The Brittany was built in 1917 and renovated in 1981. Alex Robinson lives in one of its penthouse condos and owns another, which he rents. He’s lived in D.C. for years and has been witness to its many changes, real estate and otherwise.
ALEX [in guestroom]: You can see right into The Roosevelt from this room. It used to be a nursing home, then a crack haven, then abandoned, then some company tried to turn it into Section 8 housing but the neighborhood rose up against that, now it’s apartments and I suppose it’ll eventually be condominiums. The people in there have never heard of blinds or curtains. You can see people going to the bathroom.
This room was hard for me. You’re seeing its third incarnation. The first incarnation was a little sitting room, with the couch that’s now in my bedroom and my computer. I never used it. The second incarnation, I put a big desk in here with my computer stuff and a little wingchair there, but when I’d have visitors they’d have to sleep on the couch. So finally it dawned on me — futon! And a computer armoire. So now it can be a sitting room, a guest bedroom, a den and an office. The futon came from that place on P Street. I like to try to shop local. The TV is obviously really old, it’s like an old friend, I’ll keep it till it dies. You just can’t find appliances with fake wood paneling anymore. And this is a bust of Madonna, mother of Christ. I’m not really religious, but it was on sale.
[In bedroom] These [little bears in blue Lufthansa sweaters] came from Berlin. I was on the plane to go home and I still had all these Euros left, so I was like, “Stewardess, whacha got?” The exposed brick in here is really just the other side of the fireplace. That’s what I love about this apartment, I don’t feel like I’m in a cage. When you come in, it sort of unfolds in front of you, you don’t see the whole apartment at once, the rooms are all sort of jutted out at angles. So I don’t have to go out if I get bored, I can just go to another room.
I’m 41 now, and I’ve become kind of a homebody. I’ve done my time on the streets and I’ve done it well. Rascals was the place in the eighties, and The Circle bar. We still grieve for the demise of that bar. Some of my best divorces came out of those bars. Sometimes I’ll still go down to 17th Street or P Street. This community seems so split, though. As a black professional, I don’t really fit too well on either street. 17th Street isn’t very interracial, and P Street doesn’t have quite as many professionals.
But the Internet! It’s like a big cyber hook! You can go out on dates, meet the person at Annie’s, bring a witness in case they’re strange. I can meet people from my apartment! Two of my best friends, we met on Internet personals and dated for a while, and now we’re good friends. One of them, we traveled to Europe together, we talk everyday, and I never would have met him because he lived in Baltimore.
I’m here a lot. I like to have people over for social gatherings. Ten years ago this building was mostly gay, but that’s started to change. When real estate started to get hot and expensive, people didn’t care if it was a gay building anymore. They were like, “Well, it’s a nice apartment and a good price, so come on, Junior! Grab your big-wheel!” They tend to be friendly, the straight people. They know what they’re getting into before they move in.
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Nigel King wanted a little more space, so he bought two adjacent apartments, knocked down the wall and renovated like nuts, doing much of the work himself. A legal secretary, he unwinds after long days at work at his expanded dwellings on 17th Street.
NIGEL [in master bathroom]: I’m six-foot-five, so I took out the tub and put in a shower that’s custom built for my height. The whole bathroom was designed around this sink, which [pictorially] tells the story of Sleeping Beauty along the sides of the basin. The stained glass window I designed and built to obscure the view directly into my neighbor’s kitchen, and this mirror above the sink is framed, as if to say, “You are the work of art.”
Room with a view: Dining at the center of a mural meadow.
(Photo by Michael Wichita)
[In bedroom] I don’t have any professional design experience. It’s just what I think about. When I’m sitting in a room, I ask myself, “What do I feel? What do I want to feel?” Like the walls of this room. I call them off-black, but really it’s a very deep gray. When you turn off the lights in a bedroom, you want it as dark as possible. The lighting is low, it casts odd shadows onto the walls. This lamp shade is 420 individual pieces. I made it myself, it’s a reproduction of Tiffany’s Waterlily. And these paintings were done by the boyfriend of the artist who did the living room paintings, Vaslav Pisvejc. He’s Czech. When he moved to the United States, he didn’t speak a word of English, so every day he would read the newspaper to try to learn the language. So on these paintings, this backwards handwriting here is headlines from that day’s news.
[In living room] And here, his boyfriend’s paintings are acrylic on Plexiglass. His name is Roy Breimon, he’s a Washington-based artist but he lives in Prague for half the year. He paints in reverse layers. I think he once said that that’s just how he sees things. So this one here is a rendition of one of Lautrec’s paintings, and because of the reverse layering, it’s a mirror image of the original that hangs in the National Gallery.
[In dining room] So you can see that the apartment is kind of a mishmash of styles, beyond traditional. Breimon’s paintings are impressionist, and these murals here were painted by a student at the Corcoran, their number one student, Verdi Hussein. He graduated last year. It was a three-year process, ten panels, all acrylic on canvas. His specialty was 3-D spherical objects, but he really wanted this job for his portfolio, so he asked me what I was looking for and I got a few postcards in this style from the gallery. The panels are painted as if you were standing in the middle of a field — it starts here with the river, which continues around to this panel, and then there’s a pathway that wraps around and leads up to this church.
| A cherub keeps watch over King’s dominion (left); a large gilt frame surrounding the bathroom mirror makes every guest a work of art (right)
(Photo by Michael Wichita)
[In guest bathroom] Again, kind of like being outside in here. The sink is granite, and the water falls like a waterfall into the tub, which is extra deep because of my height. I don’t fit in a normal tub, although I never really use this bathroom anyway.
I would never consider moving. I like the size of these rooms, the high ceilings. I go to other people’s apartments and feel gigantic. I go to Adams Morgan and feel like I need a passport. I’ll be here for the next forty years, till it’s time to move to Florida. Everything I need is right here or on this street.
For a temporary home, Henry Salevsky’s apartment is nothing less than refugee chic. Built in the 1920s, The Wyndemere-Harragut was used as temporary housing for nurses during World War II. Today, it is currently undergoing a luxurization conversion.
HENRY [in living room]: I sold my condo on Q Street and bought a place at Lofts 14, but they’re not going to be ready until, like, September 2004. They’re saying summer, so I’m saying fall. This place is temporary. I’ve been here since November, when I moved from 1525 Q Street, The Normandy, across from the Jewish Community Center. I’m slowly trying to make it a home. I have a dining set with no chairs. This is mostly Restoration Hardware, and some Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel. And this [bar set] I got from Hold Everything, through the catalog. I don’t do as much entertaining here as I used to at my condo, but we like to watch Six Feet Under on Sundays and drink some martinis. Clair’s boyfriend having sex with that professor, I knew it was coming. He’s kind of strange, the boyfriend. She’s always getting involved with strange ones. I absolutely love her.
[In bathroom] I’ve got a thing for Jeff Code black and whites. I’ve never met him, but I know some of the guys who’ve been photographed by him. This one’s a bartender at 30 Degrees. For some reason, I have a thing for pictures of guys in black and white standing in water hanging in the bathroom.
[In bedroom] And these pictures are from Provincetown. It’s a dream I have, to own a place up there one day. Maybe retire there eventually. It’s beautiful, and you’ve got Boston right there if you’re in the mood for something urban. I usually go up with friends, every year we rent a house for a week. The rates are pretty reasonable — for a week, six people, 350 each. It’s like a hotel in New York for one night.
I think this place is a little expensive. They’re redoing the whole building, and I think with time this is going to become a really nice semi-luxury apartment building. It’s still sort of mixed because there are people who were living here when they redid it and they couldn’t just kick them out. They gave them incentives to leave, they paid people. Those who stayed, their apartments are still old, the building can only redo them as people move out. But those apartments are rent controlled. Even though they’re older, the residents still get all the perks, like the new gym downstairs.
It’s a nice little workout area, with a few machines and a TV, but I think I’ll keep going to Results. I’m getting my D.C. real estate license, so I’ll be working from home, and sometimes if I really don’t want to go out I’ll use it [the gym]. I want a little more control over my life. I was one of those corporate layoff people last year. I’m a real extrovert and I miss the socialization of the office. One of the hardest things I went through after being laid off was losing my built-in daytime socialization. But I teach part time at the GW business school. Adjunct professor, they call it. And it’s a pretty good-sized bedroom, I’ll be able to work from here. I’m so used to living on a ground floor that it’s really just nice to finally have a view.
The D.C.F.D.’s Firehouse #9 was built in 1865. Following its condo conversion in the mid twentieth century, it was bought by the U.S. military and, rumor has it, used as a way station for money laundering during the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. Jane Troxell, a manager at Lambda Rising, now lives there with her two cats.
JANE [in living room]: I went to Paraguay for two years with the Peace Corps. I sold everything — the Saab, the house, the motorcycle, the business. I used to own Lammas [Women's Books & More] and now the Log Cabin Republicans are in that space. You have to roll with the ironies, I guess. So my decorating style now could be called “traditional regrouping.” I’m regrouping in life.
The Peace Corps is not a high paying job. I had almost nothing left and had to start from scratch, basically relying on the generosity of acquaintances, friends, nature, the universe. In the beginning, I had all this furniture in a circle, and all of the Peace Corps Paraguay parties were here. We could all just bounce off of each other. But now, well, the room is linear. Parallel, actually. Before, social life had been coming in a circle, and then suddenly it was just parallel lives, crossing but never meeting. Now this entertainment center has become the focal point of the room. I don’t watch much TV, so I use it to display my collection of Peruvian religious artifacts and Paraguayan erotic statues. This one is a lovely virgin from Paraguay. And these two figures were done by the indigenous people there. Here’s the man and here’s the woman. He’s got a drum, a sword, a little bow and arrow, a bowl of water and all of these feathers. What does she have. A bundle of twigs on her head. She’s carrying the firewood while he gets all the accessories. That pretty much crystallizes the experience down there in Paraguay.
[On deck] I had a bad relationship with food while I was there, and my kitchen is so uninspiring. It’s small, there’s no natural light. It’s not a good kitchen if you want to get enthusiastic about food preparation. What I’d actually like to do is prepare food out here. There’s no water, but there’s a grill that I use when it’s warm out.
I became vegetarian when Reagan was elected because I just felt like I had to do something. I was vegetarian for fifteen years before Paraguay. The food there was all white and bland. White rice, white pasta. Everything white. I gained twenty pounds, then got sick and lost it all. Eventually I got so hungry that I just had to eat something, so I developed this addiction to rotisserie chicken. I was living in the capital at the time, so I had access to it. It really changed my life, and I’ve been eating meat ever since.
[In bedroom] Last year that deck was gorgeous, just full of plants. This is the only room in the house where I can have plants inside, because of the light. People give me plants that they can’t keep anymore. My friend’s mother died and so I took her corn plant. It was three inches then. Now it’s a foot. Her legacy grows on in vibrant green. I like having unruly plants. I appreciate unruly behavior in all beings, floral and otherwise.
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