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In the days before air conditioning, rooms in many apartment buildings were outfitted with not one door, but two: A solid piece of wood, and a lighter screen with wooden slats, which one could close for privacy while still letting air circulate. With the advent of central air, these “louver doors,” also known as summer doors, largely disappeared from new construction.
Those buildings are getting old, though. Like the August, a 47-unit brick building at 22nd and O Street NW in Dupont Circle. It was built in 1925, and Bernstein Management started planning upgrades last year as they planned to buy the building (the deal only closed last month, property records show; they got the rent-controlled building for a bargain basement $2.17 million).
Residents were happy to see many of the changes, like newly painted hallways and a redone entryway. Bernstein thought the louver doors could go, too—-they’re a nuisance to maintain, and most tenants now have air conditioning anyway.
The company may have underestimated how attached the August’s residents had become to their second doors. They provide a sense of community and security at the same time—-especially for the dog and cat owners in the pet-friendly building.
Peg Shaw, who’s lived in the building for 35 years, was immediately alarmed when she heard about Bernstein’s plans. She sent around a memo to tenants, and received more than a dozen similar responses (along with a couple people who were happy to see the doors go).
“Until last month, I don’t believe I had given a minute’s thought to my louver door. It was just part of my apartment,” Shaw wrote to the property manager. “I had an unexpected and immediate reaction of dismay that there was a plan to remove the louver doors…They allow some of us to use air conditioning much less than we otherwise would do, saving money and energy. Because tenants lack the ability to regulate heat in the August, sometimes our apartments are too hot even in the winter, particularly when ovens are on. Some of us in the building rely on being able to open our front doors for air circulation at all seasons of the year. We regard it as a lovely amenity.”
“Please tell management to leave our historic doors in place!” added Marty Langelan. “These louver doors are real wood—-not some modern plastic-composite material. They are quite valuable. I am dismayed at the very thought of removing them…They are charming, safe, and energy-efficient. They serve their purpose beautifully, they are part of the essential character of the building, and there is NO excuse for removing them.”
The most desperate plea came from Jim Crouch, who’s lived in the building since 1972. He says that the louver doors saved his life—-twice, when he’s fallen on account of low blood sugar and a pain in his hip, neighbors have been able to hear his cries for help and get him to a hospital. “I believe either of these episodes could have ended in my death had I been behind a solid door rather than a louver door,” he says.
Bernstein executives declined to comment on the record for this story, but did acknowledge the veracity of correspondence forwarded by tenants. “The August should be all about change,” wrote property manager Robin Smith, in response to one resident. “The louvered doors are in terrible condition. Even if we left them up the work that would be needed to make them look presentable would be cost prohibited. There are slats missing, they are all banged up from hitting each other, it would take a miracle to make them look good. I have residents arguing with other residents because one door is blocking another….while we value your opinion, a meeting will not change the plans we have made.”
Historic as the doors may be, the August’s interior isn’t designated as a landmark, so tenants have little recourse. It may seem like a small deprivation, especially for people paying far below market rates in one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods. But it’s also a reminder of renter vulnerability: Little things become a way of life for people who live in a place that they don’t actually own, and it’s quite disturbing when such small comforts are taken away.
Photos by Lydia DePillis