Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Georgetown

History


Then and Now: Georgetown's Forrest Hall

Today, it's a Gap clothing store. But almost 150 years ago, the large Greek Revival building at 1258 Wisconsin Avenue NW in Georgetown was Forrest Hall, an assembly hall where Mark Twain gave a lecture.


1258 Wisconsin Avenue NW. Photo by the author.

Named for its owner, wealthy Georgetown resident Bladen Forrest, the building opened in 1851. According to local author Tim Krepp, Forrest Hall's meeting rooms hosted groups like the Masons and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, who discussed issues like retroceding Georgetown back to Maryland.

During the Civil War, the building became Forrest Hall Military Prison, an improvised jail for deserters where 3 people died, according to government records.

Mark Twain delivered a handful of lectures in Washington City during the winter of 1867-1868, while serving as a secretary to Nevada Senator William Stewart and composing correspondence for newspapers primarily in New York and the west. The last lecture he gave was on Saturday, February 22, 1868 at Forrest Hall.

On February 22, 1868, the Georgetown Courier ran a notice that "Mark Twain, the genial, witty and humorous Californian" would be "volunteering his services" for "the benefit of the Ladies' Union Benevolent Society" later that evening. Founded in 1868, the organization exists today as the Aged Woman's Home of Georgetown, located across the street at 1255 Wisconsin Avenue NW.


Photo of Forrest Hall circa 1921 from the collection of the DC Public Library's Peabody Room.

According to the Daily Morning Chronicle, an "appreciative audience, including many of the most prominent persons of Georgetown" packed Forrest Hall that night:

"[Twain] selected as his topic 'The Sandwich Islands,' and for an hour or more kept the audience in almost continuous roars of laughter. Upon stepping forward to the desk in his usual cautious and deliberate manner, he was received with applause. He apologized for his appearance without an introduction by stating that the young man who had promised to present him to the audience has been disabled.

He fell down and broke his heart or neck, Mark didn't know which, not being particularly interested in the young man. The chief reason for his intrusion upon their attention was a request, made by several ladies, that he should deliver a lecture for the poor. He always had a grudge against the poor, and therefore embraced the opportunity to inflict a lecture on them."

This post is excerpted from the forthcoming book, "Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: Adventures of a Capital Correspondent."

Public Spaces


For a while, Georgetown was "West Washington"

Businesses and residents of the neighborhood near Nationals Park can't decide whether to call it Navy Yard or Capital Riverfront. If Georgetown is any precedent, then the newer Capitol Riverfront name won't stick, at least not forever. While a new name might stick around for a little while, eventually people are drawn back to historic names.


Undated map of West Washington (formerly Georgetown) from the Library of Congress.

Georgetown preexisted the District of Columbia by 50 years. After the formation of the District, Georgetown remained an independent city within the new capital, but it lost its charter in 1871 and merged with the city and county of Washington. Ever since, there have been no independent municipalities in DC.

In 1878, Congress revoked DC's limited democracy and imposed an appointed commissioner system that lasted until 1967. In doing so, Congress redubbed Georgetown as "West Washington".

Despite the fact that Georgetown had existed so long as an independent city and only dissolved 7 years prior, people gave a genuine go at using the new name. Throughout the 1880's, the Washington Post is full of society notes not from Georgetown, but West Washington.

This new name was consistently used well through the 1890's and into the first decade of the 20th century. But by the teens, its usage appears to have trailed off. By the 1920's, the only place you'll find references to "West Washington" was in the name of the Baptist church at 31st and P streets NW.

Originally the Baptist Church of Georgetown, it changed its name to West Washington Baptist Church in 1899. It held on to this name all the way until 1955, well after Georgetown returned as the primary neighborhood name. The change back was probably inspired by the bicentennial of the neighborhood, when nostalgia broke out in the form of beer and preservation boards.

The lesson? It might take a while, but if Georgetown is any guide, Navy Yard will eventually win out.

Roads


DDOT bows to pressure, removes Wisconsin Ave. median

Last week, DC officials quietly reversed their recent traffic calming project in Glover Park and began removing a new median on Wisconsin Avenue.


New left-turn lanes in Glover Park. Photo from DDOT.

With the Glover Park ANC's support, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) replaced one lane on Wisconsin between 35th and Garfield streets with a painted median in January to calm traffic and improve pedestrian safety. However, a number of residents who drive through Glover Park, including Councilmember Jack Evans (Ward 2, including Georgetown), pushed to reverse the move.

DDOT previously said their plan was to leave the median in place long enough to study it, but in the face of pressure, the agency suddenly began removing the median between Calvert and Garfield streets. Drivers struck 2 pedestrians each year in this stretch between 2008 and 2010. DDOT spokesperson Monica Hernandez says the change is "permanent" and that "the plan is to monitor pedestrian safety going forward."

Community supported median on Wisconsin Avenue

ANC 3B, which contains Glover Park, endorsed the median after a long vetting process. In June 2009, DDOT and its consultants at Toole Design Group recommended replacing one through lane with a center left turn median lane. Studies from the Office of Planning and DDOT found that it would increase pedestrian safety, calm traffic and direct it to the commercial strip by removing turning cars from the through lanes.

While DDOT originally proposed a raised median, ANC 3B advocated to start with painted medians so DDOT could study their effect and make changes if needed. After multiple ANC meetings and ample discussion on the Glover Park listserv, DDOT finally completed the painted median in January. Some neighbors immediately began to question the new median's impact on local businesses and whether it had just pushed traffic onto other streets.

Despite some complaints, most Glover Park residents agreed that the new configuration made it safer to move around Wisconsin Avenue, whether by car, foot or transit. The Glover Park ANC was also supportive, though they advocated for continued study and tweaks to reduce congestion.

Political pressure trumps collecting data

DDOT offered to study traffic delays for a year and look at ways to change the light timing, signage and enforcement to reduce congestion, but opponents said that was too long to wait.

Evans kept pressure up on the issue, including railing against it at public forums. He made regular phone calls to Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3, which includes Glover Park) while driving through the area, which he traverses several times a day to take his kids to and from their home in Georgetown.

When DDOT presented preliminary results of traffic studies showing that the median only added 1-2 minutes to driving time, Evans was incredulous. "If we were talking about just a couple minutes, we wouldn't be here," he said.

Last week, DDOT quietly began removing part of the median. The agency made this decision without telling residents of Glover Park or ANC 3B. DDOT spokesperson Monica Hernandez says they acted based on "direction provided by those at the May 1 hearing."

ANC members are disappointed in DDOT's change of heart. "It's outrageous that DDOT would make this change without considering its impacts on pedestrian safety and traffic flow and without consulting with the community most affected by the modifications," said ANC 3B chair Brian Cohen.

Cohen also says Evans' involvement shifted the decision from safety-focused to political. "The change from data-gathering to simply reversing DDOT clearly happened when Councilmember Evans inserted himself into the issue," said Cohen. "Jack Evans hasn't shown the slightest interest in the well-being and safety of the people who live, work, and play in Glover Park. ... It's galling that he's been given carte blanche to make decisions that undermine pedestrian safety in our community."

The Wisconsin Avenue median was the result of extensive study, community discussion, and eventually community buy-in. It's disappointing that DDOT would subvert its own process and put pedestrians at risk based on political pressure. Glover Park residents deserve better treatment from their officials and elected leaders.

History


When Georgetown was on the wrong side of the creek

Ghosts of DC found a great map from the Library of Congress archives. It shows the property values of each block in DC in 1879.


Map from Library of Congress, via Ghosts of DC.

Matt Yglesias noticed and pointed out that it shows a time when Logan and Shaw were more expensive than Georgetown.

Actually, the blocks around Logan and the Shaw blocks to the east don't appear to have that much more of an concentration of darker blocks than Georgetown. But it is true that this map likely captures the moment when Georgetown slowly started to slip behind the rest of the city in terms of economic status.

This is a fact that many are familiar with. Starting in the late 19th century Georgetown became somewhat of an Irish and African-American slum (although sometimes this is a bit overstated). It's reputation grew as a rougher part of town through the early 20th century. In the 1930s, Georgetown became one of the first "gentrified" neighborhoods in DC when New Dealers swooped in and bought up the old houses. The rest is history.

While the early 20th century brought poverty to Georgetown, in 1879 it wasn't necessarily clear that that was the future. Georgetown had only just been an independent city eight years prior (actually it was briefly known as "West Washington" at this point). And the governor of DC (during its brief territorial status) Henry Cooke thought it wise to construct his grand Cooke's Row of Second Empire mansions in 1868.

Perhaps it was the Panic of 1879 (which hit Cooke personally due to his widespread real estate speculation) that started Georgetown's decline, but it is more likely the rise of the railroad and the related decline of the canal.

But looking at the map you can see that the biggest concentration of expensive real estate at this point was what is now considered downtown (and probably remains the most expensive land in DC). Soon after this map was created, the Kalorama neighborhood was created and attracted the wealthy. By the 1890s, Georgetowners worried about getting cut off from the happening parts of DC and lobbied to have the Dumbarton Bridge built.

If you were to draft this map again in the 1920s, the differences would be starker. With robber barons building gilded age palaces on Massachusetts Ave. Georgetown found itself on the wrong side of the creek.

One final note: As I said, the slum status of Georgetown in the 20th century is sometimes overstated. There were pockets of deep poverty, including the "Holy Hill" Irish neighborhood in west Georgetown, the "Herring Hill" African American neighborhood on the east side, and scattered decrepit alley dwellings in lower Georgetown.

But the grand estates of Georgetown were still around. Tudor Place, Evermay, Dumbarton Oaks, and Halcyon (not to mention scores of lesser grand homes) all coexisted with the slummier sections of Georgetown.

Of course even today, we have people living in structures built for animals right next to luxurious houses. But they paid millions of dollars for the privilege.

Cross-posted at the Georgetown Metropolitan.

Preservation


Georgetown Heating Plant: Monument or eyesore?

Last month, a consortium of investors, including the Levy Group and Four Seasons, won the auction to purchase the historic West Heating Plant on 29th Street in Georgetown. The future of the building is now in doubt, but is it worth saving as is?


Photos by the author.

No formal plans have been presented by the winning group, but you can read between the lines of their few public statements. Most tellingly, a letter from the Zoning Administrator to the group's lawyer discussed the general proposal to tear down most of the building. The request asked what the zoning implications would be to keep the 29th Street façade but tear down most of the rest of the building.

Some, like myself, think the entire building is worth saving. It's a striking example of a austere Art Deco style in a city mostly untouched by that style. The front façade, (which the group seems likely to keep anyway) is a muscular and monolithic edifice, that is detailed with a precise yet delicate brickwork borders:

The rest of the building carries on that muscular hulk:

But the problem is, there is simply no way to get natural light into the building as it is currently structured.


Photo from Jones Lang LaSalle.

Yes, there are eight long windows on the north and south sides, but behind each window is a giant steel frame blocking the light. The frames are structural, so they cannot be easily removed.

I have seen some plans (not from the winning group) calling for a giant atrium to bring light in, but that would limit the roof usage and remove a good deal of square footage within the building.

Some simply think people like me are nuts and that the building is an eyesore. The very traits I find appealing can be just as easily seen as looming and oppressive.

What do you think? Should the new owners be forced to save all four façades? Or should they be allowed to tear down most of the building and simply keep the 29th Street side?

Click here for more pictures of the building.

Cross-posted at the Georgetown Metropolitan.page/2

Transit


Choices emerge for K Street and Georgetown streetcar

Should the streetcar run on K Street through downtown in both directions? Just one and on I Street the other? Along the waterfront or on M Street in Georgetown? Or should it be a bus instead?

At an open house-format public meeting last night, DDOT officials and consultants were available to answer questions about 3 alternatives they have devised for "premium transit" from Union Station to Georgetown: a streetcar in the median of K Street, a bus in the median, or a streetcar in the median eastbound but on I Street westbound.

Streetcar alternative 1.

Streetcar alternative 2.

Rapid bus alternative.

Each alternative assumes that DC builds the "K Street transitway," a project to move the medians inward so there is a dedicated transit lane in each direction in the center of the road, plus 3 general lanes (2 plus parking off-peak) on each side.

Segment of K Street transitway design.

On the middle part of K Street, Alternative 1, the streetcar in the median, seems the clear winner. Rapid buses are indeed a mode DC needs more of, but here, there will already be a streetcar from H Street ending at Union Station. Extending the streetcar is obvious.

The team is likely only looking at rapid bus because of Federal Transit Administration requirements that a study consider multiple modes, even when looking at extending an existing transit line. (The Federal Highway Administration does not require every highway study to include an option for something other than roadway lanes.)

I jokingly asked one of the designers where the elevated gondola or helicopter-shuttle alternatives were; he replied in complete seriousness that at many of these, people ask why they didn't consider monorail.

As for the one-way pair, this also makes little sense here. In general, splitting transit on adjacent one-way streets is not ideal; as Jarrett Walker explains, it reduces the number of people within a set walking distance of each direction. Here, in particular, there will be a 2-way median transitway on K Street.

One big question is how the transitway will also work with buses. The plans for the transitway call for moving the Circulator and many local buses into the transitway, but they stop more often. Will that back up the streetcar? It won't be able to go around a bus that stops every block, unless DDOT switches back to the other, 3-lane transitway option.

Segment of original K Street transitway option 1.

WMATA is studying dedicated bus lanes on H and I Streets; it might be most appropriate to keep moving forward on those, with an eye toward many buses going there. On the other hand, if DC is building a whole transitway, it also makes sense to maximize its use.

There's more to discuss about the ends of the lines. One streetcar option just has the line staying on H Street until New Jersey Avenue, when it would move up to K; the other option would use North Capitol to jog southward to Massachusetts Avenue. This gets a streetcar station a little closer to the Metro and nearer Union Station's front door. Most likely, this is not worthwhile, since it will take extra time; also, one day Union Station will hopefully have an attractive entrance on H Street.


Image from the Amtrak Union Station plan.

In the west, there are options to cross under Washington Circle and then travel onto Water Street, under the Whitehurst, or to go up Pennsylvania to M Street in Georgetown. The study doesn't explicitly consider how or whether to connect the streetcar to Georgetown University, Wisconsin Avenue, Rosslyn, or other places from there.

All of the boards from the meeting are online, including a lot more information about the lane configurations at stations, other alignments DDOT considered, and more.

This is a good time also to take a look back at this video from 3 years ago envisioning the K Street streetcar. ZGF Architects made it for the Downtown BID and DDOT, and ZGF is part of the team for this study.

What option do you think is best?

Pedestrians


Georgetowners seek to overturn Glover Park traffic calming

Upset Georgetown residents are challenging a 2012 traffic calming project in Glover Park. They say it has lengthened their car commutes through that adjacent neighborhood. Monday, these residents will air their frustrations at an extraordinary Georgetown ANC meeting with Councilmembers Jack Evans and Mary Cheh and DDOT Director Terry Bellamy.


New left-turn lanes in Glover Park. Photo from DDOT.

The idea for traffic calming project began years ago. The Glover Park ANC, after hearing constituents bemoan the state of retail in Glover Park, complained to the city about their commercial district's struggles.

The Office of Planning studied the area in 2006. That report found that cars speed through Glover Park, particularly going downhill on Wisconsin, which makes it dangerous to the pedestrians who patronize Glover Park businesses.

2-3 pedestrians are struck each year on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park. In fact, after a driver hit a Georgetown woman and her dog in Glover Park, commissioner Ed Solomon of the Georgetown ANC said, "I would hope that this accident would result in a comprehensive review on the safety concerns that this community has about this section of Wisconsin Avenue."

It's precisely this hostile pedestrian environment, concluded the Office of Planning, that reduces pedestrian traffic to retailers in Glover Park.

DDOT concludes median could reduce congestion and boost pedestrian safety

The Glover Park ANC then asked DDOT in 2009 for a follow-up study about making Glover Park more welcoming for pedestrians. DDOT collected tons of data on traffic at all times of day and days of the week, and reached some interesting conclusions.

The data showed that Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park actually suffers from both congestion and speeding, due to the many left turns. When drivers are turning left they block the lanes and cause congestion; when they don't, people speed and pedestrians are at risk.

DDOT's engineering models showed that adding a middle left-turn lane would both reduce congestion and also speeding. It would calm traffic (with a single through lane) and eliminate left-turn lane blocking (with the turn lane). The models estimated that the project would not change the time to drive though Glover Park.

Officals presented these results at numerous public meetings. Anyone who was remotely involved in civic affairs by reading public meeting notices, attending ANC meetings, or talking to their ANC commissioners knew about it.

Changes aren't complete

DDOT then began the construction, and some residents in Glover Park and Georgetown complained about traffic spilling over into adjacent neighborhood streets. That was a legitimate complaint, and there is a poorly-designed intersection at 37th & Tunlaw that invites drivers to cut through adjacent neighborhood streets.

Fortunately, DDOT's study had a recommendation for that. It suggested reconfiguring 37th and Tunlaw to calm traffic and reduce cut-through traffic. That project is not done yet; it's scheduled to be completed in March.

The construction on Wisconsin, however, largely finished early this year, but the center median containing the left-turn lanes is only painted for now. That's because DDOT is spending a year measuring the results and tweaking different things like light timing, enforcement, and so on.

Changes already help some pedestrians, frustrate some drivers

Pedestrians are already feeling the benefits. It's far less stressful crossing and walking along Wisconsin Avenue. Families with children in particular report less anxiety about walking around Glover Park to popular destinations like the Guy Mason playground and area restaurants.

When the year of tweaks and study ends, DDOT will replace the painted medians between the left-turn areas with raised medians. This will be even better for pedestrian activity, because crossing Wisconsin Avenue will be safer and less threatening with a central raised median.

However, a vocal minority of drivers who prioritize a few seconds of driving time over pedestrian safety have won their first battle to reverse this project. They have secured an audience with two Councilmembers and the DDOT Director at Monday's Georgetown ANC meeting.

DDOT Program Manager Paul Hoffman says that "early returns" of data collection indicate that through time is the same for drivers headed north through Glover Park, but 30 seconds longer on average going south.

If the opponents are successful in repaving Wisconsin Avenue to add the lost through lanes, DC will not only have to pay for the repaving. We will have to pay the federal government back for the money it contributed to the project.

Use the form below and attend Monday's meeting to ask the councilmembers and Georgetown ANC commissioners to give the Glover Park traffic calming project time to succeed. The ANC meeting takes place on Monday, March 4, 6:30 pm at Georgetown Visitation School on 35th Street and Volta Place. The meeting is on the 2nd floor of the main building, in the Heritage Room.

Speak up for safety

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