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Posts by John DeFerrari

John DeFerrari is a native Washingtonian with a lifelong passion for local history and writes about it for his blog, Streets Of Washington. His latest book about DC history is Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, DC. John is also a trustee of the DC Preservation League. The views expressed here are his own. 


DC's first streetcar opened in 1862. Here's what it was like.

The DC Streetcar will start carrying passengers on Saturday, but that won't be the first time we've seen a streetcar's opening day. DC's first streetcar system opened in the middle of the Civil War after taking only six months to build. It ran horse-drawn streetcars along Pennsylvania Avenue, and was an instant hit.

An early streetcar passes the Treasury. All images from antique stereoviews in the author's collection.

I recently wrote about the 100-year history of streetcars in the District in my book, Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, DC. Like my recent post about how streetcars shaped DC's Eckington neighborhood, the following has been adapted from the book.

In the early 1850s, omnibuses—rickety stagecoach-like wagons that could hold maybe a dozen riders—were the only "mass transit" available in Washington. As early as 1852, Gilbert Vanderwerken, an ambitious businessman who owned the city's omnibus company, petitioned Congress for the right to establish the city's first streetcar system, running from Georgetown to Capitol Hill, but it didn't have the political backing to make it through Congress.

Meanwhile, other cities rapidly built streetcar systems: Brooklyn in 1853, Boston in 1856, Philadelphia in 1858, and Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Cincinnati in 1859. Finally, in May 1862—one year into the Civil War and ten years after streetcars had first been proposed—Congress agreed to one in DC, passing a law incorporating the Washington & Georgetown Railroad.

The project had a very tight timeline

The charter specified three lines: an east-west route along Pennsylvania Avenue from Georgetown to the Navy Yard; a north-south route along Seventh Street from Boundary Street (Florida Avenue NW) to the Seventh Street wharves in Southwest; and another north-south route along Fourteenth Street from Boundary Street to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Although Congress had dawdled on authorizing the railway, it required the new company to put the first segment of its line into operation within 60 working days of incorporation—an astonishingly short timespan considering that a war was on and no cars, ties, rails, or other materiel were on hand. Nevertheless, luck was on the side of the fledgling railway. Construction began within a few weeks; rails were ordered and arrived in time for a crew of 40 to begin laying them in June 1862.

Original streetcar tracks on Pennsylvania Avenue, circa 1869.

By early July, the first stretch of track, from the Capitol to the State Department building on Fifteenth Street, was nearly done. "This great and inappreciable comfort and convenience, so long desired and so often defeated, has been…completed with great promptitude," the National Intelligencer exulted.

The first two cars for the new railway arrived from the manufacturer on July 11th. They were elegant pieces of craftsmanship intended to entice well-to-do riders who had no previous experience of public transportation. The Evening Star described them in detail: "The seats on the sides are covered with fine silk velvet, and the windows, which are stained and plain glass combined, are furnished with cherry sash and poplar blinds, beside handsome damask curtains. The top of the car is rounded, permitting persons to stand upright without inconvenience, and rods to which loops are attached, are run from end to end."

The Star also described a festive nighttime test run: "The cars were put on the track last night, and at 11 o'clock run up [Pennsylvania Avenue] as far as Willard's [Hotel], having on board a number of gentlemen, cheering loudly as they passed up and being greeted with cheers from the few persons on the street at that hour."

An operating streetcar system shaped up over the course of a summer

July 29th marked the first day of public operation. The company had ten cars by then, all typical streetcars of the day, pulled by two horses with a driver standing on a platform in front and an enclosed passenger compartment that could comfortably seat twenty. A conductor, usually stationed on the rear platform, collected fares. On opening day the cars were packed, at times with as many as forty eager passengers.

The first car was "crowded almost to suffocation" and screeched to a halt at the curve from Pennsylvania Avenue on to Fifteenth Street. An extra horse was added, and the car kept rolling. The Star wrote admiringly that "The cars in use are handsome and commodious, and the smoothness with which they glide along affords an agreeable change from the rough jolting over the pavements experienced in other modes of vehicular conveyance" (referring to the old omnibuses that the streetcars were replacing). The Star's enthusiastic reporter concluded with a wistful "Farewell, old bus, you're nigh played out."

In August the new line was extended to Georgetown, where the old Vanderwerken omnibus stables were located. By early October the complete line from Georgetown to the Navy Yard was in operation. The two north-south lines on Seventh and Fourteenth Streets entered service shortly thereafter, completing the entire system in less than six months.

In October, with all three lines nearly finished, the company's directors donated twenty old omnibuses to the army for use as ambulances. They were much needed for the war effort and apparently served that purpose well.

A horse-drawn streetcar poses in front of the Capitol.

People loved riding the streetcar

Praise for the new streetcars ran high as Washingtonians began shaping their daily routines around them. People from all walks of life took to the new form of transport. "I rode all the way from Georgetown. What a blessing & a comfort," wrote Martha Custis Williams, the great great granddaughter of Martha Washington, who lived at Georgetown's stately Tudor Place mansion.

In July 1863, The National Intelligencer commented on the Seventh Street line, which had opened nine months earlier: "We cannot help admiring the regularity with which the cars on this road now run. There is no detention to passengers whatsoever. The energy manifested by the gentlemanly conductors meets the approbation of everyone who rides them. We cannot help speaking of the politeness of Conductor Steptoe T. Tune. His obliging manners and amiability give him the praise of all who chance in his car."

Once fully operational, the Washington & Georgetown Railroad scheduled cars to arrive on a five-minute headway and charged a five-cent fare with a free transfer between routes. The company had a total of 70 cars and 490 horses, the horses wearing bells tied to their harnesses to alert pedestrians that a car was coming. The railway's original routes would remain the core of the city's streetcar network throughout its one-hundred-year history and are still echoed in the Route 30 Metrobuses that operate today.


DC's first electric streetcar helped build Eckington

DC got its first electric streetcar in 1888 when the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway went into operation. A ban on overhead wires kept it from running downtown, and the company ultimately went out of business because it couldn't find another option.

I recently wrote about the 100-year history of streetcars in the District, from 1862 to 1962 (the span from the first and last times a streetcar carried passengers in DC), in my book, Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, DC. The following story about the Eckington line has been adapted from the book.

Eckington developed alongside the streetcar

Eckington was perhaps the first "true" streetcar suburb in the District in the sense that it was designed from the start as a streetcar destination. It originally had been the estate of Joseph Gales Jr. (1786—1860), publisher of the National Intelligencer newspaper and one of the city's early mayors. He had named it Eckington after his birthplace in England.

Real estate investor Colonel George Truesdell (1842—1921) bought the Eckington tract in 1887 with the idea of building a modern bedroom suburb on it. Truesdell laid out his new subdivision as an idyllic suburban community with large house lots, stunning views of the city and desirable modern amenities—including paved streets, stone sidewalks and electric streetlights—that more established District neighborhoods still didn't have.

In 1888, Truesdell obtained a Congressional charter for a streetcar company specifically to serve his pretty new suburb. The line would include an electric station to power the railway as well as the brilliant streetlights to light up Eckington at night. Poles went into the center of the roadway to carry the overhead wires for the streetcars. It was an ideal arrangement.

The railway's original route started downtown at Mount Vernon Square, at the intersection of Seventh Street (the main commercial corridor of the day) and New York Avenue. It ran northeast from there to Third Street, then turned north, passing through the heart of the new development, and continued into the countryside along Fourth Street until it finally ended at the southern entrance to the Soldiers Home grounds, a popular spot for Sunday outings.

The route of the Eckington line superimposed on a modern map. Map by Matthew B. Gilmore

The Eckington line was not only the first mechanized streetcar line in Washington, but it was also the city's first electric trolley line—the word trolley referring to a streetcar that gathers electric power from overhead lines through a pole on the roof of the car.

Some dreaded "the evil of overhead wires"

For many Washingtonians, the revolutionary new Eckington trolley was a marvel to behold. But for other observers, notably Crosby S. Noyes (1825—1908), editor of the Evening Star, it was the incarnation of evil.

When plans for the Eckington project first became public in August 1888, the Star lashed out with a fierce editorial:

"The reform of abolishing overhead wires in the District seems to be progressing backward," it warned. "[N]ow the Commissioners add a new species of overhead wire to the existing network by permitting the Eckington railway to construct an overhead electric system." They should instead be working to "secure to the city the benefits of rapid transit without aggravating the evil of overhead wires," the Star insisted.

Spurred to action, Congress soon passed a series of laws that required all DC streetcar companies to convert from horsepower to some form of mechanized power by July 1893. But they simultaneously banned the use of overhead wires in the downtown area after that date.

The edict undoubtedly was frustrating for Truesdell. After the successful inauguration of Richmond's trolley system early in 1888, it was universally understood that trolleys using overhead wires were the cheapest and most efficient way to power streetcar systems. Trolley systems were already being planned and built in cities all over the country, but they were now banned in the District.

Still, the streetcar was initially successful, and it even expanded to Brookland

For several days after the new line opened in October 1888, crowds formed along New York Avenue, not only to see the streetcars zipping along without horses but also to see the street lit up at night by the electric lights mounted on the iron poles in the center of the roadway.

Opening day of the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway. Photo from the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

Truesdell soon set about expanding his new railway to serve a wider clientele. Extensions were first built on the northern ends of the lines, one heading north along North Capitol Street and the other extending from the Soldiers Home to the Catholic University of America, which had just been established in 1887, and the adjoining new village of Brookland. With luck, the new destinations would soon fill with streetcar riders.

Truesdell had always wanted to extend the line on its southern end farther into the downtown area, but that meant coming up with an alternate power source because of the ban on overhead trolleys downtown. Truesdell was determined to find a propulsion technology that wouldn't break the bank. He, like other railway directors, was convinced that using underground electrical power was not economical.

Another power option was too dangerous, and batteries didn't work either

One alternative was to set electrical contacts right in the pavement between the tracks on the roadway, which was certainly a much less expensive approach than digging underground conduits lined with continuous power rails. Each streetcar would get power momentarily from one of these contact plates as the car passed over, propelling it on to the next plate.

The company experimented with such a system in late 1890 on a stretch of test track along North Capital Street north of Boundary Street. However, the "surface contact" system they tried was a bust. The contact plates in the street were supposed to be electrified only when a streetcar was directly over them, but there was no practical way to ensure that they did not stay charged when they were in the open. It was soon obvious that the railroad couldn't deploy a system that might randomly electrocute people or horses stepping on the plates, and the experiment had to be abandoned.

An experimental surface contact streetcar. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Next, when in late 1890 the company began building its downtown extension, it tried using battery-powered cars. The extension ran south from New York Avenue along Fifth Street Northwest and then turned east on G Street and continued to the Treasury Department, bringing the Eckington line into the heart of the downtown commercial district. With this southern extension in place, the company could offer a twenty-five-minute ride all the way from Brookland down to the Treasury Department, although it required a transfer at New York Avenue from a trolley-powered to a battery-powered car.

For the new Southern extension, the company bought the latest Robinson electric cars, elegant carriages finished in mahogany with gold trim that had three sets of wheels intended to facilitate going around curves. Pretty as they may have been, the Robinson cars were too pokey, and recharging their batteries was slow and expensive. In 1893, after just two years, the company gave up on batteries.

The struggle over overhead wires continued, but ultimately failed

The railway soldiered on, its fight for overhead wires soon degenerating into a game of chicken with the Star and the DC commissioners. Exasperated that an overhead trolley system could not be installed to replace the failed battery cars, the railway converted its downtown extension to horsecars, ignoring the fact that horsecars were supposed to have been phased out by that time.

More horsecar lines were added in 1894 while the original overhead trolley line along New York Avenue and to the north continued to operate. The company's directors figured that people would be so fed up with these outmoded cars that Congress would give in and allow them to install an overhead trolley system.

The Evening Star editors were doubly upset about this turn of events. Not only were horsecars back, but the Eckington company had also missed a revised July 1, 1895 deadline for taking down the poles and overhead wires on New York Avenue, which the newspaper referred to as "obnoxious obstructions."

After the Star redoubled its public complaints, the company tried a new tack. The overhead wire system on New York Avenue was removed, and that portion of the Eckington line began running…yes, more horsecars!

The Washington Post commented that switching to horses "will mean a considerable increase in the expense to the company, which already has its stables full of horses that are not in condition for use, and it will give the residents on the line a poorer service. But the company is taking a rather grim satisfaction in the matter, as they are already losing money on their horse service, and they think that the additional loss will be a sort of investment as an object lesson to the public on the benefit of rapid transit, trolley or otherwise."

As it turned out, the public was the one giving the lesson. "Eckington is at present a very much disgusted community," the Post reported. Customers stayed away from the balky, outmoded horsecar service, which they found insulting. Ridership plummeted as rapidly as expenses soared. A year later, the overextended company was bankrupt.

A final try didn't work

A last desperate effort went into making the Eckington line viable. In early 1896, the company hosted the demonstration of a streetcar powered by compressed air, which it gambled would be both publicly acceptable and economically viable. The compressed air system used the pressure of air from canisters stored underneath the passenger seats to push pistons that turned the car's wheels. The compressed air was heated with steam to increase its force as it moved out of the canisters.

This double-decker streetcar saw brief service on the Eckington line. Photo courtesy of the National Capital Trolley Museum.

However, the public did not care for the compressed air cars, finding them smoky, dusty and smelly. The cars also tended to be slow on uphill grades. The compressed air experiment, on which the hopes of the company had been pinned, was quickly abandoned.

At this point, the bankrupt line had already been purchased by a group of investors led by financier Oscar T. Crosby (1861—1947). In 1898, the Crosby syndicate also gained control of most of the other street railway lines in the District and began operating them under one holding company, called the Washington Traction and Electric Company. In compliance with the Congressional edict, the new conglomerate finally began installing underground electrical conduit systems on the portions of the former Eckington line that were within the downtown area. The struggle to find an alternative to underground conduits had failed.


Little-known quarry played a big role in DC's rise

The city's historic structures were built from materials as unique to their age and as varied as the architectural styles used to mold them into buildings. Those materials often have their own rich stories to tell, as Garrett Peck ably demonstrates in his lively new book, The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry.

Seneca sandstone has a lot going for it. In addition to its rich, dignified color, it also has the unique property that it is relatively soft and easy to cut when it is taken out of the ground but hardens after the cut stone is set in place, making for an excellent building material. It's a wonder that more DC buildings are not made from it.

The first quarry to be used heavily in constructing early Washington was the Aquia Creek quarry near Stafford, Virginia. Peter L'Enfant purchased that quarry on behalf of the government to supply stone for the Capitol and White House, but the pale Aquia Creek sandstone discolored easily (one reason why the White House was painted white in 1798), and better sources of stone were sought out. The cliffs along the Maryland side of the Potomac at what is now the small village of Seneca offered superior stone.

Robert Peter (1726-1806), a Scottish immigrant who became a prosperous Georgetown tobacco merchant, purchased a large tract of land in Maryland, including the sandstone cliffs, in 1781. The first small amounts of stone were quarried there some time in the late 18th century. Peter's son Thomas built the regal Tudor Place mansion that still stands today in Georgetown as one of the city's best house museums. Thomas also built a distinguished country house on the land at Seneca, but it was not until Thomas's son, John Parke Custis Peter (1799-1848), inherited the property that the Seneca Quarry started to figure prominently in DC construction.

South side of the Castle. Photo by the author.

John P.C. Peter made a daring lowball bid in 1846 to supply the stone for the new Smithsonian Building to be constructed on the Mall. The iconic structure could have been made of pale Aquia Creek sandstone, white New York marble, or gray granite, but at a below-market 25 cents per square foot, Peter's Seneca red sandstone got the nod from the building committee.

The eccentric Romanesque Revival building, designed by James Renwick, set the stage for the Victorian era of red Washington architecture. While many red Victorian buildings would be made primarily of brick, Seneca sandstone was prominent as well, often used in water tables because it was considered waterproof.

The water table and belt courses on the old Agriculture Building are of Seneca sandstone. Image from the author's collection.

Renwick used the stone as trim for the original Corcoran Gallery of Art building (now the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery) as well as the chapel at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. Just to the west of the Castle, the original Agriculture Department building, designed by Adolf Cluss and completed in 1868, had a Seneca sandstone water table and belt courses.

Other Seneca buildings past and present, as cataloged by Peck, include a number of C&O Canal locks and houses, the McClellan Gate at Arlington National Cemetery, the Luther Place Memorial Church facing Thomas Circle, and many private houses. Although he hasn't found evidence to confirm it, Peck tells me he suspects the trim and belt courses on the striking National Security & Trust building at 15th Street and New York Avenue NW may be Seneca sandstone as well.

It's possible that the trim on this building is Seneca sandstone. Photo by the author.

But Peck's book goes beyond the buildings to delve into the fascinating stories of the people behind the stones. John P.C. Peter died unexpectedly in 1848 after scratching his thumb on a rusty nail and contracting tetanus, but the quarry continued to prosper without him. It was the site of a skirmish during the Civil War and a scandal afterward, when it fell into the hands of robber barons during the corrupt years of the Grant administration. Peck fills in all the details of these episodes and paints a vivid picture of quarry life, including the role of African-Americans who did much of the stone-cutting.

Ruins of the stonecutting mill. Photo by the author.

The quarry shut down around 1901, having exhausted the best of the redstone that was readily available. By that time Washingtonians had decided the city's old red architecture was bad-bad-bad and should be replaced by the imperial white marble and limestone piles envisioned by the McMillan Commission.

The forgotten quarry site gradually fell into ruins. Today it lies in densely overgrown parkland just east of the C&O Canal at Seneca. In winter months, when the undergrowth is dormant, Peck leads tours of the site.

Though the quarry and its various related structures stand on parkland, none are marked with interpretive signs, and there is no marked trail through the site, so Peck's extensive knowledge of the old quarry is essential. The ghostly ruins of the old stonecutting mill, with initials carved in the sandstone by workers of yore, are particularly poignant.

Quarry master's Seneca sandstone house. Photo by the author.

It would be a great addition to the cultural resources of the Washington area if the Seneca Quarry site could be turned into an historical park, as Peck envisions. He closes his book with an engaging discussion of the individuals who have saved parts of old Seneca, like the Kiplingers, who own Thomas Peter's country mansion Montevideo, and the Albiols, who have restored the old quarry master's house.

Peck argues for a modest investment to clear the brush from the stonecutting mill site and other key spots, lay out a marked trail through the park, and install a few key interpretive signs. It would make for a unique memorial to a distinctive aspect of 19th-century culture. With publication of The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry and fresh interest in the site, perhaps the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission might take action.


Get your fill of DC history this fall

With 2 annual conferences that recognize, analyze, share, and discuss our city's recorded and built history, October is a de facto DC History Month. Come November, the Washington Historical Society will turn a page in its own history as it re-opens in the old Carnegie Library.

Old Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square. Photo by the author.

The DC Preservation League's Citywide Preservation Conference is on Friday, October 12th at the Charles Sumner School at 17th & M Streets, NW. Here, city officials, neighborhood activists, architects, and developers will discuss zoning, Union Station, streetscapes, the planned Capitol Crossing development, and historic districts.

A second conference, which DC historians wait for all year, is the 39th Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies. Events will be held October 18th through October 21st at the old Carnegie Library (home of the Historical Society of Washington), the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, and at George Washington University.

This conference combines lectures, discussions, and tours, giving you an opportunity to immerse yourself in DC history for a couple of days.

Historical Society re-opens November 5

Closed since the summer of 2011, the Historical Society of Washington will reopen its Kiplinger Library on a twice-weekly basis starting November 5th. Mondays will be available for appointments, while on Wednesdays, public hours will resume with a new library director.

The nearly 130-year-old organization has been shuttered since last summer. Under a new agreement reached in January, the society has retained the 2nd floor galleries, the library, and collection storage space of the Mt. Vernon Square Carnegie Library. While Literary Hall, the McKinley Theatre, and L'Enfant Map room have been operative with event rentals, plans for a visitor center attracting foot traffic to activate Mount Vernon Square have yet to be realized.

DC will get its own history museum

No update about DC history is complete without mentioning the recent donation of Albert H. Small's collection of Washingtoniana to George Washington University. GWU plans to make it digitally accessible and put on permanent display as part of a new DC History Museum. It'll open in 2014 in a renovated Max Woodhull House, at 20th & G Streets NW on their Foggy Bottom campus.

With all these events, and the excitement of a future dedicated museum, now seems like no better or easier time to plunge into the study and preservation of all sides, stories, facts, and dimensions of Washington's history. If you learn something interesting, consider contributing it as a guest post to Greater Greater Washington—we're always interested in articles about DC's rich history.


New book chronicles Frederick Douglass in DC

A statue of Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-1895), the most famous African-American of the 19th century, will soon be added to or near Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol to represent the District of Columbia. It's a notable and long overdue recognition for both Douglass and the District.

John Muller, a journalist and Greater Greater Washington contributor, has meticulously researched the great man's comings and goings in our fair city for his new book, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC: The Lion of Anacostia.

Douglass was born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland, escaped as a young man in 1838, and fled to New York, where he became passionately involved in the abolitionist movement. When his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was published in 1845 it became a bestseller. White people marveled that a black man and former slave could write so eloquently, and they were even more astonished when they heard him speak.

Douglass became a powerful civil rights advocate and the embodiment of all that African-Americans could achieve in the face of truly daunting adversity. In later life, once he was famous and successful, he moved to the District and became a prominent city official, settling in to a charming 21-room country house atop a hill in Anacostia with a commanding view of the city.

Muller assumes that his readers know who Douglass was and, after a quick glimpse of his childhood, jumps quickly into the whirlwind of his life in DC. Douglass visited Washington during the Civil War to advise President Lincoln on the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union Army but did not settle here until 1872, following a fire that destroyed his house in Rochester, New York. Originally living in a spacious townhouse on Capitol Hill, Douglass acquired his mansion in Anacostia, called Cedar Hill, in 1877.

Postcard view of Cedar Hill, c. 1905 from the author's collection.

By that time, he was much embroiled in the city's Reconstruction-era politics. Muller provides a wealth of information about several pivotal moments, including his near election in 1871—even before he had moved to the city—as a non-voting delegate to Congress and his subsequent brief appointment as a member of the legislative council of what was then the Territory of Columbia.

Douglass' prominence was due not just to his lectures and writings but to the newspaper he helmed, the New National Era, which had begun publication in 1870. Douglass by this time was an experienced newspaperman and he foresaw the financial challenge of starting up a newspaper for blacks in Reconstruction times, and, in fact, the New National Era lasted only a few years. Nevertheless it left an important mark on the city and on African American journalism in the years to come.

"Colored citizens paying their respects to Marshal Frederick Douglass" from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, April 7, 1877. Image from the Library of Congress.

Though he lost money on the newspaper venture, Douglass had plenty of other irons in the fire, including his appointment by President Hayes as US Marshal for the District of Columbia. Muller points out the irony of this position, given that Douglass had spent much of his early life evading the law, first as a fugitive slave and later as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Though his appointment was opposed by conservative Democrats, Douglass was confirmed by the Senate and served from 1877 to 1881, a tumultuous time for race relations in the nation's capital. Douglass subsequently also served as the DC Recorder of Deeds for several years.

Douglass was in great demand for speaking engagements in addition to his official duties and had other important commitments as well, including serving as the last president of the federally-chartered Freedman's Savings Bank, which closed in 1874. Despite his many commitments, Douglass was also on the Board of Trustees of Howard University, an institution he staunchly supported.

Equally important as his many public commitments was his family life in old Anacostia, then known as Uniontown. Muller fills in telling details about this thriving little community on the other side of the Anacostia River from the Navy Yard.

Clearly the most tumultuous event to occur in Douglass' life on Cedar Hill was the death of his wife, Anna Murray Douglass, in 1882. The loss for Douglass was heart-breaking, but two years later he married Helen Pitts, a white woman who had been his secretary when he was recorder of deeds. Muller describes how family, friends, and others in the black community were offended by this move, but the bonds of affection between Douglass and Pitts seem to have been genuine. The two were together until Douglass passed away 11 years later.

Cedar Hill in 1977. Photo from the Historic American Buildings Survey.

They called him the Sage of Anacostia. He was a celebrity, well off and widely respected. Yet Douglass's story during his Washington DC years is one of ambivalence about his prominence, even occasional discomfort. There's no doubt that he sought positions of influence and, as Muller points out, was sometimes criticized for his political ambitions.

Yet he was prone to doubting his own abilities—or maybe he just wanted to avoid being drawn too far into the system. He turned down an opportunity to run for the US Senate, as he did an offer of the presidency of Howard University. How could a man who never had any formal education be president of a university, he reasoned?

It's also striking to see his apparent perplexity about the backlash over his marriage to Helen Pitts.—Had he not realized that his life was no longer his own at that point, that he was obliged to embrace the constraints of his public image rather than make his own personal choices? For a man who had so famously overcome slavery, the subtler bonds of his successful later years must have presented very real challenges of a different sort.

Cedar Hill is now a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service, and it is well worth a visit. John Muller's book, published by History Press, will be available on October 2.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.


An attempted murder kindled DC's first race riot in 1835

The 1830s are not a well-known period in Washington's history. Too late for L'Enfant and too early for Lincoln, they are a mystery to most residents. But hiding beneath the quiet surface were rising racial tensions, as vividly described in Jefferson Morley's new book, Snow-Storm in August.

Morley brings the 1830s to life with an account of dramatic events that would ultimately contribute to the Civil War.

The book's title derives from the so-called "Snow Riot" of August 1835, when a mob of angry young white laborers vandalized a restaurant at 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW that was operated by Beverly Snow, a free black.

Compared to the large race riots of 1919 or 1968, the mayhem and destruction in 1835 was almost negligible. Nevertheless, it was a shocking event for many Washington residents, and the underlying tensions were as strong as at any time in the city's history.

It all began when Arthur Bowen, a slave belonging to Mrs. Anna Maria Thornton, got drunk one night and seemed to be contemplating murder. He came home late that evening and entered the widowed Mrs. Thornton's bedroom carrying an ax. Maria Bowen, Arthur's mother, was also asleep in the room. She awoke and quickly restrained her son, pushing him out of the house through a back door.

Mrs. Thornton awoke as well and needless to say was terrified. She ran for help from neighbors, who returned to the house with her and heard, through the locked back door, the rantings of the inebriated young slave.

"I'll have my freedom," Arther shouted. "I'll have my freedom, you hear me? I have as much right to freedom as you do."

These were dangerous words for a slave in Washington in the 1830s.

Anxiety was running high in those days among slaveholders and white society in general. Just 4 years earlier the infamous Nat Turner slave rebellion had taken place in nearby Southampton, Virginia. Under Nat Turner's mesmerizing leadership, slaves rose up and killed some 50 or 60 whites before their insurrection was brutally repressed by the authorities.

Even more troubling for many whites was the seeming flood of anti-slavery literature arriving on a daily basis from the staunchly abolitionist cities farther north. William Lloyd Garrison's influential weekly anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, had begun publication in 1831 and was soon being sent south to win over hearts and minds.

It was against this backdrop that the young ax-wielding slave, Arthur Bowen, had threatened Anna Maria Thornton. Mrs Thornton wasn't just anyone. She was the well-known and highly-respected widow of William Thornton, architect of the US Capitol.

It was plain to see, or at least so The National Intelligencer thought, that "incendiary publications" from the north were responsible for the "most ferocious threats" and "tissue of jargon" that Bowen had uttered. Bowen had initially fled in the night, but he was soon arrested. Crowds of angry laborers then gathered at the city jail demanding vengeance. It was these young white ruffians who attacked Beverly Snow's restaurant, smashing dishes and furniture. They later burned a black boardinghouse and several schoolhouses.

Morley's book evokes not just the tragedy of the Snow Riots themselves, but the complex stories of its key players, including Arthur and Maria Bowen, Anna Maria Thornton, and Reuben Crandall, a Georgetown resident with links to northern abolitionists who was swept up in the hysteria and accused of inciting insurrection.

It also brings to life Francis Scott Key, author of the national anthem. Key was district attorney for Washington in 1835, and was responsible for arresting both Crandall and Bowen. The prosperous scion of a wealthy slave-holding Maryland family, Key seems to have been torn between conflicting values. Though temperamentally disposed to ending slavery, he vigorously prosecuted both Crandall and Bowen.

It would be up to the juries and ultimately the president of the United States to determine the fate of the two men.

Perhaps the most entertaining character in this entire drama is Beverly Snow himself, the namesake of the Snow Riot. Morley begins his book with a vivid and remarkably detailed portrait of the young black entrepreneur, who opened one of Washington's first true restaurants in the early 1830s.

Snow had been born a slave in Lynchburg, Virginia and was granted his freedom when he came of age. He had learned the culinary arts at an early age but clearly had more extraordinary skills, including social dexterity, entrepreneurial drive, and ambition. He came to Washington to go into business for himself, and his Epicurean Eating House on Pennsylvania Avenue was highly successful.

Snow, of course, had no idea he'd be caught up in the fear-mongering that ensued from the Bowen incident. He fled the city after his restaurant was trashed and soon moved to Canada, where he started all over again in Toronto, with another restaurant that was as popular as his Washington eatery.

Snow's story seems at once tragic and hopeful. It's a shame that he was treated so badly in Washington, but inspiring in that he didn't let the experience ruin his ambitions. The vividly portrayed struggles of Snow, Bowen, Crandall, Key, and Mrs. Thornton (who never believed Bowen really wanted to kill her and fought to have him released from jail) all make for a powerful portrait of a lost era in Washington history.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.


Last of K Street's great mansions is threatened

On the northeast corner of 11th and K Streets NW stands the last dilapi­dated vestiges of what K Street was once all about—large, elegant Victorian mansions that were the homes of the city's most powerful and influential citizens. For the last 7 years, the mansion at 1017 K has been quietly crumbling behind the humiliating wrap of a massive fabric billboard.

Photo by the author.

It's a mystery why the city allowed such an obnoxious misuse of the structure, but saner actions have been taken more recently. According to Washington City Paper's Lydia DePillis, after she contacted the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in March, the city raised the tax rate on the property in consideration of its blighted condition.

Rather than undertaking repairs that would remove it from blighted status, owner Douglas Development Corporation recently filed for a raze permit.

The building's interior is apparently in poor condition, having been neglected for many years, and some floors are reported to be partially collapsed. Reclaiming it won't be easy. Yet however much the structure has suffered, we owe it to ourselves to save this fine old mansion.

It seems odd to encounter a residential building like this on K Street, the avenue of "trophy" office buildings, and it's even odder that the building has languished for so long. Many see it every day and wish that it would be restored after such profound neglect. Its woes have been written up on Peter Sefton's engaging Victorian Secrets web site and noted in blogs such The Other 35 Percent.

Many were shocked to learn of the recent plans to tear it down. After the filing of the raze permit was first publicized on the H-DC History Net, local blogs quickly reported the alarming news, including The Location, Prince of Petworth, and the City Paper.

But the house is not yet doomed. The DC Preservation League filed an historic landmark nomination for the property in 2008, and thus the city's Historic Preservation Review Board will be required to review the case before a raze permit can be issued. If the property is designated a landmark, the raze permit will be denied, although the owner will still have the right to appeal the decision.

Detail of the adjoining townhouse, included in the historic landmark nomination. photo by the author).

Architectural historian James Goode has called K Street between 9th and 20th streets the "Park Avenue of Washington" in the late 19th century because of its distinguished mansions and their prominent owners. "In the 80's and 90s K street was the most exclusive residential section of Washington and the center of social life of the city," wrote The Washington Post in 1929. "In those days all entertaining was at home and diplomats from foreign countries mingled with Government officials, statesmen, and ranking Army and Navy officers in the big, handsome houses set far back, fronted with deep lawns, hedges and trees, that lined the street."

Among the most opulent were the Childs House at 1527 K, built by a wealthy Philadelphia widow in 1894. Designed purely for socializing, the mansion was in the French Renaissance style of Parisian townhouses. Nearby, wealthy Senator Stephen Elkins (1841-1911) built a massive Georgian Revival house at 1626 K in 1892. Elkins had made millions from land speculation in the west and mining in West Virginia. The mansion's ballroom could accomodate 200 guests, was approached by a grand walnut staircase, and was decorated with gilt Louis XV furniture.

The fine house at the corner of 11th and K was not at the center of K Street's gilded age excesses (which is one reason it has survived), but it has many of the key elements of the street's lost residential format, including a spacious front lawn, officially called "parking" because it was reserved by city regulation for park-like features.

The distinguished building and adjoining structures were constructed in 1878 in the then-prevailing Second-Empire style by successful Washington builder Michael Talty (1812-1890), an Irish immigrant. An early resident of the house was William H. Burr (1819-1908), a former Senate stenographer who had become a well-known proponent of philosophical skepticism.

Peter Sefton has called Burr "one of Washington's most notorious curmudgeons, iconoclasts, and disturbers of the cultural status quo." After raising eyebrows with such incendiary tracts as Self-Contradictions of the Bible (1860) and Revelations of Antichrist (1879), Burr settled in at 1017 K as a kind of genteel retirement home in his later life.

Col. Harrison Allen during the Civil War. Image from the Library of Congress).

Another well-known resident was General Harrison Allen (1835-1904), who came to Washington in 1901 to be second deputy auditor of the Post Office department. During the Civil War, Allen had been commander of the 151st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, which he led at the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

During an artillery bombardment shortly before Chancellorsville, a shell passed only a few feet over his head. Just before the Battle of Gettysburg, Allen was given leave, causing him to miss most of that big event. He was nevertheless retroactively promoted to Brigadier General in 1865 for "faithful and meritorious services."

After the war Allen entered politics, serving as a delegate to the 1868 Republican Convention, as state senator, and as Pennsylvania's auditor general. In 1882 he was appointed United States Marshal for the Dakota Territory, where he pursued stage coach robbers and horse thieves until getting his Washington appointment from President McKinley.

On September 22, 1904, he spent the evening playing cards with his wife and friends in the downstairs parlor at 1017 K and appeared to be in perfect health. However, the next morning he was found dead in his upstairs bedroom, the apparent victim of a heart attack. I'll leave it to others to speculate whether his ghost still haunts the old house.

After Allen's death, the inexorable process of change for 1017 K—and all of downtown Washington—slowly took shape. The wealthy began moving to the trendier, northwestern "suburban" neighborhoods of Dupont Circle and Kalorama and ultimately out of the city altogether. Many of the large buildings they left behind were subdivided for boarders or converted for commercial uses before eventually being torn down.

A photo from the Library of Congress of a K Street row near 14th Street, circa 1915, shows the transition taking place: A large Department of Justice building rises between two elegant Second Empire houses, looking ready to push them out. They'd all be gone before long.

Department of Justice Building on K Street c. 1915. Im agefrom the Library of Congress.

The mansion at 1017 K had a notable second life when it became the headquarters of the DC Statehood Party, organized in 1969. As described by Cultural Tourism DC, the DC Statehood Party gained prominence in 1971 when Julius Hobson (1919-1977), a noted civil rights activist, ran for the non-voting delegate seat in Congress now held by Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Hobson was a civil rights pioneer who between 1960 and 1964 had led more than 80 pickets of downtown retail stores, successfully gaining jobs for thousands of African-Americans who had previously been barred from or severely limited in working at these establishments. Hobson's campaign for delegate, though unsuccessful, raised the profile of the Statehood Party and helped establish it as a viable third party in the District. The party continues to this day as the DC Statehood Green Party.

It's been many years now since 1017 K has been occupied by the Statehood Party or any other organization, despite its unique status as the last of its breed. Striking parallels can be drawn with a legendary historic preservation case from the past, the Rhodes Tavern at 15th and F Streets NW. In the late 1970s and early 1980s an extraordinary effort was mounted by concerned local preservationists to save the tavern, which had been built in 1801 and was a polling place in the first DC municipal elections held in 1802.

There were many very good reasons to save that rare building, but one of the most compelling was that it was one of the last reminders we had left of the type of building that used to line Washington's central business district in the the city's earliest days. As Nelson Rimensnyder has pointed out, Washington's first building regulations, decreed by George Washington himself in 1791, specified that "the wall of no house be higher than forty feet to the roof" and that "the outer and party walls of all of brick or stone." The result was uniform rows of simple but elegant Federal-style townhouses along the city's few main thoroughfares, including Pennsylvania Avenue and F Street.

The strategically located Rhodes Tavern, a prominent example of this type, witnessed every Presidential inauguration from Thomas Jefferson to Ronald Reagan. It was devastating when the fight to save the humble building ended in 1984 with its complete destruction. Not only was this particular jewel of early Washington gone, but all traces of the original building type specified by George Washington were lost forever from the inaugural parade route.

Rhodes Tavern before its destruction. Image from the Library of Congress).

The K Street mansions of the late 19th century were another major defining element of the city's built environment that are now—almost—all gone. If 1017 K is torn down, we will have no reference point left on K Street to recall this part of our shared past. There will be nothing but office boxes, and we'll never be able to undo the loss of this last reminder of the genteel residences that once lined this busy office canyon.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.


A great afternoon newspaper and its great building

It was a sad day in Washington in August 1981, when The Washington Star ceased publication after more than 128 years of service.

Photo by the author.

The Star's tenure had stretched back before the Civil War, an amazing run that witnessed the historic sweep of the city's development from small town to sophisticated metropolis. "The Rock of Gibraltar in Washington journalism is The Washington Star, one of the world's really great newspapers," historian Fred A. Emery wrote in 1935.

The rise and fall of this bygone institution has its own grand sweep, with its greatest achievements occurring when it was quartered in the majestic marble building at 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, that still bears its name today.

The Star began inauspiciously enough in December 1852, one of dozens of newspapers that sprang up for limited runs in 19th century Washington City. In fact, two other DC newspapers had already used the Star name, the Columbian Star from 1822 to 1827, and the first Washington Star in 1841.

The third Star, the one that would matter, began as a four-page broadsheet with a run of 250 copies, printed on a hand press in a small office at 8th and D Streets, NW. The paper's first owner, Captain Joseph Borrows Tate, sought to distinguish the Star from all the other rags published throughout the city by striking a tone of impartiality: "The Star is to be free from party trammels or sectarian influences...devoted in an especial manner to the local interests of the beautiful city which bears the honored name of Washington."

The paper's neutral stance and focus on local news became its trademark and, in time, gave it broad appeal and commercial success. It also led at times to overly innocuous reportage, as in this oft-quoted remark by reporter William Tucker that appeared in the paper's first edition: "Our courts are sitting, but the business with which they are engaged is not of a very interesting character."

Tate sold the paper within a year to William Wallach (1812-1871), an aggressive Texan who worked hard to build up the business, moving its office to the southwest corner of 11th and Pennsylvania in 1854.

Wallach hired a promising young reporter, Crosby S. Noyes (1825-1908), in 1853, and Noyes quickly became the Star's star. One of his many assignments was to report on the hanging of John Brown at Harper's Ferry, WV, in 1859, which he did in flowery, dramatic prose. The Star maintained an anti-slavery stance in those days and, once the Civil War began, was decidedly pro-Union, despite the strong Southern sentiments then common in Washington.

Crosby S. Noyes. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The paper grew in prestige during the war years, aided by its exclusive connections with an early incarnation of the Associated Press. Through the AP, the Star's vivid coverage of the war's impact on Washington was relayed across the country. The New York Times often reprinted war reports from the pages of the Star, and the paper's prestige increased. Supposedly, as soon as Abraham Lincoln finished delivering his second inaugural address, he handed the text to Crosby Noyes so that it could be printed in the Star.

In 1867, Wallach retired and the paper was bought by Noyes and four other investors: Samuel H. Kauffmann (1829-1906), Alexander "Boss" Shepherd (1835-1902), Clarence D. Baker, and George W. Adams. Shepherd, who would become governor of DC in 1873, sold his share of the enterprise within a few years, as did Baker, and Adams remained a behind-the-scenes investor. That left Noyes and Kauffmann to establish a family dynasty that would preside over the Star for another 100 years. Noyes exercised editorial control, while Kauffmann served as publisher and handled the business side.

The Star's new home in 1881. Image from the Library of Congress.

In 1881, the Star was forced to move from its quarters on the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue to make way for construction of the grand Post Office Department building, so well-known now for its iconic clock tower. Kauffmann and Noyes decided to move directly across the street to a narrow, four-story building on the northwest corner of 11th and Pennsylvania.

The paper was steadily growing during these years, and the new building was almost immediately too small. The company gradually acquired adjacent properties on Pennsylvania and 11th until it had a large enough plot to build a monumental skyscraper of a building.

The project began in 1897 with many of the leading architects of the day participating in a competition to design the Star's new home. James G. Hill, architect of such prominent buildings as the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the Stoneleigh Court Apartments, submitted a proposal, as did the firm of Hornblower & Marshall, designers of the Smithsonian's Natural History Building, and Glenn Brown (1854-1932), an influential secretary of the American Institute of Architects and author of the landmark History of the United States Capitol.

The winner, however, was William J. Marsh (1864-1926). Marsh had just started an independent practice with Walter G. Peter (1868-1945), whom he had met while they were both working at Hornblower & Marshall. Marsh may have had the inside track on this competition since he had previously designed homes for Crosby Noyes and two of his sons.

The Evening Star Building prior to 1918.
The tall building to the left is the Raleigh Hotel.
Image from DC Public Library Commons.

Marsh designed an ostentatious, marble-faced office tower in the then-fashionable Beaux-Arts style. The shining white structure was a powerful statement of the Star's position of power and pre-eminence. In comparison, the Washington Post's smaller grey-granite building up the street, done in the Romanesque-Revival style, looked out-of-date. A postcard of the new building unabashedly proclaims, "The Evening Star Building of white marble is the most beautiful newspaper building in the world."

The Star's business office, circa 1921. Image from the Library of Congress.

The building was completed and opened for business in June 1900. As described in great detail in the rival Washington Times, its interior held many wonders. Inside the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance, one passed through a marble-clad lobby to the richly-decorated business office.

The walls were clad in exquisite white Paonazzo marble from the famous Carrara quarries of Italy and carved into elegant Renaissance Revival arches and pilasters. Frederick Dielman (1847-1935), a celebrated painter who had recently produced murals for the new Library of Congress building, was commissioned to prepare seven great allegorical paintings of the newspaper industry for the lunettes in the upper portions of the walls. The effect was of being in a Renaissance church or grand library rather than the business office of a newspaper.

Postcard of Dielman's "News Gathering" from the author's collection.

Postcard of Dielman's "The Diffusion of Intelligence" from the author's collection.

Editorial offices were on the seventh floor, with a commanding view of the city from the windows to the west and south. Editors (the news editor, city editor, telegraph editor) had their desks along the windows, all equipped with telephones, electric bells, and pneumatic tubes for sending messages around the building.

The open space in the middle of the room was filled with roll-top reporters' desks, a typewriter on each. On the other side, a row of telephones stood at the ready, providing instant communications with the Senate, House of Representatives, City Hall, and District Building. It was the height of modern journalistic efficiency.

On the eighth floor was the composing room, in a double space that extended through the ninth floor to provide a cavernous, skylit working space. It was outfitted with 18 of the latest Morgenthaler linotype machines, sophisticated devices that set lines of type in cast bars of lead for use on the two enormous printing presses down in the basement. The equally large basement printing plant included not just the presses but also electric generating equipment capable of independently supporting all of the building's needs.

Management of the paper passed to a new generation with the deaths of Samuel Kauffmann in 1906 and Crosby Noyes in 1908. Two of Noyes' sons took over, Frank taking Kauffmann's place as president in 1906 and his brother Theodore becoming editor in 1908. Under the Noyes brothers, the Star's greatest period of expansion took place, and it became one of the most profitable newspapers in the business. It continued to focus on local news and printed only the safest of opinions on its editorial pages, thus ensuring that none of its many advertisers were offended.

Meanwhile, its competitors languished. The Post had sullied its reputation by seeming to incite the race riots of 1919. According to Constance McLaughlin Green, "Newspapermen despised the Washington Post, a 'poison sheet' without moral integrity." Of the other two major papers, the Times had "swung far to the right," according to Green, thus marginalizing itself, while the Herald "offered a bland diet only occasionally spiced with biting, politically loaded comments." With such anemic competition, the Star could afford to be arrogant.

The Star Building circa 1921, after construction of the 1918 annex.
Image from the Library of Congress.

In 1918, the company built a large annex next to the original building along 11th Street, and it became the industrial heart of the expanded business. The new space was equipped with no less than 34 Morgenthaler linotype machines and four presses in the basement.

On an average day, 890 4-pound ingots of lead were melted down to make the day's press plates. (The metal was melted down and re-used each day.) A typical print run in 1927 was 100,000 copies of a 32-page paper, requiring 38 massive rolls of newsprint, or 596 miles of paper. The finished papers were loaded on to 17 trucks for distribution across the city each weekday afternoon and Sunday morning.

Everyone seems to agree that the real turning point for the newspaper—from rising star to falling star, as it were—came in 1954, when the Post absorbed the Times-Herald. (The Times and the Herald had merged in 1939.) The Times-Herald had had a slightly higher circulation than the Star, although the Star's advertising volume far outpaced any of its competitors. But the acquisition of the Times-Herald put the Post well ahead of the Star in circulation for the first time—over 380,000 by 1955 compared to the Star's 250,000.

By 1959, the Post pulled ahead in advertising volume as well, and the Star never caught up. While the Post had taken over the spot as the city's newspaper of record, having come a long way from its "poison sheet" days of the 1920s, top management of the Star seemed oblivious to the sea-changes. Insular and used to longstanding success, they thought their paper was invulnerable. Instead, it was doomed.

As if to symbolically punctuate the Star's decline, the company decided in the late 1950s to abandon its venerable home on Pennsylvania Avenue and construct a new building at 225 Virginia Avenue, SE. The move gained key logistical advantages for the paper's printing operations; the soon-to-be-constructed I-395 freeway would provide direct access for speedy afternoon distribution, and a railroad spur offered equally direct access to newsprint and other raw materials.

In addition, the new building boasted roughly three times the floor space of the old one. Nevertheless, the company had traded an elegant structure at a prestigious address for a hulking, utilitarian box in an out-of-the-way, run-down area.

Postcard rendering of the new building from the author's collection.

The demise of the Star was a long and drawn-out affair. Circulation actually continued to increase throughout the 1960s, although advertising revenue steadily dropped off. The afternoon format became more and more of a liability, no longer fitting the daily routines of a changing culture and also posing distribution challenges.

"Realistically, it was probably hopeless by '65 or '66," a former executive was quoted as saying in the Star's final edition. As the paper relentlessly lost money, the Kauffmann and Noyes families began to look for an outside buyer. In 1974, a wealthy Texas banker, Joe L. Allbritton, took control of the paper, eventually buying out the shares owned by the Kauffmann and Noyes families.

Allbritton wanted to turn the paper around, but he faced insurmountable odds. A key part of his strategy was to leverage the income from the company's profitable WMAL broadcasting stations to cover the paper's losses while fixes were being planned. However, the Federal Communications Commission balked at Allbritton holding on to two different mass media outlets in the same market.

Tense times at the paper ensued, with staff accepting pay cuts and a reduced work week to keep the business alive. In 1978, four years after taking over, Allbritton sold the Star to Time Inc. The media giant made more changes, bringing in new editorial leadership, changing the physical design of the paper, and switching to morning delivery. It didn't help. After just three more years, Time closed the Star for good in 1981.

Meanwhile, the old Evening Star Building endured quietly on Pennsylvania Avenue. Initial plans, after its namesake had moved out, were to convert it to a 330-room hotel. Instead, it was converted to generic office space, and much of it was rented to the federal government. As various "modernizations" were undertaken, nothing of the original interior decoration was preserved—the Carrara marble, the mahogany trim, the Dielman murals—all vanished.

In 1981, the owners proposed a massive renovation and enlargement of the building, a project that was finally carried out 9 years later. The 1918 addition on 11th Street was torn down in 1987, as were smaller structures abutting the building on Pennsylvania Avenue, and a large new addition, designed in a style sympathetic with the original, was put up in their place. The Evening Star Building is now one of the most valuable properties in downtown Washington.

The 1959 building in Southeast was sold to the Post, which used it as a printing plant for many years. The DC government leased the building in 2007 with the intention of using it as a new police headquarters but subsequently determined that that option would be too expensive. The city bought the building outright in 2009, and it is currently being extensively renovated to house several other DC government agencies.

Thanks to Kim Williams, DC Historic Preservation Office, for her assistance with this article. Sources included Fred A. Emery, "Washington Newspapers" in Records of the Columbia Historical Society (Vol. 37-38, 1937); Merrill E. Gates, Men of Mark in America (1906); Constance McLaughlin Green, Washington: A History of the Capital, 1800-1950 (1962); John Clagett Proctor, Washington Past and Present: A History (1930); Pamela Scott and Antoinette Lee, Buildings of the District of Columbia (1993); Washington Board of Trade, The Book of Washington (1927); a draft National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Evening Star building from 1990; and, of course, numerous newspaper articles from the Star as well as its chief rivals.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.


Can the Ontario Theatre be saved?

The Ontario Theatre at 17th Street and Columbia Road NW has been neglected, abused even, for many years, and it hasn't functioned as a movie theater in more than two decades. Although it takes some imagination to see what its possibilities are, one thing is certain: the theater has a long cultural legacy that will be lost if the building is demolished.

Photo by the author.

As I recently detailed in a post on Streets of Washington, the Ontario has lived many different lives in a neighborhood that also changed dramatically over the second half of the 20th century.

It was one of only two movie theaters built in DC during the 1950s, and, according to Robert Headley's Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, DC, it was the first neighborhood theater to show first-run movies. Classics like Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music were first seen by Washingtonians at the Ontario, and premieres like these were gala events.

By the 1960s, the neighborhood was changing. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968 and the ensuing riots, the theater's old clientele were virtually gone. The following year, the theater switched to a Spanish-language format, the first theater in DC to cater to the burgeoning Latino community.

By the early 1970s, Sunday afternoons at the Ontario became the social center of the Latino community. Extended families would show up every week; for recent immigrants, spending Sunday at the Ontario represented a chance to attend an enjoyable, affordable social event on the one day of the week they had free.

This stability was threatened in 1977 when new owners took over and tried to convert the theater back to its former first-run format, on the theory that Adams Morgan had been taken over by yuppies. "There is no Spanish Community here any more," one of the new owners was quoted as saying. In response, Latinos picketed the theater, issuing a statement asking, "Who says we don't exist?" The Spanish-language films were soon restored to the all-important Sunday afternoon time slot.

Photo by the author.

Throughout the rest of the week, the Ontario took on a new life as the venue for some of the leading rock and punk bands of the era, including The Clash, Blondie, U2, and the Police. The promoter who booked these and other artists would go on to organize the celebrated 930 Club downtown in the mid 1980s. At that time, the Ontario was sold yet again, and the new owners tried to re-establish a first-run movie format.

The attempt didn't work this time either, and the theater closed in 1987. The building was then divided up for various retail businesses, including a drug store, discount store, and other shops. The theater has been vacant for the last several years.

The Historic Preservation Review Board is scheduled to consider a landmark nomination for the Ontario at its November meeting. The current owners are reportedly considering redeveloping the property as condominiums.

It would certainly be a shame if nothing can be saved of the Ontario. Besides its rich cultural history, the theater is also unique architecturally, representing a mid-century modern aesthetic as expressed by one the leading movie theater architects of the 20th century, John J. Zink, who also designed the Uptown Theatre.

The Ontario, of course, isn't nearly as beloved as the Uptown, and it has several potential strikes against it. Many people just don't care for the mid-century style, which has far fewer followers than does the art deco design of the Uptown. Additionally it's been decades since it was actually in use as a theater. An entire generation hasn't had the chance to see a movie there. Furthermore, it's run-down and simply looks ratty.

There have been other occasions when historic buildings were destroyed because they were decaying and dilapidated. Perhaps the most notable was Rhodes Tavern, one of the most historic buildings in the city at the time, which was torn down in 1984 despite a citywide referendum endorsing the need to preserve it.

Built around 1800, the little tavern at 15th and F Streets NW, had been one of the first meeting places of the young city's new government. Designated an historic landmark, it was the subject of an intense effort at preservation. But it was in bad shape. Part of it had been torn down in the 1930s, and the remainder looked out-of-place and even "ugly," in many critics' view. So in the end it came down and was replaced by a large, respectable-looking office building.

Will the Ontario share this same fate? Should it? Isn't there some way to develop this underused property without completely obliterating the old theater?


Dumbarton House, a Georgetown gem

The Heights of Georgetown, along Q Street and above, are filled with the elegant homes of well-to-do Washingtonians. Most are still in private hands, but several beautiful public museums stand out.

Photo by the author.

Dumbarton Oaks, owned by Harvard University and famous for its gardens and art collections, is a sprawling research and museum complex with a Federal-style house embedded in its core. Tudor Place, a grand residence designed by Dr. William Thornton (1759-1828), today illustrates the history of Georgetown and Washington through the lives of its many residents.

Dumbarton House, at 2715 Q Street, NW (and not connected with Dumbarton Oaks in any way) is perhaps less well-known than Dumbarton Oaks and Tudor Place, but it is probably the best at showing what life was like around 1800, when all three were originally constructed.

In those days, Washington City was largely a field of dreams. The Capitol and President's Mansion were under construction, and a scattering of other buildings, none very remarkable, demonstrated the desire that a town grow here.

Georgetown, at the time a separate entity in the District of Columbia, was better established. It had been established in 1747 as a tobacco inspection site, being located at the highest navigable spot on the Potomac River. Maryland farmers, who grew highly-prized "sweet-scented" tobacco, rolled great hogsheads of it down to the wharf at Georgetown to be exported to Scotland.

The Georgetown waterfront, circa 1795. Photo from Library of Congress.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the high ridge above the port of Georgetown became the site for a number of "great houses," removed as it was from the hurly-burly waterfront and offering commanding views of the river and the new city emerging just to the east.

The land had originally been part of a 795-acre patent obtained in 1703 by Col. Ninian Beall (1625-1717). Beall called his property "Rock of Dumbarton" after a famous site in his homeland of Scotland, and the Dumbarton name survives today in many area place names.

Dumbarton House was constructed on this ridge in about 1799 by Samuel Jackson (1755-1836), a Philadelphia merchant and land speculator who lived in the new mansion with his family for about two years. One of his daughters may have been born in the house.

It's not clear why he built such an elegant house and then left it as soon as he did, but, as David White points out, Jackson was a creature of his times. He was involved in complex business deals involving extensive land holdings in Tennessee, where he eventually settled his family. Jackson would gain passing notoriety in 1807 when he was wounded by President-to-be Andrew Jackson (no relation), who stabbed him with a sword-cane, perhaps over a dispute about a horse race.

The house Jackson built is one of the best examples of the emerging Federal style in architecture in the District. The Federal style often brings to mind plain brick townhouses, two or three stories tall, with gabled roofs; Washington once had blocks and blocks of them.

This is one of a much smaller number of Federal great-houses, laid out in careful Palladian symmetry with wings on each side of a stately central block. At first glance, the building might seem little different from the brick Georgian mansions of the 18th century, but it was actually markedly new and stylish in 1800. The Flemish-bond brick walls no longer seem as heavy and squat as on many Georgian mansions (the James River plantations in Virginia come to mind), and the interior is no longer dim.

When you enter Dumbarton House you are welcomed with bright light from a large Palladian window gracing the stairway landing at the rear of the central passage. Upstairs, the south-facing front windows rise dramatically from the floor, flooding the front rooms with light. No longer content with boxy spaces, Dumbarton House's designer added a pair of great rounded bow walls to the rear of the house, extending the back rooms with gracious, curved spaces.

The rear of Dumbarton House, circa 1998. Photo from Historic American Buildings Survey, via Library of Congress.

The first residents after the Jacksons left were Joseph Nourse (1754-1841) and his wife Maria (1765-1850), who moved in in 1804 and purchased the house shortly thereafter for $7,500. The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America (NSCDA), which owns Dumbarton House, has chosen to focus on the Nourse residency for the historic museum portion of the structure and has a long-term project underway to restore the first floor of the house as closely as possible to its appearance when the Nourses lived there.

The son of a successful merchant, Joseph Nourse was a skilled bookkeeper. When serving as a military secretary for General Charles Lee during the Revolution, he was noticed by George Washington. After independence, he was chosen the first Register of the Treasury and kept that position until the Jackson administration. Much of the early Continental currency issued by the new government bears Nourse's signature.

Nourse was an unassuming individual, a family man with a curious intellect. His Georgetown property eventually included 8 acres of land, enough for a modest subsistence farm where wheat, rye, and hay were grown. Outbuildings included a carriage house, stables, barn, icehouse, and dairy. To keep all this running, the Nourses kept about 10 servants at any given time, some free and some enslaved.

The wheat and rye produced on the estate could be easily carried a short distance down the hill to Rock Creek, where it could be ground into flour at Lyons' Mill. Joseph likely spent little time overseeing these activities, however. In addition to being "America's first civil servant," as he was dubbed in an exhibition in the 1990s, Nourse could just as aptly be considered Washington's first suburban commuter, traveling daily from his house on Cedar Hill, as it was then called, to his Treasury Department office on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington City.

Joseph Nourse as a young man. Image courtesy of Dumbarton House.

In 1813, the Nourses sold the house, and within a few years they moved to the current site of the National Cathedral on upper Wisconsin Avenue. The Nourses' son, Charles, built his mansion, The Highlands, just north of that, and it now serves as the administration building of the Sidwell Friends School.

The Georgetown house was sold to Charles Carroll (1767-1823), a prominent landowner from the powerful Carroll family of Maryland, which included one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Carroll, who was one of the owners of a paper mill on Rock Creek and also had extensive real estate investments in New York, called the property Belle Vue.

Being friends with President James Madison (1751-1836) and Dolley Madison (1768-1849), Carroll played a key role in aiding the Madisons when the British attacked and burned Washington in 1814. After the Battle of Bladensburg went badly for the Americans on the morning of August 24, President Madison knew the British were going to occupy the city, and he asked Carroll to assist Dolley in escaping.

As to what happened next, Dolley later gave biographers the following description, which she said was from a letter she wrote to her sister that day:

Three O'clock. Will you believe it, my Sister? We have had a battle or skirmish near Bladensburg, and I am still here within sound of the cannon! Mr. Madison comes not; may God protect him! Two messengers covered with dust, come to bid me fly; but I wait for him.... Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and is in a very bad humor with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall.... It is done.... And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it, by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!!

The burnt-out White House in 1814. Image from Library of Congress.

Carroll safely spirited Dolley to Belle Vue, where she stopped briefly on her way to sanctuary in Virginia. If she were still at Belle Vue that evening, she could have seen the fires in the distance from the Capitol, White House, and Navy Yard burning.

Carroll lived at Belle Vue only a few years before moving to New York, after which he rented the house out. One of his first tenants, beginning in 1815, was Commodore John Rodgers (1773-1838) a naval hero who had been honored by the citizens of Baltimore for helping defend their city from the British in 1814. His daughter Elizabeth was likely the second child born at the Georgetown house.

Rodgers eventually built his own mansion on Lafayette Square, the same house where Secretary of State William H. Seward (1801-1872) was attacked in April 1865 as part of the conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, and Seward.

The property was leased for many years to Samuel Whitall, a New Jersey Quaker, and his family. Whitall's son bought the house from Carroll's heirs, passing it to his sister Sarah (1824-1892), who married banker Charles E. Rittenhouse (1814-1880) in 1855.

In the Civil War years and afterwards, the house was known as Rittenhouse Place. Though the house itself seems to have changed very little, Georgetown changed all around it.

The war brought many unruly (and largely unwelcome) Union soldiers who seemed to have little respect for local residents, many of whom sympathized with the South. Troops camped at the Lyons Mill complex on Rock Creek, for example, would occasionally take potshots at the stained glass windows of the chapel in Oak Hill Cemetery, just to the north of Rittenhouse Place. To the south was an encampment of former slaves who had fled across the Potomac from the plantations of Virginia.

Postcard view of Dumbarton House, circa 1940s (author's collection).

Meanwhile, lower Georgetown, along the waterfront, had become a rather seedy industrial zone. Massive amounts of silt had filled the harbor, making it nearly useless as a shipping port. Once seafaring trade had diminished, business activity shifted to the assorted mills and factories lining the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. It was a place for gentlefolk to avoid.

After Sarah Rittenhouse died, the old house on the ridge was sold to Howard Hinckley, who around 1900 made a number of renovations, such as adding decorative Georgian-style "quoins" on the exterior corners of the house and removing an interior wall on the first floor to create a large entertainment room.

Hinckley sold the property in 1912 to John L. Newbold (1871-1931), a prominent local businessman and founder of the Merchants Transfer & Storage Company. Newbold made the purchase knowing that he was acquiring a house with a serious problem; it stood directly in the path of a planned extension of Q Street.

Dumbarton House in 1913, before it was moved. Note there.are steps up to the front entrance (author's collection)

The Q Street extension was part of a scheme to link the Heights of Georgetown with the well-to-do Sheridan Circle neighborhood via an elegant new bridge (which would become known as the Dumbarton Bridge) spanning the valley of Rock Creek.

Wealthy Washingtonians had been building extravagant mansions along Massachusetts Avenue for several decades, turning the neighborhood into a posh enclave. Isolated on the other side of Rock Creek were the homes of the wealthy Georgetowners, who didn't have a convenient option for crossing over to the main city.

Excerpt form a 1903 Baist insurance map, showing Dumbarton House blocking the route of Q Street across the center of the view.

To extend Q Street, the District planned to tear down Newbold's mansion, but he got a court order holding them off until he could get it moved. Newbold hired Washington architect Thomas J.D. Fuller (1870-1946) to plan the move and "restoration" of the house, which included dismantling the two wings and then reconstructing them at the house's new location.

The move of the main house was undertaken by Caleb L. Saers, a Civil War veteran who had run a business of raising and moving houses in the Washington area since at least the 1880s. He found the Newbold mansion particularly challenging. It took three weeks and 200 jacks to raise the old house a half-inch off the ground and probably several months after that to drag it into its new resting place, a spot that had been dug out of the hillside some 60 feet to the north. Regretfully, no pictures have been located that show how this complicated engineering feat was accomplished.

Dumbarton House as it appeared before being restored. Photo courtesy of Dumbarton House.

The mansion's modern-day history began in 1928, when the NSCDA bought it to serve as their National Headquarters and gave it the name "Dumbarton House." This time, a thorough and historically-sensitive restoration was undertaken under the leadership of two distinguished architects, Fiske Kimball (1888-1955) of Philadelphia, who had spearheaded the restoration of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, and local architect Horace Peaslee (1884-1959), the primary designer of Meridian Hill Park.

Various alterations, mostly done by Hinckley, were reversed, bringing the house back to something close to its original appearance. Many fine details, such as the decorative plaster cornice in the main parlor and dining room, were restored to their original beauty. Decorated with exceptional early American furnishings, many of them donated by state societies associated with the NSCDA, the restored Dumbarton House was opened as a museum in 1932.

The dining room, as it appeared circa 1998. Photo from Historic American Buildings Survey, via Library of Congress.

Renovations were undertaken again in 1991, modernizing the building's systems, adding an elevator to enhance accessibility, and increasing office and meeting space apart from the historic core. This unique museum is now open to the public Tuesdays through Sundays, 11 am to 3 pm.

The staff and volunteers at Dumbarton House have done much extensive research into the house's history, which was very helpful in preparing this post. Frances White and Scott Scholz were particularly helpful in providing advice and correcting factual errors. Additional sources included Deering Davis, Stephen Dorsey, and Ralph Hall, Georgetown Houses of the Federal Period (1944); Harold Eberlein and Cortlandt Hubbard, Historic Houses of George-town & Washington City (1958); Oscar P. Fitzgerald, In Search of Joseph Nourse 1754-1841 (The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, 1994); Mary Mitchell, Divided Town (1968); Kathryn Schneider Smith, Port Town to Urban Neighborhood: The Georgetown Waterfront of Washington, D.C. 1880-1920 (1989); David D. White, Samuel Jackson: The First Occupant of Dumbarton House (unpublished, 2010); The National Register of Historic Places nomination for Dumbarton House (Dec. 14, 1990); as well as numerous newspaper articles.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington

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