They Brake for Preservation

Once a neighborhood brake shop, this Washington, D.C., row house has become a showpiece for revitalization

Getting a Green Light

Among the artifacts Drew Mitchell and Bill Fischer discovered in 2006 while exploring the historic row house they had just purchased in Northwest Washington, D.C., was a heavy glass door emblazoned with the promise "Brakes Relined While You Wait." One of two matching exterior doors, it originally welcomed customers to Lee Jensen Brake Service, the business that had occupied 1333 14th St. for decades. Today, Jensen's is gone, as are the grease stains that once marred the cavernous interior. But the industrial character of 1333 remains intact. Fully renovated and artfully restored, it's a gleaming example of adaptive use and provides residential and office space for Mitchell, Fischer, and Fathom Creative, their interactive and print design firm. And that old glass door? It's carefully preserved in a hallway on the first floor. "It was a perfect artifact from the building's past," Mitchell says. "We just rehung it with the original hardware."

The three-story Victorian in Washington's Logan Circle neighborhood was built in 1885 and initially housed an upscale grocery store. After 14th Street became Automobile Row at the turn of the last century, repair shops and showrooms moved into the properties to the north and south, and the row house became home to the Minker Motor Co. Lee Jensen Brake Service took over after 1943 and continued to provide service to local customers long after most dealerships and repair shops moved to the suburbs. 

When Mitchell and Fischer decided to relocate Fathom Creative in 2005, they considered a series of properties, including the 14th Street building. It definitely needed the most work. Pressed tin wainscoting on the first floor was badly rusted. Apartments on the second and third stories had been boarded up since the 1960s; thick layers of lead paint were on the walls, and water damage had left gaping holes in the floors. "It was like walking into this urban time capsule," Mitchell remembers, "only with dust and pigeon droppings everywhere."

But the challenge of reviving the space made the project appealing for these entrepreneurs. "We did see the potential and that's why we were excited about it," Fischer says. "It's almost more exciting when something's incomplete because you get to fill in the blanks. When you start with an empty lot there's no history, there's no background, there's no back-story."

The size of the building was one of the few concerns that gave them pause. They worried that 9,000 square feet of space would be too much for a 15-person staff and too expensive for their budget. That's when Fischer suggested turning the top floor into a residence to cut costs (and significantly shorten their commute.) 

Working closely with Bethesda, Md.-based Lawson Architecture, the partners initiated a $1.7 million transformation in December 2007. At their instruction, the building's facade and exposed brick walls were cleaned and carefully preserved. The industrial skylights in the brake shop proved well beyond repair, but new skylights in the original openings bathe the first-floor office desks in sunlight. On the second floor, the kitchen is divided from a gallery space by garage doors that once opened to 14th Street. ("We found four doors in the basement, picked the two best, and hung them up here," Mitchell says.) The apartment on the third story has modern fixtures set against original brick walls. Mitchell and Fischer repurposed doors and turned them into a headboard in the bedroom there.

"The biggest challenge is that this building is all about tradition," Mitchell says, "but we're a design firm, so we wanted a clean aesthetic. Our challenge was how to marry the conflicting aesthetics in a way where we weren't Frankensteining them together but instead taking the best of both."

Principal Architect Bruce Lawson says his clients "wanted to maintain those unique elements that occurred over time … In these old buildings, you can almost see the gesture of the guy actually laying the brick or building the form work, so you really get a sense of what it is the craftsmen created."

Since Mitchell, Fischer, and their staff moved into the preserved building two years ago, it has quickly become a community hub: Its second floor is a popular site for fundraising events, meetings of D.C. technology groups, and art shows by local artists. Sandwiched between a long-established novelty shop overflowing with giant stuffed carnival prizes and a trendy new bar and restaurant crowded with young professionals, the property links the neighborhood's gritty past and its energetic future.

"We live in this city for a reason. I didn't want a bunch of new, generic, shiny construction you see out in Anywhereland," Mitchell says. "This is D.C. and you get this sense of history. Every building is unique. That to me is just so special. You can't manufacture it."  

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