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. 

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.

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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 conveniencesthe latest household appliancesincluding air conditioning new building materials, and innovative internal spacesdesigned 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, Lucillethe 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 lookthey'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 bricolageside-gabled roof, atypical Craftsman porch posts, massive shed dormer, false queen post trusses in gable ends, and mixed window typessecurely 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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Albert Schulteis: Baker and preservation flashpoint

Most preservation debates involve preservationists wanting to designate a building as historic that the general public does not find worthy. But sometimes the professionals are the ones determining that a building is not actually historic, and thus not worthy of designation.

Former Albert Schulteis house, 2007. Photo by author.

One such case occurred in 2007, when a local preservation advocate wanted the DC government to designate a large brick home in Chevy Chase as a historic landmark.

Built in the 1920s just before the Depression by a German baker and civic activist named Albert Schulteis, the house in my opinion lacked the architectural and historical qualities that would have qualified it for listing as a District of Columbia historic landmark. The DC Historic Preservation Office agreed and the DC Historic Preservation Review Board declined (large PDF) to designate the property.

Historic preservation professionals and regulatory authorities often find it difficult to explain to preservation advocates and the public why seemingly stunning buildings do not meet legally established criteria for designating something "historic."

More often, historic preservation debates revolve around the opposite, when preservationists want to designate ordinary, or in some cases "ugly," buildings as historic. Two well-known local examples of this include the ubiquitous vernacular farmhouses in Montgomery County's Upper Patuxent Planning Area and Washington's Third Church of Christ, Scientist.

The house fits into the former category. No important events occurred at the property. The house was a private residence throughout its active lifespan (1927-2006). There is no evidence that the property was the site of any meeting, creative act, or other event significant in local, regional, or national history. And the person who built it was an interesting but historically unremarkable individual.

In retrospect, perhaps the most historically significant event associated with the property was the 2007 effort to have it designated historic.

Albert Schulteis

Albert Schulteis. Washington Post obituary photo.
Albert Schulteis (1865-1929) was born in Wisconsin and moved as an infant when his parents relocated to Washington after the Civil War in 1866. He entered the workforce in his mid-teens, c. 1880-1881, as his unemployed father, Herman Schulteis (1818-1889) sunk deeper and deeper into debt.

Washington city directories published in the 1880s ad 1890s identify the young Schulteis as a clerk. By 1900 the US census identified him as a "flour merchant." Various accounts of Albert Schulteis's life suggest that he began working in the 1880s for the newly chartered (1879) Bakers' Co-operative Association, an entity formed by Washington bakers to buy and sell flour at competitive prices.

No records were identified that could have shed additional light on the bakers' organization Schulteis entered. Its earliest officers mainly were German bakers and it likely was one of many contemporaneous trade organizations bounded by ethnicity, language, and craft.

"The speaking was interspersed with songs by the bakers, many of whom are Germans," wrote The Washington Post in an article on the group's 1906 banquet.[1] Unlike trade unions established to protect the interests of labor, the Bakers' Co-operative Association was founded by firm owners. Studies of nineteenth century immigrant communities in American cities have shown that Germans clustered in such trades as baking, apparel, brewing, tanning, and meat.[2]

German bakers in butchers found a safe and viable economic haven in these trades because of the durability of ethnic foodways in immigrant communities. "German immigrants with their fondness for meats and sweets prepared in familiar ways, offered these craftworkers [bakers and butchers] some economic viability," wrote historian Nora Faires on nineteenth century Germans in America.[3]

The Bakers' Co-operative was a collaborative effort by bakers to reduce transaction coststhe costs of raw materials and the costs of selling productsby creating a network. This network of tradesmen who were competitors in the marketplace likely afforded young Albert Schulteis with an early lesson in the values of strategic alliance building. His role in the organization is unclear until the first decade of the twentieth century.

Evidence from city directories and other sources suggest that Schulteis was able to accumulate sufficient business skills and capital to establish his own flour dealing firm by the early 1890s. One strategic alliance that may have contributed to his jump from clerical worker to entrepreneur may have been his 1888 marriage to Anne Isabel Oyster, the daughter of Washington dairy merchant George M. Oyster. The 1888 marriage corresponds to the time when Schulteis moved out of the family's I Street home and his identification as a "general wholesale and retail flour dealer."[4]

Sometime during the 1890s Schulteis became an officer (trustee) of the Bakers' Co-operative Association and by 1907 he had purchased the organization's assets at the expiration of its charter. He continued the family's membership in the Catholic Church and joined two Washington Catholic social groups: The Knights of Columbus and the Carroll Institute.

Schulteis also was a member of the German fraternal organization, the Saengerbund. The lessons he learned in strategic networking from his early years in the Bakers' Co-operative Association were deployed well as Schulteis joined a wide array of civic and business organizations. By 1907 he was on the board of directors of the Business Men's Association, the Oriental Building Association, and the St. Joseph Hall Association. He also was an early member of such groups as the Washington Chamber of Commerce and was a staunch advocate for Washington suffrage and civic improvements. He was, by all accountsas the 1907 newspaper sketch asserted"identified with many business and fraternal bodies."[5]

Though Schulteis served on many boards and held elected offices in many organizations locally and nationally, he does not appear to have been individually distinctive. The many newspaper accounts covering the activities of the organizations identify Schulteis as one of many individuals to whom particular actions were attributed.

Schulteis died in October, 1929 after being ill and "confined to his home" for two years, essentially much (if not all) of the time he lived in the house. From all evidence recovered it appears that once Schulteis died and his estate was settled he was quickly forgotten. Both the Washington Post and Evening Star published obituaries and reported on his funeral.

After those articles, Schulteis's name never again appeared in Washington daily newspapers except in the classified death notice published in 1946 after his widow, Annie, died.[6] Schulteis left no enduring legacy in Washington, DC and he rapidly became a minor footnote in the District's business and social history.

The building, its neighborhood. and its racial restrictions

Former Schulteis house location. Adapted from Bing Maps.

Although located within a Washington subdivision that originated with the ambitious land development program by the Chevy Chase Land Company, the house did not appear to be individually significant. Its associations and setting were more significant than the building itself.

Furthermore, the large lot on which the house and garage were located represents the consolidation of the original two lots (7 and 8 in Square 1863) that Schulteis bought in 1921 plus properties acquired by his son, Herman A. Schulteis, in 1924 and 1929.

1927 Sanborn Map Company fire insurance map with Schulteis house highlighted.

Albert Schulteis never owned all of the five contiguous lots that now comprise 3637 Patterson Street NW. There is no evidence to suggest that he ever intended to create a singular large parcel at the location where he built the house. His son, Herman, was the sole purchaser of the adjacent lots and there is no indication in Albert Schulteis's 1928 will that the original two lots should be expanded. In fact, the timing of the 1929 purchase by Herman A. Schulteis of the lot to the east, Lot 6, in June 1929 strongly suggests that he was acting in anticipation of his father's death (which occurred four months after he bought the property).

Former Schulteis family lots along Patterson Street NW.

There were two buildings at 3637 Patterson Street NW: a 2.5-story house and a garage. The property's main architectural element, the 1926-1927 Schulteis house had undergone significant alterations to its original fabric. These alterations, including the removal of a projecting bay and balustrade over the porte cochere, removal of the pedimented and tile-clad front porch roof, and the wholesale removal of original windows and doors by the property's current owner diminished the property's integrity of materials. Porches, windows, and doors are character defining features and their loss significantly diminished property's integrity.

3637 Patterson Street NW. The Washington Post, October 23, 1938.

The property where in 1926 Albert Schulteis began building his house started its transformation from farmland in rural Washington County to twentieth century automobile suburb in 1888. The property that now comprises 3637 Patterson Street NW was first laid out in a subdivision plat filed with the District of Columbia's surveyor's office in December 1918. Filed by the Chevy Chase Land Company, Fulton R. Gordon, William L. Miller, and Harold E. Doyle, the plat illustrates lots north of the original Chevy Chase D.C. subdivision and includes the area north of Livingston Street and south of Rittenhouse Street and Connecticut Avenue to just east of Nevada Street. Once part of the Charles R. Belt farm, the property was one of several tracts acquired in 1888 by Jackson H. Ralston from Martha Parsons and subsequently incorporated into the Chevy Chase Land Company's holdings. Maps published in the years just after the turn of the twentieth century illustrates a 94-acre tract in the former 96-acre Belt holdings.

"Fulton R. Gordon's Subdivision," 1918 plat with Schulteis lots highlighted. D.C. Surveyor's Office.

Square 1683 with former Schulteis house highlighted. Adapted from the square map on file with the D.C. Surveyor's Office.

The 1918 subdivision plat was filed two days before the Chevy Chase Land Chase Land Company settled a 1915 $250 thousand loan debt with the Fidelity Trust Company of Washington, D.C., for which they used the land as security on the note held by the Union Trust Company of Washington. Square 1863 was one of ten squares platted. Originally Square 1863 included thirty-one lots: twenty-eight rectangular house lots, one irregular lot on Connecticut Avenue where the Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church was planned, and two irregular lots abutting an alley in the east side of the square. The lots all had fifteen-foot setbacks ("building restriction line") from the roads. The rectangular house lots facing Patterson and Quesada streets fronted forty feet on the street and were 139 feet deep.

Albert Schulteis built his house in lots 7 and 8 on property first sold by the Chevy Chase Land Company in August 1921 to retired Washington dentist A. Thomas Utz. Three weeks later Utz sold the lots to Albert Schulteis, who did not undertake any improvements for five years. The deed conveying the property from the Chevy Chase Land Company to Utz contained the company's standard restrictive covenants governing land use, building setbacks, and minimum house costs allowable. The covenants read:

  1. All houses upon the premises hereby conveyed shall be built and used for residence purposes exclusively, except stables, carriage-houses, sheds, or other outbuildings, for use in connection with such residence, and no trade, business, manufacture or sales or nuisance of any kind shall be carried on or permitted upon said premises.
  2. That no structure shall be erected within fifteen (15) feet of the front of street line of said premises, except such as are allowed under the Building Regulations of the District of Columbia; and no stable shall be erected except on the rear of said premises.
  3. That no Apartment House or Apartment Houses shall be erected thereon.
  4. That no dwelling house shall be erected on said premises at a cost less than thirty-five hundred (3500) dollars.
When Utz sold the property to Schulteis, the deed simply noted that it was "subject to covenants of record."

In August 1926 Schulteis filed an application for a building permit. He proposed to construct a 2½-story brick and hollow tile house and brick garage. The proposed house was to be thirty-nine feet wide by thirty-eight feet deep with a pitched roof and face south onto Patterson Street. A concrete driveway was proposed east of the house, leading from Patterson Street to the garage which was located in the rear of the property. Although Schulteis's application did not name an architect, it did identify Henry N. Brawner Jr. as the proposed home's "designer."

Henry Brawner. Washington Post photo.
Brawner was a dairy executive and it appears that he designed and built functional buildings for use in his business. The former Schulteis house appeared to contain many architectural stylistic elements used in Brawner's own house at 3516 Rittenhouse Street, a building designed by Washington architect John Albert Hunter. Brawner liberally drew from Hunter's architectural vocabulary and aesthetics in adapting the various elements to the Albert Schulteis house.

The building permit application was filed after Schulteis had been assured by the District of Columbia's engineering department that construction of a sewer line in Patterson Street NW "between Nevada Avenue and Chevy Chase Parkway" had been ordered as well as an eight-inch water main in Patterson Street. Schulteis's application was filed on 30 August 1926 and a building permit was issued September 17, 1926.

Former Henry N. Brawner Jr. House, 3516 Rittenhouse Street. 2007 photo by the author.

Construction of the house likely began shortly after the permit was issued. Sanborn Map Company fire insurance maps published the following year, in 1927, show the house (minus a front porch) and garage footprints. Presumably the front porch was under construction or not yet begun at the time the map survey was conducted.

Albert Schulteis spent the final two years of his life in the house. When he died in 1929, Brawner and his son, Herman, became trustees of his estate. Although accounting records in Schulteis's probate records indicate the house was valued at $40,000 at his death, this amount appears to have been inflated to correspond to the value of a 1928 loan Schulteis received from Brawner. The 1926 building permit application shows that Schulteis estimated the proposed house's value at $20,000 and the U.S. Census taken in 1930 also show's the house's value at $20,000.

Albert Schulteis's widow, son Herman A., and daughters Mary, Rosa, and Marion continued to live in the Patterson Street house until 1938. Herman Schulteis prior to his father's death had acquired the parcels to the west (Lots 9 and part of 10) and east (Lot 6) of 3637 Patterson Street NW.

After Herman's father's estate was settled, the five contiguous lots were consolidated into a single parcel at the 3637 Patterson Street address. Although the Chevy Chase Land Company had attached its standard restrictive covenants to the deeds conveying these lots to the first owners of the lot to the east of 3637 Patterson (Lot 6), William H. Ritchie and Horace C. Bailey, attached an additional, racial covenant, to the deed conveying the property to Chester Jacobs. This 1921 deed increased the minimum house cost to $7,000 and included the covenant, "No part of said land shall be sold to, occupied by, or used for residence or any other purpose, by negroes or persons of negro blood commonly called colored persons." And, unlike the earlier Chevy Chase Land Company covenants, the term of these new restrictive covenants were made effective for ninety-nine years.

Albert Schulteis's close friend Brawner died in 1937 and the $40 thousand loan remained outstanding, plus an additional $9 thousand dollar loan Brawner had made to Schulteis. To compound the Schulteis family's debt to Brawner, son Herman Schulteis also owed Brawner money: $7,750. Brawner's heirs called in the notes and foreclosed on the 3637 Patterson Street property and Herman A. Schulteis's property in Montgomery County, Maryland. The property was sold to Katherine A. Munter for $20 thousand and Brawner's estate received $18,403.33. The deed from Herman Schulteis and Edgar Brawner, Henry N. Brawner Jr.'s son, preserved the racial restrictive covenant first attached to Lot 6 only by extending it to the entire combined parcel.

The Munters (Katherine and husband, laywer Godfrey L. Munter) owned the property until 1954 when they sold it to Hanna Szgedy-Maszak and Maria de Kornfeld. In 2006 the property was sold to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington (Most Rev. Donald W. Wuerl Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington).

The creation and development of Chevy Chase was facilitated and influenced by two key pieces of federal legislation: The 1888 "Act to Regulate the Subdivision of Land in the District of Columbia" and the 1893 "Act to Provide a Permanent System of Highways in that Part of the District of Columbia Lying Outside of Cities."[7]

While these acts provided the legal and regulatory controls governing the subdivision of land and expanding the District's transportation infrastructure, each subdivision created in the wake of the wake of the acts represents a singular act influenced by the economic motives of the subdivider. The 1918 subdivision in which the Schulteis house was built is not unified by a single architect or builder. It grew incrementally with large, multiple lot sales like those to Gordon R. Fulton, and with individual lot sales to small-scale speculators like retired dentist A. Thomas Utz, the lot's original owner.

The former Schulteis house did not "possess high artistic or aesthetic values that contribute significantly to the heritage and appearance of the District of Columbia or the nation." The house was an unremarkable vernacular building that incorporated elements of Prairie, Colonial Revival, and Mediterranean Revival architectural styles. The individual architectural elements that marked this propertyits fanlight and sidelights framing the main entrance, stone window lintels and sills, bracketed eaves, low roof pitches, shingle-clad dormer and tile-clad roof, basket weave bonded brick frieze, and stretcher bond brick finishall appeared to be liberally borrowed from dairy executive Henry N. Brawner Jr.'s house in Rittenhouse Street, built some four years before the house at 3637 Patterson Street NW.

Historic Preservation

The DC Historic Preservation Review Board held a hearing July 27, 2007, to determine if the former Schulteis house met any of the legal criteria for designation as a District of Columbia historic landmark. The neighboring Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church had proposed razing the former Schulteis house and the proposed designation was contentious because it was initiated by a third-party, i.e., a historic preservation advocate, and the property ownerthe Catholic Churchopposed the designation.

Historic Preservation Office staff recommended against designation in a report (PDF) submitted to the HPRB. Tim Dennée, the staff reviewer commented that the former Schulteis house was "a very nice residence, perhaps nicer than the average in the area." Dennée noted that the building had been altered and that, "its architecture alone is not enough to justify its being designated, as it is simply not enough of a stand-out in that respect nor a true exemplar or the work of a master."

About Schulteis as a notable historical figure, Dennée wrote,

Although Albert Schulteis may have been prominent for a period in his field and among his social circle, with the perspective of time it is difficult to single him out as especially prominent or important individual among the hundreds of businessmen, civic activists, minor politicians, etc. who have populated the District of Columbia over two centuries.
The HPRB agreed with the staff report and declined to designate the former Schulteis house. A demolition permit was issued and the house was razed.

Former Schulteis house location. Google Earth aerials: 2006 (before demolition), 2008, and 2010.

At the same time that the HPRB was evaluating the Schulteis house as an individual landmark, efforts were underway to establish a Chevy Chase Historic District. Had a historic district been in place or had the former Schulteis house been evaluated as a property that contributed to the historic district (as other architectural historians had recommended), the building might have been spared and there would be one less vacant lot in the District of Columbia.

After years of debate and consultations with District officials, residents within the proposed Chevy Chase Historic District voted in 2008 against creating the district. The preservation advocate who fought to designate the former Schulteis house essentially was asking the HPRB to create a place-holder for the anticipated historic district that never materialized.

"It is a property that would fit comfortably within a historic district that gives it context," I wrote in a Northwest Current opinion piece (PDF). "But alone it is just a brick building with an interesting but unremarkable story." Historic preservation commissions and review boards cannot legally designate properties as place holders for speculative historic districts that may or may not appear down the road.

In his staff report to the HPRB, architectural historian Dennée astutely reported,

There is an outstanding permit application to raze the house. It is regrettable that such a nice house would be proposed for demolition; such a proposal is reflective of the escalating values of the underlying real estate in Washington, an escalation that has rendered many serviceable buildings expendable in the face of other land-use demands. But the Historic Preservation Review Board's consideration of landmark nominations is based upon criteria of historical significance and not upon the immediacy or level of threat to particular resources.
Historic preservation regulatory bodies like the HPRB are required to act according to the law. In the District of Columbia historic preservation law, like federal law and many state and local legislation, there are precise criteria for what may be called "historic." Those criteria often find themselves at odds with preservation advocates and others who have strong attachments to buildings and places. When historic preservation review bodies and historic preservation professionals make decisions that citizen preservation advocates view as inconsistent with their own, rifts emerge in communities whose members share the same goals: preserving the built environment.

In the aftermath of the 2007 historic preservation battle, the Schulteis house acquired another chapter in its story. All too often historic preservation work products like the research presented in this article end up forgotten in regulatory agency files. And, once the dust settles, except for attorneys and historic preservation graduate students, few people read about contested historic preservation designations. Although the Schulteis house is gone, it still has lots to teach Washington residents.


[1] "Bakers at a Banquet," The Washington Post, 23 January 1906, 11.

[2] Nora Faires, "Ethnicity in Evolution: The German Communities of Pittsburgh and Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, 1845-1881" (Ph. D. diss., University of Pittsburgh, 1981), 251-52; Nora Faires, "Occupational Patterns of German-Americans in Nineteenth-Century Cities," in German Workers in Industrial Chicago, 1850-1910: A Comparative Perspective, ed. Hartmut Keil and John B. Jentz (DeKalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1983), 37-51; Stanley Nadel, Little Germany: Ethnicity, Religion, and Class in New York City, 1845-80 (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 66-70.

[3] Faires, "Ethnicity in Evolution: The German Communities of Pittsburgh and Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, 1845-1881," 231.

[4] "Albert Schulteis," The Washington Post, 24 February 1907, 34.

[5] "Albert Schulteis," The Washington Post, 24 February 1907, 34.

[6] Annie Isabelle Schulteis death notice, The Washington Post, 24 March 1946.

[7] 25 Stat. 451; 27 Stat. 532; Elizabeth Jo Lampl and Kimberly Prothro Williams, Chevy Chase: A Home Suburb for the Nation's Capital (Crownsville, Md.: Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission and the Maryland Historical Trust Press, 1998); Michael R. Harrison, "The 'Evil of the Misfit Subdivisions': Creating the Permanent System of Highways of the District of Columbia," Washington History 14, no. 1 (2002): 26-55.

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Fort Reno's Cold War-era "undisclosed location"

Tenleytown's Fort Reno Park is Washington's highest elevation. In addition to the Western Union Telegraph Company's microwave relay terminal, water towers and more, it hosts a secure "continuity of government facility," built at the height of the Cold War to protect members of the executive branch during a nuclear attack.

Fort Reno Park. Photo by the author.

When terrorists struck the morning of September 11, 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney was whisked from his Washington office to a secure "undisclosed location." The term "undisclosed location" gained new currency as it rapidly swept through popular culture via the press and the Internet.

For most of the last half of the 20th century, one of Washington's most significant undisclosed locations has been hidden in plain sight. Its secrecy eroded after the Internet made it possible to widely disseminate previously and currently classified documents.

Cheney's undisclosed location is rumored to have been a Cold War-era facility buried deep beneath Raven Rock Mountain near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border. Located east of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, the Raven Rock Military Complex is also known as Site R and it was designed as the Alternate Joint Communications Center (AJCC) where senior military officials were to be taken in the event of a nuclear attack.

Site R was among the first relocation facilities built in the 1950s and early 1960s as federal planners conceived of and realized a Federal Relocation Arc extending outwards from Washington where key documents and people could be sheltered during and after a nuclear exchange.

These relocation sites were part of a sophisticated program developed to ensure continuity of the federal government in the aftermath of a nuclear attack. According to a 1958 civil defense agency publication, continuity of government involved "preserving and strengthening civil leadership in the event of nuclear attack." The government's four objectives to achieve continuity of government were:

  1. Establish emergency lines of succession for top executives, legislators, the judiciary, and other key personnel;
  2. Preserve essential records;
  3. Establish emergency locations for government operations; and,
  4. Make full use of all governmental personnel, facilities, and equipment for emergency operations.
By creating the hardened sites with microwave communications facilities, federal planners were ensuring safe havens for the executive branch that would remain in contact with other civil and military leaders throughout a crisis. The Federal Relocation Arc included above- and below-ground sites located within a 300-mile radius of the nation's capital. Sites included existing buildings like the Greenbrier Hotel (for members of Congress) and college campuses throughout the region.

"Corkscrew" facility located at Lambs Knoll near Boonesboro, Maryland. Photo by the author, 2004.

The presidential emergency facility (PEF) sites were built and administered through the executive branch's White House Military Office and communications personnel were attached to the White House Communications Agency (WHCA). The presidential emergency sites were "literally holes in the ground, deep enough to withstand a nuclear blast and outfitted with elaborate communications equipment," recounted former White House Military Office Director W.L. Gulley.

According to Gulley, funds to support the sites wound their way through a circuitous route in the Defense Department. "Authorization to spend the money, although it was allocated to the Army, was given to the Navyspecifically, the Chesapeake Division, Navy Engineerswho didn't know what the fund was for." All oversight for these facilities originated in the White House Military Office.

Map showing presidential emergency facility locations.

The sites in the Arc key to ensuring open lines of communications were built in a network that relied upon line-of-sight microwave technology, i.e., each transmitter and receiver had to have an unobstructed line-of-sight between its nearest neighbor for the network to be viable. These microwave hops were usually no more than fifty miles apart.

"I'm assuming that when they did their studies they knew specifically where the main terminals were going to be and they looked for locations that they had line of sight to," explained John Cross, a retired Army sergeant who was assigned to WHCA. "And they were all, you know, within probably maybe forty miles of each other."

According to Cross and other former government employees, there were 75 Presidential Emergency Facilities among the 90 or so Federal Relocation Arc sites. Only a handful of the properties were designed as a key communications node in the continuity of government microwave network. The sites were known by their locations, i.e., Raven Rock or Lamb's Knoll; and, they each had code names, all of which began with the letter "C":

Each of the sites included a 100-foot cylindrical tower, two-thirds of which was solidly built to house transmitters and receivers, supply rooms, and quarters for the skeleton staff which oversaw the facilities around the clock. The upper portions of the towers held parabolic antennas aimed towards the next facility in the network.

These antennas were shielded by radio frequency-transparent Plexiglas that protected the antennas from the elements and concealed them from view while enabling radio waves to pass through. The towers were connected to elaborate underground bunker complexes and entry to the facilities was through massive blast doors.

"Cannonball" site in Mercersburg, Pa. Photo by Cham Green and provided by John Cross.

Because the towers were highly visible yet top-secret, no official explanations of their functions ever were released. Local residents near the Lamb's Knoll site near Boonesboro, Maryland, speculated that the tower was a missile silo. Cannonball, where Cross was stationed, and Camp David's Cactus site were believed to be water tanks.

"People around Mercersburg thought it was a water tower," Cross recalled. "We used to buy water from the City of Mercersburg and we had a water tanker that we'd haul water back up to the mountaintop so they saw that and they saw, you know, the water tanker and they just figured that they were getting better water pressure that way." During Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's 1959 visit to Camp David with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Cactus facility's tower sported an observation deck and signage to reinforce the perception that the structure was in fact a water tower.

Fort Reno "continuity of government" site. Map adapted from Bing Maps.

Tenleytown's PEF was code-named "Cartwheel" and it fit well among early twentieth century water towers in Washington's Fort Reno Park: "Radar and other sound-sensitive antennas, dishes, and horns were installed atop a new brick tower at Renothe one that does not hold water. The underground communications center reportedly links the White House with other larger centers in the Middle Atlantic states," wrote local historian Judith Beck Helm in her 1981 book, Tenleytown, D.C., Country Village into City Neighborhood.

Cartwheel, Fort Reno Park. The Cartwheel tower is the leftmost structure. The two masonry buildings on the right are historic water towers. Photograph by the author, 2010.

Because of its elevation and proximity to key private-sector communications facilities, like Western Union's microwave relay terminal, Fort Reno became an early Cold War continuity of government site. Besides Western Union's microwave terminal and a Washington Gas radio repeater station, other private and public sector radio facilities were located in Tenleytown. These included police radio repeaters, a WTOP broadcast facility, and civil defense warning systems.

Early in the Cold War, the government established an Alternate Command Center in the old Reno school building. According to historian David Krugler, the Reno school site was a civil defense warning site meant to alert public safety officials of a potential airborne threat.

By the late 1950s, the Fort Reno "Key Point" site, along with much of the region's civil defense planning, was found to be obsolete and ineffective in the face of massive potential blasts from thermonuclear weapons. In 1955, the Washington Post reported that the abandoned school site and its radio tower had become a safety hazard to local children.

Although much of the Defense Department's activities in Fort Reno Park remain shrouded by secrecy, Cold War communications enthusiast and Web curator Albert LaFrance has identified one document that sheds some light into Cartwheel's history. A 1994 memo posted at LaFrance's website reports that the Department of Defense acquired 4.83 acres north of Chesapeake Street, NW, from the Department of the Interior in 1951. Between 1951 and 1953, according to the 1994 memo,

The U.S. Government installed an underground defense communications system. In addition, radar and other sound sensitive antennas, dishes and horns were installed on top of a tower constructed for that purpose.
The dates that include the tower provided in the 1994 memo appear to be a little early, however. According to the Washington Post, the army took over five houses in 1951 on the north side of Chesapeake Street where an "anti-aircraft" unit then was stationed. The Post reported that the homes were occupied by troops engaged in "anti-aircraft tests" and that besides housing the troops, "certain equipment" (marks in the Post article) was stored in them.

Cartwheel. Closeup of concealed antenna decks, 2010 photo by the author.

A sketch map appended to the 1994 memo illustrates the Fort Reno Cold War landscape and historic aerial photographs show that the concrete tower was built between c. 1957 and 1963. Officials may have disguised construction of the underground facilities in the mid-1950s as new reservoirs were excavated in Fort Reno Park. The Washington Post reported on the construction of the new reservoirs starting in 1956 but nothing appears to have been written on the new communications tower.

1994 government memo map showing Fort Reno site.
Original scan posted at Albert LaFrance's Cold War communications site.

The new Fort Reno tower contained microwave antennas, transmitters, and receivers that required line of sight links to other radio sites in the network. Line of site technology means that the beam from one station must travel in a straight line, unobstructed, from one antenna to the next. Former communications officer Cross explained how the Fort Reno site fit into the larger system:

We took care of communications. We had the main link was microwave that we shot betweenwell it was actually Camp David to Cannonball to Cowpuncher to Crystal and then I had two shots from Mercersburg from Cannonball to Cartwheel. Cactus had microwave running into Cadre and Cartwheel shot down toCartwheel shot to Corkscrew and also to crystal, which was Fort Weather.

So we basically had a circular route from all those locations and Cartwheel was more of the spoke where multiple systems went through Cartwheel.

Cannonball Tower. Cross-section drawn by John Cross.

Since the facilities were top-secret, few detailed descriptions of their interiors have surfaced. John Cross never photographed Cannonball or the other facilities he visited while assigned to WHCA. Cross has prepared several line drawings illustrating the interiors of Cannonball, Cactus, and Cartwheel. According to Cold War communications enthusiasts, the concrete towers were designed to deflect the force of a nuclear blast. Cross explains their construction,

Well it was solid concrete. You know the air system was filtered so that if anything did happen all the air intake would be shut down and you had a filtration system. Everything was I guess primarily engineered you know with the concrete. Now you know there was always some possible problems with the antenna decks where we had spare microwave dishes that could be put in temporarily if anything happened that, you know, a blast would be close enough to tear off some of the dishes. We had spare dishes that we could put in in a fairly short period of time, that we could replace them. But the structure itself with concrete was really about the biggest thing.

Cartwheel first floor plan. Sketch by John Cross.

By the early 1970s the Presidential Emergency Facilities were being decommissioned. Cross recalls closing down Cannonball in 1970 shortly after significant upgrades were installed. Changes in communications technology and continuity of government plans obviated the 1950s facilities.

Most were transferred from Army control to other agencies. Corkscrew (Lamb's Knoll) and Cartwheel (Fort Reno) were acquired by the Federal Aviation Administration and their towers remain in use. Mt. Weather remains a top-secret facility and Cannonball was abandoned and sold, its tower exposed to the elements and vandals. The towers at Cactus (Camp David) have been demolished and Site R is abandoned.

Cartwheel, Corkscrew, and Cannonball were critical continuity of government sites during the Cold War. Their highly visible towers became part of an industrial landscape defined by telecommunications infrastructure essential to the information-based third industrial revolution. Beyond their highly function roles in the ubiquitous military industrial complex, they also were places where people worked and lived.

"I had a lot of fun, you know, even though it was a job, I had a lot of fun," recalled John Cross during our spring 2010 interview. "You know, the funny thing about it, I worked with people that were both at Crystal and Cadre and Cartwheel for years after we closed down those sites. But we never discussed what went on at those locations."

About this post

An earlier version of this post appeared on my blog and it was published in the Recent Past Preservation Network's Summer 2010 newsletter. Much more information on the Cold War sites discussed in this post may be seen on Albert LaFrance's A Secret Landscape: America's Cold War Infrastructure Website. Thanks are due to John Cross for sharing his memories in an oral history interview conducted by Skype.

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Tenleytown's Cold War radio history: Western Union tower

Situated at nearly 400 feet above sea level, Tenleytown has the District's highest elevation and some of the region's most significant and contested radio architecture and engineering structures.

Photo by the author.

Tenleytown Heritage Trail signs were recently installed in the neighborhood. The sign at the corner of Brandywine and Wisconsin features the neighborhood's prominent radio history resources, including nearby radio and television studios and broadcast towers.

One of the most important historic buildings featured in the trail sign is the former Western Union Telegraph Company's microwave relay terminal located one block away on 41st Street NW (shown at right with of the Heritage Trail signs in the foreground).

Built just after the end of World War II, Tenleytown's Western Union building and tower became part of an elaborate Cold War telecommunications network that blurred the lines between the public and private sectors. Along with the Western Union building and tower, Tenleytown's urban antenna farm also played a critical role in federal continuity of government plans in the event of a nuclear attack.

Western Union Telegraph Company building, 2002. Photo by the author.

There have been communications towers in North America since the turn of the 19th century when optical telegraphy was introduced from France to American port cities. These early facilities were modest twenty to thirty-foot structures from which flags and other signaling devices were used in line-of-sight systems to communicate in code.

Civil War signal Tower. Library of Congress photo.

In 1844, Samuel Morse built the first successful electrical telegraph line laying the groundwork for a network of 30-foot poles that would mark the margins of roads and railroads throughout the nation before the end of the century. By the time Guglielmo Marconi successfully demonstrated his wireless communications system in 1899, the horizons of most U.S. cities were marred by a visual cacophony of electricity, telephone and telegraph wires and poles.

Marconi's wireless unbound communications from an infrastructure strung together by cables and wires. For the first two decades of the twentieth century, amateurs, the government, and inventing entrepreneurs raced to build wireless stations with increasingly higher antennas to reach and receive more distant points. Radio, which combined the technological achievements of telephony and wireless telegraphy, rapidly spread across the nation in the 1920s bringing with it taller towers in greater numbers.

WJSV (now WTOP) radio towers in Wheaton, Maryland. Library of Congress photo.

With the proliferation of towers and antennas came complaints that towers adversely affect scenic and cultural resources while also reducing property values and interfering with existing radio and later television reception.

One early complaint documented in the media came in 1944 when NBC's Blue Network proposed building a 250-foot tower in suburban Fairfax County, just across the Potomac River from Washington. Residents mounted a vigorous opposition effort because they believed the tower would "reduce the value of their property and desecrate the historical landmark Langley," wrote the Washington Post in June 1944.

Four years later, another proposed Arlington towerthis time a 400-foot television towerspurred residents into action with concerns that the structure would "spoil the beauty of a distinctively residential area.

In March 1945 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized the Western Union Telegraph Company to place into service an experimental microwave relay system between New York, New York and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The system to beam telegrams between stations used radio frequencies that had previously only been used by military radar systems.

Western Union Telegraph Company microwave system map. Map by David Rotenstein, 2010.

The experimental system that used unattended stations placed at regular intervals to facility a line-of-sight radio relay allowed Western Union to refine the radio beam telegraphy process by improving its equipment to maintain constant signal strength. The equipment used in Western Union's experiments was made by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) under license to Western Union. The company's goal was to develop a system that increased the capacity for sending telegraphs, to eliminate much of the company's wireline reliance (i.e., make poles and wires obsolete) and to position it for providing transmission services for emerging television technology.

Image from a 1948 Western Union Telegraph Company annual report.

Western Union designed its system by incorporating two facility types: terminals and relay stations. In March 1945 the FCC authorized the Western Union to place into service an experimental microwave relay system between New York, New York and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This network linking New York and Philadelphia included terminals in Philadelphia and at the company's New York City headquarters. Relays were planned at Bordentown, Ten Mile Run, and Woodbridge, New Jersey. The New York-Washington-Pittsburgh network incorporated the New York headquarters, a rooftop location in downtown Pittsburgh, and a new tower building for the Washington, D.C., terminal. Each terminal was connected by nodes in the network: unattended relay stations with towers and equipment buildings.

Art Deco Market Street Bank building, Philadelphia. Western Union placed its microwave antennas on the roof of this center city building opposite city hall. Photo by the author.

While conducting the tests on the New York and Philadelphia system, Western Union applied to the FCC to construct a fully functional radio relay triangle between New York, Washington, DC, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On 7 November 1945, the FCC granted Western Union a "Radio Station Construction Permit" to build its facility at:

41st Street, near Wisconsin Avenue … to communicate with experimental stations of the permittee as necessary for development of commercial point to point radio communications between New York City, New York, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, (via intermediate relay stations).
Western Union was able to place rooftop antenna installations on existing buildings for its New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh terminals. In Washington, however, the company required a new facility in the District's highest-elevation neighborhood, Tenleytown. The site had been recognized since the 1920s as a prime location for broadcasting. Earlier efforts to construct a radio tower in the vicinity of the parcel Western Union sought failed when local residents in 1940 successfully blocked the approval by the District of Columbia's Board of Zoning Adjustment of a proposed 200-foot tower requested by radio station WINX.

Western Union Telegraph Company building location. Sanborn Map Company fire insurance map showing footprint is inset.

Western Union bought the property at 4623 41st Street NW in September 1945. The next month, the Washington Evening Star reported that the company was planning to build a 90-foot tower "for wireless transmission of messages along a chain of towers." Western Union hired Washington, D.C., architect Leon Chatelain Jr. (1902-1979) to design the new Tenley transmission tower at the site which was at 397 feet above sea level.

The Washington terminal is a communications tower and attached equipment. The facility was constructed on a rectangular block on the east side of 41st Street N.W. immediately north of 41st Street's intersection with Wisconsin Avenue.

D.C. Surveyor's Office wall survey plat showing Western Union building.

The tower is an octagonal masonry structure that rises 90 feet above the ground level. It measures measuring 9′-3″ on each side and is attached to the square equipment wing which measures 38 x 40 feet. The tower was built on a concrete foundation (below-grade footer) and is constructed of brick walls and its exterior is clad by dressed limestone facing. There are five internal floors within the tower and an 11-foot-high aluminum turret housing microwave antennas caps the flat roof. The first floor consists of an office space and maintenance work spaces; access to the upper portions of the tower is via a metal staircase in the eastern side of the tower core. Entry to the tower is through a vestibule and door leading from the rear wing.

Western Union Telegraph Company Tenley terminal rendering by Leon Chatelain reproduced in various Western Union publications.

The tower has rectangular metal-frame windows in the north and south facades at the first, second, and third story levels. The "Tower Floor" (upper) level has eight (one for each side) removable rectangular fiberglass and aluminum panels that conceal the enclosed microwave antennas. The tower walls rise to a low parapet around the flat roof and narrow walkway between the parapet and the aluminum turret.

Western Union Telegraph Company. Proposed elevation drawing by Leon Chatelain.

Western Union Telegraph Company Washington terminal. Proposed plan drawing by Leon Chatelain.

The tower's decoration is minimal, its style informed by the moderne. Slight curves and tapering along the parapet create an entasis effect. The only ornamentation is the "Western Union" corporate name in 13-foot-high bronze letters on the tower's west façade.

Western Union Telegraph Company bronze sign rendering by Leon Chatelain.

The attached wing, located on the tower's east side (rear), was built as a two-story reinforced concrete building to house a battery room, engine room, and other parts of the facility's physical plant on the first floor and communications equipment on the second story. The facility's main entrance is through a door on the north side of the tower into the wing's west façade. The rectangular metal door is set in a rectangular projecting bay with fluting and the building's address"4623"in bronze numerals set above the door. The wing's west façade is symmetrical: the tower rises in the center and is flanked on the on the north by the building entrance and the south by a rectangular metal-frame window.

The tower and wing were modified several times during the facility's history. Briefly, in 1948, a 43-foot experimental metal antenna was mounted on the turret. In 1962, Western Union constructed a one-story reinforced concrete addition to the wing on which it built a four-legged lattice tower to mount additional microwave antennas. The added tower rises 155 feet above the addition and two microwave reflector horn antennas cap it, along with an observation platform. The 1962 tower was attached to the one-story addition roof by concrete pedestals.

Chatelain began drafting renderings of the new tower as early as October 1945 and his firm was busy drafting plans for the facility by December of that year. In June 1946, Western Union received a building permit from the District of Columbia to "erect one 2-story limestone & brick building & 90 ft. tower." Construction began in July 1946 when Western Union's contractor, Jeffress-Dyer, Inc., demolished a one-story stuccoed frame house at the site; the tower was completed on 24 March 1947.

The Tenley site designed by Leon Chatelain Jr. was modified several times during its use by Western Union. In 1948, Chatelain's engineers designed a temporary 42-foot guyed antenna to be mounted on the tower's original turret. The building permit was issued in June 1948, however it is unclear if the extension was ever added. In 1963, Chatelain again prepared designs for Western Union to add a third story to the tower's equipment wing and a four-legged 165-foot lattice tower with microwave horn reflector antennas. The 1963 lattice tower and horns remain on the building.

Chatelain's tower is the only architect-designed facility in the first generation Western Union system. Chatelain's modernist tower is an outstanding example of radio transmission architecture and was built in accordance with prevailing industry standards: "Because a radio transmitter is a very modern phenomenon, it seems appropriate that the transmitter building should usually follow a style belonging within that broad range roughly known as 'contemporary'."

Western Union Telegraph Company Jennerstown Relay, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Historic American Engineering Record photograph by Jet Lowe.

Western Union continued to operate the facility until its sale in 1990 to Micronet, Inc. In 1997, Boston, Massachusetts-based American Tower Systems (now, American Tower Corporation) acquired Micronet and all of its assetsincluding the Tenley site and another Western Union facility in the radio relay triangle in Severn, Maryland. The Tenley site currently is used as communications facility, mainly for personal wireless services.

The 1940 kerfuffle over the proposed WINX tower was replayed at the turn of the 21st century when American Tower Corporation began building a 756-foot broadcast tower. Half a decade of litigation ensued because American Tower Corporation had failed to comply with various laws prior to starting construction. Tenleytown, like other communities throughout the nation where telecommunications companies had begun construction on large towers before fulfilling regulatory requirements, had a partly-built lattice tower looming over homes and businesses until the lattice tower was dismantled in 2006.

American Tower Corporation dismantling its partially built broadcast tower in 2006. Photograph by David Rotenstein.

Coming in Part II: The Fort Reno Presidential Emergency Facility

The material in this post was drawn from the National Register of Historic Places inventory form I completed for the Tenley site and from the 2005 Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) report I wrote that documents the Jennerstown Relay site in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. The results of my Western Union Telegraph Company microwave sites research was published "Towers for Telegrams: The Western Union Telegraph Company and the Emergence of Microwave Telecommunications Infrastructure," IA, The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology 32, no. 2 (2006): 5-22. Also used in this post is material from the article on the history of telecommunications towers that I wrote for the Scenic America Website.

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The gas man and his magic lantern come to the Capitol

One hundred and sixty-three years ago today, gas lights replaced oil lamps in the US Capitol. On the evening of Thursday, November 18, 1847, gas made in a plant beneath the Capitol flowed through newly installed pipes and into light fixtures throughout the building.

The U.S. Capitol one year before James Crutchett attached a gas lantern to the dome. Daguerreotype by John Plumbe, 1846. Library of Congress.

"We witnessed last evening one of the most splendid and beautiful spectacles we ever beheld," reported one Washington newspaper the next day. "It was the first time that the gas-lights of Mr. James Crutchett were exhibited."

James Crutchett (1816-1889) was a self-styled engineer who briefly gained fame in 1847 for installing a gas-fueled lantern atop the Capitol dome in a failed bid to secure a contract to light the nation's capital city. Crutchett spent the final 45 years of his life in Washington and his entrepreneurial exploits have largely been overlooked by Washington historians.

This post is the first in a two-part series on James Crutchett, nineteenth-century gas man, kitsch purveyor, and Washington fixture for nearly half a century.

Soldiers' Rest. U.S. military drawings showing the northern portion of James Crutchett's Capitol Hill property. National Archives and Records Administration.

James Crutchett

James Crutchett in 1842 invented a system for making and delivering lighting gas that he called simply, "Improvements in Manufacturing Gas and an Apparatus for Consuming Gas." Crutchett's system called for mixing coal or oil gas and air and it was not unlike other coal gas processes already in use. The mixture was delivered to burners he designed. He claimed the gas could be deployed on a large scale via a large gasworks or on a smaller scale by individual consumers.

Crutchett was awarded a British patent for his invention in January 1843. Shortly thereafter he emigrated to the United States.

Drawing from James Crutchett's 1843 UK patent.

To date I have learned very little about Crutchett's life in England prior to 1842. The 1841 English census has him working as a pawnbroker living with his wife, Elizabeth, and their infant son, Francis, in a house on King Street in the borough of Stroud about 100 miles west of London. The same year that the census was taken, English newspapers were reporting that Crutchett had been declared bankrupt. "I was a demonstrator on gas matters and experiments at the Royal Institution in London," Crutchett told a U.S. Senate committee near the end of his life in 1886. The path he took from pawnbroker to engineer remains unclear.

Crutchett claimed that he had been invited to the U.S. by several New Yorkers interested in his new gas system. According to Crutchett, the New Yorkers included Robert Coleman, a proprietor of the Astor House, and merchant Alexander Turney Stewart.

After coming to the United States, Crutchett named his system the "Solar Gas" process (for the sun-like light he claimed it produced). According to Crutchett, what made his system more economical and cleaner than others available at the time was its main ingredient. Crutchett used "greasy substances" or common oil, like flaxseed oil, instead of coal oil. One 1847 description of his Capitol gas plant was not unlike a description for a rendering plant.

Between c. 1843 and 1845, Crutchett appears to have installed his gas lighting system in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Cincinnati, Ohio; Covington, Kentucky; and, Wheeling, West Virginia. A marketing pamphlet Crutchett was circulating in 1847 to secure capital and contracts described his system: "For illumination of Cities, Manufactories, Hotels, Steamboats, Churches, and Private Residences." In 1872, he explained to government attorneys that his engineering business was "mainly pertaining to lighting up towns and cities with gas and improvements in mechanics pertaining thereto."

By 1844 Crutchett was living in Cincinnati, Ohio. That year he was awarded a U.S patent for his "Improvement in Gas Light Apparatus":

Drawing from James Crutchett's 1844 U.S. patent.

In December 1845 Crutchett bought architect John Skirving's Capitol Hill property and he rapidly set about building a gas plant in the home's basement. Crutchett fitted the entire property with gaslights making it the first private residence in Washington to be lit by gas. Crutchett called the former Skirving house "Bethel Cottage."

No records survive documenting how Crutchett decided to settle in Washington and how he knew John Skirving. The Crutchetts were members of a vegetarian church (Church of the New Jerusalem) while they lived in Washington and Skirving's brother-in-law belonged to a similar group in Philadelphia. Beyond that tentative association and both men's similar life storiesEnglish expatriates, self-styled engineers, ill-fated business ventures, and an attraction to Washingtonand evidence that they did business together between 1845 and 1850, any attempt to link Skirving and Cructhett prior to their 1845 real estate transactions would be speculative.

Detail from an 1857 map of Washington showing the B&O Railroad station, Crutchett's "Bethel Cottage," and the U.S. Capitol. Adapted from A. Boschke's Map of Washington City, District of Columbia, seat of the federal government (1857, A. Boschke).

The cottage was strategically located across North Capitol Street from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad station, only a few blocks north of the Capitol. One observer described it in 1844, shortly after it was built: "Mr. Skirving's English cottage on Capitol Hill, is one of the neatest specimens of rustic architecture I have ever seen."

John Skirving's 1842 Capitol Hill Cottage. James Crutchett bought the property in 1845 and it became the first private property in Washington to be lit by gas. Library of Congress photo.

It doesn't appear that Crutchett advertised his services in local newspapers when he arrived in Washington, yet he did manage to quickly land some local clients. Among Crutchett's first commercial projects in Washington was his installation of a solar gas system in Coleman's Hotel in July 1846.

A January 1847 edition of the Washington Daily National Intelligencer described Crutchett's Capitol Hill premises after the construction of the gas plant and installation of gas lighting:

One of the most striking and brilliant improvements that we have lately noticed in this metropolis is that of Mr. Crutchett, who has not merely lighted up North Capitol street, by the introduction of nine solar gas burners between his residence and the Capitol gate, but actually illuminated Capitol Hill by these incomparably beautiful and splendid lights. We understand that these nine gas lights are all supplied from the beautiful cottage residence of Mr. Crutchett, which is entirely lighted with solar gas, including its parlors, bed-rooms, porticos, porches, and garden, rendering the whole most beautiful to the eye when viewed either externally or internally.

The former John Skirving and James Crutchett cottage just before its early twentieth century demolition to make way for temporary worker housing between Union Station and the Capitol. Library of Congress photo.

Crutchett formally approached Congress in January 1847 with a petition urging the legislature to hire him to "light up the public buildings, grounds, etc." The gas man boasted that he had "made a new & valuable discovery in the mode of making gas & gas apparatus for the purpose of illumination" and he invited members of Congress to see the system in use on his property.

In March 1847 Crutchett succeeded in getting Congress to appropriate $17,500 to fund his proposal to light the Capitol. First, however, Crutchett had to demonstrate that he could provide light that was more efficient than the oil then in use. Crutchett elected to grandstand his way into the contract by constructing a 92-foot-high mast attached to the Capitol dome onto which would be fitted a gas-burning lantern in addition to installing lighting fixtures in the House and Senate chambers.

From the outset, Crutchett's scheme transfixed Washington, the members of Congress, and a nation following his exploits in the newspapers. Washingtonians, anxious to have a municipal gas system, eagerly awaited the completion of Crutchett's lantern while legislators became increasingly concerned about the potential hazards of a mast supporting a source of fire above the Capitol's copper-clad wood dome.

Before Crutchett could begin constructing the gasworks and infrastructure, Congress ordered Benjamin B. French, Clerk of the House of Representatives, to ascertain whether Crutchett's plan was feasible and safe. French, in turn, sought opinions from Smithsonian Institution secretary Joseph Henry as well as architects Robert Mills and William Renwick.

All of the experts consulted agreed that Crutchett's plans would not harm the Capitol and work got underway in the summer of 1847. When Congress broke for summer recess, work began laying pipes beneath the stone floors and in the walls. Crutchett and his workers built a gas plant in the Capitol's northwest quadrant and placed lighting fixtures throughout the Capitol. Scientific American described the new Capitol lighting fixtures in December 1847: "The chandeliers of both houses are superb." Fabricated in Philadelphia, "The one in the House of Representatives is ornamented with a beautiful scroll; that in the Senate by thirteen brilliant stars, representing the good old thirteen states, with their pendant prisms," wrote Scientific American.

The mast to support the lantern arrived at the Capitol the last week in June 1847. The 92-foot white pine pole originated in Pennsylvania and it tapered from an 18-inch diameter base to 10 inches at the top.

The polygonal iron, copper, and glass lantern was made in Washington. Measuring six feet in diameter and 20 feet high, the lantern included reflectors to ensure that the light would be seen from a distance as well as on the Capitol grounds.

The lantern and mast were attached to the Capitol dome in August 1847 by iron braces. The contraption some in the press simply called "Crutchett's Long Pole" became the most prominent element breaking the Washington horizon. House of Representatives Clerk Benjamin French wrote to his brother in October 1847, " 'What has got the magic lantern on the Capitol?' There it is, right in front of my new dormer window."

Together, the mast and lantern weighed more than three tons, according to a detailed report by architect Robert Mills, who was paid $50 to review and report on Crutchett's plans. Originally, the lantern was to have been ignited nightly by an electric starter. Instead, each night a workman had to climb a ladder and manually light the lantern.

"Crutchett's Lantern." 1847 drawing from the Papers of Robert Mills.

The lights first were demonstrated November 18, 1847. The interior lights were praised while the lantern failed to live up to Crutchett's billing. Massachusetts senator John Fairfield wrote to his wife after seeing the lantern for the first time: "Crutchett's big light on the dome of the Capitol I don't think much of it. It affords a tolerable light immediately about the Capitol but the light is not extended so far as had been anticipated."

Commissioner of Public Buildings Charles Douglas reported to Congress that the light emitted by the lantern was not worth its costs:

It may with propriety be doubted, whether the light upon the top of the pole possesses such superior advantages over the same quantity more conveniently located for lighting, as to justify the present increased expense and great danger of attending to it in its present position, which is now done by a person ascending the pole to the lantern and there igniting the gas.
Architect Charles B. Cluskey recommended in a report to the House of Representatives that the the pole and lantern be removed and replaced with lighting closer to the ground and more strategically placed. Cluskey claimed that his proposal "would illuminate the grounds around, and exhibit the building in beautiful and bold relief for a considerable distance."

Except for a brief scare in December 1847 when fumes from sewers beneath the Capitol sickened legislators and the source initially was blamed on Crutchett's gas, few found fault with the quality of lighting inside the Capitol. In his letter to his wife on the new lighting, Senator Fairfield wrote,

The Senate chamber was lighted up last evening with gas, and looked splendidly. The light proceeds from a lot of chandeliers suspended in the center and quite up to the ceiling. The above makes light enough to write by and read the finest print in my part of the chamber.
Crutchett had hoped that the demonstration would lead to additional contracts to light the whole Capitol and perhaps even the entire city. Crutchett's growing questionable reputation, however, caught up with him and both he and his lantern were roundly criticized.

Critics included editorial writers in the Baltimore Sun and the New York Herald. "The crotchett [sic.] of Mr. Crutchett is really peculiar," wrote "Lobos" in a Herald editorial. The Sun called Crutchett a "novice" and several writers played on the double entendres inherent in describing Crutchett's pole.

The surviving federal documents do not detail the allegations made against Crutchett, but court records from the following decades show a consistent pattern by Crutchett to not repay large sums of money he borrowed to fund his various schemes. In fact, when he bought the Skirving Capitol Hill property, he got an unsecured $5,000 mortgage from the Skirvings and he failed to repay them spurring John Skirving to sue and initiate foreclosure proceedings against Crutchett.

In a scathing report to the House of Representatives Committee on Public Buildings, commissioner Charles Douglas outlined the damage to the Capitol by Crutchett's lantern. Douglas conceded that the lantern and mast were stable during calm weather, but high winds would endanger the Capitol. The commissioner also noted that the Capitol's structural stonework was not adequately built to support the conduits cut to run Crutchett's gas lines.

The tenor of the Douglas report undoubtedly was influenced by how Crutchett got the contract to light the Capitol. Normally, all work to public buildings was vetted and managed by the Commissioner of Public Buildings. When Congress voted to execute the contract with Crutchett, it bypassed the normal process. Douglas ended his report by commenting on Crutchett's character,

Deeming it to be my duty, I take leave to say a few words in relation to contracts for executing the public work and the loose manner in which they are too often performed ... Under such peculiar circumstances, favorable opportunities are afforded to the contractors, which are seldom neglected by them, to plan and execute their work in such a manner as they think best, and too often in a way that is far more profitable to themselves than beneficial to the government.
When Douglas requested that Crutchett provide firm cost estimates for building and operating a permanent Capitol gas plant and lighting system, Crutchett failed to deliver the requested information.

Drawing of "Crutchett's Lantern" reproduced in William C. Allen's History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics (2001, U.S. Government Printing Office).

Crutchett was shut out of the Capitol's efforts to introduce gas lighting and he lost out on playing any real part in creating a municipal gas infrastructure in the District of Columbia. In the spring of 1848, local entrepreneurs began the process to secure a congressional charter to incorporate the Washington Gas Light Company and by June 1848 workers were removing Crutchett's lantern from the Capitol dome.

The Capitol building and grounds ultimately were lighted by the new Washington Gas Light Company. At first, the Capitol had its own gas plant. Less than a decade later, however, the gasworks were moved off-site. Serviced by the Washington Gas Light Company, the Capitol remained lit by gas until 1896.

Out of Gas: Founding the Mount Vernon Factory

James Crutchett temporarily abandoned engineering after his first wife, Elizabeth, died in August 1848. By 1851 Crutchett had remarried and he got caught up in the cult of George Washington sweeping the nation. In the capital city, efforts were underway to fund and complete a national monument to the late first president and Congress was being petitioned to purchase Mount Vernon.

Crutchett hit upon the idea of selling George Washington and Mount Vernon kitsch made from wood harvested from Washington's former estate, Mount Vernon-themed lithographs, and commemorative Washington and Mount Vernon coins. Although not a U.S. citizen, Crutchett did claim to have read a lot of American history. When asked in 1872 about his interest in Washington and the desire to make and sell Washington memorabilia, Crutchett explained,

I felt that it was due to the memory of Washington that he should have a national monument, and if the people were put in mind of it in some regular form they would be willing to do it.

Wood bowl manufactured by James Crutchett's Mount Vernon Factory. Bowl bottom and descriptive label. Object sold on Ebay.

Crutchett signed a contract with John A. Washington, Jr. (1820-1861). The late president's grand-nephew, Washington was the last private owner of Mount Vernon before the property's purchase by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. The July 1854 contract between Washington and Crutchett granted the entrepreneur the rights to cut and remove lumber from Mount Vernon. Crutchett described the enterprise in his 1872 deposition:

[I] worked up the timber from Mount Vernon into various mementoes [sic.], believing that the Mount Vernon wood would be appreciated by the people of the United States especially, and by people generally throughout the world.

To make the Mount Vernon wood into various articles of furniture for use and ornament, and embellishment, as mouldings, ornamental floorings, cabinet work, movable and fixed picture frames, mouldings, and the engagement of artists to execute engravings, pictures, and other things, the proceeds of which were to be devoted to reimburse the expenditure and one half the profits to the building of the national monument and the restoration of Mount Vernon.

After inking the contract with Washington, in the fall of 1855 Crutchett bought axes, picks, and other equipment and sent a contingent of workers to Mount Vernon where they began cutting roads and harvesting lumber for Crutchett's new enterprise. Crutchett bought a ship and rented steam tugboats to bring the wood across the Potomac and by 1857 he was selling finished items produced in his Mount Vernon Factory.

Coming in Part II: The Mount Vernon Factory and the Soldiers' Rest.

Sources: All of the secondary histories that discuss Crutchett's time in Washington appear to rely on incomplete and incorrect information. Primary documents used in this brief post include District of Columbia land records, litigation documents, correspondence, and military records related to the confiscation of property during the Civil War. A more complete discussion of the primary sources used will appear in expanded published versions of this research. Contemporaneous newspaper and magazine coverage of Crutchett's lantern and efforts to install gas lighting in the Midwest during the 1840s provide colorful details about his exploits. Crutchett's own marketing materials, although celebratory and biased, provide a road map of his travels prior to 1845. The most authoritative and comprehensive source on the Capitol building's architectural history is William C. Allen's History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics (2001, U.S. GPO).

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