Perna family extends its Tenleytown legacy with Chesapeake Street homes

The Chesapeake Street duplexes were built in 1909 by brothers from Italy. Three of the four units remain in the Perna family. (Brian Kapur/The Current/October 2016)

Two Tenleytown duplexes, each with two homes that mirror each other, earned special distinction as landmarks in the National Registry of Historic Places in February. But Frank Perna Jr. — who owns three of the four homes at 4112-4118 Chesapeake St. NW, and whose ancestors built the structures in the early 20th century — wasn’t immediately supportive when he heard designation was a possibility.

“My first knee-jerk reaction was, ‘No, I don’t want it,’” Perna, a mortgage loan officer who lives in Great Falls, Va., told The Current. “I had a chance to appeal it or deny it or go to a hearing, but I thought, you know, it wasn’t that important to me or worth the battle. That was one of those battles I did not want to pick.”

He was originally concerned that historic designation would prevent him from replacing some concrete in the front of the houses and conducting other needed exterior repairs. There was also a philosophical discomfort, he said: “The basic concept of you’ve got the government telling you what you can or cannot do to the facade of your house.”

Perna is glad he didn’t object, though. The distinctions that come with landmark designation don’t interest him much, but the restrictions proved less onerous than anticipated. He’s focused now on keeping the houses in good shape for renters, and preserving them so he can pass them to his children, carrying on a family tradition that already spans four generations.

Each two-story brownstone duplex includes a common roof and a recessed portion in the center of the facade with an attic above it, along with a nearly house-length front porch. While some minor details, including roof shingles, have changed over the years, the appearance of the facades is consistent with the original design.

The Tenleytown Historical Society first identified the houses as candidates for landmark designation back in 2003. The group, led by president Jane Waldmann, filed its application in October in the hopes of preserving structures that, according to the group, represent the foundation for the neighborhood as it exists today.

The Perna family’s long history in Tenleytown dates back to the end of the 19th century. Frank Perna Jr.’s great-grandfather Francesco arrived in the United States from Italy in 1889 and moved to D.C. after a brief stint in New York. He took up residence in what was then called Tennallytown, quickly gaining foothold in the area’s booming construction scene. Francesco and his brother Louis built the four homes at 4112, 4114, 4116 and 4118  Chesapeake Street in 1909, and they became boarding houses of sorts soon after, attracting as many as 19 tenants per property during a burst of post-World War I residential interest, according to a Historic Preservation Office report.

The Chesapeake duplexes were the first of the Pernas’ many construction projects in the neighborhood and elsewhere in the city. The preservation report mentions that one of the brothers appears to have been photographed on a scaffold at the under-construction Washington Monument. Frank Perna Jr. said both his grandfather and great-grandfather worked on the monument, leaving behind stone pieces he still owns today.

Francesco retained ownership of three of the four Chesapeake houses, and his brother Luigi kept the remaining one at 4118. Sometime in the early 1940s, Francesco passed on his three properties to his son Frank, while Luigi sold his house out of the family.

The Pernas remained in the neighborhood long after Francesco and Luigi passed away. Francesco’s grandson Frank Perna Sr. was literally born in the house at 4621 42nd St. NW, directly behind the Chesapeake houses, he told The Current. He spent years living there with his parents before bouncing from house to house in the neighborhood, landing for just under a decade at the white-frame stucco house at 4018 Brandywine with his wife.

“Tenleytown was my home,” Frank Sr. said. “It was full of Pernas.”

Though he moved to Reston, Va., nearly two decades ago after his wife died, Frank Perna Sr. has retained an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the neighborhood as it was when he lived there: Frank Pope’s hardware store on River Road; the family who lived in the house on the current Steak ’n’ Egg lot; an Exxon station that’s now a parking lot near the Dancing Crab nightclub.

Despite the passage of time, the sentimental value hasn’t diminished for the former construction contractor who spent much of his time on the neighborhood’s buildings. “You can’t forget people you live with all your life,” Frank Perna Sr. said.

His father died when he was a teenager. He inherited the Chesapeake houses before he was old enough to manage them on his own, and he retained them until February of last year, when his son, Frank Perna Jr., purchased them for $750,000 each.

“I wanted them back in the family,” said Frank Perna Jr., 57. “I’m really big into rental real estate. I kind of sold some other properties and bought these because of the sentimental value of them. I’ve done renovations in the past, and built condos and buildings as a side thing. It wasn’t strange to me to buy these and renovate them and try to keep the integrity of the look.”

The one property that went outside the Perna family belongs to Valerie Verra, who purchased the 4118 building in the early 1990s and still lives there. She first learned of the house during her days as a real estate agent in the 1980s, when the Texas-based previous owner called her asking her to help manage the property. When she visited, she was struck by the ramshackle condition.

“It had had fraternity boys in it, and it was just a complete mess — but it was a beautiful house, even though it was a mess,” Verra said. “The bones of the house were really, really lovely.”

With the previous owner’s help, she brought the property up to rental quality, then purchased it for herself when the owner put it on the market a few years later. Verra, who now works at American University, has been basking ever since in the home’s singular architectural qualities.

“They’re very easy living. They’re not like walking into a very narrow town house,” Verra said. “They have wide stairs, and very high entrances to each room. You never feel cramped in them. It’s just been a pleasure to live in it.”
Only after living there for a while did she learn the property’s history, she said.

Frank Jr. has never lived in his family’s homes, but beginning last February, he spent the better part of a year — and close to $250,000 — renovating them: replacing the roofs, furnishing modern gutter systems, refinishing and sanding some floors, remodeling the kitchens, gutting the basements, finishing the attics, and installing new appliances and granite countertops.

Once spring arrived, offers flew in. “I’ve got people banging down the door to rent them,” he said.

They won’t remain in Frank Jr.’s care forever. He has designated one of the three homes for each of his three children to own after he and his wife have passed away: 4112 for Frank III, now 28; 4114 for Olivia, 16; and 4116 for Caitlyn, 26. He hopes they’ll carry on the tradition.
“In 30 years they’ll be paid for,” Frank Jr. said. “At that point they’ll have their own little piece of history.”