14th St.’s nine lives

From auto row, to civil unrest, to red-light district, to a burgeoning commercial corridor filled with restaurants and retail, 14th Street NW is now one of the hottest areas of the city. The vibrancy visitors experience and its resurgence in the last decade can be credited in large part to the city’s historic preservation program and the commitment to savoring its unique history and architecture.

Prior to the Civil War, this area was very rural in character. Early surveys and maps show sparsely developed lots with either light industrial or small farmhouse-type structures. The introduction of the streetcar line in 1862 offered the opportunity for development to respond to the city’s growing population as residents were forced north of the urban core. Improvements under the reign of Boss Shepherd between 1871-74 made the area even more desirable.

As a major transportation corridor, 14th Street allowed for the development of a variety of churches, commercial buildings and apartments, and later automotive-related structures. The retail corridor serviced individuals and families with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds that lived in the surrounding blocks. Housing in the area ranged from middle-class speculative rowhouses to prestigious mansions on Logan Circle. Entire blocks of houses were designed with identical massing and architectural detailing. At the turn of the 20th century, many of the streets in the area were fully built out.

As the population grew, the stability of the commercial development along the 14th Street corridor increased. According to the 14th Street National Register documentation, the building at 1508 14th St. NW (erected 1864-69) remains as the earliest extant building from this period. The documentation goes on to surmise that the original one-story brick building was enlarged in 1878 to keep up with the changing times and styles of the neighborhood.

During the first decades of the 20th century, the automobile replaced the streetcar as a primary form of transportation and the character of 14th Street’s architecture began to evolve from its Victorian roots to facilitate the new automotive-related industry. Nineteenth-century buildings were replaced by larger-scale commercial structures that could meet the needs of the new automobile culture that provided storage and ground-floor showroom space, transforming 14th Street to Washington’s “Automobile Row.”

Recognizing the potential of this area, in 1990, the District created an Uptown Arts-Mixed Use zoning overlay in the 14th Street corridor and provided incentives for retail establishments, restaurants, residences and entertainment venues. Arts organizations such as Studio Theatre and Source Theatre were willing to take a chance on the area, and business owners and developers quickly followed suit.

The best part: D.C.’s preservation program planned for this resurgence. In 1994, 14th Street was designated an historic district to ensure the protection of the neighborhood’s rich architectural heritage, putting current and would-be property owners on notice this was a special part of the city that needed to be preserved.

The juxtaposition of the streamlined auto showrooms with their earlier Victorian neighbors make for an interesting and unique streetscape that provides for a variety of adaptive reuse opportunities, including large and small retail spaces and restaurants. The corridor would have a very different feel if not for the retention of these historic resources and the design review of the Historic Preservation Office staff and review board.

Two projects that have had a major impact on the corridor were recipients of a 2014 D.C. Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation. These include Le Diplomate, Philadelphia celebrity chef Stephen Starr’s restaurant at 14th & Q streets, in a 1920s laundromat that had been abandoned for years. Proposals to raze this structure were put forth on several occasions until the Starr Restaurant Group saw the potential of this otherwise dilapidated building. The second project, the long-vacant Northern Exchange building built in 1902 at the corner of 14th and R streets, has been adaptively reused as a condo building with retail on the first floor.

Historic preservation, coupled with developer investment and compatible new architecture, along 14th Street has most assuredly promoted the lively pedestrian atmosphere that can be experienced seven nights a week. This is a far cry from the days of dead streets, red lights and crime.

Because few development sites remain between Scott Circle and U Street, you may have better luck getting a Saturday night reservation than acquiring a piece of this prime real estate.

Rebecca Miller is executive director of the D.C. Preservation League and writes the Past is Present column for Real Estate Inc. Extra.


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