An old photograph taken in front of 14th and T streets NW, back when the building there turned out Model T’s, shows how the corner once hummed with progress; completed cars were showcased on the ground level for D.C.’s up-and-comers to check out.
The factory closed, of course, and became home to a kitchen supply business, which also closed. Then, in the 1980s, it had a rebirth of sorts as the Church of the Rapture, a vibrant Pentecostal congregation. But the hallelujahs moved to Suitland, Md., in 2005, clearing the way for a group of real-estate investors to buy the building and two others adjacent to it for $10 million. The next rebirth should’ve happened years ago. But since the sale, business plan after business plan has failed, leaving us to wonder: Is 1840 14th St. NW the building where dreams go to die?
Travel The Cycle of Death
2005: Church of the Rapture Makes Way for Rapturous Condos
Bye, bye Church of the Rapture. In 2005, Four Points LLC, a small local real estate investment group, purchases the properties with plans to get them to fit in with the changing neighborhood. But this is no ordinary, old-timey-church-storefront-turned-swanky-gentrification project. At least not according to the Washington Post. “Race and class are colliding on dozens of other blocks in a city where demographics are shifting by the month, but 14th and T represents something else: That split-second before the curtain drops on one era and rises on another.” The line appears in a two-part series, published in November 2005, about how moules, frites, Belgian brews, and gay people are overtaking the traditional, African-American culture around U Street and Shaw. Of course, the old landmarks and names can live on in another form: as inspiration for naming new condos! The area already has a history of embracing its nomenclatural roots: The Rainbow Lofts on Church Street were named after Rainbow Auto Body Repair and the Cooper Lewis Condominiums on P Street recall both the land’s former owner, pharmacist Samuel E. Lewis, and longtime occupant Cooper Hardware. Likewise the new project at 14th and T is to be called “Rapture Lofts.” This particular honorific has only a brief moment in the sun, however: Developers soon decide “T Street Flats” is a more marketable name for units priced from $400,000 to $1 million. The former pastor at Church of the Rapture seems unfazed by the slight: “I found out that the rent is gonna be so high that only the rich homosexuals and lesbians will be able to buy this condominium,” she tells her congregation one morning, according to the Post.
2007: Condos Go Kablooey
In a tanking market, T Street Flats remain flat when buyers start demanding more than architectural plans and artistic renderings of trees before they surrender their down payments. The units join thousands of other would-be condos removed from the pipeline as the boom cools. Four Points hires experienced commercial broker Wayne Dickson of Blake Dickson Real Estate Services to start marketing the property. In an April 2007 interview with Washington City Paper, he indicates the space will be occupied by mystery commercial businesses in early 2008. “We’re at the very beginning of the process. We’re considering different types of retailers,” he says, declining to elaborate.
March 2008: Eat, Laugh, Boat Pose
With few actual takers on filling the commercial space, broker Dickson calls up Constantine Stavropoulos, owner of the Diner and Tryst in Adams Morgan and Open City in Woodley Park. They’re old friends—in fact, Dickson found the location for Open City. He thinks 14th and T might be great for whatever Stavropoulos is cooking up next. “From what I remember, they were trying to do basically anything they could to get it leased,” Stavropoulos recalls. Still, the space inspires him to form a coalition of local business owners who agree to lease out various floors. On the ground level, it’d be a 24-hour hybrid of the Diner and Tryst. The second floor would go to Riot Act Comedy Club, which had been located in a basement down the street: “I outgrew it almost immediately,” says owner John Xereas. The top floor would be the home of both Boundless Yoga and City Dance. According to Stavropoulos, he negotiates roughly $720,000 in build-out allowances from Four Points. “All the elements were coming together nicely,” he says. Then, right before Stavropoulos is set to go on vacation, he hears some bad news: “I found out they couldn’t give us the tenant allowances; it was just crazy,” he says. The deal begins to crumble.
August 2008: Dave Chappelle Is in the House!
Forget leasing the building; Four Points partners decide they’re going to sell and ask for $11 million, according to Stavropoulos. He and his and his partners rejigger their leasing options and counter with something in the range of $6 million to $6.5 million in August. “They flat-out rejected it,” Stavropoulos says. By this point, he and comedy club owner Xereas are gathering investors to help pool enough money for another bid. Luckily Xereas knows a homegrown comedian-made-good who used to crash on his couch back in the day. Between sightings of Dave Chappelle skateboarding around town, Xereas reaches out. Chappelle and his brother, William Abdullah Chappelle, agree to invest in the club. After some conferring among themselves, the Diner/Comedy/Dance partners offer to put together $9 million.
October 2008: Make Room for Room & Board
Room & Board, the Minnesota-based furniture company, started talking to their brokers about 14th and T in August 2008. They put in a starting bid of $9.25 million, according to company CFO Mark Miller. This happens as neighborhood support for the diner/coffeehouse/comedy club/yoga studio/dance studio foments. Commenters tear it up on City Paper’s blog coverage of the saga, many of them deriding the furniture company as a “big box retailer” out to kill the “creative spirit and community interest generated by people who live where they do business.” Ultimately, the sellers don’t care. Also: Some people really like Room & Board. The company keeps tabs on the online reaction and reaches out to about 500 D.C. area people who bought online or from the company’s New York showroom. It asks: How would you feel about a store at 14th and T? “We honed in on that particular area,” says Miller. The feedback, he says, was largely positive. By the end of October, Room & Board negotiates the deal to buy 1840 14th St. NW and hires a local architect to draw up the plans.
January 2009: The Bank Is Not Pleased
December 2008 delivers devastating financial news to most people, generally, and to Room & Board execs, specifically. Green Bay-based Associated Bank decides to pull some of its loans until new terms can be negotiated. “We were all set to purchase the building before the end of the year,” says Miller. “We spent three months doing our due diligence, and really about a week before we were done, we got a letter and a phone call saying they had changed their minds.” Through January, Miller and the building’s owners try to work out a rent-to-own deal in the space. But they can’t come to an agreement. Like Stavropoulos, Miller says he’s still attached to the building and trying to raise the money. But realistically, all bets are off.
His parting words: “If you know of any properties for sale or for lease, let me know….We need 25 or 30,000 square feet. We’d love an old building like 14th and T.”