The Elegant Stoneleigh Court Apartments

By the opening years of the twentieth century, Washington was expanding in all directions. Well-to-do residential areas were spreading northwest from downtown, along Connecticut and Massachusetts Avenues. The stretch of Connecticut from Farragut Square to Dupont Circle was a particularly prime location for an elegant new apartment house, and Secretary of State John Milton Hay (1838-1905), who earlier in his life had been Abraham Lincoln's personal secretary, knew his $600,000 investment there would pay off. He reportedly wanted to uplift what he saw as the frontier-like crudity of Washington by showing the city what real Continental elegance could look like. However he only lived three years past the 1902 completion of his Stoneleigh Court Apartments, one of some dozen such luxury buildings that sprang up in the Farragut Square neighborhood.

Stoneleigh Court was designed by prominent Washington architect James G. Hill, who was also responsible for the original Bureau of Engraving and Printing building and the Washington Loan & Trust Company building, among many others. For this one he chose the leading architectural vocabulary at the turn of the last century: pressed red brick was out; the limestone look was in--stone-like tan brick, that is, augmented by actual limestone where it was most noticeable. The building's style had clear Beaux Arts leanings, including some wonderful sculptured terracotta panels high up on the eighth-floor facade, but it also harked back to the waning Romanesque Revival through its inclusion of a row of stolid semi-circular arched windows on the seventh floor.

A distinctive feature of the original design was the large open courtyard created by the building's horseshoe shape, which also accommodated plenty of windows for each apartment. There were originally 93 units, ranging from a single bedroom and bath to nine bedrooms and bath, with many units being very generously sized. The halls were lined in marble, trimmed with oil-finished birch and oak, and the lobby was finished in marble mosaic. Stoneleigh Court marked a rising tide of large luxury apartment houses in Washington. The Washington Times marveled in January 1906 how quickly such dwellings had taken hold: "For a newspaper to have predicted ten years ago that in 1906 Washington would have in the neighborhood of 200 commodious apartment  houses would have subjected it to ridicule." James Goode notes in Capital Losses that many of the city's social and political elite, including Supreme Justice Louis Brandeis, lived at Stoneleigh Court.

View from across Connecticut Avenue (Source: Library of Congress)
The building was sold to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in 1933, and a complete renovation of the interior was undertaken the following year, under the direction of architect Jarrett C. White. Noting that it was "one of the best known and most fashionable apartment buildings of the city," The Washington Post moved quickly from the fact that the renovation "involves the division of the central portion into smaller, delightful apartment units" to admire the "sumptuous new lobby arranged in classic moderne motif...and...paneled from floor to ceiling in American walnut interspersed with gold plated mirrors."

Stoneleigh Court's renovated lobby (Source: Library of Congress)

A number of key amenities were "modernized" (i.e., eliminated) at this time. In addition to the larger units being broken up, for example, the grand entrance courtyard was filled in at the first floor, providing additional frontage for retail space on Connecticut Avenue, and the original high ceilings were lowered to save on heating costs. The twenty-four decorative cast-iron balconies also were removed from the facade. The result, if somewhat less elegant, was perhaps more practical for the Depression era. And there were significant enhancements, such as in the bathrooms, where "ARCO duco steel panels, in colors" were installed around new chromium shower fixtures. "The baths will be improved by the newest types of closets with flush valves, tub with shower, built-in cabinet units, indirect lighting, tiled floor and full-length mirrors on the doors," reported the Post.

In a separate article on the same day in September 1934, the Post felt compelled to trash Victorian tastes: "This apartment house was built in the late Victorian era, and was adorned with all the fancy work that made for elegance in that day. It has grown increasingly drab and dowdy with the years. But the most discouraging thing about these apartments was the unattractiveness of the bathrooms and kitchens. In the bathrooms ugly tubs reared on their curly legs; the chillness of the walls and decorations discouraged cleanliness; the kitchens were large and infinitely dreary." --Little did the Post's writer realize how folks in later years would yearn for those claw-foot tubs and spacious, high-ceilinged kitchens.

After World War II, the character of the neighborhood began to change, as office buildings increasingly replaced apartment houses. Stoneleigh Court outlasted other buildings by gradually converting apartments to office space. An attorney for owners who bought the building in 1953 stated, "It was unanimously decided by the owners and their architects to retain the present building because of its extremely sturdy construction, its adaptability to modernization, and the express desire of many of the present tenants to remain in the dignity of their present surroundings." That was all well and good for a few years, but the building changed hands again in 1957 and was sold a third time in 1962 to Blake Development Company, signaling that the end was near. The building was on a prime tract of commercial real estate and it was the 60's after all, so it had to come down. In 1965 the building was finally taken down. In a freak accident, part of the semi-demolished structure fell on to L Street in November 1965. The rear end of a passing car was crushed, and a woman in an adjacent office building was struck on the wrist by a wayward brick that came flying through her window. No record on whether she asked to have her desk moved.

The Blake Building, designed by renowned modernist architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith, went up on the site of the Stoneleigh Court in 1966. Smith designed the profile of the office building to recall the shape of the elegant apartment building that it replaced. The Blake is one of three office buildings that Smith designed for this intersection; on the southwest corner is Washington Square, which was completed in 1982. Charles Atherton once called that building, with its great polygonal glass towers, the "best office building in Washington."


  1. So, if I figured this out right, the Stoneleigh was on the northwest corner of Connecticut and L?

  2. Sorry that wasn't clear. Stoneleigh Court was on the southeast corner of Connecticut and L. The postcard view is looking south along Connecticut Avenue.

  3. gosh that's depressing. I hate the office building there now, and how visible it is as you approach from the south on 17th Street.

  4. My favorite place to visit as Woodies on F street during all seasons. The fragrance of that store is still in my mind. I am so so sorry that they closed it. If they ever brought it back in it's original content, I'm sure it would be used widely. It was a tourist attraction as well. I had friends that wanted to go there during the holidays. Is there any chance that this could be re invented?
    Mary Robey

  5. Was Stoneleigh Court ever owned by George L. Whitford?

  6. I was a copy boy for the Washington Daily News, a Scripps-Howard newspaper, in the mid-fifties. I had a regular pickup at the Stoneleigh Court. They were leasing out office space on the lower floors to advertising agencies and such. I knew Connecticut Avenue as the street where there was an actual - informal - Easter Parade, in those days, and the Stoneleigh still fit into that image of hauteness, even in its last years..


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