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Real Stories 10

It’s a freezing-cold night in the middle of March, but I’ve got sweat in my eyes. I blink a few times to clear my sight. And then I check my watch: 1 a.m.

I’ve just jogged down an alley, its flickering streetlight throwing a weak halo of illumination on the trash-strewn passage. I scramble through a chain-link fence, tearing a fresh hole in my sweat shirt. And now I’m crawling toward an enticingly open window on the basement level of the old University of the District of Columbia school building on Harvard Street NW.

The window is small, and inside there’s a long drop to the floor. I wiggle face-first through the portal, falling when my torso clears the square. A shard of something hard, glass maybe, rips a tidy little hole in the palm of my hand. The rest of me lands with a thud.

Some creature—a cat, I think—scampers off. I pause to catch my breath and listen for other signs of life. Then I dust myself off, switch on my flashlight, and begin exploring this unloved little piece of city history.

Earlier in the day, I watched a work crew carry out all the furniture and throw the whole mess in several rolling trash containers. But the second-floor bathroom still has a nice old mirror, covered in black soot but otherwise undamaged. I rub its inky back to check for a label; it was made in Dunn, N.C., probably 50 years ago. I grab it. After a last look around the old building, I push the mirror out the window and head home.

A burned mirror ain’t much to look at, but I’m flush with victory. This was a good trip: No one jumped me, and I left with something.

Some people relax by watching birds. Some people collect stamps or Beanie Babies. My hobby is similar—except that I do it in the middle of the night. I collect old buildings. Part archaeology and part cat burglary, my pastime takes me into abandoned D.C. properties in search of lost gems of architecture, furniture, and whatever else people leave behind when they pull out of historic structures. It’s kind of like antiquing, except that it thrives in urban ecosystems like D.C.’s. And it pays off mainly at moments like this, in crumbling old rooms at 1 a.m.

At home later, I’ll get to work restoring the mirror. Maybe I’ll like it. Maybe I won’t. But the real excitement will have been finding it in the first place.

Collecting old buildings has helped me get to know D.C.—not to mention some of its suburbs and some more distant places. I’ve had a close-up look at the basement of the old city hall and padded around the former D.C. Public Schools headquarters on 12th Street. I’ve tiptoed around the former National Rifle Association headquarters on Scott Circle and explored a youth detention home in Prince George’s County. I’ve investigated an empty hospital in Arlington, a pharmacy in Shaw, and a chop shop on the Anacostia River.

Though I love to leave with something, I often don’t. And I’ve never broken into an occupied building—and never would. Boarded-up buildings, in a sense, have returned to nature. I see them as fair game. Occupied buildings, no matter how full of treasure, aren’t part of that same universe at all. The things people abandon fascinate me, not the things people want to keep.

Fortunately, there are plenty of abandoned buildings across D.C.—and an army of homeless men and crackheads to lead the way into each of them. My favorite site in the whole city is a tan-brick apartment building on the corner of 11th and Euclid Streets in Columbia Heights. Years ago, the owner made a halfhearted effort at boarding the windows on the four-story building. But the plywood in back is long gone, and the yard is littered with signs of life, like empty KFC boxes and liquor bottles.

The first time I visited the building, two years ago, I got a queasy feeling when I looked down a dark hallway and saw a pile of dirty clothes, a few hypodermic needles, and a wheelchair—and inhaled a knockdown smell of urine. The last time I checked, the wheelchair was still there, as was the stench. But the building still had a feeling of family: a Lionel Ritchie poster was taped to one wall, a toothbrush sat in a medicine cabinet, and little toy cars lay near a window. In a kitchen, I found a small copper bowl, which is now my soap dish.

The basement, though, was the real jackpot: a dresser with a water-stained top, a small end table with delicate little porcelain knobs but only three legs, and a badly damaged vanity—which I left alone after unscrewing the mirror from behind and taking it with me. In all, several generations’ worth of furniture had been tossed aside. To my way of thinking, it was happy to be reclaimed.

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Sometimes, of course, visits don’t work out. Once, I tried to get into a Chapin Street NW building that was secured by a chain-link fence, locked front and back. I scaled the fence and was able to leap over the fire escape to the roof, where I thought I could climb in. Then my foot plunged through the shingles and into the apartment below.

I was up to my waist in a hole in the roof, wondering whether anyone would come if I yelled for help. Eventually, I managed to gingerly pull myself out. On hands and knees I crawled back to the fire escape—and I haven’t been back.

Another time, I was visiting a former pharmacy near Howard University and the 9:30 Club. I had grabbed a few beautiful jars of brown and clear glass—still filled with mysterious powders—when I heard the sounds of two men talking.

I’d had enough encounters in the dark to know that it’s far better to engage than to hide when your quaint old building turns out to be someone else’s squat. I startled the two men, who were carrying food that looked as though it had been salvaged from behind a restaurant. They were more surprised to see me—and didn’t seem to notice my legs shaking as I promised not to tell the cops they were there.

I kept the jars, which I now use for flowers.

One building I used to love visiting is an old apartment house at the intersection of Florida Avenue and 18th Street NW, at the foot of Adams Morgan. The entire structure is fenced in, but scaling the chain-link fence is easy. Getting inside, though, involves climbing a rickety fire escape in the rear, going up a third-floor ladder to the roof, and then climbing back down a different fire escape until you reach the one window in the whole place that is not covered with sheet metal or plywood.

Although the window is locked, a pane is broken, and it’s easy to slip into the building by crouching and dropping through the opening. Hidden inside are two grand doorways facing the street, each of which opens onto a tiled staircase and an arched ceiling. The window trim is painted an optimistic shade of green throughout.

The top few floors get lots of natural light. Each unit has its own fireplace, complete with a distinct mantle. And each one used to have two lead-lined windows. (Somebody before me removed most of them; I got the very last decent ones.) Though the place has been abandoned for years, you get the sense that it could make for trendy apartments or modern offices. I can’t help thinking what a nice place it would be to live. Even though there’s nothing left to swipe, the place stirs my imagination about D.C., old and new. Which is sort of why I’m here.

The John Wilson Building—the old D.C. city hall—might be the best abandoned building in town. The city would argue that it was never totally abandoned. It fell into disrepair after former Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly rented an office building at One Judiciary Square when she decided the old city hall was too run-down for her tastes.

In what amounted to a classic tale of District waste, the building’s top three floors were left to the pigeons and rats while the D.C. Council initially remained below. The city kept the lights on and heated all the floors while doing nothing to repair massive water leaks or crumbling plaster. Only an independent writer and the city politics bureau of the Washington Times—where I worked at

the time—bothered to use the empty space

up above.

It was about three years ago that the council finally left the building, allowing it to be renovated from top to bottom. In the days immediately afterward, a crew of construction workers set to work ripping out the insides. One afternoon, I slipped in with the workers to give the old building one last look.

The top floor—the mayor’s office—was largely empty, except that former D.C. Council Chairman David Clarke had moved some of his papers and a foldaway bed into the room as a private retreat. One odd room on the third floor was stacked floor to ceiling with letters, envelopes, and computers from Marion Barry’s mayoral transition team, which used the Wilson Building after the mayor knocked off Kelly in 1994.

But the real treasures were elsewhere. While work crews jackhammered marble above me, I went down into the dark, damp underbelly of city hall. In one room I found dozens of never-used American and District flags, rotten with mildew. There were a complete tea set, a couple of framed certificates congratulating long-forgotten bureaucrats, and some unique reproductions of art from the National Gallery—complete with plaques.

Other rooms held bicycles, typewriters, coolers, tools, rugs, an old movie projector, televisions, telephones, books, clothing—all the things you’d expect to find in a basement. It was also packed with abandoned office furniture, like file cabinets and desks, and had a locker room for police, with a handful of unspent cartridges lying on a table.

That afternoon, I walked out of city hall with an extra-large police raincoat and a damaged but functional leather desk chair. The rest of the stuff, according to a foreman I questioned, was to be trucked out to a landfill and dumped.

Strange as it seems, stepping over decades of accumulated trash in the basement of city hall made me feel much closer to the District. Like a lot of people, D.C. is messy, apt to procrastinate, and clueless about what to keep and what to chuck. Even though the Wilson Building is set to return to government use later this year, I know I’ll never walk through it without remembering its days as an abandoned husk.

Newcomers, however, have no such memories. And I worry that when the whole city follows the Wilson Building’s lead—gentrifying neighborhoods and cleaning blight—my old stomping grounds will become antiseptic emblems of renewal. Not that I begrudge the desire to repair buildings that should never have been abandoned in the first place. But forgive me for getting a little nostalgic about the dusty sconce, the moldy bookcase, the rusted floor lamp, and the countless other treasures that the run-down version of our city has bequeathed me over all those late nights. CP