Postcards showing the Woodner when it used to be a luxury apartment-hotel in the '50s and '60s, from the collection of John DeFerrari
Postcards showing the Woodner when it used to be a luxury apartment-hotel in the '50s and '60s, from the collection of John DeFerrari. Madison McVeigh/CityLab

D.C.’s massive Woodner apartment building has lived many lives—from fancy hotel to one of the last bastions of affordable housing in a gentrifying neighborhood. Now, it’s on the brink of another change.

This story is part of a collaboration with WAMU 88.5. Listen to the radio story, reported by Tanvi Misra and Brakkton Booker, at WAMU.org.

I’d come to expect Eddie Carrera in the lobby when I returned from work.

Down the steps, past the round carpet with the big, cursive “W”—he’d be reading in his usual spot by the elevators. People who knew him would stop to chat. And kids would swirl around his wheelchair, like Tasmanian devils. Not wanting to interrupt, I’d smile at him and wave from a distance. And he’d wave back. For months after I’d moved into the Woodner Apartments, this was our ritual.

Further down the hallway is a grocery store, a DVD rental store (allegedly, the last one in the city), and a hair salon. On the walls hang black-and-white photos from the building’s past life as a fancy hotel. One shows Duke Ellington in conversation with a man in an oversized suit. It’s dated 1958. In another, six cigarette girls in cowboy hats and boots point pistols at Bob Hope. A third features Mamie Eisenhower among a gaggle of high-society ladies.

This spring, Eddie approached me at the end of this museum-like passage.

“Hola,” he greeted me.

“Lo siento—sorry,” I mumbled. “No hablo Español.”

Graciously, he switched to English and we started to chat. He used to work at the Woodner, he told me, as waiter at the hotel dining room back in the glory days: “This building had a lot of history,” he told me.

The Woodner lobby on a weekday afternoon. (Tyrone Turner/WAMU)
A resident walks down the main hallway of the Woodner lobby, past the photos of Bob Hope and the cigarette girls. (Tyrone Turner/WAMU)
A still of Duke Ellington displayed in the Woodner lobby, circa 1958. (Tanvi Misra/CityLab)

***

The Woodner is the largest apartment complex under one roof in Washington, D.C.—home to roughly 2,000 people. From Piney Branch Parkway, the huge building looks like an eggshell fortress, bearing down on the cars that pass through a branch of Rock Creek Park. On the other side—where it stands at the edge of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood on 16th Street—it’s easy to miss.

Folks who’ve lived in this city for any amount of time probably have a connection to the Woodner, whether they know it or not. When I’ve told people the address, they’ve recognized it. At the DMV, an employee looked at my driver’s license application and told me that he’d met his wife in the building. Another time, a Lyft driver told me he used to visit his grandfather there many years ago. “It’s like the six degrees of the Woodner,” says Izetta Autumn Mobley, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, who has lived in the area on and off since she was a child.

Mobley takes one of the S-line buses to work from the stop outside the Woodner. As a historian of visual culture, race, gender, and disability, she often thinks about the role the building plays in the city. ”There are some locations that act as crossroads—you’re going to find all kinds of people in city life moving in that space, and I think 16th Street, particularly where the Woodner is, is a great example of a ‘cosmopolitan canopy,’” she says. “This is an entire cultural landscape, a microcosm of the city in many ways.”

The Woodner is a city within a city—and a diverse one at that. Right now, it feels kind of like an ideal urban space, where people with different backgrounds, ages, and incomes coexist and interact, perhaps more so than in the increasingly affluent area around it. It’s the kind of place city-lovers like me are prone to romanticizing.

But this ecosystem doesn’t exist in a vacuum. While the building has remained largely unchanged since it anchored itself deep into the D.C. zeitgeist, it’s also been pulled along with waves of neighborhood change, good and bad. And now, as Mount Pleasant gentrifies and gets ever more expensive, it’s at the brink of a new chapter: The Woodner’s current owners are planning a $30 million renovation. Can this local institution change with the times without losing the mix of people who make it special?

The Woodner from the stairs of the “floating terrace” overlooking Rock Creek Park. (Tyrone Turner/WAMU)

***

Eddie came to America from Ecuador in the early ‘50s, around the time the Woodner was born. “When it was built, I assume, it was mostly for high-class people,” he later told me.

In 1951, the Washington Post headline gushed: “The Luxurious Woodner Doffs Its Wraps Today.” The $14 million mid-century modern was the brainchild of billionaire real estate developer and art collector Ian Woodner. An architect by training, he’d reportedly designed the massive building himself. At the time it was built, the neighborhood around it was almost 100 percent white.

The hotel-slash-apartment screamed luxury: It was the largest air-conditioned building in the world at the time. Advertisements in the local papers boasted about its large balconies overlooking the park, built-in vanities, room-to-room mail delivery, and maid and butler services. Its underground garage could hold 300 cars. At the ground level was a P-shaped outdoor swimming with “sun decks for sunbathing and starlight dancing,” per the 1951 preview in the Washington Post. The cocktail lounge and restaurant had park views, too. One columnist hailed the structure as “one of the showplaces of the nation’s capital.” It was a popular hangout for government officials, lawmakers, and foreign diplomats from the embassies on 16th Street, and a venue for military balls, wedding receptions, and Hawaiian-themed pool-side soirees. Louis Armstrong and Jayne Mansfield stayed at the hotel while they were performing at the nearby Carter Barron Amphitheater.

A postcard of the Woodner’s interiors from the 1950s. (Collection of John DeFerrari/Streets of Washington)

The Woodner also attracted some infamy over the years. In the 1950s, 150 of its employees went on strike. A federal lawsuit against the Woodner Company carried on well into the late 1960s, over dedicating Federal Housing Administration loans meant only for apartment operations to pay for the costs of running a hotel. Perhaps most famously: three people, including a Woodner telephone operator, were indicted in 1960 for obstructing a Congressional probe into Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, who lived in B-1250. Arguably, these kind of scandals helped cement the building’s status as a D.C. institution in the eyes of the city’s elite.

In the 1960s, after he came back from serving in the army, Eddie got a short-term gig as a French service waiter at the Woodner’s fine-dining restaurant. "Oh, my! I can see the ladies in gowns, with the jewels glistening in the light,” he told me. “Very sophisticated! Very elegant!"

In the ‘50s classifieds, some of the jobs were advertised for whites only, and in the ‘60s, immigrant and minority employees were often barred from certain parts of the building. In his three months working there, Eddie was able to go to the lobby only once. “The maître d' told us, ‘You are not supposed to go to the lobby—not unless your customer wants a pack of cigarettes, and the girl who sells cigarettes is not available,’” he told me. “There was a lot of discrimination at that time here.”

Eddie Carrera in his younger days (left) and with the son of close friends in the building (right) in recent days. (Courtesy of Janet Johnson)

Kenneth Carpenter and his wife Margery, who recently passed away, moved into the Woodner in 1961—right after they got married. “We’ve been here now for 56 years,” he told me in his roomy, converted 3-bedroom apartment on the 8th floor. “We have found it to be comfortable, convenient, and a pleasant place. We have a lovely view of the park and always can’t believe our eyes.”

They were social workers. Mr. Carpenter worked for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare; and Margery worked with the Lutheran Church Council, which was a few blocks from the Woodner. They watched as the neighborhood changed—slowly. White flight was picking up momentum in D.C.; many of the longtime Mount Pleasant residents who hadn’t already left for the suburbs resisted the entry of African Americans into the neighborhood.

Then, in 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and much of D.C. was engulfed in civil unrest. Mr. Carpenter watched plumes of smoke rise from nearby 14th Street as that corridor burned. “[It] was a very, very difficult area with rioting, and for many years the area just stayed pretty much in limbo,” he said.

One Sunday that October, Eddie was shot. "It was supposed to be my night,” he told me. “Fate." He had been covering for his boss at his restaurant downtown. After his shift, he stopped to pick up candy for his daughters on Columbia and 18th Street. Suddenly a man grabbed him. After a brief tussle, Eddie ran. Bullets rang out. “My lower extremities went just like a spaghetti. Woosh,” he said. “I kept trying to get up, but I couldn't.”

The bullet injury paralyzed Eddie from the waist down. In 1973, with the help of Paralyzed Veterans of America, he moved into the Woodner, where he’d once worked. The building fit his needs well: He could access an in-house grocery store without having to go outside. He’d learned accounting while in rehab and could see clients in the large apartment he’d decorated with posters of classic American movies, such as The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and The Philadelphia Story. Over the years, he built a collection of VHS tapes of these movies, and of books about military history and battleship replicas. Later, he got a big TV to watch European soccer games. “That cut my reading down by about 80 percent,” he chuckled.

The two decades after 1968 were rough for the city—and for Mount Pleasant. By the ‘70s, the neighborhood around the Woodner had become majority black, and the tourists had stopped coming. In the 1970s, the building stopped operating as a hotel. “The town and then, of course, 16th Street fell out of favor with the hoity-toity upper crust,” says Joe Milby, who has been the manager of the building since the 1990s. “It wasn't as glamorous a location to be in after the riots.”  

During the 1980s, when the city was in the throes of the crack epidemic, the Woodner survived by leasing rooms to internship centers and local universities. Throughout this era, though many white households had long made a beeline for the suburbs, the Carpenters stayed in their apartment. Margery had dealt with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis for a long time, and the convenience and connectedness of the building was a boon. The couple traveled a lot for work, collected art (which they would later donate to museums in Minnesota and D.C.), attended performances at the Kennedy Center, and dined at Fio’s—the popular Italian restaurant at the Woodner.

Even if they wanted to live somewhere else, they didn’t have many other affordable options, especially after retirement. “Frankly, we can’t really afford to move because of the rent control feature,” Mr. Carpenter said. But, he added: “We really haven’t wanted to move that much.”

Kenneth Carpenter, 92, has lived in the Woodner since the 1960s. (Tyrone Turner/WAMU)
Kenneth Carpenter and his wife Margery stayed in the city when other white families were leaving. (Tanvi Misra/CityLab)

By the 1990s, the Mount Pleasant area contained similar proportions of whites, blacks, and Hispanics. Migrants fleeing conflict in Central America had started funneling into the neighborhood in the last decade or so. In 1991, violence broke out in Mount Pleasant Street after a Latino man was shot by a black cop. For some residents of the neighborhood, that was the last straw. Others stayed because, like the Carpenters and Eddie, they loved their homes. And soon enough, they couldn’t afford to leave.

The Woodner timeline at a glance (click here for fullscreen version):

***

At Don Juan, a Central American restaurant on Mount Pleasant Street, Julienne Gage worked on a plate of cheese-and-bean pupusas. Julie is a journalist, and used to work for Sojourners magazine in the area back in the 1990s. She left for a few years, and recently came back to a very different neighborhood. “As the city becomes more white and younger, you have a different understanding of social interaction on the street—like, it feels more tense,” she told me. “There was a lot more violence back in the ‘90s, but there was also a lot more street interaction.”

This newest wave of change in the neighborhood unfolded over the last two decades. In 1995, Congress passed legislation that created a financial “control board” to oversee municipal spending in D.C. The goal was to jump-start the city’s economy, revitalize the downtown, and reverse the population loss. They were successful, but whether the fruits of that success trickled down to all Washingtonians is another question.

As the downtown became expensive, the demand for housing started spilling over—and neighborhood after neighborhood started getting more expensive, too. The Columbia Heights metro stop opened in 1999; almost a decade later, a glistening new shopping complex arrived. Suddenly, this neighborhood, and by extension, Mount Pleasant, became the place to be for young newcomers to the city. According to the 2000 Census, Mount Pleasant was a roughly a third white, a third black, and 26 percent Hispanic. In 2010, the share of white residents had increased significantly to 50 percent. Black and Hispanic populations dropped.

Graduate students at the University of Maryland explored the perceptions of this change. They found that some newcomers viewed older Latino residents who congregated to play checkers near a corner store with suspicion. The older residents resented the replacement of bodegas by higher-end restaurants and the regulation of Latin music at the neighborhood watering holes. “People are enticed by the diversity of Mount Pleasant, then horrified by the conditions and behaviors of Latino groups,” one resident complained to the researchers.

As rents rose, Julie was pushed out of her activist group house on Lamont Street. She moved into the Woodner two years ago. “I always imagined that living in a giant apartment complex with an elevator would be very impersonal,” she said. She was surprised to find that wasn’t true. “It’s just like ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ in here. It’s hilarious,” she added. “Like, where else in Washington, D.C., do you find that?”

Julienne Gage was pleasantly surprised to find that living in a large complex didn’t feel impersonal. (Tanvi Misra/CityLab)

In 2010, Aashish Parekh and Hannah Chen, both teachers in their 40s, moved to Mount Pleasant. They’d just arrived back to the states after a stint in Chile, and they appreciated the mix of people in this corner of D.C. “It's eclectic and there was a big Hispanic population here,” Hannah said. “And coming from Chile we were like, ‘Oh, we bond with that.’” Just as it suited the Carpenters in the 1960s, the Woodner has worked for this couple: It was cheap and convenient, and allowed them to spend their money on experiences—travel, good food, Velvet Underground box sets.

Over their seven years, they’ve seen the building’s interiors adapt to the change outside. “You can see a neighborhood changing... when you see a lot of younger, white women move into the building, and I’ve definitely noticed that,” Aashish said. “It seemed like everything else started to change after that.”

The day-care center in the building has gone. Sangria Café, where Ashish used to grab a beer and cheap eats from time to time, also closed down a few years ago. In its place now is a mail room to deal with the immense volume of Amazon packages and food deliveries the building now receives, courtesy of its younger residents. (According to the management, the number of packages has increased from around 20 to 200 a week.) The restrictions on hanging out and drinking outside on the terrace, the couple noticed, have also been relaxed.

Aashish and Hannah relish seeing all sorts of folks in their neighborhood—some that look like them and others who don’t. But they acknowledge that this diversity can be somewhat superficial. Sure, you have pupuserias and pho restaurants, but a deeper look into who actually hangs out at what establishment reveals a separation by income and race. Their own position in the neighborhood, and inside the building, is also a source of some angst.

“I'm Indian and she's Asian-American,”Aashish said, pointing at Hannah, “but we're still gentrifiers. We're still coming in and getting an apartment that might have been rented by somebody else who didn't have as much money. So it's easy for me to look at people and say, ‘Oh, you're gentrifying the city.’ But in reality, so are we.”

Aashish Parekh and Hannah Chen in their apartment at The Woodner. (Tyrone Turner/WAMU)

Some people who’ve lived at the Woodner over the years have complained that the building—and some of its poorer residents—are too rough around the edges. On the other hand, one low-income resident told me that he didn’t feel his needs were given as much importance as that of more well-off tenants. In other words: The Woodner, like the neighborhood it’s in, can be a contested space.

But the majority of folks I spoke with mentioned the building’s rare neighborly vibe. “A lot of the people here do make an effort to meet their neighbors and chat at the mailbox... and I appreciate that,” Mr. Milby, the manager, told me. “I think it makes a difference between a cookie-cutter apartment building and one that's got kind of a soul.”

One of the Woodner’s newer residents is 25-year-old Kathleen O’Donnell. “I see the Woodner as sort of a bubble within the neighborhood,” she told me. “It's a neighborhood to itself and that is part of what makes it special and weird, and part of why I like it. In my mind, it’s reminiscent of a beehive. I have the ability to have my own space, but I don't feel like I'm alone here.”

The building has a smattering of social sub-networks. Through the day, the smokers assemble on the terrace for their fix and then dissipate. During the summers, the kids in the building squeal and splash in the P-shaped pool. Some of the older folks hang out on the couches by the entrance during the day. Two-thirds of the building employees live in the building, so they form their own little unit.

Each of the residents I spoke to also had their own connections. Kathleen, who didn’t know anyone when she moved to the city from New York two years ago, met her now-best friend at the Woodner leasing office. Hannah and Aashish are friendly with the guys who work in the garage; they give them Christmas gifts each year. Some of their students also live in the building. When Julie broke her arm last year, she asked Aki, the Ethiopian hairdresser who runs the salon in the lobby, to blow-dry her hair a couple of days a week. As she did it, Aki would tell Julie about her journey from Ethiopia to the U.S., her two kids, and her love for singing.

And of course, most people I spoke to mentioned Eddie—the “sweet old man” from lobby. Eddie himself had a Woodner family: the Contreras, a Mexican family a few floors up would check up on him from time to time, invite him over for dinner, and help him unpack when he got back from long hospital visits.

Kathleen O’Donnell, a younger Woodner resident, on the building’s “floating terrace.” (Tanvi Misra/WAMU)
The Woodner swimming pool on a summer afternoon. (Tyrone Turner/WAMU)

The building’s new chapter involves a $30 million renovation that promises to spruce up the hallways, redo some plumbing and wiring, modernize in-unit amenities, and improve the fitness center. Management is considering adding indoor common areas (a lounge or a business center), a rooftop deck, and some sort of grab-and-go deli. I asked the manager, Mr. Milby, what that might mean for the affordability of the building.

“That’s still a long-term goal,” he replied. He doesn’t feel like this building can ever compete with the luxury condos cropping up elsewhere in the city. So the question was, “How do you take this behemoth building and breathe a little bit of new life into it—because it needs it now—but not overdo it, and still make it an affordable option?” he said. “We're trying to balance that out now.”

As we spoke, Mr. Milby also told me that Eddie Carrera had died in the VA hospital, a few days earlier. The building posted a notice on all the floors announcing his funeral. “He was sort of the de facto mayor of the Woodner… you could count on him in the afternoons [to] check his mail and then hold court in the lobby, and people would pass by and pay homage,”said Mr. Milby. “It won't seem the same to walk into the lobby in the afternoon and not have him there to greet you and say hello and ask how your day is.”

Thanks to historian Mara Cherkasky and Prologue D.C.’s Mapping Segregation project.

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