D.C. Apartment Buildings

In Washington, D.C., significant historical events such as the Civil War and the Panic of 1873 limited major construction and growth within the city. However, following the Civil War, and then again during the interwar period between the world wars, apartment living became a staple for many residents of the capital city, despite the initial resistance by many to adopt apartment-style living. Resentment ranged from aesthetic distaste to the social implications of sharing residential spaces with other families rather than owning a single-family home. With many still hesitant to move into apartments, architects and developers had to work hard to attract more residents into their buildings. Since 1880, purpose-built apartment buildings within D.C. have taken on many forms and styles in order to accommodate their residents, shaping the city as we know it today.

Early design-forward buildings combined with the increasing number of people moving into D.C. for work strengthened the appeal toward apartment living. The buildings carried unique aesthetics, in addition to various amenities that residents needed or wanted. This ranged from luxury experiences for upper-class tenants and government officials, to more economical and efficient housing for federal employees.

How do we define “purpose-built” apartment buildings? While it may seem self-explanatory, all of the buildings on this tour had to fulfill these requirements to be considered for their status as “purpose-built apartment buildings,” as outlined in the 1994 multiple property documentation (MPD) form, "Apartment Buildings in Washington, D.C. 1880-1945," which was used as the basis for this tour. The criteria listed in the document are: 1) Buildings designed and constructed as a multiple-family dwelling, rather than a pre-existing building being converted towards this purpose; 2) Intended to be permanent residences capable of accommodating numerous family units, rather than temporary housing such as a hotel or boarding house; 3) At least two stories high; 4) Constructed after 1870.

Additionally, what are the 11 different types of apartment buildings found within Washington, D.C.? While some share certain characteristics, each listed here is unique and lists examples to help better distinguish them from one another:

Apartment types:

a) Conventional low-rise apartments: buildings such as the Jefferson and the Lafayette, built between 1880 and 1945, feature only two-to-four-stories, one building entrance, and no elevator.

b) Conventional mid-rise apartments: the Champlain, the Olympia, and others were constructed between 1890 and 1945 with five-to-eight-stories, have one building entrance, and may or may not have an elevator inside.

c) Conventional high-rise apartments: Munson Hall and the Keystone were built between 1922 and 1945 at six-to-twelve-stories tall, have one building entrance, and have at least one elevator.

d) Rowhouse-type apartment buildings: the Harrison and the Roosevelt, constructed between 1887 and 1919, have the distinct look of attached row houses while concealing at least five apartments within, have multiple entrances and exits, have three-to-five-stories, and no elevator inside.

e) Mansion-type apartment buildings: buildings like the Augusta are free-standing structures built between 1890 and 1930 that have the look of a mansion, a single building entrance, are three-to-six-stories tall, and have at least five units inside.

f) Garden apartment buildings: 3901 Connecticut Avenue NW and Hampshire Gardens, built between 1921 and 1945 with two-to-four stories, feature one building entrance with at least four separate units, no elevator, and have design elements meant to connect with the natural landscape, hence the name.

g) Grand Garden apartment buildings: Cathedral Mansions and other buildings like it were constructed between 1921 and 1935, with similar landscape features to Garden apartments, as well as only one entrance. However, they are at least five-stories with ten units inside and at least one elevator.

h) House-type apartments: buildings like the Carrolton in Lanier Heights, built between 1900 and 1945, look like single-family homes, but instead conceal four to six separate units across two-to-three-stories, with no elevator and only one building entrance. Please note that the Carrolton is not featured on this tour, as it is not historically designated, but does exemplify the traits of a house-type apartment.

i) Commercial-Residential apartments: the Luzon and similar apartment buildings were constructed from 1880 to 1945 with one-to-three-floors of at least three units above a ground floor for commercial space. With a separate residential entrance, the building has an overall commercial aesthetic.

j) Luxury apartment house: Alban Towers, the Cairo, and other buildings on this tour were built from 1880 to 1941 with at least five architecturally superior units across three or more stories and feature either a single or multiple entrances, a grand lobby open to the public, at least one elevator, amenities available to residents, and an overall attention to design and aesthetics throughout.

k) Stacked flats apartments: buildings like the Myrene were built between 1890 and 1920 and feature at least one unit per floor with one or multiple building entrances.

As you visit each building, the distinct history, character-defining features, and architectural style of the building will be defined and expanded upon. These buildings also lend themselves to showing the evolution of and changes made to purpose-built apartment buildings as technology and architectural styles further developed. For example, the construction of apartment buildings farther away from downtown was made possible by the development of the streetcar system. Buildings on Wisconsin Avenue, Connecticut Avenue, and 16th Street transformed these thoroughfares into “apartment corridors” (as referenced in the apartment building MPD) that had direct and easy access to public transit — first by streetcar, then by bus — a must for workers commuting to and from work downtown. The subsequent rise of automobile access then made living anywhere in the District a possibility as more people purchased their own means of transportation.

It is important to note that many of these buildings, while historically designated, are still operating as private residences, and are therefore not open to the public. Please consult a building’s individual listing information to see if they have public access options or touring availability.

This tour can be completed by walking, public transport, and/or car. Since the landmarks are spread out, it is advised that you map out your route to determine distance before beginning.

3901 Connecticut Avenue NW (and Lobby)

The garden-style construction at 3901 Connecticut Avenue NW fulfilled many of the aesthetic and logistic needs of the residents that lived there. The building had direct streetcar access that allowed commuting workers to easily travel to and from…

Cathedral Mansions

Cathedral Mansions, a grand garden-style apartment building with over 400 units, was one of the first buildings constructed by Harry Wardman after D.C.'s 1920 zoning laws changed. Built in the Classical Revival style, the three buildings that make up…

Alban Towers (and Interiors)

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…

The Luzon (The Westover)

In 1896, the Luzon's presence in D.C. was evidence of further change in housing trends in the city. While Washingtonians remained hesitant towards apartment living for many reasons, the growing presence of apartment buildings made it clear that for…

Munson Hall Apartments

With the increasing demand to house federal employees and their families, Munson Hall's conventional high-rise style maximized space and affordability for its residents. The interwar period following the Great Depression made Foggy Bottom an…

The Keystone

With the continued and rapid population growth in D.C. between world wars, buildings like the Keystone were necessary and an economic solution to house workers and their families. The Keystone's conventional-high rise style maximized the amount of…

Champlain Apartment Building

Built in 1905, the Champlain brought apartment living to the prestigious neighborhood surrounding K Street and McPherson Square. In order to fit into the neighborhood, the building was constructed with a marble veneer exterior, the only one of its…

Myrene Apartment Building

The continued growth of D.C. meant a need to house more residents, and the Myrene helped to provide middle-class Washingtonians a place to live. The resistance toward apartment living did affect its design; the architect, J.H. McIntyre, utilized a…

The Harrison (The Canterbury)

As the oldest surviving example of the first wave of purpose-built apartment buildings, the Harrison's influence on D.C. housing is quite large. While the building has a rowhouse appearance, its Romanesque Revival exterior was meant to attract…

Jefferson Apartment Building

Designed by D.C. architect George S. Cooper and completed in 1899 as part of the first wave of apartment building construction, the Jefferson's conventional low-rise style utilized Romanesque Revival features for its middle-class residents working…

Augusta Apartment Building

Built in 1900, the Augusta was a part of D.C.'s first wave of construction for apartment buildings, with Arthur B. Heaton as its main architect. Its mansion-like appearance allowed it to conceal its true purpose as an apartment building, and was…

Roosevelt Apartment Building

Built in 1898 with the appearance of a double row house that concealed the building's true identity as an apartment building, the Roosevelt Apartment Building was one example of how builders and architects introduced apartment living to…

The Lafayette

In the final years of the 19th century, the construction of the Lafayette in 1898 marked a shift in Washingtonians' housing needs. While it only held twelve units, comparatively small to future apartment buildings, the Lafayette's conventional…

Whitelaw Hotel

The Whitelaw Hotel showcases an early example of minority real estate development. It was financed and built entirely by African American entrepreneurs, investors, designers, and craftsmen. Associated with prominent businessman and civic leader John…

The Gladstone and The Hawarden

Built between 1900 and 1901, these twin buildings were the first of their kind and are responsible for a major shift in how apartment buildings in the city were constructed. D.C. native George S. Cooper, who designed the two buildings in a…

Wardman Row

Built between 1911 and 1912 on R Street between 14th and 15th streets, Wardman Row was constructed with the needs of potential middle-class residents in mind. Wardman Row is composed of seven four-story buildings: the Walton, Arden, Ripley, Dudley,…

The Cairo Apartment Building

Thomas Franklin Schneider returned from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition with plenty of inspiration. The towering, state-of-the-art commercial structures Schneider had seen in Chicago were unlike anything in DC, and the grandiose architecture of…

Olympia Apartments

Built in 1898, the Olympia is the only remaining apartment house from the first wave of construction along upper Fourteenth Street NW in Columbia Heights, spurred by the opening of the electric streetcar line in 1892. As is typical of most…

Kenesaw Apartment House Co.

Designed as a luxurious apartment home with a café, spacious parlors, dining rooms, and retail space on the ground floor, the Kenesaw initially housed members of Congress and wealthy Washingtonians in the early 20th century. By the 1960s, a…

Hampshire Gardens

Completed in 1929, this garden-style apartment building was meant to have a distinctly British aesthetic with its Tudor Revival style construction. Hampshire Gardens, in addition to its attention to the natural landscape, was also a…