Situated diagonally across from Washington National Cathedral on one of the highest points in the city, the Alban Towers apartment complex is notable for its distinctive architecture.
In 1925, a proposed zoning regulation allowing for the construction of apartment buildings on Massachusetts Avenue garnered opposition from many local residents, including Bishop C.F. Bratenahl of the National Cathedral. David A. Baer, who went on to develop Alban Towers once the zoning regulation passed, persuaded Bratenahl to allow construction by promising that the apartments would not clash with the Cathedral and instead would stylistically complement it. Bratenahl, in return, granted Baer permission to name the complex after Mount Saint Alban, the hill on which the Cathedral is located.
Constructed in 1928, the six-story brick and limestone building was carved by Italian stonemasons, likely the same ones who had worked on the National Cathedral years earlier. Elements of Gothic Revival and Tudor Revival architecture complement the Cathedral. The exterior features carved owls, gargoyles, shields, and crests, as well as decorative tracery, battlements, finials, and Tudor arches.
The 1920s saw the construction of an unprecedented number of apartment buildings in DC. Postwar prosperity had inspired growth in the federal government and increased the number of federal employees, but these employees’ salaries had not kept up with the increasing price of real estate. Many began renting apartments instead, and the apartment-hotel arrangement modeled at Alban Towers (which offered twenty-four hour maid service, as well as substantial amenities, including a lunch counter and a travel agency) was particularly popular with businessmen and Congressmen, who sought flexibility and convenience. Consequently, the complex met with immediate success, and its original 125 units went quickly. Developers purchased more land to build an additional eighty units, which went on the market two years later. The building’s unusual shape, featuring seven courtyards, is due in part to this addition.
The Gothic and Tudor designs on the exterior of Alban Towers also carry through to its interior lobbies and hallways. In order to keep the complex economical, the original interiors of individual apartments were relatively bland, but the large lobby seating area at the building’s entrance made up for that, featuring elaborate crown molding with British symbols—roses, acorns, thistles—to fit in with the building’s English Gothic vernacular style. In the interior hallways, Tudor arches spaced between every three apartments feature bas-relief depictions of Zodiac symbols, with shields above them decorated with crosses and dragons.
Alban Towers has changed hands various times over its lifetime, including several decades of ownership by Georgetown University. By 1998, the building was again owned by a developer and had fallen into disuse, boarded up, and vacant. Between 1999 and 2001, careful restoration work was undertaken, with special attention to preserving the building’s historic character. Residents began to occupy the building once more, and additional modernization work was completed in 2017.
DC Inventory: May 15, 1991
National Register: September 9, 1994
This site is a stop on the D.C. Apartment Buildings tour as an example of a Luxury apartment building.