By Chris Teale (Courtesy photo)
Over the centuries, the building at 515 N. Washington St. served as the headquarters for The Mount Vernon Cotton Factory, was used as a Civil War prison, a bottling house for the Robert Portner Brewing Co. before Prohibition, a storage facility, a spark plug factory, and held apartments and office space for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
But the historic North Old Town property recently returned to a residential use in the form of The Mill at 515, housing 25 apartments available for rent. Developer CAS Riegler began the process of preserving and transforming the building in mid-2013, enlisting the help of architecture firm Cooper Carry, which itself is based on North Washington Street.
“The rich history and character of this building is rare in any city, but especially in the Washington, D.C. area, where historic industrial use buildings are highly uncommon,” said Adam Stifle, principal at CAS Riegler, in a statement. “We were immediately struck by its authenticity and charm, and we’re excited to have the opportunity to contribute to its unique legacy.”
Prior to its current incarnation, the building was known as the Belle Haven Apartments, which operated from around 1930 until the early 1980s before it was converted to an office in what was a neighborhood still largely dominated by residential uses. For staff at Cooper Carry, the building’s past as an industrial property made the job of inspecting and renovating easier. They said they enlisted the help of structural engineers, who surveyed every square inch of the property by hand to ensure its soundness.
“Fortunately, the building’s initial use was as a factory, so it’s really stoutly built,” said Brandon Lenk, an associate in Cooper Carry’s mixed-use specialty practice group and The Mill’s project lead. “The walls on the bottom floor are three feet thick of solid brick construction. It’s a really robust structure because the original use for the building was probably pretty hard on the structure itself. The center of the building is still held up by three cast iron posts, as the building is so old it predates the majority of steel manufacturing.”
Over the course of the restoration and preservation of the building, Cooper Carry was required to work with four different review boards: The Old and Historic District Board of Architectural Review, the North Old Town Urban Design Advisory Committee and the Historic Preservation and Washington Street Design Guidelines of the National Park Service and other associated review boards. The NPS got involved on two fronts due to Washington Street being part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, as well as the company’s work to gain historic rehabilitation tax credits from the federal government.
“[Boards] don’t always agree on what they tell you, so it’s a very challenging process to do a project like this, and a lot of it comes straight from its siting, being on the GW Parkway,” Lenk said. “It probably would have been easier in other locations, but that’s the hand you’re dealt.”
Preparing the property to host one- and two-bedroom apartments meant significant study of the structural repairs needed, while at the same time highlighting the history and character of a building that also provides views of the Potomac River. It means that while the building’s unique shape compared to what is normal for an apartment building presented challenges, Lenk said it was worth it.
“What happens is that in order to preserve a lot of that historic quality, you have to start judging what are the most likely items that are going to be most effective from a living quality standpoint as well as a visual standpoint,” he said. “This building didn’t originate as a residential product, so you’re taking shapes and custom ideas for what people expect when they walk into a room to live in it, and you’re trying to shoehorn it into the wrong shape. The benefit to that [is] you end up with a product that is unlike any other product on the market.”
It all adds up to a residential property unlike many others in the city, something Lenk said Cooper Carry felt strongly about given the firm’s office’s proximity to the project and its involvement in city life.
“Obviously with us being across the street and [the building being] something we can look out our windows at every day, it was important for us to make a product that was good for the city and good for us even to some extent just because we’re going to see it every day,” he said. “A lot of times you get to work on projects that you design and you build and they go off into the world and go away. This was one where we’re going to see it every day and we’re going to see people’s reactions.
“If we do something they don’t like, we’re going to hear about it, so we certainly not only want to come up with the best possible product for our own good but also for the good of the community here that we’re a part of.”