MS. REBECCA SHEIR
If you've strolled through D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood, you may have noticed a big brick building sporting the words Wonder Bread and Hostess Cake. The old Wonder Bread factory has been in pretty iffy condition for years. But it's survived and may soon thrive, thanks to its first tenant in more than two decades. Jonathan Wilson has more.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
It's almost as if the Wonder Bread building has finally caught the revitalization bug that's been making its way around the block. Behind the old factory is the newly restored Howard Theatre, and next to it, a gleaming a modern structure soon to be the new home of the United Negro College Fund. The Wonder Bread building doesn't exactly look good yet. A month ago, Douglas Development started removing its rotted innards. But now it's pretty easy to see what Douglas vice president and head of construction Paul Millstein sees. That the old factory's skeleton is still, well, wonderful.
MR. PAUL MILLSTEIN
It's four stories, it's brick, it's industrial. We're going to -- everything we do will maintain the industrial character from open bar joists -- we're not doing concrete decks. You know, every detail is put so that we'll have a true industrial loft office, which really makes this building very different.
The restoration is scheduled to finish up in the spring of next year with the building's first tenant, a furniture design company, moving in then as well. Millstein watches his crews tear apart parts of the building that need replacing.
This building was built, I think, in five stages. Some of them don't meet the structural loads of a modern building and don't meet code so we're taking some steel out, we're taking some concrete out. We're making way for new structure when we need new structure -- so these guys are doing all the necessary demolition to get us ready for the new construction.
Last year, the D.C. Preservation League wanted to use the building for an anniversary party. Rebecca Miller, DCPL's executive director, who happens to live in Shaw, says simply making the building safe to enter took some work.
MS. REBECCA MILLER
The floor boards were up six feet tall off the ground just because they'd buckled up and things like that. A lot of rotted wood, things like that. There was several feet of water in the basement so all of this had to be kind of rectified before anybody could really access it.
Though Douglas has owned the building since 1997, Paul Millstein admits even he was surprised at how rundown the inside of the building had become.
Major sections of the roof were gone -- open to the daylight which had caused this growth on the inside of the wood and you know, plants can grow on a wood floor. It's amazing. So it was in pretty bad shape.
Continental Baking Company, which produces Wonder Bread and Hostess products, left the building in 1988. The company first bought the property back in 1936. But Continental wasn't the first baking company to live here. The factory was originally known as Dorsch's White Cross Bakery. A bit of trivia hinted at by the two white crosses that still sit at the top of the building's S Street façade. Douglas Development is preserving that front façade complete with the Wonder Bread lettering so familiar to local residents along with the massive building's entire East and West walls.
It's, of course, much more expensive than building new façades, but again, the final product is so far superior when you're restoring what was originally there that it's well worth it.
Millstein says the wait has been worth it as well. He's seen several false starts in the redevelopment of the Wonder Bread property.
Initially, we proposed this to be an office building years ago. But that was before the building that's being built beside us, it was before O Street Market, it was before a lot of things. And we had tours and people thought we were crazy.
Millstein says tenants just couldn't see themselves in Shaw and certainly couldn't see themselves in a rundown bread factory. A few years later the company tried to redevelop the building into residential units. But that fell through as well. It's taken the transformation of the neighborhood around the building to rekindle interest. Rebecca Miller says finding a new use for the Wonder Bread building while preserving its appearance will help keep the area around Shaw Metro Station connected to the city's deeper history.
It's important to keep these buildings because it gives you a sense of place, it gives you an identity to the neighborhood and you can really sense the changes in the neighborhood because you'll have buildings of different eras as you walk down the street. And it really kind of gives you this feeling of understanding your city instead of just having everything new or everything old.
And so it appears the Wonder Bread factory's time has finally come -- again. I'm Jonathan Wilson.
To see pictures of the Wonder Bread building, it's historic façade and all the work being done to make it habitable again, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
Up next, the photographer's mission to capture the horses carrying caskets at Arlington National Cemetery.
It's coming your way on "Metro Connection" on WAMU 88.5.
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