On U Street, near the corner of 14th, a pair of historic - if dodgy - buildings sit, at long last for rent rather than vacant, uncharacteristically forlorn, and out of sorts with U Street's thriving retail. Outward appearances aside, the perpetually run down pair at 1355 and 1357 U Street with a quirky history has had an oversized role in shaping the street, and might even be credited with the rebirth of the H Street corridor.
The townhouses were once the negative of that image, the rare luminescence on a struggling strip, helping deliver U Street's nascent resurgence in the early '90s. Like many properties in the neighborhood, the attractive row houses had remained family-owned for decades, with little attention paid to them as the neighborhood declined. But a group of investors saw the potential for a nightspot, and one, an up and coming restaurateur named Joe Englert, thought a bizarrely themed bar might make it in the rough and tumble neighborhood.
In line with neighborhood, the building at 1357 U Street needed work, having been neglected to the point of instability. "Even back then, the building was a mess," says Stuart Woodroffe, a General Manager of the bar. "We had jury-rigged half the place with reinforcements because we were worried the floor would give."
"It was a wreck when we were there," said Englert of the building. "The place was falling down then." In spite of its decrepitude, Englert and company opened State of the Union, a Soviet-themed bar (appropriate for the decaying infrastructure and outward bravado) that brought together jazz musicians of all ages and later, roots music, house music, and rhythm and blues, a venue that fused the jazz history of the street with trendier club themes for the proletariat. When Woodroffe became the general manager, "he made it much cooler than I would have," said Englert. "I thought we should have a 200 pound go-go dancing babushkas shaking their rumps and table side cabbage roll preparation." Yum.
The crumbling building and divisions within the partnership eventually took their toll on Englert, who pulled out of the project - his fifth or sixth bar - because of differences with the owner of the two buildings, Henry McCall. "He was a real character," said Englert of the man who lived - let's say modestly - on Alabama Avenue in southeast DC, and had little financial capacity or personal wherewithal to improve the building, nor interest in selling. Add the strained politburo-style partnership ("ten people owned it, three did all the work"), and the business folded in 1997. "So we had a revolution," said Englert. "The State of the Union was a failed Socialist republic." In its wake, Englert fled the corridor for H Street's Atlas District, where it might be said he had more success.
And so the building that was once a center of U Street's gentrification continued its decline. Prior to 2007 1355 U Street was worth $1.5 million dollars. Despite their peak value, by 2010 the properties were listed in the Notice of Real Property Tax Sale for arrearages of $73,758.59 for 1357 U and $19,087.20 for 1355 U Street and scheduled for auction. The back taxes were paid, and McCall's family, who inherited it when he died three months ago, plans to keep and rent the one that's in better shape at 1355 U Street. Norris Dodson, the listing agent, notes that the family prefers a tenant that's not a bar or club "though the owners are trying to be open minded," said Dodson. The property has been on the market since September and the rate has dropped at least once to $7500 per floor.
And as for Englert, the businessman behind many of the area's watering holes, from Dupont's Big Hunt and Lucky Bar to DC9, to the Pour House and Capitol Lounge on the Hill, took a special liking to the eastern half of DC, having invested in The Pug, Rock and Roll Hotel, Granville Moore's and The Argonaut, which had reopened recently after a fire. He's sticking with H Street, with plans for more restaurant and bars to come. Next up? Rumor has it Englert is writing a book on the history of H Street, and has plans to open a barbecue joint called Joe's Coal and Ice House, perhaps for this summer. Sounds strange; we'll see if it works.
Washington DC real estate development news