From Locksmiths To Luxury Condos: Businessman Talks 14th Street Evolution

Elahe Izadi / DCentric

Downtown Lock Co. (center) has been on 14th Street since 1910. The building has been sold to make way for luxury condominiums along a street that's experiencing rapid redevelopment.

The evolution of 14th Street NW continues with regular announcements of new upscale restaurants and residences opening up along the corridor. But 14th Street wasn’t always the epicenter of fine dining in the District; in recent decades, it was more well-known as a place where drug dealers and prostitutes congregated.

A few older businesses still remain along the strip, but they’re starting to close shop, too. Take Downtown Lock Co. at 1345 14th St. NW, the building sold to make way for five, ultra-luxury condos.

“Back when we were there, the street had a lot of drugs, prostitution, a lot of drifters,” said Downtown Lock Co. co-owner Reuben Houchens. “You had to sort of establish yourself, first of all, that you weren’t afraid to be there. Of course we weren’t. [The way] we grew up, as we used to say, we knew the streets. And you had to basically hold your ground, as far as ‘we’re here and we will only tolerate so much.’ I’m talking about the pimps prostituting the girls, and drugs addicts and drug pushers — you had to be tough.”

Elahe Izadi / DCentric

Work has already begun to transform Downtown Lock Co. on 14th Street NW into luxury condos.

Downtown Lock Co. started as a family business, and had been on 14th Street since 1910. Houchens, 70, is a D.C. native from the H Street NE corridor. He said he grew up in the shop, and recalled how celebrities would stop by from time to time because the locksmith and electronics repair store was one of the few places in the area to be an official service center for Lionel toy trains. Houcheons said senators and people like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lewis would visit during his years working there.

Houcheons and his partners bought the business in the 1970s, along with the building at 1345 14th St. NW. This was shortly after the 1968 riots that destroyed more than 1,000 buildings in D.C.

“Somebody looked [at us] and said, ‘You’re pretty stupid buying that building,’” Houchens recalled. “It turned out to be a good investment for anyone who bought property there.”

A good investment indeed; Houchens said they bought the building for $37,000, and sold it for $2.5 million. Downtown Lock Co. has temporarily relocated to Hyattsville, Md. where space is cheaper, but most of their business remains in the District.

Houchens isn’t bitter about 14th Street’s transformation (perhaps because he profited so handsomely from it). He acknowledged that perhaps some people don’t like the changes because they are afraid that D.C. “is becoming like New York City. Space isn’t available anymore.”

“After being there for so many years, you miss it,” he said. “… But the neighborhood changed for the better. It became a safer place. People thought it was safer to come there.”