The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.

Posts by David Rotenstein

David Rotenstein is the proprietor of a historical research consulting service based in Silver Spring and blogs about history and culture in the Greater Washington region and beyond. 


One of Silver Spring's earliest schools had a merry-go-round, boat rides, and a carnival

Once houses had gone up in postwar suburbs, communities needed stores, schools, and other services. Sometimes builders provided these, but other times it was up to the public sector or entrepreneurs. That's how Silver Spring's Alexander School came to be.

The Alexander School, c. 1955. The Ferris wheel, bought used from a Pennsylvania carnival, is in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Kaye Kendall Giuliani.

Meeting suburbia's need for childcare and schools

In Silver Spring's Four Corners community at the intersection of Colesville Road and University Boulevard, suburbanization began in the 1920s and accelerated through the 1930s and into the war years. By 1942 enough families had bought homes that Montgomery County met the demand for new schools by building Four Corners Elementary School. Plans to build 238 temporary houses for wartime workers exacerbated the need for more educational infrastructure.

For younger children and to provide daycare during the summer, Hilda Hatton bought a six-acre former farm, one of the area's last remaining large agricultural parcels, and founded the Benjamin Acres School. Named for the colonial land patent out of which the property was carved, the Benjamin Acres School opened in the summer of 1943 as a day camp and nursery school for children ages four to 14.

Hatton operated the school until 1947 when she relocated to Annapolis and reopened it as a boarding school. She sold the property, which by that time included a two-story residence that had been converted into a school building and a swimming pool, to Ernest L. Kendall. Kendall (1906-1990) was an Oklahoma native and educational entrepreneur who had just resigned from his position as principal of the Capitol Page School in Washington.

Ernest L. Kendall teaches a history class at the Capitol Page School. Library of Congress photo.

Ernest Kendall goes to Washington

Kendall arrived in Washington in early 1931. He was a graduate of Southwestern Oklahoma State University. After school he began working in public education and by 1930 he was the superintendent of schools in Granite, a small Oklahoma town south of his birthplace, Weatherford. Kendall worked briefly in sales while he acquired his District of Columbia teaching credentials while studying part-time at the George Washington University.

Desperate for full-time employment, Kendall approached Oklahoma Representative James McClintic. The legislator suggested Kendall join the Capitol police force or that he start a school for pages. Kendall chose the latter. The District of Columbia School Board accredited Kendall and the school, a dank space in the Capitol basement, where Kendall developed a rigorous curriculum and extracurricular activities, including sports teams.

In 1946, Congress assumed control over page education and transferred administration of the Page School to the District of Columbia. Kendall received a contract to continue as the school's principal through June 1947. At the end of that term, Kendall and all of the other staff were dismissed. Four months later, he bought Hatton's Benjamin Acres School, renamed it the "Alexander School"—to get a top listing in telephone directories—and set about navigating Montgomery County's tortuous regulatory mazes to transfer the existing school license and to embark on an ambitious construction program to enlarge the school's facilities.

"He had a vision of what he wanted to have as school. So he wanted [it] to be a wonderland type of place," recalled Kendall's son Fred, who began his career as a camp counselor and who later became the Alexander School's principal. "It was exciting because there was a swimming pool there. Beautiful, beautiful grounds with old trees and things." Kendall built age-specific playgrounds and added an auditorium wing to the existing building. "He added a merry-go-round. He added a boat ride, like you see at carnivals and stuff, smaller version. And a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel, small [in] nature," explained Fred Kendall.

Former Alexander School/North Four Corners Park Location. Base map from Google Maos, inset from Sanborn Fire Insurance.

Suburban amusement park, or school?

The Kendalls believed that their students needed a well-rounded education that included rigorous coursework, lots of healthy play, and exposure to the performing arts. The auditorium Ernest Kendall built was outfitted with professional lighting and sound systems. During the school year children performed in elaborate productions and in summers it was filled with cots for naptime.

Alexander School students and campers and many Four Corners residents recall an unparalleled recreational facility. Students got a quality education and exposure to the arts. Parents found a safe place for their children during the workday. And, Four Corners children used the school grounds after hours as an unofficial park.

"The school was not so much elitist as it was working parents," explained Fred Kendall. "His idea was that he had customers or clients who had to go to work. And if they had to go to work, they had to have childcare." A 10-bus fleet outfitted with radios provided transportation to the school. Kendall remembers that the school opened very day, even in bad winter weather: "If you had to go to work, we were going to send the bus."

Newly renovated North Four Corners Park and former Alexander School site. Photo by the author.

Ernest Kendall sold the school in 1983 to the Yeshiva High School of Greater Washington. Twelve years later it was again sold, this time to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission as expansion space for the neighboring Four Corners Local Park. The expansion plans, which included constructing a large soccer field, stalled for more than a decade as neighborhood activists opposed the agency's plans. During that time the vacant lot became a fallow field that neighborhood residents used as a playground and popular dog walking location.

Construction on the new park began in 2013 and was completed in 2015. The new space represents not only an improved Montgomery County amenity—increased parklands—but it also marks a new era of suburban recreation in the space first begun nearly a century ago.


Read about Silver Spring's ties to Tammany Hall

For a short time before the turn of the 20th century, a little bit of New York political intrigue played out in rural Montgomery County. A man named Carolan O'Brien Bryant, who tried (and failed) to build an estate in Four Corners also had ties to one of our nation's paragons of political corruption.

New York intrigue found its way to Silver Spring in the 1880s. New York Times, July 20, 1877.

In 1887, O'Brien Bryant began buying large farm tracts from an old Washington family, the Beales. Bryant began building a large estate where he hoped to enjoy old age and host national politicos drawn to Washington. Instead, his brief time there turned out to be a false start in the transformation of Montgomery County agricultural communities into inner-ring Washington suburbs.

Though nothing remains of Bryant's sprawling Four Corners estate, it is an intriguing chapter in Silver Spring history.

Born Carl Bryant, his entire family changed their names in 1859, adding the O'Brien middle name. Bryant first appears in the historical record in the 1860s working as a journalist in New York City. He became part of the Democratic political machine, serving in municipal office and the state legislature before running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1864. During the 1870s Bryant found himself on the edges of the infamous Tammany Hall's Tweed ring as a self-described confidant of William "Boss" Tweed.

"That Infamous Villain, Carolan O'Brien Bryant"

Bryant lived a life shrouded in mystery and bedeviled by controversy. In New York he made a living as a journalist, yet people speculated whether he was an attorney or a real estate speculator. Though he had friends and relatives among New York's elite business and political crowds, most people beyond his immediate family described him as a dishonest cad.

Even Bryant's appearance was a topic ripe for gossip. "He possessed an uncommon personality, and for a long period affected an oddity of attire and manner that accentuated his otherwise unique appearance," wrote the New York Times in Bryant's obituary. "He usually wore his hair very long, and in later years it fell in profuse folds about his shoulders." A witness in a lawsuit against Bryant once told the court, "He is a peculiar looking man, and any one who had seen him once would know him again."

In 1866 Bryant married the daughter of millionaire Manhattan tobacconist, John Anderson. Amanda Anderson Bryant died less than a decade into their marriage and Carolan began raising their two daughters and son alone, splitting his time between homes in Tarrytown and the city. Anderson died in late 1881, leaving two wills and kicking off more than a decade of legal battles over the estate, most of which turned on Anderson's alleged insanity.

Cover from the 800-page New York appeals court case file in the Grand Union Hotel Case.

Anticipating his windfall via his daughters, Bryant moved with them in mid-1882 into a Manhattan hotel. The owners extended Bryant credit for room and board in exchange for a promise of payment with interest once Anderson's estate settled. They also fronted money for the children's education, clothing, and other expenses. "I well recall the circumstances under which the defendants, Bryant, father and daughters, came to [the] Grand Union Hotel," owner James Shaw told a New York court in 1885. "They were in destitute circumstances."

After three years, in 1885, the hotel owners wanted to collect the debt, which they claimed exceeded $19,000. They had learned through newspapers that funds from Anderson's estate for the Bryants were available and Bryant had refused to settle his accounts.

A sumptuous estate

The Bryants left the hotel in April 1885. By late 1887, as the hotel lawsuit was working its way through New York appellate courts, Bryant was in the Washington area. He bought two large tracts in Four Corners at the intersection of Bladensburg (now University Boulevard) and Colesville Roads. At the time, Four Corners was a sleepy rural crossroads hamlet with a few stores, a church, and homes.

Four Corners, c. 1894, showing Bryant's properties. Library of Congress map.

Bryant quickly began preparing the land to build a large mansion. He constructed a sawmill and used an existing home on the property as temporary lodging while construction proceeded. Local legends preserved in early 20th century newspaper stories suggest that Bryant salvaged stone and wood from New York mansions and recycled the materials in his new estate. The New York Times described it as a "large and expensive home" and the Washington Evening Star wrote that Bryant had built "a costly and elaborate house [with] fine grounds all around it." Others described it as a "palatial residence."

No photographs of Bryant's Four Corners mansion are known to have survived. Observers described it as lavishly furnished with a full library and art works. As for the grounds, one account noted that Bryant had built a conservatory.

New York World, November 8, 1894.

In 1894, Bryant lost the final Grand Union Hotel appeal and the New York press reported on his "$22,000 Board Bill." Despite the legal and financial setback, Bryant continued work on the Four Corners property. Three years later, he decided to sell the unfinished manse to a trio of Washington speculators.

The sale was completed August 13, 1897; less than a month later, Bryant died in Washington. Born sometime in the late 1830s, he was in his sixties when he died. His daughters, Amanda and Agnes, inherited what was left of his estate, and they lived the remainder of their lives in Allegany County, New York.

Bryant's mansion was destroyed in a "statutory burning"

As for Bryant's Four Corners mansion, it burned to the ground one week after his death. Officials determined that the fire was arson and the new owners were arrested in Washington and brought to Rockville for trial on charges of "statutory burning." Shortly after their arrest, two additional men were arrested and charged with conspiring to blackmail one of the accused arsonists. The criminal and civil cases spanned more than a decade.

Woodmoor subdivision, Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

Bryant and his daughters are buried in Rock Creek Cemetery. By the second decade of the twentieth century, the former mansion site was little more than an overgrown ruin. The property passed through several owners until the 1930s when a Washington developer bought it and began developing the Woodmoor subdivision. Once conceived as a grand Victorian suburban retreat, Bryant's property became an ordinary residential subdivision with no physical clues to its storied past.


Learn about Spa Spring, a lost Bladensburg park

Our region is chock full of parks with histories as magnificent as the settings they created, but some have been forgotten. Land that's now part of the Anacostia Tributary Trail System used to be Spa Spring Park, a place with close ties to Washington's history as well as one of the city's most curious historical characters, engineer and reputed con-man James Crutchett.

Anacostia River Stream Valley Park, formerly Spa Spring Park. Photo by the author.

Bladensburg is an 18th-century Prince George's County town that hugs the east bank of the Anacostia River. Just outside of the original town limits there was an undeveloped and frequently flooded tract with free-flowing springs. Today it includes property within the Maryland-National Capital Planning Commission's Anacostia River Stream Valley Park and Bladensburg's light industrial fringes. But 200 years ago it was part of Henri Joseph Stier's 729-acre Riversdale plantation.

By the first decade of the 19th century the springs had been dubbed "Spa Spring" and they were becoming a popular early tourist attraction. Stier's daughter, Rosalie Stier Calvert (1778-1821), wrote some of the earliest surviving descriptions of the springs in letters to her father, a Belgian expatriate who had returned to Europe. "The waters of Spa Spring have suddenly gained such a reputation that Dougherty's house is not large enough to handle the crowds of the fashionable who come to drink the waters every day," wrote Calvert in 1803.

1804 Bladensburg tavern ad touting nearby Spa Spring. Photo credit University of Maryland Libraries.

Though Calvert's father encouraged her husband, George Calvert, to develop the property and be vigilant about "inconsiderate and tiresome" visitors, the spa spring property remained undeveloped for much of the 19th century.

Washington newspapers regularly ran advertisements for local pharmacies that were selling the spa spring's famed water. In 1890 a Virginia newspaper published an unflattering description of Bladensburg that included a section on the spring. "A spa spring of chalybeate water flows uselessly away at one end of the only street of the village," wrote the Fredericksburg Freelance. "And the picture of gloom is completed with two or three taverns, rendezvous for negroes."

Spa Spring changed hands, to a fabled owner

In 1852, Washington resident James Crutchett bought ten acres of the former plantation, including the spa spring site. Crutchett (1816-1889) arrived in Washington in the 1840s with plans to light the city using a gas manufacturing system he patented. His resume includes mounting a gas lantern on top of the Capitol in 1847 and selling objects carved from wood harvested at Mt. Vernon to fund completion of the Washington Monument. Accusations of fraud followed Crutchett from Massachusetts to Washington throughout the 19th century.

Controversy followed Crutchett throughout his life. Newspapers frequently wrote about his questionable reputation and, in 1861 when the Union Army seized his Capitol Hill property, Crutchett was sitting in a Massachusetts jail cell on charges of failing to pay a debt after being taken into custody in Washington.

Crutchett never exploited the spa spring or its water during the 30 years that he owned the property. In March of 1886, in failing health and into his third decade seeking restitution for the Union army occupation of his Capitol Hill property, Crutchett gifted the spa spring property to the federal government. "The use of said spring and land has for these many years not been developed," Crutchett wrote in the deed transferring the property to the United States.

1879 map of Bladensburg. Arrow indicates Spa Spring Park location. Credit: Atlas of fifteen miles around Washington by G.M. Hopkins.

Bladensburg in 1854 had annexed the Crutchett Spa Spring tract. Maps published after the Civil War illustrate the private property as "Bladensburg Park." Despite a clear chain of title, visitors and Bladensburg residents used the property as a recreational site, though it didn't become public property until Crutchett's donation.

Folklore misplaces Spa Spring Park

Today, a lot of people say that the spa spring site is where the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission built a sewage intake facility in the 1940s. Local historian Dick Charlton said in a 2008 interview with the Gazette newspaper that he believed that the spring was capped and that WSSC built a circular brick building on the site. "I suppose you have to do something with [the sewage], but to us, it's kind of a sacrilege," Charlton told reporter Elahe Izadi.

Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission building long believed to be built on Spa Spring site. Photo by the author.

That actually isn't true, though; the WSSC site was was constructed in the area historically known as Spa Woods, a tract situated east of the Spa Spring. The utility bought the property in 1935 from T. Howard and Josephine Duckett. Over the next several years, WSSC bought additional properties and rights-of-way to complete its sewage facility. The brick building constructed there first appears in a county real estate atlas published in 1940 and subsequent Sanborn fire insurance maps.

The actual Spa Spring location ultimately was transferred to the City of Bladensburg around the turn of the 20th century. In 1940 it was one of two parcels Bladensburg sold the M-NCPPC; the other was the city's former jail site (west of Baltimore Ave.). Both parcels were incorporated into new county parklands that flank the Anacostia River.


Read about one of Duke Ellington's favorite Shaw hangouts

To work against gentrification nasty's reputation of erasing a neighborhood's history, it can help to keep stories about places and people alive. Case in point: a block in Shaw sandwiched between 6th and 7th Streets NW. It's where young Duke Ellington might have crossed paths with the son of a Russian landlord in a fabled Shaw pool hall in the years leading up to World War I.

624 T Street NW, site where Frank Holliday's Pool Hall was located. Photo by the author.

Around 1913, Edward "Duke" Ellington—barely a teenager—began hanging out in a pool hall in a building in the 600 block of T Street NW owned by DC physician Louis Kolipinski and operated by Frank Holliday.

Kolipinski was a Russian (Polish) immigrant who graduated from Georgetown medical school. He began practicing medicine in 1897, and by the first decade of the 20th century was investing in real estate throughout Washington. He owned several buildings in the 600 block of T Street NW including the two-story brick building where Holliday and later proprietors operated a pool hall. The Howard Theater, completed in 1910, is located across an alley just east of the building.

The Howard Theatre vicinity around 1919. The arrow is where the Frank Holliday pool hall was. Image from Baist's Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia.

The entire block was a hotbed of African American entrepreneurialism and artistic expression. The businesses there straddled the line separating "proper" Washington and the city's underworld, which was populated by numbers men, bookmakers, and bootleggers. Ellington credited his time on the block with being critical to forming his identity. There does not appear to be any evidence that Ellington and the Kolipinskis ever met.

Dr. Kolipinski died in late 1914 and his wife assumed control of his real estate assets, which remained in the family until 1987. Today the one-story building constructed in 1931, which replaced an earlier two-story building, is a brew pub that opened in 2013. The Ellington connection is a key part of the establishment's nostalgia narrative: "Established on the spot where Frank Holiday's Pool Room once stood—next door to the Howard Theatre and where Duke Ellington learned how to play jazz as a teenager."

The Kolipinskis had several children, including Andrew Leopold Kolipinski. Andrew was born around 1910 and was not that much younger than Ellington. Though Washington was rigidly segregated in the early twentieth century, underworld establishments—like pool halls, after hours clubs, and brothels—were among the few places where people of different races and classes could mingle. Holliday's pool hall's heterogeneity, at least when it came to class, was one of the things that attracted young Ellington.

"Ellington also spent significant time as a teenager in a less rarified area of black Washington, at Frank Holliday's poolroom in the Shaw neighborhood," wrote Harvey C. Cohen in his 2010 book, Duke Ellington's America. "The poolroom attracted a mix of people who Ellington claimed educated him as much as his schoolteachers did: 'pool sharks,' lawyers, well-traveled 'Pullman car porters,' 'professional and amateur gamblers,' a slew of piano players, and Dr. Charles Drew.

Ellington biographer Mark Tucker wrote about Ellington's time in the T Street establishment in his 1991 book, Ellington: the Early Years:

Ellington also learned race pride could be carried too far, as when the "proud negroes" of Washington opposed school desegregation because they did not want their educational standards lowered. And he saw how this pride could become prejudice in a black community where caste distinctions were made on the basis of skin color. Perhaps to escape this stratification, Ellington sought out places like Frank Holliday's poolroom at Seventh and T streets, a place that showed "how all levels could and should mix." There he found college graduates, professional gamblers, Pullman porters, law and medical students (probably from nearby Howard University), and musicians. In school Ellington studied Negro history and learned to be proud of his people; in the poolroom he was taught "the art of the hustle" by card sharks, check-forgers, and pickpockets. But even these small-time criminals, with their worldly airs and slick style, were worthy of emulation: "At heart, they were all great artists."

The Howard Theatre and former Holliday pool room (left of truck), January 2016. Photo by the author.

Ellington had acquired his nickname, "Duke," by the time he was hanging out in Holliday's pool hall. Andrew Kolipinski died in a car crash at age 21. According to his November 1931 obituary he had acquired the nickname "Duke" while attending Randolph-Macon College. There don't appear to be any documents or narratives surviving that describe how the Kolipinskis interacted with their tenants and the businesses housed in the buildings they owned.

Frank Holliday's pool hall is the stuff of local legends, and Ellington's personal story. It occupies a prominent place in Ellington biographies and it connects existing places, like the Right Proper Brewing Company's brewpub, with a past Washington that is rapidly disappearing from aging residents' memories. Inside 624 T Street, patrons, sightseers, and history buffs collide in gentrified space that doesn't erase the past, but builds on it.

It may be that Duke Ellington and Duke Kolipinski never met. It's also possible, however unlikely, that their paths crossed in Washington's Shaw neighborhood. I wonder what a pair of teens, one a talented and curious African American and the other, the son of European immigrants, would have talked about had they met each other in or around Frank Holliday's pool room.


During World War II, a ghost town popped up in Silver Spring

During WWII, government officials said a housing project needed to go up in Silver Spring to ease a shortage of housing for defense workers. Residents of the neighborhood said the project diminished their property values and violated their constitutional rights. It's a fascinating case of neighborhood opposition in our region.

Fairway Houses. Photo from the Report of the National Capital Housing Authority for 1944.

In early 1942, Washington's Alley Dwelling Authority began scouting sites in Montgomery and Prince George's counties for temporary housing sites where migrants to the region could live while working in government agencies and defense-related industries. The agency selected two sites in Prince George's. After hitting considerable opposition to a proposed 800-unit development near Kensington, the ADA settled on building in what's known today as South Four Corners.

The War on the Colonel's subdivisions

Four Corners was a sleepy 19th-century agricultural hamlet founded at the intersection of present-day Colesville Road and University Boulevard. In the years between the world wars, Four Corners was an upwardly mobile Washington suburb. It had two country clubs and some of the newest subdivisions in the region, including Northwood Park, where savvy developers built Washington's 1939 World's Fair Home.

Some of the earliest subdivisions laid out in South Four Corners were conceived by Montgomery County political boss E. Brooke Lee—the "Colonel." Through his Fairway Land Company, Lee bought and platted subdivisions with names like Fairway, Country Club View, and Country Club Park between Indian Spring Country Club and Argyle Country Club.

Lee's subdivisions were conceived as upper-middle class communities convenient to golfing, shopping in Silver Spring, and downtown Washington. Pre-war ads touted spacious homes in a "highly restricted community," code for properties with racially-restrictive covenants and minimum house costs. South Four Corners homes completed in the period revival styles popular at the time were selling between $8,400 to $12,000 ($140,000 to $197,000 in today's dollars).

Original Fairway subdivision house built c. 1937. Photo by the author.

In an age before zoning laws and home owner associations, Lee and his many real estate counterparts used restrictive covenants that passed from one property owner to the next to regulate land use, aesthetics, class, and race in their subdivisions. Covenants attached to Lee's properties restricted their sale and occupancy to whites; established building setback lines; required new homes cost at least $7,500; and, that all proposed architectural designs be approved by Lee and his partners or their successors.

Relatively few homes were completed in South Four Corners before the US entered World War II in 1941. Despite plenty of open land and mostly completed infrastructure (streets and sewer), the building lots in Lee's South Four Corners subdivisions remained simply lines in plat maps. Four Corners offered an attractive location to government agencies charged with housing government workers and people employed in wartime industries.

Lee's subdivisions provided government planners with the name for the housing project: Fairway Houses. In July 1942 the Public Housing Authority notified the Fairway Land Company that condemnation proceedings were underway. The properties, comprising about 28 acres, were supposed to be surrendered before August 1, 1942. Because the government's initial declaration of taking failed to include owners who had bought homes in the subdivisions, amendments were filed adding those individuals to the proceeding.

Silver Spring's temporary ghost town

The amendments extended the period for those affected to contest the taking. The Fairway Land Company and about 150 individuals who had bought homes in the subdivisions (adjacent to the properties the government wanted) filed counter claims. The company asserted that that the proposed public housing violated restrictive covenants carried with the properties. Neighbors complained that the temporary and less expensive housing would diminish their property values.

The Fairway Houses plan. Image from the National Archives and Records Administration.

"Although no land is actually taken," wrote the neighbors in legal filings, they had "a property interest in the property which has been or is to be condemned in these proceedings." The Fairway Land Company wrote that the public housing development would "destroy [the] restrictive covenants insofar as the parcels taken in this proceeding were concerned." And, it wrote that the federal project would "depreciate the value of the other lots in the development covered by said restrictive covenants."

Work to build the public housing began as the legal case worked its way through federal court. Construction started on October 5, 1942 and was completed in May 1943. Sixty three-bedroom homes and 178 two-bedroom homes were built. Each unit had a kitchen, living room, porch, and storage room. They were rectangular wood-frame buildings constructed on concrete pier foundations. Wood siding clad the exteriors and pitched roofs had asphalt shingles. Utilities included electricity, hot and cold water, and sewer connections. The houses also had a space heater and a five-cubic-foot icebox. Each unit cost the government $4,672 and rents varied from $11 to $46 per month.

After the homes were completed, federal officials built a one-story community building. The Fairway Community Center housed a day camp, health clinic, and nursery school. Recreational activities were programmed by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, headed at that time by E. Brooke Lee.

Only white in-migrants to the region employed in the war effort could live at Fairway. Despite being ready for occupancy in early 1943, The ADA failed to attract tenants. Some observers attributed the reasons to its "outlying" location; others to the "starkly plain war-standard dwelling equipment." One Washington real estate professional in 1944 told a Senate subcommittee that the demountable (portable) housing looked like "glorified shacks." He added, "I imagine a lot of people would not care to live in them."

Fairway house. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.

By the spring of 1944, Fairway remained about 63 percent vacant with only 87 units rented. Washington builder Clarke Daniel told senators investigating the National Capital Housing Authority that Fairway was a waste of government resources. Daniel criticized the addition of a community center to the mostly vacant development. "Another questionable move is the present erection of, in Fairway Village, a community center," Daniel said. "This community center is being erected at an estimated cost of $54,000 for what is practically a ghost town."

The litigation over Fairway wasn't settled until early 1945. Property owners in the Fairway subdivisions failed to get financial compensation for their claims that the public housing devalued their investments. They did, however, get assurances from the government that the houses would be removed within one year after the end of the declared "war emergency."

Disposing Fairway

The Fairway Houses remained in place until early 1954. Current residents and veterans were given the first opportunities to buy the houses. After selling more than half, the remaining houses were opened for sale to the general public. In September 1954, bidding opened on the lots and the community building, which served as a sales office that year.

Between December 1954 and the spring of 1957, the builders and individuals bought the former Fairway properties. Within a few years, all of the former Fairway sites had new brick ramblers and vernacular small houses on them. The community building, which had occupied three lots, was removed and replaced by three single-family homes.

Houses built in former Fairway Houses sites, South Four Corners. Photo by the author.

Today, half a century after the Fairway Houses were disassembled and the federal government left Four Corners, no evidence of the public housing survives in the landscape. Once conceived as an exclusive enclave, the South Four Corners neighborhood has undergone several historically significant development episodes. The brief period as a public housing project and the protracted legal battle fought over restrictive covenants make Fairway one of the most interesting and hidden chapters in Washington's housing history.


Does Silver Spring's Perpetual building deserve perpetual preservation? Possibly.

In 2007, an effort to give historic designation to the former Perpetual Savings Association bank building in downtown Silver Spring failed. But new information suggests that Perpetual might have played an important role in African-American suburbanization.

The former Perpetual Building Association building in Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

Adding the 1958 building to the county's Master Plan for Historic Preservation would have ensured the Perpetual building's presence along Georgia Avenue in perpetuity. Instead, the proposed designation led to litigation and recriminations. The Perpetual case was precedential, examining the pitfalls of preserving buildings of recent vintage and the minutiae of due process in county master plan legislation.

The Perpetual Building Association was a Washington banking institution founded in 1881. It built branches throughout the District during the early 20th century and expanded to Montgomery County after World War II. The bank became one of the leading local mortgage lenders, helping provide the capital for homebuilding in Washington's rapidly expanding automobile suburbs.

Multiple arguments for historic significance did not hold up

Adding a property to a local landmark list can have tremendous consequences for an owner who does not agree with the designation, like Perpetual's. Designation must be legally defensible. Historic preservation advocates' key arguments—that the Perpetual building was architecturally significant because of the modernist design architect Robert Scholz had used, and that it had played a significant role in local history—were not.

Preservationists' first argument came in the summer of 2007, when the made their case to the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). (In the spirit of full disclosure, I was the Montgomery County HPC's vice-chairman at the time and I chaired the meeting in August 2007 where the final vote was taken.)

The documents that the preservationists submitted did little more than than appeal to save an interesting looking building that might have had an interesting story—a story preservationists could only support using digitized historical newspapers as their leading evidentiary source.

Perpetual Building Association ad, The Washington Post, January 12, 1958.

Other HPC members and I pressed the preservationists about their sources, and while the SSHS provided a lot of newspaper articles about the building and the business, it failed to make a compelling case for why it met the legal standard for historic preservation. After the first HPC hearing in July 2007, I told SSHS members to come back with more information that connects the building to the community. I urged them to find people who recalled opening their first bank accounts there as children; folks who got their first mortgage there—anything to make the building something other than a block of midcentury corporate architecture.

In August 2007, at the HPC meeting about the building, I said, "We have a lot of information, but I don't think we have sufficiently contextualized information."

Still, the HPC voted 4-2 to forward a recommendation to the Montgomery County Planning Board that the Perpetual building be designated because it had "character, interest or a value as part of the development of Montgomery County." The HPC had rejected all of the arguments that the building was architectural significant and that it's history was remarkable.

The Planning Board, however, did not agree when it heard the case the next year. "We were not convinced that the history or architecture of this building met the standards of Chapter 24A or the Master Plan for Historic Preservation," wrote then-chairman Royce Hanson in the letter transmitting the amendment.

That eventually led to Montgomery Preservation, Inc. (MPI), an organization allied with SSHS, suing the Maryland National Capital Planning Commission (M-NCPPC) over a procedural matter (the County Council didn't take action on the draft amendment that came out of the Planning Board hearing), with both the Court of Special Appeals [PDF] (in 2009) and the and the Maryland Court of Appeals saying that the Planning Board had acted lawfully.

The Washington Post, January 12, 1958.

The Perpetual building may be more significant than we thought

I had all but forgotten about the Perpetual case, except for those occasions when I discussed it with clients in my consulting practice. Last year I began doing a lot of research that involved editions of the Washington Afro-American newspaper published between 1950 and 1990. Among the ads for grocery stores, movie listings, life insurance, and cigarettes were display ads for the Perpetual Building Association. In many issues, the Perpetual ad was the only one for a bank.

Perpetual Building Association ad, The Washington Afro-American, April 3, 1956.

Washington's history of discriminatory real estate and mortgage lending practices has been well documented. Residential suburbs in the District, Maryland, and Virginia were built on legal foundations cobbled together from restrictive racial covenants and redlining. Yet here was an established historic Washington bank marketing itself to African-Americans.

None of the Montgomery County historic preservation documentation mentioned the role Perpetual might have played in African-American suburbanization after World War II. Was this the missing history historic preservation reviewers wanted back in 2007? Perhaps. Do comments left in SSHS Facebook posts from people who remember banking at Perpetual qualify as the community link I urged preservationists to find a decade ago? Maybe.

Is Silver Spring's former Perpetual bank building historic? Even after a decade has passed, including hearings by the HPC and Planning Board plus cases that worked their ways through the Maryland courts, I don't think anyone's fully capable of answering that question.


DC tried fixing its housing shortage by building tiny houses... in the 1880s

Last fall, DC Councilmember Vincent Orange proposed building 1,000 "tiny houses" for low-income residents and millennials, but the idea drew wide criticism as being "gimmicky" and potentially discriminatory. What many don't know is that Orange's initiative wasn't the first time District leaders sought to solve big housing problems with small houses.

Tiny houses in DC. Photo by Inhabitat on Flickr.

In Washington's earliest years, alleys housed horses and privies. As African Americans began streaming into the city during the Civil War, most alleys were converted to residential uses and many small wood shacks went up. These quickly became overcrowded and concerns about disease and crime followed.

Between 1872 and 1878 nearly 1,000 houses in Washington's alleys were condemned, with housing reformers and public health activists pushing to clear out these blighted, crowded, and "insanitary" spaces. But in 1878, Congress re-organized the District government by creating the commissioner system. Unlike the earlier government, the reconstituted Board of Health lacked the authority to condemn insanitary buildings.

That led to a return of tiny houses in alleys. In 1890, the Washington Evening Star described the concentration of poor people in DC's alleys as a result of increasing property values. Small houses in alleys created housing for Washington's poor and profits for the city's real estate speculators, the paper reported.

Critics assailed the move as pandering to influential real estate speculators. "Construction of houses in the alleys promised profits," James Ring told Congress in 1944. When he was speaking, Ring was the administrative officer for the National Capital Housing Authority, and the Senate was holding hearings on extending a deadline to vacate Washington's remaining alley dwellings.

What Ring said next about the period between 1880 and 1892 is important: "There were philosophically inclined persons who sincerely believed that well-built little houses in the alleys were far better socially than insanitary alley shacks."

Ring went on to describe a construction boom in Washington's alleys, what he called "a very active period of buying and selling the rear ends of street lots."

In a 2014 the DC State Historic Preservation Office published a survey of alley buildings, along with a history of their development. Architectural historian Kim Prothro Williams wrote that the 1880s construction boom simply replaced small insanitary wood buildings that lacked indoor plumbing with small insanitary brick buildings that lacked indoor plumbing.

1880s house in Naylor Court, just east of 10th Street NW. Photo by the author.

Washington's first tiny house movement ended in 1892 when Congress passed a law prohibiting construction of new houses in alleys less than 30 feet wide and lacking sewage connections. The Washington Post astutely observed that the new health laws would have an immediate impact on the city and its growing suburbs. "Cheap abodes for the poorer class of people within the city limits will no longer be obtainable," the paper reported in April 1892. "Facilities will, therefore, have to be found for transportation to the suburbs, where the man drawing a moderate salary can own a lot, build a comfortable home, and then be able to reach it."

Fast forward 100 years to a Washington that is increasingly unaffordable, with a growing population, and which is struggling with finding ways to reduce reliance on the automobile. The roots of these contemporary urban ills may be seen in the solutions for nineteenth century problems.

Row of houses built in the 1880s, Snow's Court in Foggy Bottom. Photo by the author.

Orange's tiny houses proposal could mean Washington may be coming full circle to embrace the benefits of housing and economic diversity. Though the Washington City Paper compared the potential outcome of Orange's proposal to the creation of new fangled Hoovervilles—"Orangevilles," a columnist called thema more apt comparison would be to housing that was widespread in Washington nearly a century before the Great Depression.


Before moving to DC, Walt Whitman was a Brooklyn house flipper

One of Washington's many adopted sons, Walt Whitman is among the most decorated figures in American literature. A lesser-known fact about Whitman is that he wrote one of the earliest descriptions of speculative real estate development, displacement, and gentrification.

Walt Whitman around 1855. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Whitman's essay, "Tear Down and Build Over Again," was published in the November 1845 issue of The American Review. From the perspective of a housing supplier, he explored urban redevelopment, aesthetics, and the attachments to place longtime residents have.

What makes Whitman's essay unique besides its early date is that it was written not by a housing reformer or displaced resident, but by an entrepreneur making money from the creative destruction of New York City neighborhoods.

"Let us level to the earth all the houses that were not built within the last ten years," Whitman wrote in 1845. "Let us raise the devil and break things!"

Penned more than a century before the Housing Act of 1949 introduced urban renewal to aging and distressed city neighborhoods, Whitman was writing on the eve of his brief career in Brooklyn as familiar urban character: the house-flipping gentrifier.

According to University of Cambridge literary historian Peter Riley, Whitman was itching to get into a booming Brooklyn real estate market. Riley examined Whitman's notebooks and analyzed "Tear Down and Build Over Again" to contextualize how the poet jumped on the real estate "speculative bandwagon."

Between 1846 and 1855, notes Riley, Whitman bought and built several properties. Profits from redevelopment and house flipping allowed Whitman to buy an un-mortgaged home for his family and financed publication of Whitman's first book, Leaves of Grass, in 1855.

Brooklyn row houses around 1935. Photo from the New York Public Library.

Though written 118 years before sociologist Ruth Glass introduced the word "gentrification" to popular and academic discourse, Whitman's essay clearly captures the subject's supply and demand dimensions and the social costs—better housing, good investments (positive) and displacement and alienation (negative) wrapped up in the process.

In modern terms, Whitman effectively described neighborhood upgrading through reinvestment resulting in displacement and the churn of properties from the less wealthy to better off residents.

In other words, Whitman was describing gentrification.

Whitman did have concerns about redevelopment

Though clearly writing as an unabashed capitalist housing producer, Whitman also recognized that the people displaced from the older homes had strong attachments to the properties and to the neighborhoods where they lived.

"Then fled tenants from under roofs that had sheltered them when in their cradles," he wrote. "And had witnessed their parents' marriages—roofs aneath which they had grown up from childhood, and that were filled with the memories of many years."

As Whitman was writing about the loss of old buildings and familiar places by their occupants, he also expressed some disdain for new construction in ways remarkably similar to how contemporary Americans write about McMansions:

"Then there are those who would go farther to view even Charlotte Temple's grave, than Mr. Astor's stupid-looking house in Broadway… To such, greatness and goodness are things intrinsic—mental and moral qualities. To the rest of the world, and that is nine-tenths of it, appearance [emphasis in original] is everything.

He was also witnessing the birth of historic preservation

Whitman also was writing at a time when American culture was developing its own sense of national heritage. By the 1850s, a "Cult of Washington" had emerged that elevated the Revolutionary War hero and first president to near-mythical status.

Besides writing what may be the earliest chronicle of American gentrification, Whitman also captured the birth of America's historic preservation movement. In addition to memorializing Washington through monument construction, there were growing numbers of people concerned about the disappearance of places associated with George Washington.

"… when we bethink us how good it is to leave no land-mark of the past standing, no pile honored by its association with our storied names, with the undying memory of our Washington, and with the frequent presence of his compatriots," Whitman wrote about a decade before efforts began to buy and preserve Mt. Vernon.

"Tear Down and Build Up Again" is an important and relatively un-recognized chronicle of the birth of early American urban redevelopment written by one of the nation's most important poets.


In an effort to revitalize, DC once sold houses for $1. The program wasn't very effective.

Imagine plunking down $1 for a two-story Victorian rowhouse in Bloomingdale or LeDroit Park. Add to your windfall a three-percent loan to rehabilitate the house and free counseling and assistance with the process from a District non-profit. That might sound too good to be true, but for a number of years in the 70s, it wasn't.

There was a time when some of these houses only cost $1. Image by the author.

For seven years between 1974 and 1981, District residents could buy so-called "dollar houses" from the city in a program known as urban homesteading. It was an affordable housing program ripped from the pages of American history and reconfigured in distressed urban neighborhoods throughout the country.

The premise was simple: Selling first-time homebuyers abandoned properties that had been looted, vandalized, and home to squatters and drug deals was a way to bring houses up to code and restore them to municipal tax rolls, spur reinvestment, and promote homeownership among public housing residents and other low-income apartment dwellers.

Washington was among the first cities—after Wilmington (Delaware), Philadelphia, and Baltimore—to embrace urban homesteading. The federally run Office of Housing and Urban Development sold transferred properties to these cities and hundreds of others.

DC was in rough shape when the program came about

There's no indicator of urban blight quite like abandoned housing. It is neighborhood disinvestment's most visible attribute. Broken windows, frayed building fabric, and unkempt lawns are its hallmarks. Squatters, prostitution, drug sales, crimes against neighboring properties and people, diminished public services, and plummeting property values are its symptoms.

"Neighborhoods tend to take on characteristics of their homes, and people take on the qualities of the neighborhood," wrote District of Columbia City Council members in 1969.

In the late 1960s vacant, unsalable, and uninhabitable housing emerged as a critical issue in Washington. "We are destroying housing," Gilbert Hahn and Sterling Tucker told Washingtonian magazine in the summer of 1969. "All over town are abandoned houses and apartment buildings."

Third St. NE dollar house before rehabilitation. Photo published in the Washington Star, March 28, 1977.

The city's abandoned housing stock included single-family homes and apartment buildings. In 1972 consultants to the District government published a report on abandoned housing in the city. The document identified 3,260 abandoned housing units—1,634 individual structures. There were abandoned properties citywide and the greatest concentration was in the far southeast end of the city.

Abandoned properties could become homesteads

Urban homesteading is an affordable housing policy that converts abandoned properties into habitable homes. Two types of urban homesteading emerged in the early 1970s: local homesteading programs and the federal Urban Homesteading Demonstration Program, authorized under the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974.

DC leaders and affordable housing advocates began discussing urban homesteading as early as 1972. In early 1974, District Delegate Walter Fauntroy introduced and championed homesteading legislation in Congress. Mayor Walter Washington also threw his support behind creating a District urban homesteading program.

Anti-poverty activist Nadine Winter (1924-2011) was the person, however, driving the District's homesteading wagon. Winter was a North Carolina native who moved to Washington in 1947. A decade later she founded Hospitality House in the city's Northeast, one of the District's first supportive housing programs. In the 1960s, Winter also worked as a community organizer for the United Planning Organization. The Washington Star in 1966 dubbed her a "One-Woman Poverty War." Winter's housing and anti-poverty efforts helped win her a seat in 1974 on the District's first elected council.

The new DC Department of Housing and Community Development managed the program and Hospitality House processed the applications to ensure that only District residents who met specific income criteria were selected.

Successful applicants had to be employed, and there were income requirements as well. Each homesteader was required to use low-interest loans to bring the properties up to housing code within one year, and they were required to show the skill necessary to do so. All homesteaders then were required to live in their homes for at least five years.

Despite lots of interest, the program didn't actually help that many people

Once the District announced the urban homesteading program, more than 3,000 people applied for the homes. 1,500 met the qualification criteria. Demand far outstripped the supply of ready homes and the District, like other cities, used a lottery to award the dollar homes to qualified applicants. The first lottery was held outside the District Building on Pennsylvania Ave. July 13, 1974.

The first batch of urban homesteaders received the titles to 13 homes in late 1974. The initial batch of new homeowners included a Giant Foods warehouse worker and his family, who paid one dollar for a house on Trinidad Avenue NE. Another included a family with parents working for a local nonprofit and in the Navy Yard. Teachers, clerical workers, and health care workers and their families—many of them former apartment and public housing occupants—became urban homesteaders during the program's life.

A dollar house on Third Street NE in 2015. Photo by the author.

Despite a large inventory of HUD homes and foreclosed properties, the District government sold less than 100 of the dollar homes. Councilperson Winter and the African American press repeatedly chastised housing officials for not releasing more homesteading properties.

A 1974 editorial published in the Washington Afro-American recognized the need for more affordable housing. Writing on the perils of disintegrated neighborhoods, the author presciently observed that the then-proposed urban homesteading program was little more than a band-aid.

"Such a token number of homes no more deserves the title 'program' than a token black face in an office deserves the title 'integration'," wrote the paper. "What it really amounts to is a mere pittance compared to the remaining need."

Washington's urban homesteading program was eliminated after 1981. Anecdotal sources suggest that Mayor Marion Barry didn't want to pay higher prices for HUD houses. Others suggest a mismanaged program.

"I think that there was dysfunction in the housing department and it never worked right," recalled former DHCD program director Lynn French in a 2015 interview.

Newspaper articles from the 1980s hint at some of the dysfunction French mentioned, including allegations District officials failed to to their due diligence in clearing the titles to the properties prior to transferring them to homeowners, the result being that some of the homesteading properties still had liens against them when the titles were transferred.

The program likely failed from a combination of factors, including reductions in federal Community Development Block Grant funds and other cutbacks introduced after President Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981. Others include the failure to concentrate homesteading properties in particular neighborhoods. Individual homeowners benefited, but the fortunes of the neighborhoods where the homesteading properties were located didn't rise with the individuals.

Author's note: Learn more about Washington's urban homesteading program at this year's Conference on DC Historical Studies.


Bloomingdale's First and T used to be home to part of DC's underworld

Last spring Jak & Company, a Washington hair salon, shut its doors after about 50 years in business, 27 of them at First and Rhode Island, NW. The salon's owner said gentrification was one reason the store was closing. Bloomingdale, Jak & Company's neighborhood, has changed a lot, and its history includes hidden ties to Washington's underworld.

Salon owner Latosha Jackson-Martin interviewed by a Fox 5 reporter April 13, 2015. Photo by the author.

Much of the urban change Bloomingdale has undergone is like anywhere else: early twentieth century boom times as a middle-class residential neighborhood; racial change; decline and disinvestment; and, rediscovery by new money and new people.

But for a big chunk of the 1980s and 1990s, the intersection of First and T streets NW was First Street Crew territory. The drug gang was notorious for open-air crack sales and for brazenly killing potential witnesses. And beyond the time the crew dominated, the Bloomingdale corner has long history of ties to organized crime in Washington.

DC's crack epidemic found a foothold in Bloomingdale

Crack swept through Washington in the 1980s and ruled the streets for about two decades. It was one in a string of illicit rackets where Washington's African American majority could make money on their own terms.

In 2014, former Washington Post reporter Ruben Castaneda wrote S Street Rising, an account of his time working the paper's crime beat while also struggling with a crack cocaine addiction.

First and T, Castaneda wrote, was a frequent place of purchase for him. "The crew's slinger's sold crack on both sides of 1st Street Northwest, at all hours, in all kinds of weather." In an interview, he told me about one landmark that remains vivid in his memory: a low masonry wall on the east side of First Street.

"For many years, more than ten years, there was graffiti that said, Evil Never Dies'," he recalled.

1st Street NW. In the 1980s and 1990s this was a round-the-clock crack market. Photo by the author.

Drugs were only the newest big crime problem

Before crack, the numbers and liquor ruled. First and T was one of several hotspots throughout the city where established African American families ran businesses off the books using legitimate enterprises as fronts for their operations.

There has been a liquor store at the southwest corner of First and T for decades. It doesn't look too different than it did in the 1980s and early 1990s. The large sign mounted on the roof, "Bloomingdale Center" is the same. But gone are the roll-down metal window covers and the interior Plexiglas barriers that separated employees from patrons and would-be robbers.

A white Jewish family once owned the property before an African American one bought it. The African American family—whose name I won't use to honor a source's request—has links to Washington's numbers game going back to the early twentieth century. A 1937 Washington Post article noted that the family's patriarch was one of 100 people arraigned in a single day on gambling charges. He was a well-known U Street "numbers backer."

According to newspapers and other historical sources, the Bloomingdale liquor store expanded to include check cashing. Satellite stores opened through the District of Columbia and Prince George's County. In a 1979 article, Post reporter Courtland Milloy described the operation, then owned by the family patriarch's son, as a "poor man's bank." "With the benefit of his father's lessons," Milloy wrote, the son "started his own financial establishment."

Washington legalized gambling in 1980 by creating a lottery, and Mayor Marion Barry appointed a Lottery Board the next year. In 1982 lottery ticket sales began. "After decades of illegally operating numbers games in the big cities," reported Jet magazine in 1981, "Blacks finally have gained the chance to bigtime on the side of the law."

District leaders awarded contracts to run the lottery to two firms: an established Georgia gaming company and a "a local minority-run firm" created by the Georgia firm "solely for the purpose of bidding" on the Washington contract, the Washington Post reported.

The Washington family that ran Bloomingdale's owned the local lottery firm, and they held key management positions. According to District records, its headquarters was on First Street NW, a few doors down from the liquor store. Control over the District's instant games—the scratch-off tickets—was short-lived, however, and city leaders in 1983 began cutting ties to outside contractors.

Bloomingdale is now gentrified and sanitized

Scant evidence for First and T's historic ties to Washington's African American underworld survives. The graffiti tag Castaneda recalls is gone, as are the crack slingers, numbers writers, and gangsters who once had the most lucrative business enterprises there. New immigrants now own some of the businesses in there, including the liquor store.

New businesses and new people now define First Street NW. Photo by the author.

In their place are trendy bars and restaurants with patio seating and ties to the neighborhood's new residents and a new economy. Sara Fatell opened Grassroots bakery on Rhode Island Ave. NW in 2012. She jokes that the area is nothing like the stories she's heard of the 90s.

"Do you know how many babies are in this neighborhood? Don't drink the water," Fatell says with a smile. "Everyone's on their second baby. It's all strollers and yoga mats and dogs."

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