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The House on Florida Avenue

By Guy Semmes*

Images accompanying this news story can be viewed in the current issue PDF

In the mid 1970’s during the infancy of Hopkins & Porter Construction, when it would have been a stretch to even refer to us as much more than a tribally organized collection of handymen, I received a call from a Mrs. Michelson who lived 2153 Florida Avenue to come and look at some repairs needed in her 1890s row house. She had heard of us from her daughter who had passed our flyer onto her mother.

I paid a visit to Mrs. Michelson and went through an enormous shopping list of repairs: new windows, doors, trim, paint, finishes and bath fixtures that affected just about every room in the house. In retrospect this would have been the perfect job to do on a time and materials basis, but in my enthusiasm to convince the owner that we were capable, we gave her a fixed price. Initially we thought it would be about three weeks of work, but five weeks later we were still struggling with the final details. On one particularly frustrating day, I was on my knees repacking the hinges on a door that was coming unhinged. This involved packing the screw holes in the door jamb with slivers of wood and glue and then refastening the hinge. Mrs. Michelson appeared to be skeptical about my techniques, and I wasn’t very confident about a lot of the things we were doing to this old house that had been shaken apart by heavy street traffic and Metro construction (or so the owner claimed).

There is little that is more nerve-racking than when a homeowner hangs over you as you work, and I was just about to try to diplomatically mention this, when she asked me how I spelled my last name. When I responded, “S-e-m-m-e-s,” she replied that she had just been at the Cosmos Club the evening before to preview a documentary that had been done about the neighborhood and its history. She mentioned that her house and the five homes connected on her block had been built by a man named Alexander Semmes in the 1890s. The story went that he had started these homes just before a serious recession and had gone broke finishing them out.

Upon hearing this story, that same evening I went to see my grandmother who still lived on the family farm in Potomac. She confirmed that Alexander was my great grandfather. I learned that he had had to move his young family into a second floor rental apartment above what is now a portion of Restaurant Nora on Florida Avenue at R Street. NW. This was where my grandfather had been born in 1892. If my memory is correct, while we were working on the Michelson’s house, Nora’s was just starting up at the time selling fresh baked goods. My business partner, Michael Denker, and I would regularly begin our day with a coffee and muffin purchased there.

As I was listening to Mrs. Michelson tell this story about my past, I couldn’t help but recognize that I was similarly going broke. I calculated that when we finally finished this job my hourly wage would amount to about $1.20 — if we were lucky. It was not a heartening realization that I was losing my shirt on a house that drove my great grandfather into bankruptcy! But, in any case, this started an animated and interesting discussion and a lifelong relationship with the Michelsons. Mrs. Michelson invited me to search through the basement and crawl space where I collected some leftover construction debris, some newspapers from the period and some vintage whisky bottles.

When the Michelson job was complete along with glowing recommendations and hardly a dime to show for it, I was oddly convinced that I had found my calling, and the rest is the 33-year history of our company.

*The writer, along with business partner Michael Denker, co-founded and operate the design-build firm of Hopkins & Porter Construction which, since 1977, has worked extensively in Dupont Circle throughout Northwest DC and Montgomery County.

Copyright (c) 2010 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Guy Semmes. All rights reserved.