The Portland, Washington's first luxury apartment house

For Victorian decorative exuberance—some would call it excess—few buildings in Washington could compare with the Portland Flats apartment house, which stood on a slender triangular lot just south of Thomas Circle from 1880 to 1962. The Portland was the city's first luxury apartment house, the equivalent in its time to the Watergate, as historian James Goode has suggested, and the closest Washington has come to having its own Flatiron Building. Its rise and fall mirrored the fluctuating prosperity of the Thomas Circle neighborhood as well as the changing tastes of Washington's most affluent residents.

The Portland, circa 1924 (author's collection).

As late as the 1870s, Washington, like most other American cities, had few apartment buildings. This despite the fact that there was a sizable market for rental accommodations here—most congressmen, senators, and many other government officials stayed in Washington for only part of the year. While the wealthier rented out houses in the nicer residential areas of the city, others had to make do with boarding houses and residential hotels, which offered limited privacy and often poor service.

"Among the thousand and one boardinghouses in Washington, from the semi-hotel to the two-story brick home with its stuffy parlor, there is a not a French flat," The Washington Post observed in April 1880. "Mr. Edward Weston, a retired capitalist of Yonkers, N.Y., proposes to erect here the first house of this style ever built at the Capitol." The term "French flat"—apparently an allusion to the long tradition of fine apartment living in Paris—referred to what we think of today as a luxury apartment home, complete with all the latest amenities. The Post went on to detail plans for the new building, noting that Weston hoped to have the structure completed by the next Congressional session and would "spare no pains in its construction, and will pay particular attention to interior decorations."

Weston, a retired banker and railroad investor, had in the 1870s decided to spend part of his time in Washington, and he hired the city's most prominent architect, Adolf Cluss (1825-1905), to design a townhouse on K Street as his residence. Pleased with how this project turned out, Weston turned again to Cluss to design his new speculative venture, the building on Thomas Circle that he would call the Portland. Though Weston was confident that apartment living would be a success in Washington, he hedged his bet by building the Portland in two phases.
A sketch of the Portland and Thomas Circle, circa 1885 (Source: Stilson Hutchins and Joseph West Moore, The National Capital Past and Present).
Construction of the first phase began in 1880 and was completed the following year. "The Portland French flat, at the corner of Fourteenth street and Vermont avenue, will be a finished work some time next week, and a work of beauty it will be," the Post proclaimed in April 1881. Arranged much like a hotel, the building featured three large public dining rooms on the ground floor (one intended primarily for women, as was the custom at the time), a drug store at the apex, an elegant lobby and parlor for receiving guests, and two large apartments flanking a narrow courtyard in the rear.

The larger apartments, on the first through fourth floors, each included three bedrooms, a parlor, dining room, bathroom, kitchen, servants' room, pantry and storage closets, all with 10-foot ceilings. The wood trim was of cherry, oak, ash, and white heart-pine, all hand oiled and rubbed. Most of the rooms featured "cheerful open fireplaces," which didn't actually work but were included because it was thought that fireplaces gave rooms a home-like feel. (The building was heated by gas, through an elaborate system separately metered for each apartment.) The parlors had the most elaborately decorated fireplaces, with "rich ebony mantles, ornamental tile borders and hearths, and are surmounted by beveled mirrors." The public corridors throughout the building were arched and tiled in marble.

An early 1900s aerial postcard view (author's collection).
The Portland featured prominent rowhouse-like bays that extended the full height of the building and opened up the apartments to light from many angles. The slender size of the lot meant that all the apartments (there would ultimately be 39 when the second phase was completed) had plenty of natural light and circulation without the need for extensive light wells or interior courtyards. Amenities included two hydraulic elevators (an Otis elevator in the rear and a Whittier machine in the front), which were essential for a building of this size. Dedicated telephone lines ran from each apartment to a superintendent's office in the basement, and dumb waiters also extended to the laundries, kitchens, and storage rooms in the basement. Pneumatic doorbells at each apartment meant one didn't have to rap unceremoniously on apartment doors.

Stereoview of the Portland Flats from north of the Circle (author's collection).
The six-story, pressed red-brick structure was very much in keeping with Adolf Cluss's architectural style, which was then at the height of its popularity. The German-born Cluss, known as the "Red Architect" both for his reliance on red brick as well as his political leanings, had previously designed the Calvary Baptist Church (1865), the old Masonic Temple (1868), the Franklin School (1869); and the Smithsonian's original National Museum building, which was going up at the same time as the Portland. Like the National Museum, the façade of the Portland was richly embellished with decorative carvings, glazed brick accents, elaborate belt courses and balconies, and an unusually gaudy fifth floor cornice that appeared almost to drip with ornamentation. The building's lavish embellishment was "on a scale seldom matched locally or anywhere else in the country," according to historian Richard Longstreth. With its extraordinary corner tower and cupola, topped by a tall sharp finial, the building looked to many observers like a fantastic ship that had sailed up to Thomas Circle and moored ostentatiously at its southern end, proud as a peacock.

(author's collection)
"When the Portland was projected by Mr. Edward Weston he was laughed at, and it was said the people of Washington would never come to living in 'tenement' houses," a real estate broker told the Post many years later. But the Portland was, in fact, a tremendous success, leading Weston to complete the second phase of the building, which matched the original except that the bays did not extend to the sixth floor, in 1884. That part too quickly filled up. Washington's affluent part-year residents loved the convenience of the building's location and services, the opportunity to mix with others of the same social set, and the ability to leave their apartments safely in the hands of the building superintendent when they left the city to spend their summers in more temperate climes. "The Portland is now a regular gold mine to its owner," the Post reported in 1888. By then the Russian minister was living in the building, as were more than half a dozen senators and congressmen. Competing luxury apartment houses began springing up all around the city as envious developers sought to making a killing in apartment buildings.

A mold-damaged photo of the Portland, circa 1916 (Source: Library of Congress).
The Portland had a long run as a prime residential palace in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, though its implied fantasy of carefree, luxury living was bound to be punctured now and then, as happened in October 1901. On the 15th of that month The Evening Star ran a front page story about the sad case of 35-year-old Grace Lee Parmenter, wife of Navy Lt. Henry Parmenter, who had leapt to her death that morning from the fourth-floor window of the couple's apartment at the Portland.

The window was in the library, in a recess between two bays, so no one on 14th Street saw Mrs. Parmenter as she prepared to jump. She and her husband had eaten breakfast that morning with friends who lived nearby before he headed off to work at the Navy Department and she returned to the apartment. After sending her maid to get her own morning meal, Mrs. Parmenter was left alone. Suddenly, passersby were shocked and startled as the body of a woman plummeted to the sidewalk, barely missing a child who was walking by at the time. Amazingly, Mrs. Parmenter survived a couple of hours after the fall, long enough to be carried back up to her apartment and to recognize her husband, who rushed back home to be at her side. According to the family physician, she had been under treatment for "melancholia." Her funeral was held a few days later in the parlor of the Portland.

By the 1920s, there were many newer alternatives to the Portland, and its fussy Victorian décor was increasingly looking quaint and old fashioned. Nevertheless, diplomats and government officials continued to live there. On May 1, 1922, a fire in the apartment of Senator Kenneth McKellar (1869-1957) of Tennessee led to a chaotic scene on Fourteenth Street as firemen and "several thousand" spectators swarmed the street to battle the blaze and watch the unfolding drama.

The scene of the fire, May 1, 1922, with a fire department water tower in the street (Source: Library of Congress).
The fire spread quickly from McKellar's fifth floor apartment to the floor above and the roof, although the lower floors—the bulk of the building—were spared from the flames. A passerby on the street noticed fire on the fourth floor and called in the first of four alarms. Firemen arrived to find dense smoke engulfing the top two floors of the building, making them fear the blaze was worse than it actually was. Much equipment was rushed to the scene, including a recently acquired water tower, which was set up in the middle of Fourteenth Street. Fifteen streams of water were trained on the building, dousing the flames quickly and efficiently. The fifth floor was wrecked, and the sixth was also damaged by the fire, while all the lower floors suffered from the vast amounts of water that poured down to the basement.

Firefighters escort a resident down the fire escape (Source: Library of Congress).
A dramatic highlight was the successful rescue of Mrs. Lynn Glover, an invalid who was in her bed in apartment 42, directly below McKellar's apartment. Firemen carried her down in the elevator and brought her out to the street. Margaret Cummins, another sick resident, waited patiently until she could find room with the firemen and their gear to ride the elevator to the lobby. In the end, no one was seriously injured, although the building suffered nearly as much from the rescue operation as the fire itself. The Baltimore Sun noted, drily and without comment, that "Confusion resulting from the fire caused several firemen and newspaper men to dash headlong into a large mirror, 20 feet wide by 40 feet long, thinking it was the entrance into the cafe of the hotel."

At more than 40 years old, the hotel had seen better days. The original owners, all descendants and relatives of Edward Weston, sold the building in 1923 to prominent Washington developer Harry Wardman (1872-1938) for $450,000 (It had cost $150,000 to build). The sale began a long period of decline and changing ownership. Around 1926, new owners converted it from residential apartments to a more conventional hotel. The property reached probably its highest value when it was sold in 1928 for $600,000, just a year before the stock market crash that brought on the Great Depression. New owners at that time undertook extensive remodeling, converting most of the once-elegant ground floor to retail space and adding extra baths to the apartment units.

In 1932, raconteur Theodore Gatchel noted that the Portland Hotel was "anything but beautiful to look at, but interesting because it was the first apartment building in Washington." By that time few people had any appreciation for its eccentric appearance. Around 1940 the building was converted to office space, and undoubtedly many of the old interior spaces were wrecked, although little change was made to the exterior. When the property changed hands yet again in 1953, the $600,000 sale price also included additional properties, such as a separate apartment house called the Hermitage, on the same block.

The Portland, circa 1960.
By 1962 the building was in the hands of an investment company called Parkwood, Inc. They had no immediate plans to build anything in its place, but, as was common at the time, they decided to tear down the old building anyway and replace it with a surface parking lot. Washington Post architecture critic Wolf Von Eckardt noted wistfully the passing of the city's "first" apartment house, which he considered a "charming period piece," at least on its exterior. "Inside, let's face it, it's a slum as well as a labyrinth and totally unsuitable as an office building," he wrote. Admiring the exterior decoration, Eckardt nevertheless was critical of the "inevitable dome" crowning the building's corner tower, "which somehow can't decide how to stop. It goes on to pierce the sky with a silly pinnacle reminiscent of Kaiser Wilhelm's helmet."

Demolition of the Portland in the summer of 1962 (Source: D.C. Preservation League).
Despite the criticism, Eckardt clearly thought the building should be saved, though he didn't say so explicitly in his article. Historic preservation was only beginning to gain traction in the early 1960s, with few Washingtonians yet questioning the judgement of developers who argued they had no choice but to tear down old buildings. The Evening Star's Myra MacPherson watched in August as the wrecking crew's crane operator, Louis Hanbury, an ex-boxer, guided massive steel jaws to bite off brick, steel, plaster, and printed wallpaper from the helpless Portland. Over near Lafayette Park, the same thing was happening to the beautiful Rochambeau Hotel, a once-elegant Beaux Arts structure that was being reduced to rubble. Next to it had stood the original Army and Navy Club, which had also come down earlier that same year. Considering it would be another 17 years before the District had an effective historic preservation law in place, it's a wonder that anything at all survived those bleak years.

The site of the Portland as it appears today (photo by the author).
* * * * *

Sources for this article included American Architect and Building News, Vol XV, April 12, 1884; Theodore Dodge Gatchel, Rambling Through Washington (1932); James M. Goode, Best Addresses (1st edition, 1988) and Capital Losses (2nd edition, 2003); Stilson Hutchins and Joseph West Moore, The National Capital Past and Present (1885); Richard Longstreth, "Adolf Cluss, the World, and Washington" in Adolf Cluss: Architect From Germany to America (2005); John Clagett Proctor, Washington Past and Present: A History (1930); and numerous newspaper articles.

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  1. Having elevators in the late 1800s/early 1900s was pretty fancy! Thanks for the read SoW!

  2. We all have got inspiration from such amazing piece of art. Portland circa is still looking gorgeous and people have created luxury apartment and hotels to imply the same sort of luxury and elegance.

    Keep sharing! I would surely look forward!

  3. Fascinating that the recently-built "Portland Flats" building, part of the Monroe St Market apartment complex in the ever-expanding Brookland neighborhood of DC, mimics this style and moniker. Not nearly as elegant, but still reminiscent of this one. (

  4. I have a quick question, did the hotel have a ledger of residents that it allowed to be published?


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