So, for those of you that don’t pick up the print edition, the main story for Housing Complex this week (yes, it appears in the newspaper too! Depending on how you look at it, it’s either a column or the entire real estate section) is about the Pierce School in Northeast, by the Atlas District. I’ve already posted ton of photos here and here, over the last few days. But, I’ve neglected to include the full story behind the renovation and rehabbing of the school. So, here’s the piece in full:
In the beginning, pigeon crap formed little mountains on three separate floors of the property. There were about 3,000 birds living in the attic then. Removing their droppings cost about $25,000.
“They shoveled them out the windows into Dumpsters downstairs,” recalls Jeff Printz while standing in his grand, Asian-inspired master bedroom at Maryland Avenue and 14th Street NE . He and his partner, Chris Swanson, have embellished the room with walls stenciled like henna, sculptures of Hindu gods, and a bed so high it seems one would need a running start to get on it.
We are all situated near a large U-shaped couch on a multicolored carpet. Underneath the carpet is evidence of one of the former holes-a plywood patch job.
Whatever other flaws exist, they are tucked away. Everything in this home is astonishing, including the fact that it is not a classic upper Northwest mansion, an extravagant decked-out condo loft, or a luxurious center-city town house. It’s an old school building, across from a partially boarded-up Checkers, on the back end of Capitol Hill’s H Street NE corridor. In 2000, Swanson and Printz bought the Pierce School for $275,000 from the city. The building had been unoccupied since the school closed in 1973.
Printz and Swanson own Evolve Property Management, which oversees 510 units throughout the District, mostly near Capitol Hill. They currently own 42 of those units, all inside small apartment buildings, though they’ve sold some of their other properties over the years.
In 1995, they moved to a place close to the old Pierce School, near the intersection of 9th and Maryland Streets. They launched their development company, Evolve LLC, in 1997,and their management company two years later
“We had a couple of other properties up the street,” says Printz. “We always drove by and said ‘Somebody should do something with that, somebody should do something with that,'” he says.
Today, the school is home to 13 people. Printz and Swanson rent out seven lofts, all located on the bottom two floors of the four-floor building, which is 23,000 square feet. They also own a town house behind the school, which they bought so they would have enough room to build a pool. Tenants in that building’s two units have access to the aforementioned pool and other perks at the Pierce school. Swanson and Printz occupy the top two floors of the school. It’s 9,500 square feet of opulent and fantastically designed rooms, many with themes. Their business office is also there. To enter their home, you walk up the school’s central steps and into a large, rectangular room that is now light pink with 16 chandeliers. “eBay!” chirps Swanson about his collection, which he is still adding to.
For him, the property offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dream various playful ideas into existence.
The living room is classical-music themed, with an antique piano and a large image of Beethoven’s face painted onto the wall.
Upstairs, there are several guest rooms: a Christmas-themed room, complete with ornamented trees; an Ozark mountain-themed room with what appears to be Depression-era bathtubs and a floor painted to look like a river; and, most impressive, an all white room below the property’s turret dominated by a huge, circular water bed. The room feels like an igloo, though Swanson says the whiteness was inspired by the architecture of the Greek isles.
“One of the best compliments that we get is ‘This is 9,000 square feet, and it feels so cozy.’ It feels homey. It doesn’t feel like an old schoolroom,” says Swanson.
One of Swanson’s favorite spots is the kitchen, which is supposed to feel like an intimate restaurant. A sign saying please seat yourself welcomes guests into the room. Plates and glasses are piled on metal shelves and the appliances all seem to be straight out of Top Chef. On the wall, there is a mural with scenes from Capitol Hill alongside references to various aspects of Swanson’s and Printz’s 17 years together. Perhaps the room’s defining feature is the gigantic marble countertop-9 feet by 23 feet-purposely made large enough that it could serve as a catwalk in case the couple ever wanted to hold a fashion show here.
It is already a place for events. Last fall, Swanson’s cousin was married on the rooftop. Another friend also had her wedding reception downstairs. In addition, Swanson occasionally holds cooking classes in his “restaurant.”
According to Printz, the school was built in 1893 as a whites-only school and was desegregated in 1944. In the 1960s, the school had trouble integrating when the neighborhood became entirely African-American.
“The city was like ‘It’s such a small building, such a small school-let’s just ditch it.’ It’s what they did with many, many, many of the older schools like this,” he says. Printz says he paid the exact listing price of the property, but the buying process was long and involved-about 18 months.
“As far as the District is concerned, you get awarded the property. [Then] they want to know what you’re doing with it, what have you done in your community around you, what have you done for your neighborhoods, what does your company stand for.”
Yet the city couldn’t even locate the old deed, says Printz.
“They were like ‘Meh, we don’t have the deed. Well, we might have the deed. We don’t know where it’s at.'”
He and Swanson had to hire private investigators. One investigator and an attorney found the documents by digging through boxes in a basement somewhere with a flashlight. The deed is now kept in the couple’s home in Rehobeth Beach.
After buying the place in 2000, Printz and Swanson finally moved in in 2004. Their first tenants arrived in May 2005.
Their home itself remains a work in progress. In the attic, the couple is installing a home theater. The 14 chairs-former airplane seats bought on eBay-sit on their three tiers. The screen has yet to be installed. The couple are also putting in a fish tank on the other side of a glass wall in their shower. Both projects should be completed by the end of the year. But, Swanson can’t imagine a time when his home won’t be evolving. Next up: a brick oven for pizza making. Right now, Swanson doesn’t know how to make pizza, but that doesn’t matter.
“I’m going to learn,” he says. “I can’t wait.”