Greater Greater Washington

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. 

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."

Terrorism fear takes over security at the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is America's national library. It also may be the only library in the United States where getting into one of its Capitol Hill buildings is a lot like trying to board an airplane. Security has shifted so much to anti-terrorism that it's no longer doing its intended job, to protect the library collection from theft.

Capitol Hill security checkpoint. All photos by the author.

Ever since terrorist attacks in Oklahoma City in 1995 and on 9/11, security has been dialed up to high. Streets in the federal core were closed and gates, bollards, and industrial-sized planters appeared around buildings. To get beyond most federal buildings' lobbies, there's a hodgepodge of security measures that includes metal detectors, searches, hand-held wands, and ID checks.

At the Library of Congress, security protocols that once guarded against people stealing from the library are now more focused on keeping weapons and bombs out.

Some of the nation's treasures have become eBay sales

Like most museums and archives, the library uses multiple layers of security to protect its 158 million item collection. Items have unique labels, and private security guards monitor reading rooms. Rooms with rare or especially valuable items have additional security. There are also cameras everywhere.

Library of Congress reading room.

None of these appear to be fully effective in preventing researchers and staff from leaving with purloined items. In 2011, presidential historian Barry Landau and an accomplice were indicted for stealing items from institutions including the Library of Congress.

That was not an isolated incident for the federal government. Former National Archives employees have been involved in multiple high-profile thefts, including in 2011 when former archivist Leslie Waffen stole historic recordings, and in 2002 when archivist Shaun Aubitz stole documents from the Philadelphia archives branch. Both Waffen and Aubitz used eBay to sell their artifacts.

The National Archives thefts occurred despite tight security that involves guards examining every piece of paper and book leaving facilities.

The Library's security protocols have reversed

According to a report from 1998, entering the Library then was "no different than most other security stations on Capitol Hill: Hand the guard your bag and walk through the metal detectors." That process typically took seconds.

Leaving the library, however, was an ordeal. It used to involve a Library of Congress Police officer removing everything from briefcases and backpacks and thumbing through books and papers to ensure that nothing was leaving that shouldn't.

Now, to enter, visitors have to remove electronics and other items, then go through an x-ray conveyor. To leave, officers peek into partially opened bags and do not typically bother to inspect books or folders. The process to enter takes a long time, but exiting usually takes less than ten seconds.

Shennell Antrobus, an officer in the US Capitol Police public information office, declined to answer questions about changes in exit screening, citing sensitivity. "We use our technology and certain aspects of security screening for both the entry and the exit," he said.

Did a police force merger weaken security?

From 1950 to 2008, the library had its own independent police force, whose mission included protecting its collections. Longtime researchers and staff suggest that the apparent shift in security priorities accelerated in 2008 when the Library of Congress Police merged with the US Capitol Police.

Library of Congress Jefferson Building entrance with security barrier. Federal regulations prohibit photographing interior security checkpoints.

Around the time of the merger, most of the discussion centered on personnel matters like seniority and rank. There does not appear to have been a public discussion about what the merger would mean for loss prevention at the Library of Congress. Semi-annual Inspector General reports show that most security issues in the Library relate to employee theft and the theft of laptop computers.

Library security was tight long before terrorism reconfigured federal architecture, but it was tight in different ways. Now, with such a strong spotlight on keeping terrorism out, security seems to be letting its original mission slip.

For over half a century, this church led the way on affordable housing and homelessness in DC

The Church of the Saviour, founded after World War II and located in Dupont Circle throughout its years, became the foundation for myriad housing, anti-poverty, social justice, and arts programs throughout greater Washington and the nation.

2025 Massachusetts Avenue NW, the former headquarters of The Church of the Saviour. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Several of the metro area's earliest and longest-lived affordable housing and anti-poverty programs trace their roots to the church, including MANNA, Jubilee Housing, and ONE DC.

From the outset, the church was more concerned with blending into the urban community than it was about projecting a religious image. With community service as a cornerstone of its mission, the church's biggest impact was in creating neighborhood-level satellites. Members worked in healthcare and with the city's homeless, work that Washington Post reporter Michelle Boorstein described as "faith-based activism."

With its feet under it, The Church of the Saviour turned toward a broader mission

Former Army chaplain Gordon Cosby founded The Church of the Saviour in 1946. After starting on 19th Street and moving to Massachusetts Avenue three years later, Cosby and company set out on missions to tackle poverty and homelessness and improve community health.

Instead of growing a single congregation to fill a large sanctuary, Cosby helped start a network of metro area congregations and social service organizations. "Cosby took his focus away from the church and instead looked at the needs of his city," reported Lily Percy on NPR's All Things Considered.

The Church of the Saviour had more than a dozen affiliated congregations and 70 affiliates and spin-off organizations by the turn of the century.

The church's network of urban ministries reached from medical care to economic equality

Cosby and his urban missions both drew people in and inspired them to create their own organizations. Included among them are Church of Christ Right Now, which supports ex-offenders; Christ House, which coordinates in-patient medical care; For Love of Children, which cares for abused and homeless children; and Bread of Life Church, which works for economic equality.

Seekers Church, Takoma Park (DC). Photo by the author.

In 1960, members of The Church of the Saviour founded The Potter's House, the nation's first Christian coffeehouse, in Adams Morgan. Church members volunteered as waiters and food preparers, and by hosting arts programs, lectures, and a bookstore, The Potter's House quickly became a hub for Christian-themed counterculture. In 1961, the Post described it as "an experiment in untraditional evangelism."

Civil Rights March on Washington, DC, with marchers from The Church of the Saviour carrying banners. Aug. 28, 1963. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.

For urbanists, the church's most enduring legacy may be its influence on member James Rouse, who built Columbia and Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Rouse founded the Enterprise Foundation (now Enterprise Community Partners), and in 1972 he provided the seed money that enabled a trio of other church members to buy and rehabilitate housing in the city. The effort became Jubilee Housing.

The Church of the Saviour helped work toward more affordable housing

The Church's fingerprints are evident throughout Washington neighborhoods people once wrote off as blighted and unattractive. Its early strategic and funding collaborations with the DC and federal governments established models for later endeavors that helped bring capital and people back into the Capital City's walkable and Metro-accessible neighborhoods.

A specific example is MANNA, which Church of the Saviour member Jim Dickerson founded in 1982 as a revenue source for Hope and a Home, the church-inspired housing program.

"Me and a little handful of others who felt called to this thing of purchasing some properties," Dickerson recalled. "The original dream was we'll sell them and we'll, if we make a little bit out of it fee-wise or whatever, we can take that money and go do others."

Whitelaw Apartment House, 1839 Thirteenth Street Northwest, Washington, District of Columbia, DC. Photo from the Historic American Building Survey, Library of Congress.

MANNA celebrated its first decade in 1991 by embarking on its best-known project: rehabilitating the former Whitelaw Hotel. Using Low-Income Tax Credits and Historic Preservation Tax Credits, MANNA transformed the distressed building into 35 affordable apartments.

Most of the evidence for The Church of the Saviour's Washington legacy is hidden in the weeds of local affordable housing coalitions founded by its members and others inspired by Cosby's urban missions. The most enduring and visible legacies are visible in the thousands of affordable housing units preserved and produced throughout Washington since the church opened its doors in Dupont Circle.

By the late 1990s, Cosby began decentralizing the church's operations. In 2006, the church sold its Dupont Circle headquarters. Cosby moved into Christ House, where he died in 2013.

Background for this post was developed while I was working under contract to LISC to conduct oral history interviews and documentary research for their 2012 book, Becoming What We Can Be: Stories of Community Development in Washington, DC. The interview material is used with LISC's permission.

Meet the "eruv," a creative way to mesh ancient religion with today's urban and suburban spaces

We discuss all kinds of transportation challenges here at Greater Greater Washington. But observant Jews face a unique barrier: on the Sabbath and other holy days, they can't drive cars or ride the bus. Symbolic structures called "eruvim" are examples of how a community adapts to the surrounding built environment.

Jewish law prohibits doing "work" during a total of 1,500 hours each year. That includes driving and also carrying many objects outside one's home. However, an eruv (plural "eruvim") creates a symbolic private space, inside which it's religiously permissible to do things like carry house keys and books, push strollers, and walk with canes.

To qualify as an eruv, there needs to be an unbroken boundary surrounding an area, but it can be as thin as a piece of string. They're typically cobbled together along existing buildings, fences, and telephone and power lines.

Eruvim around the Washington region

There are nearly a dozen public eruvim in greater Washington, and many more private ones enclose lots with single- and multi-family residences. Much of DC is inside two eruvim, and eruvim wrap around approximately 40 square miles in Montgomery County. There's also an eruv enclosing the University of Maryland's College Park campus.

2012 eruv boundary map from WAMU. Click for an interactive version.

As cities and populations have changed, so have eruvim

Urban eruvim originated in Medieval Europe; Walled cities formed the perfect enclosure, but as cities burst their seams and sprawled into the countryside in the 18th and 19th centuries, the physical boundaries came down.

Observant Jews searched for solutions to keep the Sabbath during changing times. In the 1860s, German rabbis cleverly used telegraph poles and wires, a new kind of communication infrastructure, to creat eruvim boundaries.

String connects a telephone pole to a Beltway sound wall to form part of the Woodside eruv in Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

The first American eruv appeared in St. Louis in the 1890s. Others, in New York City, followed in the next decade. Rabbis used a segment of the Third Avenue El to create the western boundary of the Lower East Side's first eruv; seawalls along the East River bordered it on the east, and poles and wires formed its northern and southern borders.

The Third Avenue El tracks formed the western boundary for Manhattan's first eruv. Postcard photo by the author.

Eruvim later came to Queens and Brooklyn in New York, but they were limited to large cities until the Cold War. By the mid-1970s, though, as Orthodox Jews moved into ranches, ramblers, and split-level homes in inner-ring suburbs and outlying residential subdivisions, they had exploded into less dense areas. There are now more than 200 public eruvim in the United States and Canada.

Orthodox Jews have also adapted the built environment to their religion

With synagogues and housing going up in areas that are less dense, with fewer sidewalks, more freeways, and the shopping malls that are signatures of sprawl, today's observant Jews face new obstacles in building eruvim.

Desire line inside a suburban Atlanta, Ga., eruv. Photo by the author.

From Montgomery County's Kemp Mill to Atlanta's Toco Hill, where neighbors call observant Jews "the walkers," Jewish families make their way to synagogue on Friday nights and Saturdays. They use sidewalks where they exist, and they hug road shoulders where they don't. Both cases are a reminder of the need for sidewalks and a focus on pedestrian safety.

Walking to synagogue in Silver Spring. Photo by the author.

In fact, planners in Atlanta have used pictures of "desire lines," worn into the grass alongside roads where there are no sidewalks to recommend more connectivity in their communities; in some cases, they attribute those lines to Orthodox Jews walking on the Sabbath.

As planners continue to retrofit Washington's suburbs, it may be worthwhile to take a moment to look up at the wires overhead and ponder some of the ways historically urban people have adapted to suburban sprawl. Sometimes the solutions are as simple as some string and imagination.

Disguised "houses" help Purple Line blend into neighborhoods

To power the Purple Line, Maryland will have to build power-converting substations along the 16-mile route. Transit planners plan to help the structures blend into existing neighborhoods by disguising them as single-family homes.

"Houses" like this one in Toronto could appear along the Purple Line. Photo from MTA.

According to a recent Washington Post article, the Purple Line will require multiple support structures and buildings, including 14 signal bungalows, or small buildings with radio and signal equipment, and a nine-story ventilation tower in Bethesda. There will also be 18 of what the Maryland Transit Administration calls traction power substations, which would feed power to the electrified rails.

Spaced at one mile intervals, these facilities house equipment to convert alternating current carried along high voltage transmission lines to the direct current used by trains. The buildings would be about 50 feet long and 14 feet wide.

Recently, people living along Wayne Avenue in Silver Spring got their first glimpses of the substations. Because they have the potential to introduce visual and noise impacts into quiet residential areas, some neighbors are concerned. In an interview with the Post, resident Anne Edwards described one substation proposed for the corner of Wayne and Cloverfield Road as an "industrial monstrosity."

Because the Purple Line is a federally-funded transportation project, MTA was required to prepare an environmental impact statement. According to the document, which is open for comments until October 21, the line's preferred alternative along Wayne Avenue is a highly sensitive visual corridor. The proposed substations would be visually intrusive, according to the MTA analysis, and the equipment housed in each is expected to emit "transformer hum" sounds.

MTA plans to mitigate the substations' visual and noise impacts with insulation to prevent equipment noise from leaking out and by camouflaging the buildings to make them appear like single-family residences. According an MTA flyer on the substations posted at the Purple Line website, "The substations can be screened with fencing, landscaping and, as appropriate, the MTA will identify further measures to minimize their presence or make them blend in with the environment."

Typical light rail substations are basic windowless boxes. They have all the architectural appeal of a cargo container or a construction trailer. That's why the MTA will make Purple Line substations look like single-family homes instead.

A traction power substation in Minneapolis. Photo from MTA.

In an April email to a Silver Spring resident that was posted on various community listservs, Purple Line project manager Mike Madden noted that these substations can be found in residential neighborhoods around the US and the world. The MTA can design the buildings to "be more square in shape," making them look more like houses, and give them landscaping and lawns in front, just like a normal house.

Possible Purple Line substation house. Photo from MTA.

The substation designs MTA distributed include a brick veneered building that looks a lot like the ranch houses or ramblers common in Montgomery County neighborhoods developed after World War II. Utilities and transportation companies around the world have used tricks like this for more than a century to minimize the visual impacts of unsightly infrastructure.

Photographers love engineering simulacra like the proposed Purple Line substations. Historic building facades conceal massive substations built to power New York City's subways. Some of these were captured in Christopher Payne's 2002 book, New York's Forgotten Substations.

In 1987, Canadian photographer Robin Collyer began documenting transformer houses, also called "bungalow-style substations," throughout Toronto. Each one was built "in a manner that mimics the style and character of the different neighborhoods," Collyer wrote in 2006.

Closer to home, Pepco built transformer houses in residential neighborhoods in the Colonial Revival style popular at the time as early as the 1930's. According to a 1954 Washington Post article on Pepco's program, the company identified neighborhoods with increasing electricity demands and then went to work designing the faux homes. Pepco employees photographed existing homes surrounding the proposed sites, then a company architect designed compatible substation buildings.

Washington Post cartoon. "These Homes are Really Electrifying," April 4, 1954.

Efforts to conceal infrastructure in the Washington metropolitan area weren't limited to power substations. Today, telecommunications facilities disguised as pine trees, dubbed "monopines," or as flagpoles and building bulkheads are found throughout the area and the nation. There's even a monopine at Mount Vernon.

A "monopine" at the Montgomery County Trolley Museum. Photo by the author.

One of the earliest examples of concealed telecommunications infrastructure in Washington is the 1947 Western Union Telegraph Company microwave terminal in Tenleytown. Architects and engineers went through several designs to minimize the tower's visual impact to the established neighborhood.

One design that included a clock mounted in the façade was discarded and the plain limestone clad tower that still looks out over 41st Street NW was completed with no apparent complaints from neighbors. The former Western Union tower was designated a District of Columbia historic landmark in 2003.

The Western Union Telegraph Company building in 2002. Photo by the author.

It's far too soon to know whether the Purple Line's faux home substations will inspire future generations of photographers or if at some point they may be considered historic. It is fair to say that once they are completed, they may be better neighbors than occupied "real" homes.

MTA will mow the lawns and keep the exteriors neat. Neighbors can rest assured that there won't be any wild parties or competition for street parking. And it's not likely that the new neighbor will be coming over asking to borrow a chainsaw or generator the next time a storm rolls through.

A house brought the 1939 World's Fair to Silver Spring

In the 1930s, the trip to work for many Americans was measured in miles, not blocks. Subdividers and builders had reconfigured the landscape, increasing reliance on the automobile. Salesmanship, like the clever idea to build a 1939 World's Fair home replica in a Silver Spring subdivision, drove much of the development.

Photo by the author.

Now, we recognize the benefits and costs of those changes. While it is easy to criticize the subdivision sales machine for paving over paradise, the Washington area's subdividers created enduring chapters in American history.

Some, like the history of charming railroad and streetcar suburbs like Takoma Park, Garrett Park, and Chevy Chase, are well known. Others, like the stories behind many of Montgomery County's ubiquitous 1930s subdivisions, are more elusive. Silver Spring's 1939 World's Fair home is one of those stories, which I will discuss at a lecture on November 2.

Mario and Pauline Scandiffio with their daughter outside of their new Silver Spring home. Photo courtesy of Ann Scandiffio.
Mario and Pauline Scandiffio were just the kind of buyers Garden Homes, Inc., wanted to move into Northwood Park. In 1939 Mario Scandiffio (1902-1996) was a Washington pediatrician who was gaining national prominence in a growing battle over the new field of managed healthcare. His wife, Pauline (1903-1989), was a singer and radio personality who also worked as a Bureau of Engraving tour guide.

After spending the first nine years of their marriage living in a Washington apartment, the Scandiffios wanted a home in the suburbs near Dr. Scandiffio's new Silver Spring medical office; Mrs. Scandiffio, an avid golfer, wanted to live near the Indian Spring Country Club. The Northwood Park subdivision and the Scandiffios were a perfect fit when in August of 1939 a Washington Post photographer captured the image of Mrs. Scandiffio taking the key to the couple's new house: Washington's New York World's Fair Home.

Pauline Scandiffio receives the key to the 1939 World's Fair Home from developer James Wilson. The Washington Post.

Northwood Park.
Platted in early 1936, Northwood Park quickly sprouted single-family homes marketed to young professionals like the Scandiffios. Using common real estate trade tools, Garden Homes lured prospective buyers through creatively illustrated and worded display ads hawking Northwood Park's rustic charm, affordability, and proximity to Washington.

The firm used themed models like the Bachelor Girl Home and the Bride's Home, which were fully furnished and equipped with the latest modern gas appliances. Some of these model homes came with a brand new car in the garage and a supply of groceries.

Northwood Park. Plats filed in Montgomery County land records.

For three years Northwood Park's marketing efforts shared affinities with subdivisions throughout Montgomery County and the nation. Then, in February 1939, in anticipation of the spring sales campaign to sell off its remaining properties, Garden Homes set out to capitalize on the growing publicity surrounding the opening of the World's Fair later that May.

The developers saw a unique intersection between their efforts to sell suburban homes and the 1939 World's Fair's mission to sell dreams of modern convenience and technological wonder to Americans visiting the fair as well as those experiencing it through the media.

For much of the nineteenth century, the parcels that ultimately became Northwood Park were part of a 56-acre farm between the road linking Four Corners with Wheaton and the Ashton and Coleville Turnpike, now the congested University Boulevard and Colesville Road intersection.

Louise Vonne, a Washington, DC subdivider, in late 1935 bought 28 acres carved out of the original farmland. She quickly had the property surveyed and filed a subdivision plat for "Northwood Park" one month after the purchase. The new subdivision had 93 lots, most of which had 70-foot frontages on one of six streets dissecting the property. After holding the property for less than half a year, Vonne sold it to Waldo M. Ward.

1894 Map showing the road linking Wheaton and Four Corners. Northwood Park's location is shown in yellow. Maryland State Archives.

While the nation remained mired in economic depression, Washington and its suburbs experienced phenomenal growth fueled by a growing federal workforce and subsidized by easy credit guaranteed by the new Federal Housing Administration. Single- and multi-family developments sprouted in the County's more urbanized areas as well as in outlying rural communities that became increasingly more accessible and appealing as the automobile began to dominate our transportation network. Montgomery County-based developers competed with Washington-based speculators for prime real estate. Vonne and Ward were minor subdivider-developers compared to Morris Cafritz, E. Brooke Lee, and others who reworked the landscape on a large scale.

Waldo Ward (1885-1959) began his professional life in Washington selling automobile and fire insurance. In the early 1920s he founded the Union Finance Company and began developing residential properties throughout the District of Columbia. Ward's Washington developments included rowhouses in Holbrook Street Northeast and in Madison Terrace Northwest. Ward also owned, built, and sold houses in Southeast's Fairlawn neighborhood. By 1935 he was developing and selling properties in Montgomery County's Huntington Terrace subdivision.

James A. Wilson, a former civil engineer turned salesman, became Ward's selling agent. In business together for at least a year, Wilson and Ward set their sights on a joint venture north of Silver Spring near Four Corners. On 25 June 1936 Ward bought Vonne's Northwood Park subdivision and Wilson bought 14.3 acres adjoining Northwood Park to the south. Ads touting Northwood Park's homes began appearing in the Washington Post in July of 1936, one month after the sale of the subdivision's first home. Garden Homes, Inc., was created as the entity to develop and sell the subdivision for Ward.

Early Northwood Park ad published in the Washington Post, July 1936.

Garden Homes marketed Northwood Park as a "Woodland Community" with "individually designed, moderately priced homes … [in] a location in the very heart of nature, guarded by protective restrictions."

Northwood Park. Northwest Branch tributary. Photo by the author.

The location, just north of established Silver Spring subdivisions along one of Montgomery County's five major transportation corridors and less than half a mile from the Indian Spring Country Club, was ideal. A 1939 building industry article noted that builders could effectively sell homes using advertising campaigns that turned on one of several themes: "large wooded building sites … an exclusive neighborhood … closeness to good transportation … [or] a low price for that classification of house."

Ward, who owned the largest number of parcels with the original Northwood Park subdivision, was the partner with the most assets and he moved to protect them as the young subdivision began to take off. Two days after Garden Homes filed its articles of incorporation, restrictive covenants were recorded in Montgomery County Land Records. The covenants limited buildings to single-family houses and a garage; limited the subdivision of lots; established seven-foot side- and rear-yard setbacks; set $3,500 as the minimum cost for houses; prohibited nuisance trades; and, restricted non-whites—"any persons of a race whose death rate is at a higher rate than that of the White or Caucasian race"—from buying or renting property in the subdivision.

Northwood Park restrictive covenants filed in Montgomery County land records.

The Washington Post reported, "Established restrictions and personally supervised sales have resulted in a fine community." Signatories to the covenants included all of the parties who bought into the subdivision in the preceding five months. By filing the covenants with the Recorder of Deeds, Northwood Park's owners obviated reproducing them in individual instruments. Subsequent deeds executed among Ward and new buyers specifically referenced the 25 November 1936, covenants or contained the clause, "subject to covenants of record." Although restrictive covenants typically were associated with Montgomery County's larger and more affluent suburbs, their use with lower-middle-class homebuyers was common throughout the nation.

Ward let Garden Homes take the lead on developing and selling Northwood Park. Most of the original 93 lots were sold by March of 1937. As the year's building campaign began that spring Garden Homes surfaced all of Northwood Park's streets. Ads running in May of 1937 in the Washington Post boasted that 21 homes had been built and occupied and six others were completed and open to potential buyers. Ten houses were under construction and another five sites were under contract for construction.

Throughout 1937 Garden Homes used the Washington Post as its primary selling tool. Display ads run throughout the year carried photos of the new homes and copy targeting middle class homebuyers offering "a sane, safe price range": $6,500 to $9,750. Although the subdivision's natural amenities and convenient location defined Garden Homes' earliest marketing efforts, they failed to distinguish Northwood Park from its neighbors.

In 1938 Garden Homes changed its merchandising strategy. From the outset, the company bet on using model homes and marketing that relied on a symbiotic relationship between the developer and a newspaper hungry for advertising dollars. This was routine in the real estate business and Nelle Wilson, James' wife, deftly managed all of Garden Homes' advertising campaigns. She found creative new ways to sell the company's homes as the firm's "publicity director." Builders and developers had long recognized that local and national news events made good publicity coattails to ride and the 1939 World's Fair seems to have been custom made for Garden Homes.

1939 World's Fair poster.

The New York World's Fair Corporation divided its show into multiple divisions which in turn had several stages keyed to themed focal exhibits in seven interest zones. The Town of Tomorrow was a spurious cul-de-sac located north of the iconic Perisphere and Trylon. The Town of Tomorrow's fifteen demonstration homes had twelve single-family homes that relied on historical stylistic vocabularies and three modernistic homes. All of the homes recapitulated the Fair's embedded theme of looking forward with an eye on the past.

Fair planners viewed domestic architecture as a product. To them, "a home was not just a house. It was the demonstration of the impact of technology on the most mundane aspects of human behavior." Families were not groups of related people; they were consumer units and all of the most familiar American brands, from Heinz and Coca Cola to General Electric, RCA, and Westinghouse, were there to reach consumers.

Each of the Town of Tomorrow's demonstration homes had several corporate sponsors. These were companies who made the appliances inside the home, the utilities that connected it to the outside world, the stores that provided the furnishings, and the various building industry entities who supplied the designs and materials for each home.

Sponsored by the Johns-Manville Company, Demonstration Home No. 15's official name was the Johns-Manville Triple-Insulated House. Described in Fair marketing literature as a "Long Island Colonial Home," House No. 15 was aptly described by its architects as a fusion of Colonial architectural vocabulary with all of the modern conveniences—the latest household appliances—including air conditioning— new building materials, and innovative internal spaces—designed to appeal to contemporary homebuyers.

Home No. 15 was one of three demonstration houses the Fair contracted with the New York City firm Godwin, Thompson & Patterson to design for $3,500. The Johns-Manville house was a one-and-a-half-story T-plan cottage with a symmetrical front façade and interior center chimney. Johns-Manville asbestos shingles clad the exterior walls and roof, except the gable ends; the gable ends were whitewashed brick veneer attached to hollow concrete blocks.

1939 World's Fair promotional brochure for Demonstration House No. 15. From the author's collection.

The $9,500 Johns-Manville house was co-sponsored by the American Gas Association as an "all gas house." Appliances included a Servel Electrolux refrigerator and a Magic Chef Gas Range. Heated by a Crane Co. system and cooled by a Janitrol air-conditioner, the interior included a finished basement, a first floor with a kitchen, dining room, living room, workshop, maid's room, and a bathroom. The second story had three bedrooms and two bathrooms. The house could be entered through the front door, a side door into the kitchen, or through the rear attached garage. Singled out by the media as one of the most desirable homes in the Town of Tomorrow, the house was featured on the cover of the June 1939 issue of American Builder and Building Age and it was illustrated in McCall's magazine as well as in the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Demonstration Home No. 15. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Northwood Park had been touting all-gas homes since its first marketing campaigns in the summer of 1936. In 1938, for example, the company marketed its "Second Anniversary Home" which was equipped with "Every Available Modern Gas Home Appliance." James Wilson appears to have forged a strong relationship with the American Gas Association's Frank Williams. At Williams' suggestion, Wilson in February 1936 wrote to Edward Wilke, director of the Fair's Shelter Exhibits, asking for permission to construct a "duplication of house number 15 in the Town of Tomorrow" in Northwood Park just south of what is now the intersection of Lorain Avenue and Sutherland Road. Fair officials quickly replied with their conditions for licensing the Fair's name and Home No. 15. The conditions required, "that the plans and specifications used by the Fair Corporation in the construction of House No. 15 of the Town of Tomorrow will be followed exactly" and that Garden Homes retain the original architects, Godwin, Thompson, and Patterson:

The architects will be given credit for the design of this house and that they will be compensated for the use of these plans. This compensation would be around $100 although this is a matter that would have to be worked out between you and the architects.
After selling the Fair Corporation on the idea, the clock began ticking on Garden Homes' carefully crafted marketing campaign which was strategically timed to coincide with the Fair's grand opening at the end of April 1939. Nelle Wilson quickly stepped in to take over all communications about the project, and worked relentlessly to secure logos, brochures, and other information to link the Garden Homes enterprise as closely as possible with the Fair.

Garden Homes staged a ceremonial groundbreaking for April 7, 1939. Over the next three months the Washington Post published articles documenting the progress on the house, all in keeping with real estate marketing best practices to place articles in newspapers at various stages of construction. When the house was completed in July 1939, Garden Homes hosted another event that included a parade from downtown Silver Spring and up Colesville Road ending at the World's Fair Home. The 14 July 1939 dedication included a speech by Maryland's secretary of state followed by a private cocktail party for local, state, and federal officials as well as the project's various corporate sponsors.

Washington Post coverage of July 1939 parade from downtown Silver Spring to the 1939 World's Fair Home.

The home remained open to the public throughout July and into August of 1939. According to the Washington Post, about 4,500 people visited the first day of public viewing. By the end of the publicity campaign more than 27,000 people had visited the home and Northwood Park. On August 13, 1939, Garden Homes held its last public event at the home when James Wilson gave the house's key to new owners: Dr. Mario and Pauline Scandiffio.

Undated Scandiffio family self-portrait shot by Pauline Scandiffio inside the 1939 World's Fair Home. Photo courtesy of Ann Scandiffio.

The Scandiffios paid for the house with the help of a nine thousand dollar mortgage from First Federal Savings and Loan Association. Over the course of the next dozen years the Scandiffios raised their son and daughter in the home. Daughter Ann Scandiffio recalls walking to nearby St. Bernadette's Catholic School and playing with other children in the neighborhood. The Scandiffio home had an African American live-in housekeeper, Lucille—the kids called her "Sha." Parties were held in the finished basement and Mrs. Scandiffio documented the family's life in the home with her Crown Graphic camera, developing the photos in the room designed as a workshop.

Scandiffio housekeeper Lucille with Ann Scandiffio in front of Silver Spring's World's Fair Home. Undated photo from the collection of Ann Scandiffio.

The Scandiffios lived the suburban ideal until 1952 when Dr. Scandiffio sold his practice and moved the family to Florida. Ads for the home's sale in the Washington Post noted that it was "Washington's Official New York World's Fair Home of 1939." John L. and John C. Kirby, along with their wives, bought the home in June of 1952. More than fifty years later, the home remains in the Kirby family.

Northwood Park's World's Fair Home was built at the intersection of corporate consumer culture and vernacular entrepreneurialism. The four-month campaign was Northwood Park and Garden Homes' last. With most of its lots and homes sold, Garden Homes, at its November 1939 board of directors meeting, voted to dissolve the company. It ceased to exist on April 18, 1940. Three days later the Washington Post ran an ad placed by James Wilson offering for sale the remaining 30 lots "in a well established million dollar residential suburb."

Silver Spring's 1939 World's Fair Home. Undated photo by Pauline Scandiffio. Courtesy of Ann Scandiffio.

The subdivision's birth and growth were not unlike subdivisions built throughout the United States between the World Wars. Garden Homes relied on established real estate marketing techniques to sell its lots and homes. As its principals moved farther away from their initial partner and majority landowner Waldo Ward they developed seasonal marketing campaigns that began to set them apart from competitors in suburban Washington and throughout the nation.

Garden Homes effectively sold the suburban ideal by reaching beyond convention. Garden Homes in its finale pulled off a feat recognized by the leading consumer hucksters of their time as a sublime publicity stunt.

I'll be presenting this and more of the history at the November 2 lecture, 7:00 pm at the George Washington University's Media and Public Affairs Building, Room 309, 805 21st Street NW. Reservations are not required. It costs $10.00 for Latrobe Chapter members, student members (full time) free with ID, $18.00 for non-members.

The gas man's Mount Vernon factory on Capitol Hill

Shortly after the first Union defeat at Bull Run in July of 1861, federal authorities confiscated a property on Capitol Hill that's now the site of US Senate parks but at the time housed a factory belonging to James Crutchett, the man who lit the Capitol with gas lanterns.

Location of Crutchett's property. Image from Google Maps.

Just a few blocks north of the Capitol, the property occupied much of Square 683, which is bounded by North Capitol Street, C Street, D Street, and Delaware Avenue. It included Crutchett's home and a factory where he had begun turning out George Washington kitsch made from wood he was harvesting from Mount Vernon.

Located across North Capitol Street from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad depot, Crutchett's property was strategically situated. in an area government officials wanted to transform into a massive aid station and quarters for troops entering Washington via the railroad and on foot. That aid station became known first as the Soldiers' Retreat and later the Soldiers' Rest.

Real estate atlas showing the location of Crutchett's Mount Vernon Factory (blue outline).

The actual ownership of Crutchett's property was in doubt at the time due to persistent money problems and foreclosure proceedings. Although his true intents may never be known, there is no doubt that Crutchett did indeed have a contract to harvest wood from Mount Vernon and he was making things inside the two-story wood frame factory when the Civil War broke out in 1861. Despite being a life-long English citizen, Crutchett always professed affection for his adopted country and after the war began he allowed troops to drill on his property.

DC court summons for Crutchett.
Crutchett left no personal papers behind after his 1889 death. Because of his many legal problems and his many efforts to make money from the federal government, he did leave an extensive paper trail from which it is possible to reconstruct key events in his life, from placing a monstrous gas lantern atop the Capitol in 1847 to his Mount Vernon Factory (1856-1861) and the litigation he pursued after the war to be compensated for the loss of an unprofitable business and property seized by creditors, not the government.

Crutchett had credibility problems that had cost him the chance in the late 1840s to light the US Capitol and which led to him becoming an employee of the Washington Gas Light Company instead of the entrepreneur profiting from lighting the streets of Washington. In the 1850s, he found a partner in John A. Washington, George Washington's grand-nephew and the last private owner of the late president's estate, Mount Vernon. Washington was struggling to pay for the estate's upkeep and by the mid-1850s, much of the property was in disrepair.

Washington (1820-1861) and Crutchett struck a deal that both hoped would improve their financial circumstances. In July of 1852, the two executed a contract giving Crutchett the rights to, "all the timber, trees, shrubs, and wood of all and every kind" in 57 acres within the estate plus 300 trees near Washington's tomb and near the "residence of the late General George Washington." In return, Washington was supposed to get $12,000.

Crutchett v. USA.
The original contract has not survived, but it was transcribed and introduced as evidence in Crutchett's suit against the United States for destroying his business during the Civil War occupation of his property.

Crutchett was allowed to cut roads through the property and could enter at any time to remove the wood for a term of ten years. Washington paid a surveyor to identify the areas where Crutchett could acquire the wood and those maps also were entered into evidence:

1854 plat of parcels in Mount Vernon where James Crutchett was granted rights to harvest wood for his Mount Vernon Factory.

The contract gave Crutchett exclusive rights to the wood and to the use of the Washington name:

There shall be no other timber, trees, or wood sold from the Mount Vernon estate to any person or persons during the ten years said Crutchett is engaged in the removal, working up, or sale of the timber, trees, &c., hereby sold; this is not intended, however, to prohibit the sale of any portion of said estate to the State or the General Government. Said Washington further agrees to certify to the genuineness of the sale and growth of said timber, if deemed necessary by Crutchett, for his interest and at his expense, by a suitable certificate.
Crutchett's business papers are long gone but it does appear that he maintained detailed accounting records. In the winter of 1855 he bought hardware, "axes, picks, files, and whet stones" and sent them to Mount Vernon with men he had hired to cut the wood. He invested in a sleigh to haul the wood and he built temporary work sheds and housing for his workers at Mount Vernon.

"I sent men to Mount Vernon to cut timber, make roadways, wharfages, &c., for the convenience of getting the wood from the ground to navigable waters," Crutchett recalled. Once at the Potomac, the wood was ferried across in the Mary Barker, a boat Crutchett bought specifically for the enterprise.

So why did Crutchett, an English citizen who came to the United States in the early 1840s want to go into the business of making and selling things tied to George Washington using wood from Mount Vernon? He explained his motives in a deposition he gave in 1872:

I thought the citizens of the United States were derelict to the memory of Washington, although I was an Englishman, and I felt an interest from the time the first foundation stone of the monument slipped through the bridge over the canal. Mrs. Hamilton was a guest of mine two years at the time I asked permission to remove that stone and place it down in the foundation of the monument. George Washington Parke Custis came over with the speaker of the House of Representatives, John Quincy Adams, and escorted Mrs. Hamilton from my house to see the laying of the foundation stone. I could not but have felt an interest in it beyond that. That is why I undertook it after long thought thinking it would please the public to have mementoes [sic.] of Mount Vernon wood representing the memory of George Washington.
Eleven years earlier, after the government seized his property, he also tried to explain his reasons for setting up the business in a September 1861 petition (PDF) he sent to President Abraham Lincoln:
The undersigned would most respectfully represent, that, a little over seven years since, he entered on a business undertaking, in view of ultimately aiding the building of the "Washington National Monument," and also the purchase and restoration of the "Home of Washington."
By the time Crutchett had embarked on his Mount Vernon venture, the nation had been caught up in a cult of Washington. The late president had been fully transformed into a legendary hero and was being commodified in the fine arts and in an emerging American popular culture. Crutchett's enterprise was launched less than a decade after work was begun on the Washington Monument and the same year that Ann Pamela Cunningham founded the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.

Crutchett further explained in his letter to Lincoln,

The detail of my undertaking was, the conversion of said Mount Vernon wood into interesting "Mementos" of Washington and his home, thus: The production of the finest engravings and Medallions, executed by the most accurate and skillful artists of America and Europe, showing different views pertaining to Washington and his homes, from the Birthplace to his tomb, also likenesses of himself, and some of his associate patriots, and framing those in moulded and other frames, all of wood from Mount Vernon; also canes, mouldings, bracelets and ear-rings, (gold mounted,) rulers, inkstands, and other interesting and useful articles, each accompanied with three certificates of its genuineness …
Crutchett set about producing these items in a factory he built at the corner of North Capitol Street and D Street N.E. The two-story wood frame and wood-clad Mount Vernon Factory was approximately 40 feet wide and 120 feet long. The factory was outfitted with a boiler, steam engine, saws (upright and circular), lathes, planing and moulding machines, and stampers. A printing press churned out the engravings which were mounted in wood frames.

Soldiers' Rest. The Mount Vernon Factory is inside the blue box. National Archives and Records Administration.

The Soldiers' Rest and James Crutchett's Mount Vernon Factory. Adapted from Lithograph by Charles Magnus, c. 1864. Library of Congress image.

Crutchett built the factory after executing the contract with Washington, in 1855 or 1856. He began operations in the early part of the winter in 1856, according to his 1872 testimony. The factory ran intermittently from 1856 until the time it was seized July 24, 1861. Nothing was produced in its first year of operation and only a few canes were manufactured in 1857. Afterwards, Crutchett began turning out the commemorative medallions, picture frames, and other objects.

Print under glass mounted in Mount Vernon wood. Produced at the Mount Vernon Factory. Adapted from Images posted at Stacks Auction House.

The business was not profitable. Crutchett only grossed about $4,423 between 1856 and 1861. His objects were sold be dealers in New York and Boston. And, they were sold in Washington. Samuel P. Bell, a U.S. Patent Office machinist, allowed one of his employees to "keep a small case for exhibiting and selling some of the articles made by Mr. Crutchett at the Mount Vernon Factory." Bell estimated that about 400 to 500 items were sold.

Undated photo of the former Mount Vernon Factory. Original in the Chicago Historical Society collections. Copy located in the James M. Goode Collection, Library of Congress.

For the most part, however, it appears that Crutchett made very few items compared to the quantity of wood he removed from Mount Vernon. He blamed the fitful start on suppliers and on the difficulty of getting the wood ready for production. Much of the wood Crutchett harvested from Mount Vernon appears to have been allowed to rot or was used or destroyed by federal troops after the property was seized in 1861. The factory never resumed production and Crutchett went back to the gas industry. It appears that the factory was demolished around the turn of the twentieth century.

As with his efforts to secure a contract to light the U.S. Capitol and to install gas street lights throughout Washington, Crutchett's reputation as a charlatan and con man was prominent in the legal battle he waged against the government for compensation (the subject of a future post). Witnesses testified that Crutchett had a reputation for lying and for not paying his bills. Government attorneys in 1872 summed up their assessment of the Mount Vernon business and Crutchett's character:

When the military took possession of this factory, the claimant was hopelessly bankrupt, and his business, if it ever existed, at an end. His expectations of realizing a fortune from his absurd scheme of furnishing the American people with mementoes of Mount Vernon and completing the Washington Monument, were plainly visionary before the outbreak of the war, and after the great conflict began, he must have been insane [sic.] who could have deluded himself into believing that such an enterprise was then likely to prove successful.
Crutchett's Washington kitsch occasionally appears on E-Bay and other online auction sites. Some of it is curated in museums. It is clear that he kept some of the items after the war because in the early 1880s he approached the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association with yet another scheme to sell at Mount Vernon "a variety of medals and pictures commemorative of Washington and his home." Crutchett was politely rebuffed: "Applications of this sort are not infrequently made, but the objections to such arrangements are so positive, that the proposition was declined."

Mementos of George Washington his birth place, Mount Vernon & tomb. 1881 ad placed by James Crutchett to sell remaining items. Library of Congress image.

George Washington's monument ultimately was completed in 1888. As for Mount Vernon, in 1858 the property was bought by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association in a move widely credited as the birth of historic preservation in the United States. James Crutchett, on the other hand, became a forgotten footnote in American history despite his Forrest Gump-like capacity to appear at critical times in the capital's history.

The next installment in this series will document the seizure of Crutchett's property after the Union defeat at Bull Run in July of 1861 and the creation of the Soldiers' Rest.

Crossposted on Historian for Hire. The material in this post is derived from an article in progress. Research to produce the article was conducted at the National Archives, Library of Congress, University of Maryland, and the Washingtoniana collection of the D.C. Public Library. Sources and citations will appear in the article.

People see old buildings from trains, too

When it comes to evaluating impacts to historic properties, why are historic preservationists so hung up on views from roads?

Photo by the author.

When architectural historians and others evaluate how a construction project affects historic buildings, structures, and landscapes, they too often limit themselves to looking at how a proposed project will look from the road through a "windshield survey," but ignore views from trains.

Last week, preservationists argued for a "partial preservation" option for the First Baptist Church of Silver Spring based on the perceived success of preserving the façade of Silver Spring's Canada Dry bottling plant.

While the Canada Dry project was undoubtedly a design success, it was a historic preservation failure. Why? Because nobody accounted for views from the rails, and as a result, the most stunning features of the Canada Dry building disappeared.

Between 1946 and the first decade of the 21st century, the Canada Dry building was Silver Spring's gateway landmark, visible to all B&O rail and Metro riders as they entered the community.

Unfortunately, now all passengers see are parking decks and new condominiums; the Canada Dry building is no longer visible from the railroad.

Former Canada Dry Bottling plant (blue arrow) and the railroad corridor. Adpated from Bing Maps.

Former Canada Dry Bottling plant (blue arrow) and the railroad corridor. Note the shadows from new biuldings cast across the rails. Adpated from Bing Maps.

Former Canada Dry Bottling plant and Silverton Condominium. Photo by the author.

Montgomery County's preservationists and planners took the least insightful and least creative path towards preserving the property. It's a pretty site (and sight), but its industrial history has been erased and replaced by a decontextualized façade that conveys little information about the building's past. As historian Duncan Hay recently wrote in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Forum Journal, "Industry has been scrubbed clean" from the property.

By excluding railroads from impact studies, preservationists working in the regulatory world are applying a narrow reading to the laws under which they are doing the work.

Many local jurisdictions and federal agencies go so far as to specify that changes to historic buildings must not be visible from the public right-of-way. Today, this invariably means streets.

In the six years that I served on the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission, I never once heard a case that took into account views of historic properties from railroad corridors, despite the fact that Metro and MARC riders passing through Kensington, Silver Spring, Takoma Park, and Rockville would have seen the end results of HPC-regulated projects.

An actual "windshield survey."
To ensure that the evaluation of adverse effects to historic places is truly comprehensive, historic preservation commissions and state historic preservation offices need to afford railroad the same deference as streets and highways currently have in historic preservation regulatory reviews.

And while it may be too late for buildings and historical landmarks, there will be plenty of more opportunities for preservation in the future.

The good news is that there is nothing to prevent preservationists from adding another dimension to their impact studies, except perhaps a fear of trains and a reluctance to break from the windshield survey model.

To document what train riders would see if a new building, bridge, highway or communications tower were to be built adjacent to a rail corridor, surveyors need to get out of their cars and onto the tracks.

An expanded version is cross-posted at the Historian for Hire blog.

Lincoln's lost inaugural ballroom

Abraham Lincoln began his first term as the 16th President of the United States in a ceremony held on the Capitol's east portico. About 25,000 people watched as Lincoln was sworn in Monday March 4, 1861.

Lincoln Inaugural Ball dance card. Image from the Library of Congress.

Lincoln left the Capitol and went to the White House, traveling in a carriage down Pennsylvania Avenue under tight security. Later that evening, the new president and his wife left the executive mansion for the traditional inaugural ball.

Many of the sites associated with Lincoln's inauguration were permanent buildings: The Capitol, Willard's Hotel (where the Lincolns stayed before the ceremonies), Pennsylvania Avenue, and the White House.

One piece of pop-up architecture that did not survive beyond the spring of 1861 was the ballroom where the Lincolns and their guests danced into the night of March 4, 1861.

Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1861. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Every four years Washington prepares for inaugural festivities by sprucing up Pennsylvania Avenue and by constructing temporary buildings and structures to accommodate the throngs of people who descend on the city.

Each of these pieces of pop-up architecture is meant to have a limited lifespan of a few hours before being dismantled and forgotten. Because of a convergence of events tied to the outbreak of the Civil War and the Union's first loss at Bull Run in July 1861, there is an interesting brief record that has survived about what became of Lincoln's first inaugural ballroom. That record lies buried in legal proceedings stemming from the confiscation of private properties by the federal government during the war.

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, March 23, 1861.
Cover shows women at the ball.
Image from the Library of Congress.

The local and national press published lavishly illustrated accounts of the inaugural festivities. Historians and Civil War enthusiasts have written extensively on Lincoln's inauguration and his life and presidency have been dissected from many perspectives.

This brief post drills down into one small part of Lincoln's first day in office: The temporary inaugural ballroom that was constructed behind Washington's city hall. Dubbed the "white muslin Palace of Aladin," Margaret Leech wrote in her 1941 book, Reveille in Washington,

The palace was actually a temporary plank structure, divided into rooms for dancing and for supper, and dependent for dressing rooms on City Hall, ladies in the Common Council chamber, and gentlemen in the courtroom.
The Union Ball began at 10:00 PM and the Lincolns arrived about an hour later. According to the New York Times, the ballroom was gas-lit and decorated with shields and flags. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper published an engraving showing the ballroom's interior the night of the big event.

Lincoln's first inaugural ballroom. Frank Leslie's Illustrated, March 23, 1861.
Image from the Library of Congress.

In the 1860s, Washington's city hall was located in Judiciary Square east of the White House where Indiana and Louisiana avenues met north of Pennsylvania Avenue. Builder Job W. Angus constructed the yellow pine building for the inaugural ballroom. A New York native, Angus (1822-1909) owned the building up until the ball. He served in the inauguration proceedings as an assistant marshal. "It was mine when it was the ball-room and after the ball was over it was taken by the Government for the Soldiers," Angus said in a deposition taken in 1872.

Washington City Hall, c. 1857. Adapted from the Map of the City of Washington by A. Boschke, from the Library of Congress.

Washington City Hall, c. 1866. Lithograph by E. Sachse & Co. from the Library of Congress.

Moves to authorize the ballroom's demolition in early April, 1861, were halted. Within weeks of the war's start, troops were being housed in tents around the city hall and in the inauguration ballroom. By the start of the summer of 1861, federal authorities had decided to concentrate troops on Capitol Hill near the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad depot.

As activity shifted towards Capitol Hill, on July 16, 1861, the Washington National Republican reported that the ballroom was being dismantled:

The inauguration ballroom, adjoining City Hall, which has lately been used as quarters for the troops and a drillroom by Captain Griffin's company of light artillery, is now being torn down.
An ephemeral community of official buildings and shanties thrown up by entrepreneurs quickly grew along North Capitol Street and other streets near the B&O station. Business was booming as soldiers bought food, liquor, and the company of women.

Soldiers' Rest. Lithograph by Charles Magnus, c. 1864. Image from the Library of Congress.

After Bull Run, the government confiscated private properties in and around North Capitol Street to build the way station that came to be known as the Soldier's Rest. They closed off streets, built fences, and constructed barracks and other buildings. At the heart of the Soldiers' Rest was a Gothic Revival cottage built in 1842 by architect, engineer, and artist John Skirving. After Skirving sold it to gasman James Crutchett in 1845, the property was dubbed Bethel Cottage and it became Crutchett's home and laboratory for the development of urban gas lighting systems.

John Skirving's 1842 Capitol Hill Cottage, c. 1900. Photo from the Library of Congress.

In the 1850s Crutchett expanded his Capitol Hill holdings and built the Mount Vernon Factory, a plant where he had planned to turn out great quantities of canes, picture frames, medallions, and other items manufactured from wood he had harvested from Mount Vernon. More on that, however, in a later post.

Now let's get back to the ballroom. With the war underway, the government contracted with Angus to deconstruct the Judiciary Square structure and to relocate it to Capitol Hill. "So I tore this building down and the Government paid me for constructing this building near the depot," he explained in 1872.

According to Angus,

The inauguration ball-room stood right in the rear of the City Hall. The ball was in March. I rented it for a month or six weeks and then tore it down and built the Soldiers' Rest. They had it six weeks or two months. I rented it at $250 a month.
Angus lamented what had become of the ballroom he had built. In its reuse as quarters for soldiers, according to Angus, the materials were seriously damaged. "It was the best yellow pine flooring," he said. "It was almost entirely destroyed. They took it right up. I made it to dance on."

On Capitol Hill, Angus rebuilt the ballroom as a building measuring 250 feet by 50 feet and he was paid about $12,000 for his efforts. U.S. Army maps show the building Angus built among the others built specifically for the Soldiers' Rest and the ones occupied and rented from Capitol Hill landowners like Crutchett. The rebuilt ballroom is easily identified in the maps by its dimensions, which Angus clearly described in his 1872 deposition.

Soldiers' Rest. Blue arrow points to the relocated inauguration ballroom building. Adapted from a National Archives and Records Administration image.

The Soldiers' Rest remained in operation throughout the remainder of the war. The facility was vacated by 1866 and the properties returned to residential and commercial uses. The next post in this series takes up where we left off with James Crutchett in the 1850s as he was setting up his ill-fated Mount Vernon Factory venture. Look for that post around July 21, just in time for the 150th anniversary of the First Bull Run battle.

Cross-posted at Historian for Hire.

McMansions affect community character in Montgomery

Teardowns and mansionization are a nationwide problem. Montgomery County has few regulatory controls to prevent property owners from demolishing older homes and building new houses that are out of scale and character with neighboring buildings.

Silver Spring McMansion. Photo by the author.

Although Montgomery County has a historic preservation ordinance, not all old homes are historic and there are few tools currently available to residents to prevent speculators from building McMansions like the one under construction in my Silver Spring neighborhood.

Starting in 2006, the National Trust for Historic Preservation began promoting a toolkit on teardowns and mansionization. Among the references are some visual guides. Under "McMansion" in the Trust's "Teardowns Glossary" are several terms applied to the houses: faux chateaux, starter castle, and big box Victorian.

None of these terms truly captures the bricolage of stylistic elements attached to the surfaces of these buildings so I began calling them Cliffs Notes houses.

Cliffs Notes houses are buildings that are out-of-scale and character of the settings where they are built. They draw from a wide array of architectural vocabularies and present them in greatly abbreviated fashion: Revival styles (Colonial, Tudor, Mediterranean), Craftsman/Bungalow, Victorian, and even modernist styles.

Elements are sampled from these historical sources and are reconfigured in the exteriors of single homes. For example, a single Cliffs Notes home may have a Queen Anne tower attached to a main block that features a clipped gable roof with false half-timbering details, quoining, Italianate window surrounds, Palladian windows, and a Greek Revival full-height front porch.

Woodmoor McMansion (right) juxtaposed with a 1930s house (left). Photos by the author.

Teardowns and McMansions of all shapes and sizes are common throughout Montgomery County's affluent neighborhoods, especially Chevy Chase and Potomac. But as a 2006 Montgomery County Planning Department report shows, teardowns are becoming widespread throughout all of Montgomery County's southern suburbs.

2006 Montgomery County Planning Department map of existing residential teardowns.

Over the past few months, workers have been transforming a lot at the corner of Dennis Avenue and University Boulevard West in Silver Spring into a new Cliffs Notes home. Up until earlier this year, the 7,636 square-foot lot had been occupied by a 936 square-foot one-story frame house built in 1952.

1952 home. Photo Captured by Google Streets.

Located in the Four Corners part of Silver Spring, the lot was part of a farm owned by Charles and Virginia Clements. In 1951, the property was carved up to create the Northwood Knolls subdivision.

1948 Montgomery County Real Estate Atlas. Original property tract highlighted.

Maps published in the mid-20th century show the suburbanization of Four Corners with the appearance of subdivisions like Northwood Park (1936), Indian Spring View (1937), Fairway (1934), and Woodmoor (1937).

North Four Corners subdivisions and dates. Adapted from plats
on file with the Maryland State Archives and Google Maps.

By the early 1940s, the subdivisions off of Colesville Road and Bladensburg Road (now University Blvd.) were well established. Transportation and public utilities infrastructure dissected the former agricultural landscape. Sales within the early subdivisions were so successful that developers added adjacent tracts for more homes. This was the case with Northwood Park's Garden Homes.

Typical 1930s Cape Cod in Northwood Park subdivision. Photo by the author.
The earliest homes in the 1930s subdivisions were modest 1-1/2 and 2-story revivals (Colonial Revival, Cape Cod, and Tudor) popular throughout the United States. These homes were targeted to young professionals with families. House sizes and prices were geared towards middle-income, first-time buyers.

1950s Northwood Park cooperative house. Photo by the author.
Later homes, built in the 1950s and 1960s, were one-story ranches and ramblers. Streetscapes in the Four Corners subdivisions still reflect the modest building scales and styles that developers and builders were marketing to young professionals looking for first homes financed by mortgages backed by Federal Housing Administration.

According to Maryland state property tax records, the lot at the corner of University and Dennis was assessed in 2008 at $386,430. Typical of all teardowns, the land ($293,230) was worth far more than the building ($93,200) on it.

After the 1951 subdivision, the property at the corner of Dennis and University was sold in April 1952 to Benson Investment Company, Inc., along with nine adjacent lots in the Northwood Knolls subdivision. Owned by Morris Benson, the Benson Investment Company paid for the lots with a $7,500 mortgage and it borrowed an additional $9,700 for development.

Northwood Knolls plat with McMansion site highlighted.
Original plat in the Maryland State Archives.

After building five homes along Dennis and University, in 1953, Benson sold five of the undeveloped lots along Dennis Avenue to Rosewood Homes, Inc. Rosewood had bought many of the other Northwood Knolls lots from the Clements family at the same time that Benson bought its lots.

Rosewood built brick ranch houses it called "Belvedere" ramblers on its lots along Dennis Avenue (then it was known as Belvedere Avenue). Advertisements for the new homes touted them as houses "with all the extras, located in a fine luxury neighborhood, in close-in Silver Spring." Selling points were proximity to schools, retail, and public transportation. The streetscape the company created in 1952-53 remains intact.

1950s Rosewood Homes houses along Dennis Avenue. Photo by the author.

1952 Washington Post ad.
The Benson Investment Company homes built what it called "Northwood Ranchers." A 1952 Washington Post ad shows the company's model home: the house at 415 University Blvd. West.

Benson described its homes as "3 bedroom contemporary homes" with "advance design, combined with thoughtful site planning." In addition to three bedrooms, each home had a fireplace and a dining ell, finished basement, tiled bath and a kitchen outfitted with the latest appliances, including a garbage disposal. Benson was selling its houses starting at $15,950.

Many of the Benson houses stayed on the market for more than two years. The first house sold in 1954 and it was on Dennis Avenue, one lot in from University Blvd. The house at what later became 415 University didn't sell until October 1955.

The teardown house's first owners were Lawrence and Zelma Lee Sweeney. They financed the house through a mortgage that was not filed with the Montgomery County Recorder of Deeds. Lawrence died in 1961 and his widow sold the property.

Between 1955 and 2009, the property had six owners. The last owner to live in the house at 415 University defaulted on the mortgage and the property was foreclosed. In 2010 the Bank of New York sold the property to United Investments, LLC, for $209,000.

Residents of the North Four Corners neighborhood recall the teardown house as an unremarkable building. Several people who responded to an email query sent to the neighborhood association's listserv described the 1950s house as nondescript. Others commented on the appearance in the mid-2000s of a masonry and metal fence with gates that one writer described as "quite ugly and incompatible with the neighborhood."

University and Dennis intersection showing teardown. Image adapted from Bing Maps.

Most of the people who responded to my email query were satisfied with the scale and style of the new Cliffs Notes home. Several people wrote that the new home, with its architectural embellishments, would be an improvement to the neighborhood. One person wrote about the porch columns, "The new columns in front of the house are distracting as they don't look like anything I've ever seen."

Teardown house (left) and new McMansion (right). Teardown house photo from Google Streets.

Another person, who declined to be quoted by name, wrote about the new house:

It's not a bad house in and of itself… And compared to other fill-ins I've seen… the monster with the turret on University just down from Woodmoor … but then that Victorian door…. With that vaguely Craftsman look—they're trying. However IMHO the house is just too large in proportion to the yard. Frankly, I wouldn't want to be virtually sitting in the intersection. It kind of looms, especially since the surrounding houses are those low profile houses.
My reading of the new Cliffs Notes house is that it looms over the existing homes built after the creation of the Northwood Knolls subdivision and that its architectural bricolage—side-gabled roof, atypical Craftsman porch posts, massive shed dormer, false queen post trusses in gable ends, and mixed window types—securely qualifies it as a McMansion.

New McMansion, University Blvd. (front) facade. Photo by the author.

New McMansion looms over neighboring 1950s homes. Photo by the author.

According to a spokesperson for builder Stony Creek Homes, the new house's style is unique. In a telephone interview, he explained how his company decided to finish the house in what he described as a "cross between craftsman and bungalow" styles. Stony Creek's spokesperson explained that the teardown was necessary because of termite damage to the older house.

Besides the issue of the new Cliffs Notes home's architectural incompatibility with the surrounding neighborhood, there are environmental and economic issues raised by the new out-of-scale house. I have identified four major issues:

  1. Embodied energy waste. The 1952 home had embodied energy. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, this is "the energy required to extract, process, manufacture, transport, and install building materials." The total embodied energy for the new Cliffs Notes house includes the resources expended to demolish the teardown, remove the waste, and construct the new house.

    Preservation architect Carl Elefante, a Montgomery County resident who serves on the county's Zoning Advisory Panel, is a nationally recognized expert on embodied energy. He coined the now popular phrase, "The greenest building is ... one that is already built."

  2. Larger homes have greater energy requirements. Although the new 1076 square-foot Cliffs Notes home is being built roughly in the same footprint of the earlier house, it has greater floor space than the teardown and there are more rooms to heat and cool. The new building may use some energy efficient appliances and construction techniques, but I doubt the house being built conforms to LEED Platinum standards.
  3. Artificially inflated property values. The new home at 415 University Blvd. West will go on the market in early 2011 with a price tag in the upper 500 thousands to the mid-$600 thousand range, according to Stony Creek Homes. If the property sells for $575 thousand, that is nearly $200 thousand more than its last assessed value.

    Adjacent lots with 1950s homes may be more vulnerable to teardown pressures after the new Cliffs Notes home sells in the estimated price range. As the number of moderately priced homes diminishes, Montgomery County faces further erosion of its middle class.

    Professionals like public safety employees, teachers, and government employees who might be able to afford a $390,000 home would be left looking elsewhere if more Northwood Knolls homes were to become teardowns. Also, more homes with higher values mean higher property taxes. This could displace existing residents unable to afford the higher taxes.

  4. Barriers to aging in place. Montgomery County, like the rest of the region and nation, has an aging population. Cohousing in residential communities and institutions has become less desirable and Montgomery County recently has begun looking at how to make its communities more conducive to aging in place.

    The older one and 1.5-story houses are more architecturally compatible with an aging population that larger two or 2.5-story houses. Also, seniors on fixed incomes would be faced with economic challenges paying taxes and for maintenance on a house like the new Cliffs Notes home.

The Cliffs Notes home under construction in my neighborhood does not appear to be a concern to current residents. Attitudes may change, however, if more of the older building stock is torn down to make way for additional McMansions.

Infill McMansion under construction elsewhere in North Four Corners. Photo by the author.

Although there are many old homes in the neighborhood, there is not sufficient integrity for a large historic district that would provide some aesthetic and environmental protections for the existing building stock and landscapes.

Besides historic preservation, other tools identified in the 2006 Montgomery County Planning Department report on teardowns and mansionization include building height amendments to the zoning ordinance; neighborhood conservation district legislation; proposed stormwater management amendments; and, the creation of overlay zones.

Neighborhood conservation districts may hold the key to stemming the tide of Montgomery County teardowns. According to a 2003 National Trust for Historic Preservation Preservation Law Reporter article, conservation districts are created in neighborhoods "with a distinct physical character that have preservation or conservation as the primary goal." The article continues,

Although these neighborhoods tend not to merit designation as a historic district, they warrant special land use attention due to their distinctive character and importance as viable, contributing areas to the community at large. Accomplished through the adoption of a zoning overlay or independent zoning district, neighborhood conservation districts provide a means to protect character-defining streetscapes in older areas threatened by new development or governmental policies that undermine rather than encourage neighborhood preservation.
Sometime down the road, my neighbors may elect to explore creating a conservation district to protect the community's character: the features of the neighborhood that drew its initial owners and occupants to own property and live there.

Fortunately, a modest historical record survives that documents how the North Four Corners subdivisions were created, to whom they were marketed, and who has lived in neighborhood for more than 75 years.

What attracted owners and occupants historically are the same amenities that continue to draw residents to North Four Corners: affordability, access to schools, retail, transportation, and well-built homes with character and stories to tell if anyone is listening.

The subdivision where I live, Northwood Park, is the largest and oldest in the community. Platted in 1936 by Garden Homes, Inc., it is full of ordinary homes in an ordinary twentieth century suburb. Some notable exceptions, however, include the only licensed 1939 World's Fair Town of Tomorrow home.

A neighboring 1950s subdivision is one of only two single-family housing cooperatives built in Maryland under 1950 amendments to the federal Housing Act.

We have a neighborhood association that has been active for more than half a century and our buildings, streets, and open spaces provide the occupants and owners who have moved here, been born here, died here, and who have moved away with the raw materials for community building.

Efforts to preserve community character in Montgomery County may be assisted by a Planning Department with new development and review standards rooted in a new form-based zoning code. As the region's economy bounces back from the recession, it is impossible to speculate what teardowns lie ahead and what the community and planners' responses may be.

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