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:
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.