DC’s Oldest Apartment Building Hangs On — Barely

DC's oldest apartment

The Harrison Apartment Building — DC’s oldest surviving apartment building (Photo By: heydayjoe)

In the late-nineteenth century, DC residents weren’t too keen on living in apartment buildings. Washingtonians at the time associated “apartments” with New York City’s festering, crime-ridden tenements – filthy, overcrowded buildings packed with recent immigrants and lacking the basic amenities of civilized society.

When tasked with designing an apartment building, architect Charles E. Gibbs (co-founder of local architectural and contracting firm Johnson and Company) decided to disguise his apartment building as row houses, which were more acceptable to DC dwellers. The idea is akin to designing new “loft apartments.” Completed in 1890, the Harrison Apartment Building at 704 3rd Street NW (corner of 3rd & G NW) is the earliest extant example of the row-house style in DC – and the city’s oldest known surviving conventional apartment building.

The Harrison was built for Harvey Spalding, a prominent Washington lawyer who also had an eye for real estate investment. Conveniently, Spalding’s law specialties were “Government Claims, Land and Patent Cases, Postmasters’ Claims under ‘Spalding Act,’ and Claims of Soldiers Charged with Desertion.” Spalding likely named the Harrison in honor of Republican president-elect Benjamin Harrison, who defeated Democrat incumbent President Grover Cleveland in the 1888 election.

Harrison Apartments oldest DC apartment

The original-arch entryway on the east side (3rd Street) of Harrison Apartments, looking north (Photo By: heydayjoe)

The Harrison was constructed in two sections in 1888-90. The southern section was apartments in the form of super-size row houses with projecting bays. Just as the residences were being completed, however, the federal government decided to lease the building from Spalding to use as an executive office for the Census Bureau, which was ramping up its staff for the 1890 census. The feds offered to pay Spalding handsomely for the rental if he agreed to build a northern addition, to be completed by the end of the year. The Census Office stayed for only a few years before the entire building reverted to its intended use as apartments.

The five-story brick Harrison features 79 apartments and a Romanesque Revival façade, with classical Roman arches, cavernous entryways and rounded towers. (The Smithsonian Castle, c. 1847-55, is the first American representation of the Romanesque Revival, predating the second revival that began in the 1870s.)

In the late 1880s, the neighborhood around 3rd & G NW consisted of row houses that surrounded the commercial center of DC. The Harrison was the first multi-family building in the area, with a single apartment entrance that led through a spacious vestibule to a reception room and a public dining room. Originally, a barbershop and drug store also occupied space on the first floor, with their own separate entrances. The basement level served as a café around this time.

Harrison-Apartments-Bliss-Native-Herbs-DCIn 1899, Spalding sold the Harrison to Alonzo Ogilvie Bliss, who thoroughly renovated the place and renamed it the Astoria. Bliss had served in the 10th New York Calvary in the Civil War and later became a businessman, marketing the popular cure-all “Bliss Native Herbs” and owning and managing about a dozen apartment buildings in DC.

After 1941, the name was changed to the Canterbury. Today referred to as the Harrison, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. Sadly, the interior of the building is not designated historic, and the non-loadbearing walls, which delineated the apartments, were demolished years ago.

Harrison-Office-Rendering-PQLivingFrom 2006 to 2011, the building changed ownership three times. At one point it was slated to become part of an office development (see rendering at right). The Harrison’s current owner has proposed to construct a 12-story hotel addition to the landmark apartment building, keeping only the exterior walls of the historic building – but nothing’s happened yet. Our guess is that the owner is waiting to move forward until the massive nearby Capitol Crossing project is completed.

In the meantime, the grand old Harrison continues to deteriorate. Since it’s had so many owners, the City doesn’t know whom to blame for the Harrison’s neglect. Boarded up and vacant for the past 11 years, the property is currently the squat of some of DC’s homeless population. Here’s to hoping that the grand old Harrison Apartment Building can retain some of its past glory and live on as a historical reminder of DC’s past.

The Face of the Voice of the DC Metro

Randi Miller - from singing telegram to car dealer intercom to most heard voice in our nation's capital

Randi Miller – from singing telegram to car dealer intercom to most-heard voice in our nation’s capital

The most frequently heard voice in our nation’s capital isn’t the enunciated clip of Barack Obama or the smoker’s rasp of House Speaker John Boehner. It’s the sultry intonations of Randi Miller, the voice of DC Metro, who also happens to be an auto lease retention manager from Woodbridge, Va.

Randi’s voice is played 33,017 times a day in 86 Metro subway stations spanning DC, Maryland and Virginia. It’s Randi’s voice you hear just before the Metro doors snap shut on your bag with a thud – “Doors closing.”

Randi Miller’s voice was not the first to reverberate throughout Washington’s subway system though. Back in 1996, DC resident Sandy Carroll made a recording in her apartment as a favor to a friend, a recording that was to be the gentle voice of Metro for a decade.

Sandy Carroll - former voice of the Metro (1996-2006)

Sandy Carroll – former voice of the Metro (1996-2006)

In 2006, Metro decided to change its tone by announcing the “Doors Closing Voice 2006” contest to find a new voice for the Metrorail trains. The voice of Sandy had seemingly faded into the background, and Metro needed a more authoritative voice to nudge its passengers along. Anyone over the age of 21 was eligible to compete.

Metro asked each contestant to record two messages in three tones of voice: polite, serious and authoritative. Several scripts were specifically written to deter notorious door-blockers: “One arm. One leg. One briefcase. One purse … can delay everyone.” Another script began with “Jeepers, Batman! Did you see that person just shove their briefcase in the doors?”

The “Doors Closing” contest attracted 1,259 contestants from across the country, some from as far away as Seattle. Metro reviewed the CD submissions and narrowed the field. Of the 10 finalists, all lived in the metropolitan area and half rode Metro regularly. The contestants’ reward for making it to the Top 10: a DC edition of Monopoly.

The stage was now set for a studio showdown. Each finalist recorded new messages in a professional studio near Dupont Circle: a 10-minute recording session under the guidance of a creative director from Arlington’s LM&O Advertising.

Three judges – the head of marketing for Metro, the advertising creative director and a former local anchorwoman – listened to the recordings to select the new voice. On Feb. 2, 2006, Metro announced its winner.

Chosen for the honor of being the new voice of Metrorail trains – and it is only an honor – Randi Miller, like Sandy Carroll before her, didn’t receive a dime for her efforts. Her recording was simply loaded onto a chip and placed in Metro’s more than 950 train cars.

Although Randi’s a lifelong singer who’s delivered singing telegrams, her only previous broadcast experience had been over the intercom at the Alexandria car dealership where she works. But after landing the Metro gig, her vocal career took off. Now her voice can be heard at kiosks in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, aquariums across the country and even radio commercials. She’s also used her voice to raise more than $250,000 for charities including Central Hospice, the Duffy Project and the Thomas G. Larbrecque Foundation.

Although she’s an infrequent subway rider, Randi still finds it weird to hear her voice on the trains. “When it first started running on the trains, I couldn’t wait to hear it. I wanted to see how it sounded,” she said. “And it was so annoying to me when I heard it. Maybe because it’s me. Maybe because … maybe just because it’s me.”

T. Rex Finds New Home in DC – Rent-Free!

    DC's resident T. rex arrives at the loading dock of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in the wee hours of April 15, 2014. (Photo By: heydayjoe)

DC’s resident T. rex arrives at the loading dock of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in the wee hours of April 15, 2014. (Photo By: heydayjoe)

You know that colossal T. rex skeleton that towers over you as you enter the dinosaur hall in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History? It’s a fake – but not for long. This morning at 5:30 a.m., a FedEx 18-wheeler pulled into the parking lot with the real skeletal remains of a genuine T. rex.

Federal Express – When your dinosaur absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.

For the first time since the dinosaur hall opened in 1911, the Museum of Natural History will have a bona fide Tyrannosaurus rex gracing its space. This 38-foot long, 7-ton T. rex is on loan to the Smithsonian Institution for 50 years, and we owe its discovery to a Montana woman out camping with her family.

The first bones of DC’s new T. rex were discovered in 1988 by Kathy Wankel, a rancher who found the dinosaur’s arm bones near the Fort Peck Reservoir in northeast Montana, on land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Christened the Wankel T. rex, the dinosaur was kept by the Corps at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman for nearly 20 years until it was packed up and shipped to DC.

Shipping a T. rex isn’t as hard as it may sound. In some ways, it’s like sending a care package to college. Wrap it up, put it in a box and toss the box onto a truck. Only this care package nixed the bubble wrap in favor of custom-molded plaster cradles. And it came in 16 crates in a customized FedEx truck driven by a husband and wife team. The couple left Bozeman in a 53-foot-long semi on April 11 for the more than 2,000-mile trip – and arrived on time.

Time to unload the dinosaur (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Time to unpack the dinosaur (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Back in 1997, the Museum of Natural History was on the verge of getting a real T. rex — a dino named Sue. Sue, the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered, was to be auctioned by Sotheby’s to the highest bidder. The Smithsonian thought it belonged in its dinosaur collection. To bring Sue home to DC, the world’s most-visited natural history museum was prepared to spend $2.5 million. It wasn’t nearly enough. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago drastically outbid the Smithsonian, spending $8.3 million to bring Sue home to Chicago, where the 67-million-year-old remains the star attraction, drawing more than 6.5 million visitors.

Some assembly required -- eat your heart out, Ikea. Yes, this T. rex would eat your heart out, Ikea. (Photo By: heydayjoe)

SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED — just like Ikea! (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Since that fated auction, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has been looking for an alternative T. rex to complete its collection – until now. To make room for the big guy, the dinosaur hall will close on April 28 for a five-year renovation. When the hall reopens in 2019, the Wankel T. rex is set to be the centerpiece of a new paleontology exhibit that will showcase the giant carnivore like never before.

Now that will be something you can sink your teeth into…

[DINOSAUR BONUS: The Ohio State University marching band does a great T. rex impression. To see the beast in action, scroll to the 1:30 mark in the video below.]