Dorchester House, Washington, D.C.

2480 16th Street, N.W.
west side of 16th Street between Kalorama Road and Euclid Street

Francis L. Koenig, 1941

Original apartments
394 (70 efficiencies; 291 one-bedrooms; 33 two-bedrooms)

Opened as rental in 1941

When constructed between January and October 1941, the Dorchester House was one of the three largest apartment houses in Washington, with a thousand tenants occupying the 394 apartments. The original owners—Herbert Glassman, Morris Gewirz, Harry Viner, and Edward Ostrow—employed the Ring Engineering Company to building the structure, which was completed in a record-breaking nine months. Architect Francis L. Koenig designed the T-shaped residence to get the maximum number of apartments on the site, which is across the street from then-fashionable Meridian Hill Park.

The streamlined buff-brick facade make the Dorchester House one of the city’s most distinctive Art Deco apartment houses. Interest was added to the vertical bays with brown brick above and below many of the windows. The top (ninth) floor is defined by the black-brick spandrels. As in the Carlyn, also designed by Koenig, the Dorchester House contains so-called diagonal living rooms. In the sixteen tiers of apartments at the intersections of two wings, the living rooms are diagonal to the junction of the two walls. At the ends facing the outside, each of these living rooms includes a wide, protruding curved bay of glass windows, providing additional floor space and good light.

Living rooms in another set of twelve smaller apartments on the ground floor facing Euclid Street include glass doors opening directly to the outside, flanked by floor-to-ceiling glass windows, also greatly increasing the light in the living room. In the typical floor plan, three quarters of the apartments are one-bedroom units; each floor also includes a set of four-two bedroom units and eight efficiencies. In all of the apartments here, as at the Carlyn, dining alcoves opening onto the living rooms replace formal dining rooms, to conserve space and increase natural light.

One enters the Dorchester House under an aluminum marquee at the corner of 16th Street and Kalorama Road, N.W., originally arranged to boast the more prestigious 16th Street address. Passing through a handsome rounded lobby foyer, with indirect lighting and fluted supporting columns (now unfortunately covered), a visitor ascends one of a pair of short stairs to Peacock Alley, which leads to the desk at the far end. A bank of three elevators is in the center of the building. The lobby is thus the longest of any Washington apartment house. Privacy was provided for the six apartments facing the lobby by an additional wall that screens the lobby from their view.

When it opened in 1941 the Dorchester House’s amenities included a uniformed doorman, parking space on the grounds, air conditioned public hallways, and a roofdeck commanding one of the most sweeping views of the entire city. Five stores—including a drugstore, antique shop, dry cleaner, beauty parlor, and grocery—were located on the basement level.

During World War II numerous prominent residents lived here, including Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, a dozen members of Congress, and crooner Eddie Fisher, who was then in military service. The most notable resident was a twenty-four-year-old naval ensign, John F. Kennedy, who occupied apartment No. 502 from October 1941 to January 1942. During his brief residence he was romantically involved with a beautiful blonde Danish journalist employed by the Washington Times Herald. For this dramatic episode, the Dorchester House is noted in two recent biographies of John F. Kennedy by Herbert S. Parmet and Lynne Taggart.

Already well known as the young author of Why England Slept, which he wrote as a Harvard student visiting in London (while Joseph Kennedy was ambassador to the Court of St. James), Jack Kennedy entered the U.S. Navy as an ensign a month before moving into the Dorchester House. After graduating from Harvard in May 1940, Kennedy had enrolled in summer school at Stanford and then returned to Boston for medical treatment for a severe back disorder. In the spring of 1941 he attempted to enter the Army and then the Navy but was turned down because of his back problem. Consequently he devoted the summer of 1941 to back-strengthening exercises and was finally accepted into the Navy officers training course and commissioned on 25 September 1941.

Assigned to the Office of Naval Intelligence in Washington in October 1941, Kennedy helped prepare intelligence reports, culling information from various foreign sources. Life in Washington was made much more interesting for the young officer by his socially active sister, Kathleen, who worked for the Washington Times Herald, then one of the city’s largest papers. When young Kennedy was reassigned to the Naval Station in Charleston, South Carolina, in January 1942, his apartment was then occupied by Kathleen. He was later trained for sea duty at Evanston, illinois, and then shipped to the Solomon Islands in March 1943 as the commander of a PT boat.

Excerpt from Best Addresses: A Century of Washington’s Distinguished Apartment Houses by James M. Good (District of Columbia: Smithsonian Books, 1988; second printing, 2003)

One thought on “Dorchester House, Washington, D.C.

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s