Matthew B. Gilmore
By Matthew B. Gilmore*
In May of 1880 Congressman Fernando Wood, former mayor of New York City, applied for a permit to build “French flats” at 1418 I Street , the first in Washington. French flats were a variety of apartment house building, a recent innovation in the American housing market. Wood’s contribution, although first, was soon overshadowed by the far more famous and elaborate Portland Flats nearby at Thomas Circle.
Rear view of Fernando Woods’ flats looking across debris from the 1909 demolition of St. Matthew’s Church at the corner of 15th & H Sts. photo–Terence Powderly Collection, courtesy Catholic University of America.
Today, 42 percent of Washingtonians live in apartment buildings, but in 1880 the idea of the multi-family dwelling was not nearly as pervasive or respected. The French flats variety, with one unit per floor and named after their (putative) Parisian models, had been built in Chicago and New York City beginning in the 1870s — so Washington was not too far behind. For Washington adoption was fairly slow, but picked up pace in the 1890s — the first French flats were built in 1880, and several more throughout the decade.
It is important to distinguish between the upscale French flats and apartment hotels and the much more quotidian and modest tenements. Terminology is hopelessly muddled with multi-family dwellings being termed “flats,” “tenements,” “hotels” — all were multi-family dwellings but on very different scales. The dozen or so earliest upscale apartment dwellings were joined with a flood in the next decade with over 100 new apartment buildings.
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View of the Portland Apartments (or Flats) as seen looking south from Thomas Circle, with 14th St. to the right and Vermont Ave. to the right. circa 1916 photo–Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div.
Map showing the location of apartment houses constructed between 1880 and 1889. map–courtesy the author.