The Towers History

4201 Cathedral Avenue, NW; Northeast corner of Cathedral and New Mexico Avenues
Architect: Berla and Abel, 1958

The enormous Towers, located on a 12-acre site, was one of Washington’s most fashionable apartment houses when completed in 1960. The 620 apartments are contained in two identical thirteen-story irregular T-shaped buildings facing one another and known as Towers East and Towers West. A circular driveway leads to the two-story common lobby, housed in a small, centrally located building connected to the apartment wings by curving glass enclosed corridors. Behind the lobby (and thus between the East and West buildings) is a large outdoor swimming pool and beyond that, adjacent to Towers East, is the tennis court.

Build as a luxury rental apartment complex by the Gelman Construction Company, and costing $10 million, Towers West opened in 1959 and Towers East in 1960. Each wing has four passenger elevators, which are located in pairs at the two ends of the buildings. The majority of units are one- and two-bedrooms apartments. Approximately half the units are provided with wide balconies. The original owner and builder, Melvin Gelman, had difficulty in securing financing in 1957 because most insurance companies and banks questioned the rentability of large units. Gelman was ultimately successful in raising the money to build the Towers from the John Hancock Life Insurance Company and the Greenwich Savings Bank. The developer had purchased the land six years earlier from Charles Glover II, who lived on his adjacent estate, The Orchards.

The Towers resembled a resort hotel with its extensive landscaping and large public dining room in Towers West. Known as Maurice of the Towers, the restaurant served lunch and dinner and could seat 350 guests. Through its plate glass windows, it faced a putting green in the foreground and the swimming pool and tennis court in the distance. The restaurant continued in operation under several names and managers until it closed in 1971 and space was converted to storage. An enormous underground parking garage, located on two levels, provides space for six hundred cars. Other public areas originally included a beauty parlor, a grocery store, and a drugstore, all now closed in part because of the prohibition on street advertising imposed by D.C. zoning regulations. When the Towers was new, according to one long-term resident, patio access to the lobby floor apartments meant that call girl could (and did) rent these units so customers could arrive and depart in privacy.

The Gelman Construction Company was founded in 1925 by Elias Gelman, a Jewish immigrant from Latvia who first settled in New York City. After working as a shoemaker and then a conductor on Manhattan’s elevated trains, Gelman thought he could make more money in real estate. He worked part time to learn the construction trade in New York and then moved to Washington where he entered the real estate business. Elias Gelman built four small apartment houses in the District, the most important being Macomb Gardens at 3725 Macomb Street, N.W., in 1939. His son, Melvin Gelman, expanded the firm enormously in the post-World War II years. He constructed more than two thousand houses in the Maryland suburbs and twelve apartment houses in the Washington area before his death in 1978. Many of his apartment houses were architecturally advanced and innovative for their time, including Gelmarc Towers at 1930 Columbia Road, N.W., (1950), the Elise at 825 New Hampshire Avenue, N.W. (1956), the Savoy at 1101 New Hampshire Avenue, N.W., (1964), Newport West at 1415 Rhode Island Avenue, N.W. (1966), and the Fountains, 301 North Beauregard Street in Alexandria, Virginia (1968). Almost all the Gelman apartment houses were designed by three architectural firms – George T. Santmyers, Berla and Abel, and Saunders and Pearson. Two Gelman buildings, the Newport West and the Fountains are unusual because they were the earliest designed with split-level apartments. Only four other local apartment houses offer this arrangement – Prospect House, Sutton Towers, the Envoy of Columbia Plaza, and the Weslie.

After living for a year in Towers West, the younger Gelman and his family moved into their luxurious duplex penthouse in Towers East when that building opened in 1960. The Gelman residence, occupying 9,000 square feet of space, contains sixteen rooms and seven bathrooms and is probably the largest apartment in Washington today, exceeding the size of several 5,500-square-foot penthouse apartments at the Watergate. The most interesting features of the Gelman apartment, redecorated in 1981 by designer Jay Spectre of New York, are the impressive 16-foot high drawing room and foyer with its mirrored spiral staircase, as well as the elegant terrace on the twelfth floor overlooking the front entrance. A pair of balconies, protected by a cantilevered cave, look down on the apartment’s private terrace from the upper level.

ORIGINAL APARTMENTS: 620 (51 efficiencies; 358 one-bedrooms; 132 two-bedrooms; 78
three bedrooms; 1 six-bedroom)

STATUS: Opened as rental in 1959-60; converted into condo in 1979

Following the death of Melvin Gelman in 1978, the Gelman estate sold the Tower to a developer, Dwight Mize of Dallas, Texas, who converted it to a condominium in 1979. Mrs. Gelman retained the unique apartment as her principal residence, however. During the conversion, the old public dining room was converted to exercise rooms and storage space, roofs were replaced, kitchens modernized, lobby refurbished, public corridors recarpeted, and other features rehabilitated.

From: Best Addresses: A Century of Washington’s Distinguished Apartment Houses by James M. Goode, James Stafford Phillips, and James F. Tetro. Smithsonian Books, April 2003. ISBN: 0874744768