Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Kent Boese

Kent Boese posts items of historic interest primarily within the District. He's worked in libraries since 1994, both federal and law, and currently works on K Street. He's been an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner serving the northern Columbia Heights and Park View neighborhoods since 2011 (ANC 1A), and is the force behind the blog Park View, D.C.

May Day in 1924 was a surprisingly big deal

Today is May Day, a springtime celebration that over the past century has transformed into a time to recognize the importance of play (and playgrounds to play on) for children. In 1924, DC had quite the May Day commemoration.

Maypole dance at a DC playground on May 1, 1924. Photo from the Library of Congress.

The playground movement, which latched onto May Day as its annual events became more established, led to the founding of the Playground Association of America (PAA) in 1906. The PAA's basic belief was that playgrounds were as much a necessity to children's physical and emotional health as schools. Due in large part to the PAA's support and assistance, the number of municipalities with playgrounds in America grew from 90 in 1907 to 531 in 1910.

Susie Root Rhodes, the District's playgrounds supervisor took extra efforts to make May Day a success in 1924 because it coincided with the American Child Health Association's Health Week.

Rhodes began planning for May 1st two months in advance, organizing festivities at 26 playgrounds across the city in places that included Park View, Bloomingdale, McKinley, and Rosedale, to name just a few.

"Fairies, flowers, and queens, personified in several hundred children," wrote the Washington Post in the lead up.

The day began at 9:00 am, when three little children from the Child Welfare Society hung a May basket for First Lady Grace Coolidge on the north door of the White House. After placing the basket, the children were running down the steps when Mrs. Coolidge called them back to thank them. She hugged and kissed James Owens, the youngest among them.

"I once had a little boy like you," she told him.

At Keith's, a historical theater close to the White House, Grace Abbott of the US Children's Bureau spoke for an hour. The Children's Bureau was the first federal agency within the US government—and the world—to focus exclusively on improving the lives of children and families, tackling issues like infant mortality, the birth rate, orphanages, juvenile courts, and diseases that are common among children.

Later in the day, celebrations moved toward city playgrounds, where May queens who were elected by friends from their neighborhood playground presided over 4:00 pm festivals.

May Queen Margaret Appleby (center) on the Park View playground on May Day in 1924. Photo from the Library of Congress.

During their fleeting reigns, May Queens watched over athletic contests, folk dances, the dances of the flowers and fairies, and the maypole. Events ended at 6:00 pm.

The District's May Day celebrations of days past were, at their core, a public voice of support for quality playgrounds and organized programming around the city. Both are still important to residents today.

Palisades' humble rec center exemplifies great park planning

In the 1930s, architects carefully planned the Palisades Recreation Center to take advantage of its location overlooking the Potomac River. 80 years later, it's still an informative model for park planning.

The Palisades Recreation Center today, looking from the north. Photo by the author.

Designers carefully planned the rec center, at 5200 Sherrier Place NW, to be more than just a collection of ball fields and playgrounds. They oriented buildings to take advantage of natural vistas, located baseball diamonds so their outfields double as public greens, and used unpretentious but beautiful architecture to balance the need for man-made structures with the surrounding natural beauty.

The result is a 13-acre green space that's as much a small national park as it is community playground.

Unlike other DC playgrounds established in the 1920s and 1930s, the Palisades rec center was designed by the National Park Service (NPS) as part of the Public Works Administration. The rec center opened to the public on September 11th, 1936. As of a 2014 study, the field house is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

But changes began to come in 2008 with DC's first artificial turf soccer field, and continued in 2013 with a new playground. Now, the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) and the Department of General Services are developing a plan to address the aging field house, as part of DPR's Play DC initiative.

A site plan for the Palisades rec center from late in 1935. Though this isn't the final plan, the building, the overlook, and the baseball field are all present. All images from the National Parks Service except where noted.

How it all happened

Thomas Chalmers Vint, an architect and landscape architect, supervised design and construction of the project between 1934 and 1936. Vint advocated the idea of having master plans for parks, to look at them comprehensively from planning through to construction. At many parks or monuments today, Vint's influence can still be seen in fine rustic buildings, bridges, and in how developed areas blend with the environment.

The NPS made park development plans mandatory in 1929. Under Vint's leadership, five-year plans became the standard for streamlining landscape preservation and park development.

At Palisades, Vint played an active role in the field house's design and setting. Plans for the site prior to Vint's involvement, from 1931, show a grouping of small buildings at the northern end of the property. That plan failed to materialize, and so community members pushed for a field house in early 1934. That coincided with Vint's move to Washington to become Chief Architect of NPS' Branch of Plans in Designs.

Planning for the new recreation center got underway in February 1935. Plans for both the playground and the building evolved, as designers tried to find a scheme that worked. They went through four different building proposals until settling on the eventual design, each plan being more informal and in harmony with nature than the one before.

An early Palisades rec center design from February 20, 1935.

A design from July 22, 1935.

The final design, dated October 1, 1935, is an asymmetrical three-part red-brick structure. The result is a building that looks informal and vernacular.

The final rec center design, approved October 4, 1935.

The grounds

Based on the building's asymmetry, its placement toward the southern end of the playground, and its orientation facing north-south, we know that every effort went into ensuring the field house did not overpower the natural beauty of the site. Instead, the building enhanced and was subservient to that beauty.

The building, along with its southern facing terrace, functions as a scenic overlook to the Potomac River. Palisades is the only Washington playground to have such a feature. This was, again, a result of Vint's oversight and experience.

While the overlook is the most notable feature of the site, others include a baseball diamond, tennis courts, a nature trail, and an outdoor picnic area. All are in places where they're unobtrusive and subordinate to nature. For example, the baseball infield and tennis courts are along the trolley right of way on the northeast border of the property, leaving less intense uses for the property interior.

It is particularly noteworthy that the baseball diamond's home plate is at the north end of the field, both giving residents fast access to home plate, and allowing the outfield to double as a meadow when people aren't playing baseball. We know that was intentional based on plans from 1935.

A partial site plan, dated July 17, 1935. It notes the meadow (which is the baseball field) and overlook.

Continue the legacy

The 1930s may be a long time ago, but we need good parks as much today as we did then. As DPR renovates Washington's aging parks, it will be important for today's generation of planners to think of these places in comprehensive terms, and not as only locations for active sports fields.

Washington needs strong long-term planning if it's going to manage its public resources efficiently and equitably. DPR's Play DC master plan is a good overall approach in concept. But it's still prone to piecemeal planning since DPR and DGS only plan for projects that have dedicated funding. This ad hoc approach makes it hard to create master plans, and hard to prioritize long term visions.

The Palisades Recreation Center's mid-1930s design is an example of how master planning can and should apply to Washington's recreation areas.

Then and Now: Snow plows

Snow plows ca. 1925Snow Plows at RFK Stadium

Left: Ford Motor Company snow plow equipment ca. 1925 in front of the District Building. Photo from the Library of Congress. Right: DDOT snow plows in front of RFK stadium, November 5, 2010. Photo from the DDOTDC Flickr pool.

The image below, also from the DDOTDC flickr pool, shows a Caterpillar Loader used in snow removal efforts from February 9, 2010:

Snow Removal

Then and Now: New Hampshire and Rock Creek Church Rd.

3600 New Hampshire Avenue ca 19273600 New Hampshire Avenue 2010
The northwest corner of New Hampshire Avenue and Rock Creek Church Road, NW, ca. 1927 (left), and today (right). Historic image from the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

The houses located on the west side of New Hampshire Avenue from 3600 to 3612 were built by Joseph J. Moebs. Construction began in 1909. Upon purchasing the land from Ernest Steiger for $7,800, some speculated that Moebs would erect an apartment house instead of residences. This view shows the row from the southeast, at the intersection of New Hampshire and Rock Creek Church Road.

Lost Washington: Thompson's Dairy

Though one wouldn't know it by looking at Washington today, industry was once an integral part of the city's economy. The Thompson Dairy is one example of Washington's industrial past.

Thompson's Dairy ca. 1930. From "Book of Washington," 1930.

The dairy was founded in 1881 by John Thompson who had a dairy farm near Washington. Prior to 1881, Thompson would bring his milk to the city each day and find a distributor. When distributors were hard to find in 1881, he decided to become his own distributor and opened a business at Seventh and L Streets, NW.

Upon his death, his three sister's took over operation of the business which continued to grow and expand. By 1927, a new plant had been built taking up nearly the entire block bounded by 11th, 12th, U and V Streets, NW. At the time of its opening on November 7th, the plant handled 5,000 gallons of milk a day.

From Library of Congress collection.

The modern plant at 2012 11th Street, NW, consistently received numerous awards from the Health Department for the quality of their milk. To encourage the highest standards of milk production, the dairy offered incentives to dairy farmers to produce richer and cleaner milk. The dairy was described in 1930 as supporting a large fleet of motor trucks and horse-drawn delivery wagons to serve all sections of Washington and adjacent territories.

Over the years, the firm grew and expanded from 41 employees to 580 workers in 1965, making it one of the largest private firms in the Washington area. Dairy routes had also grown by 1965 to include 535 routes using a fleet of refrigerated trucks.

The Dairy closed in 1971 and the property was ultimately redeveloped.

Interior of Thompson's Dairy. Undated photo from Library of Congress.

Then and Now: Columbia Road @ Sherman Avenue

The historic image below dates to January 5, 1921, and shows the aftermath of a motor collision at Columbia Road and Sherman Avenue.

(Columbia Road at Sherman Avenue in 1921 and today)

The crash involved Battalion Fire Chief Timothy J. Donohue, who was injured, receiving a cracked jaw, several broken ribs and lacerations on his face, head and body. Donohue was 63 years of age at the time. He rallied and recovered from his injuries.

Donohue officially became Battalion Chief in 1916 after 32 years of service. By November 1, 1921, he had retired from fire duty.

Additional images below:

Historic images from Library of Congress

3577 Warder gets free curb cut despite policy, bad acts

There are days when I'm reminded that I live in the Wild, Wild West. Wednesday was one of those days as I received a phone call alerting me that 3577 Warder Street was getting a curb cut.

Yes, they had permits, and plans, and everything appears to be on the up-and-up. The existence of such documents in this case makes me scratch my head and wonder why developers are afforded permissions that the average resident is not.

The issue of a curb cut at this property was first brought before ANC 1A in September, 2009. At that time, their request was denied due to there being no room for a driveway on the property, the close proximity of a street light, and the loss of two public street parking spaces in the community.

Newly poured curb cut at 3577 Warder.

After waiting a few months, the builder next proceeded to raze the home that was originally on the site. Being a singe family wood-frame home, it was one of the earliest homes in Park View.

DDOT Public Space/Parking Permit

The destruction of the property was done without a raze permit, the subsequent work was halted due to lack of permits and inspections, and the announcement of the building clearly stated that parking would be available. Though the City was alerted, clearly no one cared. The voice of concerned neighbors and the ruling of the ANC 1A commissioners certainly don't seem to have been considered.

So now, after the developer has been denied his curb cut, inappropriately razed a building, and is in process of building new condos without community input, he's able to go to the city and claim economic hardship because his project lacks parking and this will make his property less valuable... and he get a permit.

What's worse, the permit clearly shows that the developer didn't have to pay a "public inconvenience fee" and DDOT waived the $11,122.21 deposit.

All I can say is WOW. I hope DDOT will waive the deposit of each and every Park View resident that needs to repair a stone wall or get any other type of permit from DDOT. Allowing this project to get a curb cut is a travesty and only encourages other developers to flout the law and build whatever they want.

Bruce-Monroe won't stay a park, might not be a school

As the Washington City Paper reported, DC released an RFP to redevelop the former Bruce-Monroe school site on July 26th. The RFP could lead to a new school on the site, but also opens up the possibility of other uses that fund school improvements off site.

The stated long-term goal of the property has been to build a new Bruce-Monroe school, yet significant obstacles—most notably money and the economic climate—have prevented this to date. The option of modernizing the historic Park View school, where Bruce-Monroe students currently attend, has met with significant resistance from some of the parents and teachers at the school.

Proposed site plan for Bruce-Monroe. Image from DMPED.

Recognizing that it could be five years before shovel hits dirt, city officials decided to develop an interim use for the property. Their initial approach was to spend $500,000 on an area parking lot. This idea also met with fierce community opposition, ultimately resulting in a commitment of $2M to create a community park.

The interim park is scheduled to open on July 29th, and already includes sod, some trees, two basketball courts, a tennis court, two tot-lots with playground equipment and a small parking lot. A building is to be built in the second phase of the project to support educational programs.

Interim park site plan. Image from DMPED.

The high price tag for the park led some to speculate that DC might keep it as a park permanently, but this RFP makes it clear the park isn't permanent. On the other hand, it's possible it won't become a school again, either.

Though the RFP clearly has the educational needs of the community as a priority, developers have the option to submit proposals that don't include a new school as well as ones that do. In the event that a winning proposal is focus primarily on the commercial aspect of the property, the RFP states that funds generated from the conveyance of the property to the developer would be used to "fund school improvement at the off-site Bruce Monroe Elementary School at Parkview."

This clearly brings the modernization of the Park View school back into the mix. This is significant since a renovated Park View has been rejected by approximately 30 to 40 of the parents of the 414 students who attended the school this year.

Its impossible to see which way this issue will go until proposals start to roll in. Its certainly possible that a new school will arise on the site of the old. Yet, each twist and turn seems to include an additional challenge for that vision.

Those interested in reading the full RFP, as well as the contents of the four appendices, can do so by going to the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development's Web site.

Then and Now: The Times-Herald building

The Washington Times/Washington Herald building in the 1920s (left) and today (right).
Historic image from the Library of Congress.

The Washington Times, later to become the Times-Herald, was first published March 18, 1884. It was started by Frank Lerch. The Times was eventually sold to Aurthur Brisbane, William Randolph Hearst's chief editorial writer, in May, 1910. The Washington Herald was started on October 8, 1906, as a morning newspaper. After a succession of owners it was sold to William Randolph Hearst on November 19, 1922. The historic image above likely dates to shortly after that time and shows the Times-Herald building at 1307 H Street, NW.

Both newspapers were purchased by Eleanor Patterson on February 1, 1939. Patterson owned the papers until her death July 24, 1948. The Washington Post purchased the papers in March 1954, and publication of the paper was moved to the plant at 1515 L Street, NW.

Then and Now: Minute Service Station No. 1

As the area north of Farragut Square transitioned away from its residential roots the area built up and changed quickly. The northwest corner of 17th and L Streets, NW, gives an indication of the speed of that change.

Filling Station 17th and L, NW17th and L, NW 2010

The historic image above shows the site in early 1922. The filling station under construction was designed by R.F. Beresford for the Washington Accessories Co. in 1921. In looking at the image, the Dome of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle is clearly visible.

As shown in the following photographs, by late 1922 the filling station was completed. In the final image taken sometime after 1925, L Street Garage, also by Beresford and built in 1923, occupies the site west of the filling station and the Mayflower Hotel obscures the view of the cathedral.

Historic images from Library of Congress.

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