Hidden Under Stone: Funeral Home Renovation Reveals Building’s Beauty

BY ERICA SANCHEZ-VAZQUEZ

Tom Swarm stands in front of the old Frazier’s funeral home

Erica Sanchez-Vazquez

As Tom Swarm stands outside his newest project at 391 Rhode Island Avenue, a woman parks her car to ask him about the construction taking place there. She’s not the first. Others have stopped by the old Frazier’s Funeral Home, located in historic LeDroit Park, curious about the changes that are occurring right before their eyes.

The building, constructed in 1910, is being turned into apartments. Mr. Swarm bought the property in September 2011 after falling in love with its old-world style and potential to be converted into stylish apartments. After a single competing bid, he got it for $850,000.

“The properties I buy are always historic in nature,” said Mr. Swarm, who would fit in on the set of “This Old House.”

Mr. Swarm said he used to own a retail photo business, which gave him valuable construction experience every time a store was built-out or remodeled. When he saw the writing on the wall about the future of photography, he sold his business and entered the world of construction and remodeling full time. Mr. Swarm said he has been rehabbing old buildings for the past 15 years.

The constant flow of traffic at the corner of Rhode Island Avenue and Florida Avenue NW, where the building is located, was not a deterrent to Mr. Swarm. He called the intersection “prominent and busy,” and said the nearby metro stations, restaurants and nightlife would attract renters. “It’s the type of apartment for two roommates or young couples. We have four other small apartment buildings in the area—they usually end up with young married couples and young professionals,” he said.

When renovations are complete, Mr. Swarm said the building will have six two-bedroom apartments, each approximately 1,100 square feet in size. Rent will be somewhere in the $2,500 per month range. Apartment amenities will include hardwood floors, custom woodwork and modern appliances. “They are certainly upscale apartments,” said Mr. Swarm.

The building is actually two townhouses that were combined in the early 1900s. This gives the building the advantage of having multiple doors for individual entrances. “It’s nice to have your own entrance,” said Mr. Swarm.

So far, the most notable detail of the renovation is the façade’s transformation from “formstone” to its original brick. Mr. Swarm explained that in the mid 1900s, formstone was a popular material to install on the exterior of brick buildings because at the time, brick was considered “outdated.”
Fashions come and go, however, and the brick exterior that has been hidden for so long is now being restored to its original beauty. Mr. Swarm said that at a cost of more than $50,000, removing the formstone was considerably more expensive than leaving it in place. He is also adding back exterior trim pieces and brick details that were removed when the formstone was originally installed.

Mr. Swarm said he expects the renovations to be complete in fall 2013 at a total cost of $2 million.

Although the building’s use as a funeral home is familiar to residents of the area, the building first served as a real estate office. Mr. Swarm said a real estate agent set up shop there in the early 1900s. He said the building was then bought by the Fraziers, a couple who turned it into a funeral home in 1929.

According to Mr. Swarm, funeral homes were cutting edge businesses in the 1930s and the Fraziers prospered. The Frazier family sold the building 15 years ago and the business continued under the name Frazier’s Funeral Home until it closed and was sold to Mr. Swarm.  “There’s a lot of history behind this place,” he said.



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