bookstore, where floor-to-ceiling shelves overflow with study Bibles, greeting cards, and Veggie Tales DVDs. Unfortunately, its door into the lobby is usually locked.

What the club boutique and the Christian bookstore, together with the building’s varied office tenants–which have recently included the National Organization for Women, the Washington Area Bicyclists Association, the Center on Ecotourism, Code Pink, a private eye, and the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation–have in common is not ideology but the desire to operate in downtown Washington and not splurge on rent. Most tenants pay a little more than $20 per square foot, about half the market rate for comparable space nearby.

With the low rent come trade-offs. The Woodward Building is old and drafty, with elevators that huff and groan, often stopping for a short rest between stories or opening mysteriously on floors where no passengers embark–according to an engineer from Otis, no company makes replacement parts for these gilded cages anymore, forcing the repair staff to improvise. Many of us take the stairs just to be safe. The bathroom faucets do little more than gurgle, and air conditioning is supplied by crackling window units.

For businesses that can’t quite afford a typical D.C. address for their letterhead, the Woodward beats renting a post box or shuffling across the river to Rosslyn. And if you squint past the dust and peeling paint, the building’s spacious hallways, wrought iron staircase, ceiling frescoes, and gold-trimmed lobby letterbox conjure a certain faded elegance, reminiscent of the Woodward’s original 1911 glory.

All that is coming to an end this year, when 733 15th Street will empty so that it can be renovated and transformed into luxury apartments, its varied tenants smoked out to forage elsewhere in Washington’s difficult real estate market.

While most American cities harbor a handful of neighborhood committees and volunteer organizations, Washington is unique in terms of scale. The swirl of political activity in the capital makes the city a mecca for myriad national and local nonprofits, whose leaders often deem it mission critical to locate their headquarters–or at least a branch–somewhere within earshot of Capitol Hill or the White House. In recent decades, the Woodward Building has filled a particular niche in D.C.’s political ecosystem: sheltering a hefty slice of the capital’s nonprofit underclass.

Its original owners had rather different ambitions. The Woodward Building, an 11-story steel-frame edifice with six marble columns framing one entrance, was built for the owner of the Woodward & Lothrop department stores in the early years of the 20th century, when developers competed to attract the city’s emerging class of lawyers and bankers with marbled lobbies and Beaux Arts facades. It stands across the street from the U.S. Treasury, part of what was soon to become known as the Fifteenth Street Financial District. The exterior resembles a triple-layer cake–three stories of stone form the base, six stories of brick in the middle, and two stories of ornamental terra cotta at the top. With its gilded storefronts, well-clad elevator operators, and spacious offices each with its own large window and transom above the door (necessities in the days before air-conditioning), the Woodward was then the very definition of posh. A year before the building opened, lavish advertisements printed in maroon and gold for prospective tenants proclaimed it “the largest and most imposing office building in Washington.”

The building retained a certain luster into the late 1960s, housing an upscale men’s shoe store frequented by Vice President Hubert Humphrey and a barbershop where Dick Cheney, then a young aide to Donald Rumsfeld at the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity, was a regular. Neil Armstrong once dropped by for a trim on his way to lunch at the White House.

But in the 1970s and 1980s, as other downtown buildings were refurbished or newly constructed, the Woodward grew older and untidy, her Belle Epoque beauty worse for the wear, her lobby chandeliers collecting dust. The well-heeled clients gradually trickled out. The building became known as a last resort for businesses, where the rent was cheap, maintenance was minimal, and the leases contained one-year termination clauses. After his failed presidential bid, John Anderson found himself $600,000 in debt and downsized from his pricer Georgetown offices to the Woodward Building. In the 1980s, Jesse Jackson ran his RAINBOW-PUSH campaign downtown on a budget from the building. Eventually, the jewelry boutique and shoe store moved out; the Bikini Shop moved in. The law firms moved out; the Center on Ecotourism moved in. Just as other downtown buildings were adding underground parking garages, the Woodward Building converted a section of its ground level to a bike room.

Two decades ago, there remained a handful of unrenovated historic buildings in downtown Washington. With their fanciful façades, columned entrances, crackling radiators, and below-market rents, these edifices became refuges for Washingtonians who came to do good, even if they don’t always do well. One by one, each has undergone a make-over: the Southern Building in 1987; the Evening Star Building in 1990; the Investment Building in 1997; the Bowen Building in 2005. Many of the Woodward Building’s final tenants are themselves refugees from prior renovations, including the bicylists’ association and the bespeckled private eye on the seventh floor with a penchant for bellowing from his open door.

The Monthly itself arrived in similar fashion in 2001, soon after our then-office building on Connecticut Avenue–whose tenants included TV-Free America, the Student Environmental Newswire, and the Women’s Collective–was gutted to make way for a ladies’ clothing store, Ann Taylor Loft. The jackhammers had begun churning up the basement while we were still typing away upstairs, our computers shrouded in plastic sheeting to protect them from the clouds of dust. After inspecting row houses in Columbia Heights and office suites in Rosslyn, neither of which seemed Washington enough for The Washington Monthly, our real estate agent escorted us downtown to the Woodward.

It’s hard to get more Washington than this. At least once a day, our offices resound with sirens from official motorcades parading below along 15th Street. Various protesters file by along the same road, en route to Lafayette Park or the National Mall, interrupting our editorial pow-wows with chants and drums. In the months before the invasion of Iraq, the lobby became an ad hoc staging area for various demonstrations, while Code Pink organized marches out of its fifth-floor office, essentially a large broom closet, with “Stop the War” and “No Blood for Oil” banners unfurled for painting in the adjacent hallways. Earlier this year, when a man parked his van at the end of our block and claimed to have a bomb inside, we peered out of our windows to find that the streets had been cordoned off, bomb squads sent in, and seemingly every other building on the block evacuated.

Soon, though, the Woodward will indeed be empty. The hallways are already crowded with moving boxes; signs advertising Ikea office furniture for sale are posted in the lobby. The Monthly is packing up for the International Building, a more recently renovated and more expensive (though not too expensive) building a few blocks away. Meanwhile, there’s talk of donating the old elevators to the Smithsonian.

[Washington Monthly]