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The Washington, D.C. House

This tough old building has survived everything, including crack-addicted squatters. Now it's returning to habitability as a 3-bed, 2-bath beauty.

Every house we renovate has its history and its challenges, but the Washington, D.C., house might top its predecessors.

When we first saw it, the dilapidated two-story rowhouse—just 10 blocks from the White House—had been occupied by squatters and crack addicts for years. Intense fires had blackened the inside brick, scarred the joists, and caused major structural damage. The neighborhood itself is edgy, with pockets of gentrification.

A nonprofit organization called Mi Casa now owns the building. The outfit buys and renovates city buildings and sells them at below-market rates to families of modest means. Mi Casa founder Fernando Lemos and project director Elin Zurbrigg are working with us to turn the brick Italianate shell into a three-bedroom, two-bath home, preferably for a first-time homeowner.

Among the tasks scheduled are:

  • Restoring the front facade to its original, historic quality. Specialists will work on the ironwork and masonry, and a missing slate-covered turret will be put back on the building's roof
  • Recreating historic details of the house's Victorian entryway and ornamental ceiling medallions
  • Eliminating the water-damaged interior stair and creating a new functional-yet-elegant semi-circular staircase
  • Adding modern amenities like a fully appointed kitchen, central air, and a laundry room
  • Laying out rooms whose functions flow from formal to informal as one moves to the rear of the house
  • Lowering the basement floor by a foot and pouring a concrete slab to make it habitable
  • Building an inviting garden in the back in which to escape noisy urban life

"This project is very timely," says show host Kevin O'Connor. "Urban vitalization is at an all-time high." It doesn't hurt that the job "reflects This Old House's dedication to giving back to the community."

The 2,950-square-foot single-family townhouse was built around 1879, not 15 years since the Civil War had lapped at Washington's horizon. The original building has been described as unpretentious yet graceful.

It's located in the Shaw neighborhood, within the Mount Vernon Square historic district, an area that has been a hub of African-American cultural life since the late 19th century. Among the neighborhood's famous sons was Duke Ellington. Shaw began a steady decline 50 years ago, a slide that D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams has tried to stop through his Home Again Initiative. That initiative seeks to stabilize neighborhoods by removing blight and creating more affordable housing.

Genell Anderson of The AMAR Group LLC will be the architect, and Mahyar "Mike" Mahvi of Washington, DC-based Venus Construction & Remodeling Inc., will be the general contractor.

Episodes of This Old House focused on the new project house will debut the second week of February. Check local listings for actual times.