Small, Stable Neighborhood Near the Park

Tiffey Townhomes Boasts An Architecture All Its Own

By Susan Straight
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 19, 2005

Not quite Columbia Heights but not quite Petworth, the combined 4000 and 4100 block of Arkansas Avenue NW, between 16th and Upshur streets, is architecturally a neighborhood unto itself. Identified as Tiffey Townhomes on a 1939 photo, the 27 then-new homes appeared different from surrounding residences. Unlike the brick rowhouses sloping up Arkansas Avenue to the northeast, their design included distinct elements such as large, open, second-floor porches; expansive windows; generous use of block glass and long trellises climbing up and across the front of the house.

Arkansas Avenue in the Forties

The homes, designed by local architects Julian Berla and Joseph H. Abel, are brick. A number of owners have painted them over the years, creating a pleasing mix of mostly the original red brick, interspersed with occasional white- or beige-painted brick. Most of the owners have removed the trellises, but a few keep them for their aesthetic value. Some of the second-floor balconies have undergone transformations, such as being bricked over to form an additional room or being enclosed with glass windows.

All the homes are three stories tall and about 2,000 square feet. They originally had three bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths; many residents have completed the third bathroom, removed walls to combine upstairs rooms to make bedrooms or added a fourth bedroom at the back of the living room on the first floor.

Exactly what neighborhood Tiffey Townhomes is in is debatable, and this is reflected on residents’ property deeds. Neighbors Michael K. Wilkinson, a marketing communications consultant who bought his home in June 2004, and Brandon W. Webster, a photographer and modern antiques dealer who bought his home in 1996, both said their deeds identify the homes as part of Columbia Heights. However, Beth M. Holzman, who has lived in the neighborhood since the early 1990s, says her deed shows the home as lying within the Petworth boundary.

Because the homes are close to Rock Creek Parkway near Piney Creek Park, neighbors have quick access to many parts of the city. “This location is great. You can go from Bethesda to the Kennedy Center non-stop — and it’s beautiful,” Webster said. Webster says he can get to Reagan National Airport in 12 to 15 minutes.

This also means residents are not limited to a single commercial hub. For example, there are several food stores that could be considered the primary grocery hub for the neighborhood. One resident shops regularly at the small grocery store on Connecticut Avenue, just off the Porter Street exit of the Rock Creek Parkway — about a five-minute drive; another patronizes the new Giant in Columbia Heights; a third drives five to 10 minutes in another direction.

It’s a fairly stable block, with many owners who have been longtime neighbors. Sylvia Malone has lived on the east end of the block for 35 years. She values the intense morning light. “It’s all window, no wall,” she joked.

The relatively large windows, compared with most construction of the time period, are augmented by glass block across the front entryway and next to the front door. Resident Holzman expanded the glass block area across the front of her home slightly, which admits more natural light to the downstairs area and yet, because of the thickness of the glass, doesn’t reveal family activities inside. She and her husband also completed the third bathroom and carved a fourth bedroom from the living room area.

The houses all open onto back yards, fenced and modified in different ways. Some have garages, some utility sheds in various states of repair.

The community’s most important project of late was the final approval of the three-year effort to pave the back alleyway. Wilkinson, who served on the project committee, said it was high time. Before the paving, he said, the surface was “just crumbling,” punishing to both cars and people attempting to traverse the mix of pebbles, asphalt and dirt.

With the paving completed, the community can finally move on to other things, according to Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Marc A. Yesberger, who has occupied the house on the west end of the block for 13 years. Coming projects may include basic maintenance of street lights and improved drainage around the Arkansas Avenue at Piney Branch Parkway leading to Rock Creek Park. “We don’t have a lot of issues. We’re fortunate,” he said.

Residents are diverse for such a relatively small group. Ages on the block range from 18 months to seniors. According to Malone, there has been some turnover when residents reach a new life stage and move out to make room for an expanding family, for instance. However, for such a relatively few number of homes, there is a remarkable diversity of ages, races and lifestyles on the block.

Real estate agent Rebecca Israel, who has a current listing in the neighborhood, says that personality-wise, the community fits more into the community of detached and row houses just west of the homes on the east side of 16th street, called 16th Street Heights, than it fits into Columbia Heights. When real estate agents see a Columbia Heights listing, “they’re expecting big old Victorians that need some work, or urban pioneers,” she said. But 16th Street Heights is thought of as “more family-friendly,” she added.

“The people on this block who socialize are really a great group of people,” Webster said. As if to illustrate this point, 6-year-old Rina Holzman ran up to ask neighbor Wilkinson if he had any spiders. “I need them for school,” Holzman said. Wilkinson promised to help her look for some.

Residents used to have regular meetings, but these days, they only meet about once a year, said Webster. This may be because of the relatively few number of concerns that neighbors report. Nevertheless, neighbors agree that the area to the east of the homes is less safe than the area to the west and northwest, which include the larger lawns and mostly brick single-family homes of the Crestwood neighborhood.

But the area directly south of the homes is what most residents like to brag about. “We’ve got national park land across the street,” Yesberger said. “We’ve got beautiful views. We’re so lucky.”

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