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From helicopters to condos: Local developer to breathe new life into D.C. factory

Wednesday - 6/4/2014, 12:21pm  ET

From phonographs to helicopters, there’s a wealth of history in the 700 block of Girard Street NW. And developer Brook Rose has no intention of tossing that history aside as he recrafts a pair of century-old warehouses into condos.

“I want something that’s going to stand the test of time,” Rose, of Brook Rose Development, said Wednesday as we toured 770-774 Girard St. NW, which he acquired in January for $1.9 million from the Washington City Orphan Asylum.

He’s calling it the Helicopter Factory, an ode to the red brick industrial building’s earliest owner — Emile Berliner (1851-1929), a businessman and inventor. He developed such products as the flat disc gramophone, a new type of loom to mass produce fabric, an acoustic tile, a gyro engine, and an early version of the modern helicopter.

From 1902 to the mid-1920s, 770-774 Girard St. NW was home to the Standard Material Co. and the Gyro Motor Co., where Berliner and his son-in-law, Joseph Sanders, developed a material for record manufacturing, a system of improving sound reproduction and record quality, and aeronautical engines.

“This is something you usually see in Baltimore, the factory building,” Rose said. “They’re few and far between in D.C. It was just, bam, in the middle of this neighborhood. It just seemed like such a cool structure to bring back into residential use so it can fit in to the remainder of the neighborhood.”

“It’s not a historic building,” he continued. “But I do plan on keeping the building as is.”

It may not be historic for now, but an application for historic landmark status was submitted in February to the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board by Oscar Beisert of Fairmount Street NW, the founder of the Off Boundary Preservation Brigade. The 76-page application is extensive, offering a detailed biography of Berliner and his many accomplishments.

“In fact, the only building in Washington, D.C. and throughout the east coast that represents Emile Berliner’s inventions and innovations as related to both the Gramophone and Flat Disc Record as well as his significant contributions to Early Flight — including both the bi-plane and vertical flight — is the industrial building at 770-74 Girard,” Beisert writes in the application.

Rose’s $4.5 million plan includes a single condo building with a pair of wings. The first, a new wing fronting Girard (in place of a large surface parking lot), will feature a townhouse-like facade, but with an industrial feel. The second wing is the rehabilitated, existing Girard Street building. Access will come from an adjacent alley, as the curb cuts on Girard will be eliminated. There will be a courtyard.

He expects to file his permit applications within two months, and deliver sometime next year. City First Bank of D.C. is providing the financing.

Urban Design Group LLC out of Baltimore, a firm with experience repurposing warehouses, was retained to design the condo complex, which will total only 15 “generous” duplex units ranging from 1,300 to 1,700 square feet. Harbor Development LLC, also from Baltimore, will be the general contractor.

The Girard building, set back from the street, was constructed in three phases — the first in 1901 for the Standard Material Co., the second in 1911 for the Gyro Motor Co., and the third in 1945 (unrelated to Berliner). It has sat vacant for some time, and it needs a lot of work. Clearly, the interior has suffered some fire damage. There are holes in the ceilings, holes in the floors.

But this building couldn’t possibly stay in that condition, given its location in Pleasant Plains between Sherman and Georgia avenues, the last frontier of the Columbia Heights area’s gentrification. Rose, who is as interested in the design process as he is in the art of the deal, said he learned that the Girard building was on the market from a Realtor, and he was immediately taken by it.

“It’s just really cool,” he said, “out of the ordinary.”

© 2014 American City Business Journals, Inc.