Judging from my first visit to West Elm, the new home-furnishings store at 11th & G Streets NW, I may never buy a thing there. But I will return, just to savor the lingering ambiance of the space’s former occupant, Woodward & Lothrop.
West Elm inhabits the north side of the first two floors of Woodies, which closed in 1995 after suffering a failed leveraged buyout by big-time mall developer Alfred Taubman. (The venerable department store chain’s operations were profitable to the end, but it couldn’t handle the debt with which Taubman saddled it.) Developer Douglas Jemal, who ended up controlling the building, had the exterior nicely preserved. Now West Elm has done its part for the (partial) interior.
Of course, it’s not Woodies anymore. Certain elements are familiar, while others are jarring. The staircase down from G Street is back in operation, but it’s now flanked by a new one to the second floor. The added stairs are open-slatted, and lead to a floating landing a few steps below the shop’s top floor. They are typical of an unfortunate aspect of West Elm’s makeover: In part, dignified old Woodies has been lofted.
Near the new 11th Street entrance, an “exposed brick” wall has been added. Upstairs, smaller brick dividers pick up the theme. Of course, they’re not real walls; they’re theatrical backdrops. So are the mismatched wood-slat floors and factory-style interior windows (which don’t actually function as windows at all). Such touches are appropriate for a store that will sell rugs and towels to residents of the new fake lofts constructed in D.C. over the last decade. But the faux-industrial look doesn’t suit this dowager building.
Still, the detailing on the interior columns remains, as does the ornate setting for the elevator bank (although the elevators themselves are new and crudely designed). The illusion that Woodies survives is easily shattered: Just look toward F Street and realize that more than half the department store’s grand hall is gone. (Part already went to H&M, which proved a much less fastidious custodian than West Elm.) But there’s still a bit of there there, which is more than can be said for most of Washington’s culturally and historically denatured downtown.