There Goes the Neighborhood: The Last Low-Rent Office Building in Downtown D.C. Smokes out the National Organization for Women, US-Ukraine Foundation, a Private Eye, and the Washington Monthly

By Larson, Christina | The Washington Monthly, December 2005 | Go to article overview

There Goes the Neighborhood: The Last Low-Rent Office Building in Downtown D.C. Smokes out the National Organization for Women, US-Ukraine Foundation, a Private Eye, and the Washington Monthly


Larson, Christina, The Washington Monthly


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 mannequins Halloween witch costume, his purple shirt unbuttoned just enough to reveal a few sway 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 73315th 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. …

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