In the 1920s, U Street, the capital corridor known as “Black Broadway,” boasted thriving cabarets and was a favorite stomping ground of the jazz elite, including hometown legend Duke Ellington.

But over the years, the area fell into disrepair. By the time Donohoe Construction came onto the scene (hired by developer Donatelli & Klein), the only structures occupying the corner of 13th and U streets were trailers—remnants of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's excavation of the northwest D.C. site in the 1990s to extend the city subway's Green Line.

Although the land was devoid of buildings requiring demolition, the site offered its fair share of hurdles, many unseen. Metro tunnels 35 feet below grade sliced diagonally across the lot, requiring the installation of auger piles and a 3-foot concrete transfer slab to displace the weight load of the intended new building. At 43,000 square feet, The Ellington would house 186 rental apartments and 15,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space, plus two levels of underground parking. Surveyors dispatched to map the tunnels had no choice but to work in the dead of night, when the subway wasn't running.

DOWNSIZING: Whereas District of Columbia zoning requirements for the U Street frontage allowed construction up to 90 feet, the 13th Street elevation (which faces a residential block) was another story, thus the scaled-down massing on the red brick portion of the building.
DOWNSIZING: Whereas District of Columbia zoning requirements for the U Street frontage allowed construction up to 90 feet, the 13th Street elevation (which faces a residential block) was another story, thus the scaled-down massing on the red brick portion of the building.

Moreover, the area's rich legacy left the architects at Silver Spring, Md.–based Torti Gallas and Partners beholden to strict design parameters. Located in a historic district with an arts overlay, the site spanned three different city zones, each with differing density and height restrictions.

With 320 feet of frontage, The Ellington is bigger than anything on the block, but it doesn't read as a Goliath. Three wings project out onto U Street, forming intimate courtyards in between. And although the building is eight stories at its apex, the upper two floors are set back from the perimeter walls to minimize visibility from the street. This deft use of void space allows for rooftop terraces for some of the residences.

On 13th Street, the massing steps down to a more modest, four-story façade, clad in red brick to jibe with nearby Victorian row homes. This transition allowed the architects to offer another housing option—soft lofts with banked windows and spandrel panels.

“When you're doing dense urban infill, you have to [make sure] the building will fit in,” notes Maurice Walters, a principal with Torti Gallas and Partners. “I guess the outcome we're most happy with is how this project activates the street. We like the building, but we're almost more excited about what's now happening on the sidewalk with the signage, the cafes, and the retail life. The building feels like it's always been there.”

Project: The Ellington, Washington; Size: 43,000 square feet (including 15,000 square feet of retail at grade); Builder: Donohoe Construction, Washington; Developer: Donatelli & Klein, Bethesda, Md.; Architect: Torti Gallas and Partners, Silver Spring, Md.; Landscape architect: Land Design, Alexandria; Interior designer: Design Works Interiors, Falls Church, Va.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Washington, DC.