The Ellington: defying the stylistic establishment

On U Street, where references to the quintessential jazz composer are sprinkled throughout, the Ellington may become the most noted of namesakes.

The luxury apartment building named for jazz legend Duke Ellington, who grew up nearby, has already succeeded in challenging the stylistic landscape of the District, previously dominated by the dim-bricked and dark-canopied offerings as you head north on Connecticut Avenue.

The lobby’s collection of cubism and Rothko-style expressionism, along with the checkered chaise facing the solid-green plush chairs, speaks to a sensibility that serves as a direct rebuke to the District’s more conservative offerings.

For Chris Donatelli, the chief contractor and president of Donatelli & Klein, a Bethesda-based real-estate development firm, the intent was for the Ellington to blend in with the U Street area in spite of its teeming contrast.

“We didn’t want to put a suburban project in a downtown, cutting-edge area,” says Donatelli, who worked closely with both the interior decorator and the architect in the Ellington’s two-year construction.

He says the residents make up a nice mix of young professionals, students and older people who no longer wish to deal with maintenance tasks and who look to immerse themselves in the District’s cultural treasures. Donatelli’s goal was to allure the property renter without alienating potential older tenants.

That motivation resulted in the choice of dual-color, stained concrete flooring instead of wall-to-wall carpeting, markedly distinct from the black granite countertop that rests atop an ivory base.

Translucent panels of blue, green and red hang between the glass back door and the expansive window, likely splashing a scattered, multicolor sunlight on brighter days, all of this occurring beneath 9-foot ceilings.

The balconies extending from the back of the building present a panoramic spectacle, where one can view the Capitol, the neighborhoods of Shaw and Logan Circle and even Virginia.

Donatelli included a business wing on the ground floor, complete with boardroom, semilong table and leather chairs, complemented by high techoffice accouterments.

The fitness center, around the corner from the business area, consists of a gym with cardio equipment and ceiling televisions, as well as an exercise room where tenants can take part in the rigor of aerobics and the serenity of yoga.

The den, which Donatelli terms “the party room,” with its myriad grown-up playthings — pool room, two plasma television sets controlled by a wall console, a bar and a kitchen — secures the Ellington’s luxury bona fides.

But along with the pressure of elevating the District’s style quotient, the Ellington is also expected to take on the more serious task of advancing the everyday interests of those who lived in the area before the “U Street Renaissance.” 

The term “gentrification” has been prominent in the lexicon of the District, which has experienced increases in property values of 400 percent as a result of urban development projects, according to Scott Pomeroy, who works with the MidCity Business Association.

However, Donatelli asserts that the Ellington proved that the U Street corridor could support market-rate development, which resulted in additional projects and the construction of units for affordable-housing set-asides.

Pomeroy, who supported the Ellington when he was the co-president of the Cardozo-Shaw Neighborhood Association, cited the ground-level retail space as a main reason for the endorsement. He added that since the parcel of land was vacant, no displacement occurred as the Ellington was being built.

John McGaw, who works with the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning, said that a significant reason why the mayor supported the Ellington was the retail space, which has been primarily given to small businesses. He also said that the increased number of residents creates additional opportunities for commerce.

The Ellington is the first shot in a new and what will surely be an enduring cold war of living style, where the fault line is drawn between Uptown and Downtown D.C, providing the district a long-overdue degree of stylistic bipolarity.