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Carl Westerman couldn’t figure out why his new home was so popular. The 27-year-old architect had just moved into 1410 15th St. NW near Dupont Circle with a bunch of his pals from Georgetown University. Standing across the street from the First Baptist Church and next to a parking lot, the house looked like any other on its blockjust another three stories of relatively nondescript red brick.
But every day, anywhere from five to 10 men would come by, seeking the previous tenants.
Was the place a nonstop party beforehand? Westerman says the constant door-knocking went on for at least six months, and a trickle continues to this day. Once, a female housemate answered one of the knocks, much to the delight of the guests. “It was like, hey, a new treat,” Westerman says. Another fellow asked one of the roommates if he could check out the “Colombian room.”
And the males who knocked on the front door were only a bit more suspicious than the mail that came through it. One former tenant, in a postcard returned from Central America, boasted to the family back home about his new job “managing a house” and making $700 a week. Another former residenta womangot missives from male pen pals all over the world.
Westerman’s pad on 15th has some of the usual amenities and some custom work that’s difficult to figure out. In the second-floor bathroom shower, a curious nozzle juts from the wall at waist level. Plumbing snafu?
In the center of the bathroom sits a large tub with a reclining back. “I think it’s built for two,” says housemate Shenna Bellows, 22, with a smirk. Adds Jim McLeod, “It’s got handlebars, for God’s sake.”
In the basement kitchen, one cabinet is padlocked, and another still includes masking-tape labels for the previous tenants: Kati, Marta, and Yaneht. When the newcomers moved in, three dust-covered condoms sat at the bottom of the dumbwaiter. They’re still there today: No one wants to touch them.
The basement is also home to an intestiney jumble of phone lines, a wiring mess that looks like the Millennium Falcon after a direct hit by an X-wing fighter. And according to Westerman, every time he or his mates call Bell Atlantic to order a new phone or fax line, the operators laugh, explaining that the previous tenant used the line for incoming phone-sex calls. (Bell Atlantic refused to comment.)
McLeod’s third-floor room is home to perhaps the most interesting remnant from the previous tenant’s stay. A mirrored cabinet on the wall opens up to a hole into a fellow housemate’s closet. A cut coaxial cable and the electrical outlets in the small tunnel between the mirrored cabinet and the closet led him to conclude that whatever took place in this particular bedroom was videotaped.
The postcards, custom tubs, and household fixtures naturally aroused the roommates’ curiosity about their dwelling’s history. A visitor eventually appeared at the front door with a lead. “I’m here to see Juan,” said the guy. “You know, from the Royal Palace,” he added, dropping the name of the low-rent strip joint just above Dupont Circle.
A few of the tenants sauntered over one night to the overpriced drinks, third-tier strippers, and boarded-up windows of the Royal Palace. They ID’d and approached a “Juan,” who smiled but never acknowledged that he knew a thing.
One dancer offered a tad more info, reporting to Westerman, “We’re out of that business now….It’s a different line.” Bit by bit, the housemates got the story.
The skinny begins in December 1994, when Westerman and his Georgetown friends visited the house, then for rent under the supervision of JC Associates (JCA). JCA wanted $3,200 a month; Westerman and his friends offered $2,800.
But before negotiations could even begin, JCA received a competing offer$3,900 a month, or $6,000 a year more than they were asking. Somebody must have adored the place, Westerman concluded.
Next-door neighbor Dave Patterson, a graduate student at George Washington University, reports that the first few weeks with his new neighbors went smoothly. The occupants of 1410 kept their shades shut 24-7, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Then Patterson spotted a growing parade of house guests. “They were mainly Hispanic,” Patterson says. “They appeared to be laborers. I’d also see groups of Asian men, too.”
The visitors would stand by the back gate, waiting for a balding man to let them in. Each passing week brought greater crowds, especially around lunchtime. “They were always carrying these little plastic bags with them,” says Patterson, adding that the bags appeared to contain towels.
Neither Patterson nor other neighbors ever saw any women going in and out of the place, so they had trouble divining just what was going on inside. Some guessed it was a crackhouse, others that it was a gambling den. But neither of those guesses explained the look of the visitors on their way out.
“One day, I’m sitting at my back porch, reading, when these guys emerge from the home. One slapped the other on the back, and it hit methey just had sex,” says Patterson.
Patterson went upstairs to report his suspicions to his neighbors, who recalled that the occupants of 1410 had hauled in a bunch of mattresses when they arrived. Patterson considered the whole affair amusinguntil the thriving little whore-town house got too popular. Increasing numbers of drunken, boisterous customers washed up on Patterson’s doorstep, their pants bulging at the groin. They made a lot of noise out back, too, whistling to the gatekeeper.
One night, four particularly horny visitors were making a racket outside Patterson’s window. Patterson called out to them, shining his high-powered flashlight on their license plate and telling them to get lost or he’d call the cops. The men reacted angrily, so the next morning Patterson’s girlfriend left a note on their neighbors’ car that they could no longer tolerate the back-gate visits. The proprietors immediately changed the entry procedure, routing their lip-smacking guests to the front of the house, on 15th Street. Worried that the house was peddling drugs, Patterson notified the police, who conducted a stakeout that summer.
According to Patterson, the 3rd District Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) detective investigating the case concluded “that some kind of nefarious activity was going on, but he wasn’t sure what.” Progress on the case, however, was delayed because the 3rd District at the time didn’t have a male Hispanic undercover cop to case the joint, Patterson says.
After a few months of surveillance and an undercover visit, though, the cops descended on the bordello in December. The raid went smoothly and met little resistance from the ringleaders, who calmly ducked into the police cruisers on 15th Street. Although Patterson missed the action, he says the roundup netted four arrests, including a slight and scantily clad young Hispanic woman. “I didn’t even get to see when they moved the mattresses out,” he laments.
Ulysses Campbell, director of leasing for JCA, which owns two other buildings on the block and 74 throughout the city, said the raid caught him by surprise, too. “Management got hoodwinked by the previous tenants,” Campbell says. “It just absolutely made us look like idiots.” Or liars. Sources in the neighborhood say they warned JCA official Jay Zawadski of suspicious activity at the house months before the MPD raid.
Campbell goes so far as to claim that the house’s interesting architectural amenities predate the whorehouse days. The two-way mirror in McLeod’s room, Campbell says, was there because a previous tenant was an animal-loving PBS film producer who filmed her cats and dogs at play. Campbell even has an explanation for the dozens of phone lines in the house: The PBS producer “had a Commodore 64 computer.” Oh.
Though five months passed between the raid and when Westerman and crew moved in, Campbell says most of the work done on the housepainting, new carpetingwas “just because of the age of it, rather than because there was a leopard skin print or anything.”
For a brothel, he says, “it seems like they were pretty low-key over there.”
And of course, most important for any landlord, “they always paid their rent on time.”CP