What Once Was
New Yorkers Transform How Washingtonians Live: Washington’s 19th Century Apartment Revolution
Published: August 28th, 2016
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By Matthew B. Gilmore*
[Editor’s Note: All address referenced in this article are located in the city’s Northwest quadrant, hence the omission of repetitive use of the customary ‘NW’ designation.]
In May of 1880 Congressman Fernando Wood, former mayor of New York City, applied for a permit to build “French flats” at 1418 I Street , the first in Washington. French flats were a variety of apartment house building, a recent innovation in the American housing market. Wood’s contribution, although first, was soon overshadowed by the far more famous and elaborate Portland Flats nearby at Thomas Circle.
Today, 42 percent of Washingtonians live in apartment buildings, but in 1880 the idea of the multi-family dwelling was not nearly as pervasive or respected. The French flats variety, with one unit per floor and named after their (putative) Parisian models, had been built in Chicago and New York City beginning in the 1870s — so Washington was not too far behind. For Washington adoption was fairly slow, but picked up pace in the 1890s — the first French flats were built in 1880, and several more throughout the decade.
It is important to distinguish between the upscale French flats and apartment hotels and the much more quotidian and modest tenements. Terminology is hopelessly muddled with multi-family dwellings being termed “flats,” “tenements,” “hotels” — all were multi-family dwellings but on very different scales. The dozen or so earliest upscale apartment dwellings were joined with a flood in the next decade with over 100 new apartment buildings.
Wood’s flats were evidently initially named after him. Wood died in 1881. After that reference to his name vanishes. The flats were relatively modest, designed by John B. Brady, later the District’s building inspector.
His flats at 1418 I Street continued to be home to members of Washington’s elite circles and recorded in the Elite List. One notable resident in the 1880s and 1890s was Count Pierre de Chambrun, great grandson of the Marquis de Lafayette. Chambrun’s French diplomat father is well-known for his book Impressions of Lincoln and the Civil War.
Wood was the first of the New Yorkers who brought apartment buildings to Washington. The Portland Flats’ Edward L. Weston was the second with his French flats building on Vermont Avenue and 14th Street at Thomas Circle. Built in two stages (permits #1596 issued on June 16, 1880 and #0812 issued on February 2, 1883). Weston, a Yonkers and New York City businessman, hired Adolf Cluss’s firm Cluss & Schultze to design the Portland, a fantastically ornate landmark at New Jersey Avenue and E Street, the equal in its day, to today’s similarly-shaped award-winning National Association of Realtors building today on the triangle at New Jersey Avenue and E Street.
Built on a narrow triangle projection toward Thomas Circle, the Portland’s projections into public space encouraged Mrs. Annie Cole in her nearby similar building efforts. 
The 1880s apartment buildings were located in an arc around the downtown center of Washington City, from the Richmond at 17th and H Streets to the Harrison at 3rd and G. Fernando Wood built his flats immediately behind his house at the corner of 15th and I Streets. That block of 15th Street was notably populated with James G. Blaine’s first Washington mansion just to the south of Wood.
Few images seem to exist of the Fernando Wood Flats, however one has surfaced in the Terence Powderly photograph collection at Catholic University of America.
As reported in the July 21, 1883 Evening Star, a few existing homes were converted to apartments — 1729 and 1731 H Street were combined and dubbed “The Milton.” Architects Gray and Page were working a similar transformation for W.E. Prall on 16th Street north of K Street. Other apartment house developments included the Maltby at 200 New Jersey Avenue, the Richmond Flats at 17th and H Streets, and the Shoreham at 800 15th Street.
In November 4, 1883 edition of the Washington Post readers were treated to an article headlined “Washington ‘Flats’: Who Occupy Them and What They Pay for Them. The Growth of a New Feature of Capital Life.” The unnamed reporter drew the conclusion that “the system of flats for housekeeping will probably never become popular here. . . .”
The article was an investigative study, responding to comments made to the Post by prominent and well-admired real estate developer Thomas J. Fisher. He died just five years later, in 1888, missing the great proliferation of apartment building development his real estate firm retained his name.
In 1886 The Portland incorporated, most shareholders being members of the Weston family, but Thomas Fisher joined them with his son-in-law and business partner, Edward Stellwagen.
The District Commissioners were taking notice of the proliferation of these new structures — he 1884 annual report noted on page 69 fire safety concerns: “The rapid growth of large flats and apartment houses in this city opens a new source of danger” and cautioned about the need to enforce fire regulations.
In the Star‘s April 28, 1888 “REAL ESTATE GOSSIP” column, John R. McLean’s new apartment building under construction at 9th Street and New York Avenue and his father’s apartment building at 15th and I Streets also under construction at the same time were reported on. Also mentioned were the Portland, the Woodmont at 13th and Iowa (later renamed Logan) Circle, and the Milton at 1729-31 H Street, as well as several others (unnamed) which “will offer considerable variety, both in point of price and accommodations to those who choose this mode of living. Life in apartments offer a number of advantages, such as freedom from the annoyance of the servant question and better location for the price than is possible in private houses.”
“It seems that they are likely to become popular here.”
In a mere five years, the newspaper reporting Fisher’s skepticism had been transformed to optimism.
Five months later, on September 29th, the Star‘s “REAL ESTATE MATTERS” column noted the construction of New Yorker Levi Morton’s Shoreham apartment building at 14th and H Streets and also the new apartments at New Jersey Avenue and B Street, owned by New Yorker Maltby G. Lane (which would be known as The Maltby; Maltby Lane had died in July of 1889). Morton would serve as Benjamin Harrison’s Vice President from 1889 to 1893 (having served a term in Congress, then ambassador to France, and after his vice-presidential stint, as governor of New York.) He bought the house at 1507 H Street adjacent to the Shoreham and incorporated it into the apartments; he lived at 1500 Rhode Island Avenue.
The Evening Star of February 6, 1889 headlined “A NEW APARTMENT HOUSE” at the southeast corner of 12th and G Streets and reported that “[i]t will be small as apartment houses go but will supply what is needed, homes of a moderate size, for a moderate rental. . . .” (It had been previously announced on January 12th).
Ohioan John R. McLean hired architect James G. Hill to design another apartment building following his one at 9th Street and New York Avenue — but it never happened. McLean, owner of the Washington Post and the Cincinnati Enquirer, instead hired John Russell Pope to design his lavish mansion at 15th and I Streets, directly across from Fernando Wood’s home.
A few weeks later, on February 23rd, the Star suggested that A.H. Bugher would build a moderate apartment house at the northeast corner of 9th and I Streets — that was not built either, Bugher (brother-in-law to McLean) having died four months later. In July, patent attorney (and Binghamton, New York native) H.H. Doubleday was proposing a T.F. Schneider-designed apartment for 8th Street between G and H Streets. Nothing, however, seems to have come of his plans.
On September 21st the impending October 1st opening of the Shoreham Flats was reported in the Star. Two senators, and three congressmen had already signed leases.
By 1890 in the DC government’s annual report (on page 38), the District’s tax assessor was calling for some clarifications, proposing that “the status of flats and apartment houses as distinguished from hotels should be more clearly defined” so that every four years when the presidential inauguration comes around a new survey to determine the city’s visitor capacity need not be repeated.
Safety concerns mounted. On September 22, 1897 the Star reported that 2115 H Street caught fire and on October 14th the Star also reported on a fire at 1118 1st Street. These reported fires might have been what caused the developer of the new flats at 15th and U Streets to prominently advertise his building as “FIRE-PROOF.” In 1898 an intensive survey was done to determine the fire safety status of apartment buildings in Washington. At Senator James McMillan’s instigation, the Senate had directed the District Commissioners to survey all buildings with more than 25 apartments for fire safety concerns.
Ninety-one buildings were inspected, the smallest with 25 apartments, and the largest being the Cairo with 325. (Smaller buildings like Fernando Wood’s 1418 I Street were not included.) A wide variety of fire suppression mechanisms were cataloged.
The chief recommendation was to change the current law to require fire exits for buildings taller than 50 feet. Numerous apartment houses had been built a shade under that height to evade the regulation.  On November 10, 1898 the Star reported on various competing legislative efforts to restrict building heights. On March 1, 1899 Congress passed the “Act to regulate the height of buildings in the District of Columbia” at the instigation of the District Commissioners, a law succeeded by the 1910 “Height of Buildings Act,” which is still in effect, although with recent minor modifications at the behest of commercial developers. 
Fisher’s pessimism aside, by 1904 the Star reported between 300 and 400 apartment buildings had been constructed since the Portland in 1880.
In the 1910 Boyd’s City Directory for Washington DC apartments filled three full pages — nearly 600 in double columns. An interesting side note is that in 1936 and 1937 New York Congressman Alfred F. Beiter proposed a huge complex to include a 20 story hotel, four apartment buildings, and 66 two-story residences to house all the members of Congress. It would have been erected in (and transformed) southwest Washington. This fell victim to politics — Congresswoman Mary Norton, who chaired the House District Committee, expressed her disapproval followed by Congressman Frederick (Fritz) Lanham who held the hearings on it hostage to President Roosevelt reporting on housing in the District of Columbia. “Beiterville” was never to be.
The oldest survivor from the first tranche of apartment house construction in the 1880s is the Harrison at 3rd and G Streets. Long vacant, it is now caught up in the Capitol Crossing project decking over I-395.  Its future remains to be seen, but it is a protected landmark.
Of the first few apartment houses and flats, such as the Fernando Wood’s, most did not survive as apartment buildings for long, being converted to other uses as the city’s downtown core expanded, pushing residential uses further out. 1418 I Street itself had a fairly fugitive and variegated history after its first decade. In 1905 the Hotel Chamberlin (Fernando Wood’s old residence) and 1418 I were listed in the Star’s auction sales columns of May 8th. In 1910 it was in the news as the home of the “Green Room Club” — a noisy gambling den according to The Star‘s news report of February 21st. In 1921 noted architect Arthur B. Heaton provided handsome architectural renderings for the renovation of 1418 for N.L. Sansbury. The Washington Community Chest rented space in the 1920s and 1930s, as did a number of other social service agencies. In 1934 it was renovated and by 1937 it was the “Central” post office branch until 1959. Later it housed the Port Said nightclub. It was finally torn down in the 1980s making way for what is 1444 I Street.
 Matthew B. Gilmore, “Mrs. Cole’s Bay Window: Parking, streets, trees, projections, and the Secretary of War,” The InTowner, July 2016.
 Apartment houses in the District of Columbia, Senate Document 204, 55th Congress, 2nd session, March 24, 1898.
 Matthew B. Gilmore, “District of Columbia Building Height Timeline,” Washington DC History Resources.
 Michael Neibauer, “Capitol Crossing, preservation costs delay Judiciary Square project,” Washington Business Journal, April 10, 2016.
Thanks to the folks at Catholic University of America who digitized the (almost) entirely unknown Terence Powderly photographs, a treasure trove for early 20th century Washington, DC images.
DC Office of Planning, Historic Preservation Office, “Multiple property nominations for Apartment Buildings in Washington D.C., 1880-1945.
DC Office of Planning, Historic Preservation Office, “Application for Historic Landmark Application, Harrison Apartment Building 704 3rd Street, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20001.”
DC Office of Planning, Historic Preservation Office, Building permit database (permits to build) 1872-1949.”
James Goode, Best addresses: a century of Washington’s distinguished apartment houses. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003.
James Goode, Capital losses: a cultural history of Washington’s destroyed buildings. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003.
John DeFerrari, “The Portland, Washington’s first luxury apartment house,” StreetsOfWashington.com.
John DeFerrari, “The Old Shoreham Hotel at 15th and H Streets NW,” StreetsOfWashington.com.
*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.
© 2016 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.
All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.