Words and Photos By Jonny Grave
Welcome back to “Hidden in Plain Sight.” Once again, I would like to remind the readers that what I am doing is both extremely dangerous, and extremely illegal.
About a year ago, I made my first visit to the giant white-brick building on the northwest corner of Georgia and V. On the 8th Street side of the building, past the chained-up and double-padlocked doors, along the waist-high row of boarded-up windows, I noticed there was one window whose board was conveniently knocked aside. I peeked inside the window, and saw sunlight pouring in from what was left of the roof, and into a cavernous room, at least a hundred yards wide.
It didn’t event take a second thought for me to lock up the bike, straddle the window’s ledge, and hang my leg inside.
Unfortunately for me, I inadvertently caught the eye of some construction workers who rounded the corner, just as I was about to slip in. One of them yelled, and another reached for a walkie-talkie. I nearly lost a boot pulling my leg out of the window. I was on my bike, and speeding down 7th before anyone got close.
Last month, I made a return to the empty structure. It’s across the street from the site for JBG’s new Atlantic Plumbing luxury condo building. It was full of construction workers and I thought I should use a more delicate approach this time. I walked up in a tweed jacket, with my camera in one hand, a pen and Moleskine in the other, right to the closest foreman I could find.
Sorry, let me back up. How does one spot a foreman on a construction site? Look for the guy whose clothes don’t have any dirt on them. That’s him.
After a series of terse, brief, “yes or no” questions with the foreman, I was to be escorted over to the Boss’ trailer. No, I don’t mean to imply that this man resembles Mr. Springsteen in any way. I mean to imply that this man was very much in charge of the entire site, and seemed to relish in his position of power. The foreman dropped me off at the Boss’ truck, where the Boss sat inside, on his cell phone for about ten minutes after locking eyes with me. I think he didn’t like my tweed.
He got out of the truck, pulled off his Oakleys, spat out a mouthful of what I presumed to be Wintergreen Skoal, and began a dialogue that went like this:
By the way, his overalls were spotless.
Why, you might ask, was I trying to get inside this decrepit building so badly? About two years ago, I had the pleasure of seeing an incredible exhibit at the National Building Museum called “Detroit is No Dry Bones.” In this photo show, Camilo José Vergara brings in images from a city so readily branded “#abandoned” Instagram by amateur “urban explorers.” Vergara shows that there is far more to Detroit than the ruins of old buildings. Even the towering Michigan Central Station was never truly abandoned, as long as artists are occupying the space.
I take this idea to heart when I travel through the District I have called “home” my whole life. Every building has a story, every structure has a song. For instance, take the building I was having such a hard time sneaking into. From three different sources, including a DCMPD motorcycle officer, a medical science journal, and a historical mapping expert, I heard three different stories on what this building used to be.
The cop told me it used to be an ambulance depot for Howard University Hospital. It was used as a garage and maintenance facility for their fleet of vehicles, up until the 80’s. “HealthQuest: The Publication of Black Wellness” explains that the building was used in the 90’s as one of four AIDS Clinical Trial Units in the US set up at a minority institution. And Mr. Brian D. Kraft, who actually helped me research the building at theWashingtoniana Room at the MLK Library*, explained that the structure was originally built as a bus garage in 1930 by the Washington Railway and Electric Company, and it is now owned by Howard University.
I asked Mr. Kraft how he came by all of this information, and he explained that he is building a map of D.C. Not just any map, of course– a map that gives a complete history of every man-made structure in the District of Columbia that ever had a street address. He tells me, “A picture’s worth a thousand words, right? Well, so is a map.”
As for a complete and cohesive history of the building, I’m still waiting on Howard to return my calls and emails. As for the building’s future, your guess is as good as mine.
Oh, and how did I get inside? I walked right through an unlocked front door, in broad daylight.
*A library is a large, man-made structure that holds a number of books and other printed materials. This particular library has a collection on the top floor, including the entire catalog of the Washington Star. The Washingtoniana collection is a gem in and of itself. The collection is open to the public, and free to all. For more on libraries, follow here.