Posts about History
I recently embarked on a quest to figure out what was the oldest continuously named street in the District of Columbia. While I initially thought it was going to be a easy task, my initial inquiries came up inconclusive. But I'm tentatively ready to name the victor Water Street NW, a short street in Georgetown.
Georgetown existed before the District of Columbia. It was founded as a Maryland town in 1751, more than fifty years before the District was established. If any street name from Georgetown's founding were still in use, it would clearly be the longest continuously used street name in DC.
Unfortunately, no street name from Georgetown's founding is still in use today. Here's the original plan of the town:
None of the original street names are still in use, with the one exception of Water Street. Originally, the street we now call Wisconsin Avenue was called Water Street south of the street we now call M Street. Nowadays, "Water Street" is the name we call K Street west of Wisconsin Avenue. But in 1751, this stretch was called "The Keys" and West Landing.
So it's not quite right to say Water Street is the longest continuously named street in DC. At least not based on this information. All of the other "Old Georgetown" street names in use in 1751, like Bridge Street and High Street, stopped being used shortly after Washington City absorbed Georgetown in 1871.
Jump ahead from the town's founding in 1751 to 1796, and more of the "Old Georgetown" street names have appeared, including Dunbarton Street, Prospect Street, and Water Street, which now includes what we today call "Water Street." This is still before the creation of DC, and so they should still preexist any non-Georgetown street names.
All three of those street names continued after the 1871 merger. It's probably safe to say one of those three names is the oldest continuously used street name in DC.
But the question is which of them, if any, is the oldest? We know that the name "Water Street" is the oldest, but was it used to refer to the actual waterfront street before it was called Prospect or Dunbarton?
In a way, we can already dismiss Dunbarton seeing as it has changed its spelling and suffix over the years, going from Dunbarton Street to Dumbarton Avenue, and back to Dumbarton Street. So it's really between Prospect and Water.
But if we're ready to dismiss Dumbarton Street because it once was called Dumbarton Avenue, then Water Street might be the winner after all. That's because, like Dumbarton and Olive streets, Prospect Street was also briefly known as Prospect Avenue after the merger. It appears all the "Old Georgetown" street names that survived the merger were temporary referred to as avenues. Except for Water Street, which doesn't appear to have been renamed.
So barring new information, I'm ready to tentatively give Water Street the title of longest-continuously named street in DC.
A version of this post appeared on the Georgetown Metropolitan.
Today's push to improve streets for pedestrians and cyclists mirrors the push a century ago for paved roads. Both ideas stated small but grew to become popular movements by increasing public awareness.
Over 100 years ago, maps of "Good Roads" led the push for paved roads by letting travelers know which roads were likely to be passable. In Slate magazine, Rebecca Onion recently posted an 1897 map of "Good Roads" in and around Philadelphia. Onion says that maps like these were a necessity in a time where standards on road quality and the funding for infrastructure was haphazard and sometimes non-existent.
Efforts like this are still happening today. While most of our roads and highways are now paved, many communities recognize that our streets need infrastructure upgrades in order to help more people feel safe while traveling on foot or by bike, as well as driving.
In the beginning of the 20th century, the "Good Roads" movement pushed governments to pave more roads to accommodate the newly-invented bicycle. Today, there is a push to create protected spaces for cyclists to use. Many cities are adopting "complete streets" policies that seek to standardize our street infrastructure and emphasize that roads are safe and accessible for all users whether they're on foot, riding a bike, or driving.
Like the "Good Roads" movements, maps are an important tool in advocating for complete streets. Both advocacy groups and local governments publish maps that show where the best routes to bike are. This isn't a new idea, either. Bicycle maps were being published in California as early as 1896.
In every debate over a new bike lane or changes to street parking, opponents sometimes argue that the status quo is fine and question why it should change. "Good Roads" maps show that our infrastructure is always changing, and the desire for better and more accommodating streets is nothing new.
Like many DC neighborhoods, Georgetown historically had several movie theatres. While none of them are still in operation today, almost all of the buildings that once held movie theatres are largely intact.
Jonathan O'Connell of the Washington Post ran a fantastic feature Monday on the history of theatres in DC, with a map showing where historic theatres were and existing theatres are. The city had 116 movie theatres and playhouses during the 20th century, six of which were in Georgetown. Let's tally them up!
Above you see a photo of the Key Theatre. Of the historic theatres, it was on the young side. It was opened in 1969 and closed in 1997. Nowadays it (along with the former Roy Rogers next door) is occupied by Restoration Hardware.
Here is the Biograph. It was even younger than the Key Theatre. It was built in 1976 in a former car dealership and lasted until 1996. Like the Georgetown theatre, in its later years it mixed art house with adult fare, but was unable to stave off closure. Like many former theatres in DC, it now houses a CVS.
Familiar to many, the Georgetown Theatre building has lasted several decades, gutted and decrepit as it may be today. However, the facade as we now know it is thankfully not long for this world. Local architect Robert Bell has a contract to buy the building and plans to restore the neon sign and rip off the formstone exterior.
Bell only intends to restore the facade to its state immediately before the formstone was applied. That is apparently a simple stucco style, but unfortunately I couldn't locate a picture of what that looked like. Bell confirmed that he had no plans to restore the facade of the Dumbarton Theatre, which was what became the Georgetown in the 1950s. It was opened in 1913, shortly before this photo was taken:
Bell plans to restore the neon side, making it red, while returning the frame to its original black color. I predict it will displace the old Riggs Bank dome as the iconic Georgetown image once it's finally repaired.
This obviously isn't a theatre, but the Tommy Hilfiger stands at the site of the former Lido Theatre. The theatre was open from 1909 to 1948. I unfortunately could not find any picture of the original theatre. The facade was changed significantly for Tommy Hilfiger, here's what it looked like in the 1990's:
The former Lido Theatre (on the far left). Photo courtesy of the author.
I'm not certain, but chances are that this isn't really the original building. It just looks way more mid-century than turn-of-the-century. The theatre shut in 1948, and that building looks awfully 1950's-ish. I suspect that's when the current structure was built, or it may mean the building's facade was redone later on. So maybe this is one that should be considered "lost."
This is also obviously not a photo of a theatre, but before this building held Nike or Barnes and Noble, it held the Cerebus 1-2-3 Theatre. Like many of the large and similar looking buildings on 14th St., this property was also originally built as a car dealership. The theatre occupied the space from 1970 to 1993.
Last, but not least, on O'Connell's list is the Foundry Theatre. The photo above shows it as it is today, but it hasn't really changed much since the theatre closed in 2002. It was the youngest theatre on this list, having been opened in 1984. For all intents and purposes, it was replaced by the Georgetown AMC theatre, which opened the same year.
So at one point in the late 1970's, there were four different movie theatres open in Georgetown. Now there's just one (two if you count Letelier Theatre) but we've got almost all the old shells. In the age of Netflix and on-demand movies, maybe we should be happy we've even got that.
Crossposted on Georgetown Metropolitan.
Chinese restaurants are ubiquitous in the DC area, with multiple Chinatowns across the region and a plethora of carryout joints. But a century ago, Chinese food was more of a novelty here.
Hong Kong Restaurant in Congress Heights, once the only Chinese restaurant east of the river. Photo from the collection of Jerry McCoy.
The city's first Chinese restaurants opened on Pennsylvania Avenue in the 1890s, according to local historian John DeFerrari, author of the recently published Historic Restaurants of Washington, DC: Capital Eats. He cites a 1903 Washington Times article that described Chinese restaurants as a fad among the city's "smart set," who liked to go "slumming" in DC's small Chinatown at 4th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, now home to the National Gallery of Art.
Within a matter of decades, says DeFerrari, their numbers began to grow. In the 1920s and 1930s, neighborhood Chinese restaurants began appearing all over the city, serving dishes like chow mein and chop suey. Since Chinese restaurants traditionally didn't serve alcohol, they were particularly well-suited to weather the Prohibition era.
But you couldn't find them in every neighborhood. East of the Anacostia River, perhaps the only Chinese joint was the Hong Kong Restaurant at 3109B Nichols Avenue SE in Congress Heights.
It is unclear when the restaurant opened and when it closed, but it was around long enough to appear in a postcard. "Its style as seen in the old postcard is typical of restaurants of the 1930s and 1940s," notes DeFerrari. The address shown says Nichols Avenue, which became Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue in the 1970s.
It is within reason to speculate the restaurant was open into the 1950s, before the neighborhood desegregated. During that era, the streetcar ran up and down Nichols Avenue from Anacostia, a white neighborhood, through Hillsdale/Barry Farm, a black neighborhood, to Congress Heights, then a white neighborhood. As the only Chinese joint east of the river, the Hong Kong was likely a destination for many residents there.
Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue is home to convenience stores, liquor stores, mobile phone providers, offices for contractors and social services, a car-wash, an athletic footwear store, and a weekly newspaper, along with the well-known Player's Lounge.
Meanwhile, the weather-beaten storefront remains, the restaurant is long gone, replaced today by a dollar store advertising Newport cigarettes for sale and letting customers know that it accepts EBT and food stamps.
Since June 2007, a three-story Catholic school in Historic Anacostia has sat quietly, unused and largely unnoticed. Last week, staff from the Archdiocese of Washington took me on a tour of the abandoned building, last known as the Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, with a small group of architects and contractors.
The school opened on V Street SE in the first decade of the 20th century for children of the nearby parish of Saint Teresa of Avila. It's one block over from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site and its cramped visitor's center. With capital, vision, and proper management, this vacant school house could complement the Douglass site as a true visitor's center, capable of capturing out-of-town dollars from the more than 50,000 annual visitors to the neighborhood destination.
The old Saint Teresa School at 1409 V Street SE in Historic Anacostia. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.
The boarded-up school was last used during the 2006-2007 academic year and awaits a rebirth and reuse.
But until then, let's take a tour of the school as it is today. Perched on a knoll above V Street, the brick exterior of the school is painted white and green and is in good condition.
I enter the rear of the school with the group through the multi-purpose room. The basketball backboards remain, without the rims. On a door hangs an activity calendar from March 2006. According to neighborhood sources, the school also served as a community center in the evenings during the 1980s and 1990s.
The school still has electricity, but many of the lights are out as I walk into the hallway. To enter the school, a facilities manager had to disarm the alarm. A member of the group remarks, "Kind of eerie."
Other than peeled paint, cracked floor tiles, and bathrooms with destroyed sinks and toilets, the interior of the building is sound, but there is probably a lot of asbestos in the building. Any possible renovation would require removing asbestos or lead-based paint.
Inside one of the classrooms, it appears that neighborhood children at some time gained access to the school. Across a blackboard someone wrote "V-BLOCK" with "Choppa City," the name of a local street crew, written in cursive inside of the "O."
You can see how the classrooms once looked when school was in session. Above one blank chalkboard, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, Speedy Gonzales, Bugs Bunny, the Roadrunner, and Yosemite Sam with two pistols drawn look out on the spirits of former pupils. Casper the Friendly Ghost adorns the walls of another room. Underneath one of the apparitions is a road sign that reads "Ghost Town." Being a former Catholic school, in this room and other parts of the building are signs and drawings of Jesus.
In the second-floor library, no books remain on the wood shelves that line the perimeter of the room. Three of the room's four windows are boarded up. A plaque on the wall states, "Library Established by Sr. Mary Dolorine 1955 Sponsored By The Mother's Club."
On a chalkboard in a 3rd floor classroom, "Taylor Tucker," remains alongside a note reading, "Schools [sic] out -> So Ugly." In the upper left-hand corner is the date of the last day of school, June 4, 2007. As I pick up a loose piece of chalk to write my name on the board, I hear someone call out, "The roof's open!"
I ascend the stairwell and walk on to the roof. Everyone in my cavalcade has their cell phone out, snapping unobscured panoramic photos of the city's skyline: the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome the most noticeable, the Washington Cathedral further off in the distance.
Someone points to the Douglass house. "What's that?" They ask.
I respond, "The home of Fred Douglass, resident of Anacostia from fall 1877 to his death in late February 1895." I snap a few photos of Douglass's mansion through the southside canopy.
"This would make a great rooftop restaurant, don't you think?" someone asks.
"Yeah, but they would have to go through zoning and [Historic Preservation Review Board] first," replies another visitor, a contractor. "But it sure would be one of the coolest restaurants in the city. You can look at the Douglass house or you can look at the Capitol."
After ten minutes of marveling at the views, we make our way back through the empty school. Two young architects ask the facilities manager if the school has a basement. It doesn't he replies, it has a boiler room which he shows the two visitors.
Once we are all back out on V Street, we thank the staff of the Archdiocese for the tour and promise to be in touch. In the meanwhile the old Saint Teresa School sits and awaits a rebirth and productive reuse. With recent news that the city wants to get tourists off the National Mall and brand its neighborhood attractions as "cool," the old Saint Teresa School might be the perfect place to launch the campaign.
WMATA's Metro Forward Facebook page has a fun set of Metrorail construction pictures, dating from the mid-1970s. They're a fascinating look back at a wholly different Washington.
The most interesting may be a 1974 picture of Gallery Place under construction. What's now the Verizon Center is a dirt patch and a collection of holes.
But my favorite is probably the one of Archives station in June, 1975, pictured above. In the picture, workers have yet to add the tracks, platforms, or mezzanines, so the vaulted ceiling runs uninterrupted for the entire length of the station. It looks so much more voluminous!
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
National Harbor was originally going to be called Port America, and it almost included a skyscraper that might have been taller than the Washington Monument.
By 2008 when the first part of National Harbor opened, the concept of suburban town centers was tried and true. But developers have been trying to build a town center there since the mid 1980s. When they started, it was the most progressive of ideas.
The original plan for Port America dates from 1987. It would have included a neo-classical mixed-use town center in the same place as National Harbor's waterfront, plus a large office park on the adjacent property that is now under-construction to become an outlet mall.
The office park would have included a 52-story trophy office tower. It would very likely have risen above the 555-foot Washington Monument, and definitely would have dwarfed the DC region's current tallest office building, Rosslyn's 384-foot 1812 North Moore.
Cross-posted at BeyondDC.
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.
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.
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.
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.This post is excerpted from the forthcoming book, "Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: Adventures of a Capital Correspondent."
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."
Tom at Ghosts of DC posted an 1892 map of the L'Enfant City. Union Station did not yet exist, and instead, railroads from the south carried trains right to a terminal where the National Gallery is today. Streetcars plied most major thoroughfares.
Ed Summers pointed out on Twitter how the paths on the Mall are much windier and loopier than the straight, formal paths today. The same is true of Dupont Circle and Iowa Circle (now Logan Circle, but at the time, Logan Circle was the name for what's now Sheridan Circle), and other parks.
Many DC parks changed from a more natural, Victorian-era layout to a more formal one around the time of the 1902 McMillan Plan, which also created the Federal Triangle, the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorial sites, and other elements that shape the monumental core today.
Maybe the 20th century patterns are better, or maybe not. But it does further make a mockery of the National Park Service's claims that parks forever must match the layouts they had around, say, 1929. Our parks have changed and should continue to change to accommodate the recreational and relaxational needs of residents and visitors.
What else do you notice on the map?
Over 800,000 people lived within the boundaries of the District of Columbia back in 1950. How did all of these people fit, with fewer and smaller buildings than today?
The 1951 sci-fi classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still" inadvertently shows us how. Klaatu, a level-headed extra-terrestrial emissary, escapes captivity at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He wanders down Georgia Avenue, away from not-yet-nuclear-weapon-free Takoma Park, and attempts to disappear into everyday DC.
This is convenient for Klaatu, who knows little of Earthlings' simple ways, but probably annoying for the Earthlings. Conditions like these were common in DC homes at the time.
The 1950 census found 14.1% of the District's 224,142 occupied housing units to be "overcrowded" (with over 1 person per room). By 2011, that figure had fallen by 2/3, to 4.7%, similar to the 5.3% of homes in 1950 that were extremely overcrowded (more than 1.5 occupants per room).
This crowding meant that on average, every apartment and house in DC had one more person living inside: households were 50.2% larger! In 1950, 3.2 people occupied each dwelling unit. In 2007-2011, the number of persons per household had fallen to 2.13, so the city's population still fell to 617,996. That decline would have been much steeper had the city not built 74,760 new housing units: the city's population would have plunged to 477,422, and the nation's capital would be less populous than Fresno.
Household size shrank nationwide as families changed. In 1960, married couples with children outnumbered single-person households almost three to one. In 2010, singles easily outnumbered nuclear families nationwide, and by 5.57 to one in DC.
As DC. gets reacquainted with the notion of population growth and begins to plan for a much larger population within the same boundaries, we'll have to have a realistic conversation about household sizes and housing production. A change of just 0.09 persons per household means the difference between planning for 103,860 or 140,515 additional housing units,1 or a total of 35% to 47% more units.
That amounts to 2,000-3,000 additional units per square mile of land, after subtracting the 10.5 square miles of parks and 7 square miles of water from DC's 68 square miles.
Klaatu, unfamiliar with our contentious Earth politics and "impatient with stupidity," might propose to build a platform of 5-unit-per-acre suburbia above the existing city, or require every second or third home to be subdivided, or return to 1950s household sizes and require every home to take in one boarder (not necessarily extra-terrestrials). But since Klaatu is no longer with us, we will instead have to figure out more complicated ways of infilling a built-up city.
We've obviously figured it out before; after all, DC has added an Alexandria's worth of housing units to its existing housing stock since 1950, plus plenty of offices, museums, hospitals, parking garages, and the like.
The area above K but below Massachusetts was a high-density mixed residential area in the 1950s, what Park & Burgess would've known as "the zone in transition," but today the height-constrained central business district has spread north to Massachusetts Avenue. Yet in fact many foreign visitors still board on that block, at the Jefferson Hotel and the University of California's Washington Center.
Unlike in the movie, there is no way that Klaatu can make DC's growth "Stand Still," and so the built fabric of many other DC neighborhoods will have to change in the near future. Thankfully, neither is there a grumpy Gort (pictured above) parked on the Ellipse, who will destroy the earth with laser-beam eyes if we don't all just get along.
A version of this article was previously posted at west north.
- How might the new Metro loop work?
- More roads won't solve traffic on I-95 in Northern Virginia
- Want the urban lifestyle? DC's best corner is...
- Can we build up around MARC stations?
- The reason cyclists love green bike lanes
- How does DC's proposed Metro loop compare?
- What's the oldest continuously named street in DC?