Friday, February 11, 2011

From U to H, 2 Townhouses and Their Effect on Revitalization

Joe Englert, U Street, Washington DC restaurants and bars, State of the Union, retail for leaseOn U Street, near the corner of 14th, a pair of historic - if dodgy - buildings sit, at long last for rent rather than just 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.Joe Englert, U Street, Washington DC restaurants and bars, State of the Union 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. Joe Englert, U Street, Washington DC restaurants and bars, State of the Union

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 retail and commercial real estate news


SG said...

What a great article! Keep 'em coming. I love hearing about this stuff.

A quick perusal of the building permits and plans for 1357, however, show that it is being actively renovated by the hopeful owner of a bar called Kindred. There is even a website on it and it was featured briefly on Prince of Petworth over a year ago.

Melissa McCart on Feb 11, 2011, 12:34:00 PM said...

You know, I saw that piece on Kindred too, but McCall and family is still on the books as the owners. . . I can follow up and see how it's going with Nikisha, but considering that blog post was on PoP in 2009 and those photos were taken yesterday, . . . It's a taking quite a while if the plan is still underway.

Anonymous said...

Melissa - interesting background into these buildings. At one point Kindred did have a lot of building permits for 1357 U - most during the summer of 2010 - and I did see workers in the building, but not much seems to have happened since. Curious about 1355 U though - I could have sworn Republic (formerly Republic Gardens) reopened in 2008 but closed again - it was hard to tell when because they had such weird hours.

Anonymous said...

Interesting read!
Persnickety pedantic point: it's "jury rigged." People confuse that with "jerry built" (poorly built).

Ken on Feb 11, 2011, 1:39:00 PM said...

Editor's goof. We love editors sharper than us. Thanks, we've changed it in the story.

Anonymous said...

Norris Dodson, hrmnnn, that agent name seems to pop up a lot with decrepit buildings in prime locations of DC that are rotting away as absentee owners keep them on the market for WAY above average rent. Interesting. Smells like a rat to me.

Anonymous said...

Just like everything else that opens on U St., it will be another club with a Tavern license that blares horrible loud music into the wee hours of the night to entertain a lot of people who live nowhere near U St. It's never what the actual community wants.

Karen King on Feb 14, 2011, 3:23:00 PM said...

My friends and I used to have a great time at State of the Union. It was a chapter closing for me when I finished my PhD and moved to CA in the summer of 1997. That was a great era on U St. It was fun to talk to my parents about the revitalization, since they partied U St. at my then age. I hope this generation will get to have some of the same fun as I now live in the H St. corridor.

Alan Page on Dec 7, 2011, 9:24:00 AM said...

State of the Union did *not* fold in 1997. Several friends and I (a group called The Amphibians) promoted a weekly open mic event at State of the Union in 1998 (Sundays, 7-10pm). Sam "the Man" Burns' Grits-n-Gravy house event was immediately after we wrapped. If memory serves, the building stayed open until around 2000? I met McCall on U Street some years after that and he said he was holding out on opening a restaurant in the space at State and rebuffed my offer to re-open a live music venue space there.

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