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Picture this: You're nibbling breakfast at Union Station when a train plows through the building

At 8:38 am on January 15th, 1953, a man ran onto the Union Station concourse screaming "run for your lives!" 20 seconds later the building shook as a runaway 1,100 ton passenger train smashed through the north wall and collapsed the through the floor into the basement. Dozens of passengers were injured but, amazingly, there were no fatalities on the train or in the station.


The Federal Express 173, which ran from Boston to Washington, consisted of an electric locomotive and 16 coach and Pullman sleeper cars. The brake failure and subsequent crash were caused by a design flaw with the train's airbrake system.

The first warning signs that a crash was on the way appeared about 15 minutes outside of Washington. The engineer started decelerating from the cruising speed of 80 mph, but the train the train wouldn't go below 60 mph. The emergency braking system temporarily slowed the train down, but the declining slope of the tracks approaching Union Station all but canceled it out.

At the time, trains didn't have two-way radios, so the only warning signal the engineer could give was with the train's horn.

According to a Washington Post account (which I accessed via the DC Public Library), the conductor began running back through the cars shouting for passengers to "Lie down on the floor or lie down on your seat." As the out of control train buzzed the K Tower in Union Station's rail yard at 50 mph, it was obvious that a disaster was moments away.

The towerman frantically telephoned the station master "Runaway on Track 16!" and through their quick action, the platform was cleared. Luckily, unlike today's Amtrak passengers, most people waited for their trains on now-removed benches in the main hall, so the concourse area was relatively empty.

The Post quotes from one of their own employees, a young layout artist who happened to be in one of the front three cars on his morning commute from Baltimore.

"There was a tremendous rumble and the screeching of steel rubbing against steel," said 25 year old Edward K. Koch. "The end of the car was tossed upward. Sparks were flying all over the place... Smoke and cement dust billowed up and about the car and we couldn't see out the windows... For a moment there was a period of awesome silence, punctuated by the sizzle of steam and the sputtering of live wires."

To understand the damage, you need to envision how Union Station looked before it was remodeled. The stairs that today lead down to the foodcourt didn't exist yet - they were cut through the floor years later. The shops and floating platforms were later additions.

Photo by the author.

Juxtaposing the damage with today's Union Station, imagine the train plowing through the Starbucks, Amtrak-Marc ticket counter and falling through the floor around the central staircases, and coming to rest right up against the doors of the chocolate shop.

400 station laborers got to work immediately repairing the damage - the Eisenhower inauguration was just 5 days away and Union Station was expecting large crowds. The locomotive was lowered down into the basement so it could be dismantled and brought above ground. (Interesting side note: the engine was later rebuilt, saw 30 years of continued service, and is currently at the Baltimore railroad museum).

Steel supports were installed in the hole in the station floor, and according to the Post, it was bridged with "two-inch tongue-and-groove wood flooring supported by heavy timbers" within 72 hours. The temporary floor was solidified by "quick drying asphalt [that] was applied over the wood floor."

Amazingly, the station was fully reopened within three days of the crash. The temporary floor was replaced by a all-steel and concrete replacement later that summer.

Cross-posted at Architect of the Capital.


Public housing, explained

Public housing has long been a tool for governments to create and preserve affordable shelter, but many public housing complexes today are under threat.

Barry Farm, a public housing complex in DC. Photo by Matailong Du/Street Sense on Flickr.

After decades of neglect, many public housing developments have fallen into disrepair. Others have been demolished and replaced with market-rate housing units, especially as surrounding communities experience gentrification.

Once the most important tool for housing low-income families, public housing now makes up a shrinking share of the affordable housing options in the DC region and nation. Today, about 7,300 families in the District live in 40 public housing developments managed by the DC Housing Authority (DCHA).

In this explainer, I examine the challenges facing the current stock of public housing in the District.

Public housing developments were the United States' earliest form of affordable housing

In 1937, Congress passed the National Housing Act, which authorized the construction of public housing. The program was viewed as a way to jumpstart a slow economy in the aftermath of the Great Depression.

Initially, many public housing developments housed moderate-income families. However, demographic shifts resulted in changes to the composition of public housing. As poorer families moved to the city, where much of public housing was, and middle-class ones fled to the suburbs, public housing developments came to house an increasingly poorer set of households.

By the 1970s, the federal government halted the construction of new public housing developments

At this point, many existing developments had fallen into disrepair because they were poorly maintained.

Critically, policymakers realized that public housing concentrated poverty in certain neighborhoods by creating dense buildings comprised exclusively of low-income families. It contributed to racial segregation and limited opportunities for households to move to better communities.

Over the next couple decades, many public housing developments would continue to provide affordable housing, despite their deteriorating conditions. Others would be torn down and replaced with mixed-income housing developments.

During this period, housing vouchers would replace public housing as the primary tool for housing low-income Americans.

About 1.2 million households live in public housing in the US. Here are the numbers for our region:

As noted above, only 7,300 families in the District live in public housing developments. There is a long wait-list of families waiting to get into public housing.

Some of these are low-rise complexes spread over multiples buildings, like the Barry Farm development in Ward 8. Others are single, high-rise buildings, like Claridge Tower in Ward 2.

While the DC Housing Authority manages the public housing stock in the District, much of the funding to maintain and repair these buildings comes from the federal government. In the region, housing authorities in Fairfax, Alexandria and Montgomery County also manage a substantial number of public housing units.

Public housing provides stability for many families that would face the highest risk of housing instability or eviction on the private market

Like households with housing vouchers, housing costs are kept affordable for public housing residents by limiting the rent to thirty percent of their income.

According to a recent report by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, the average income for a family of four living in public housing in the District is $16,050. (The federal poverty threshold for a family of four is $23,850.)

Ninety percent of households in public housing have an income below $32,100 annually, which is 30 percent of the AMI.

Households living in public housing are disproportionately headed by the elderly and people with disabilities. In fact, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports that fully one-third of households in public housing are headed by a senior citizen.

About twenty-two percent of households in public housing are headed by an adult with a disability.

Public housing developments across the country are struggling with maintenance and upkeep

In the District, the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) estimates that there are more than $1.3 billion in deferred maintenance costs, including repairs to buildings.

These concerns are shared in other cities, as well. In New York City, the public housing authority estimates more than $16 billion in deferred maintenance costs.

Critics argue that this neglect of public housing has resulted in buildings being uninhabitable. They refer to this deterioration as demolition by neglect.

Plans to redevelop public housing developments have been controversial

In 1996, Congress authorized the HOPE VI program to redevelop severely distressed public housing developments. Through HOPE VI, private developers redeveloped public housing sites, usually creating a mix of affordable and market-rate units.

In the District, one of the public housing developments to go through HOPE VI was Arthur Capper Carrollsburg. The low-rise public housing development underwent a massive redevelopment, creating a new mixed-income neighborhood.

Critics contend that the project, which took nearly a decade to complete, resulted in widespread displacement of existing public housing residents.

Although the HOPE VI program has now ended, researchers are actively trying to understand the consequences of redeveloping public housing developments into mixed-income neighborhoods through the program.

In the District, the New Communities Initiative similarly aims to redevelop public housing developments. The program is slated to redevelop more than 1,000 public housing units in three large developments across the city—Barry Farm in Ward 8, Lincoln Heights in Ward 7 and Park Morton in Ward 1.

The program aims for one-to-one replacement of affordable housing units. This means that residents of public housing would have the opportunity to stay in their communities following the redevelopment.

However, the New Communities program has struggled amid concerns about the disruption of community ties and the displacement of existing residents during the redevelopment process.

Public Spaces

Thanks to World War II, we love to bike here

Hains Point, which sits at the southern end of DC's East Potomac Park, has long been one of the District's prime destinations for serene river views—especially for cyclists who want a flat, lightly-trafficked, gently curving course for serious exercise. Yet even though it was built in 1917, it only became a popular place to bike after World War II (and car rationing) started.

Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

Take Ohio Drive well past the tidal basin and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and you'll hit East Potomac Park, with groves of cherry trees lining the fringes of its 36-hole golf course, and eventually Hains Point, where a group of picnic tables command a view far down the Potomac River. The roads that encircle the island are popular with DC-area road cyclists, who gather in groups to ride in clockwise laps.

What many might not know is that its track-like drive first gained popularity as a cycling destination during the "Rosie the Riveter" days of World War Two, when the Park Service sought to encourage cycling instead of driving as a way to see the park.

Hains Point, as seen looking south from central DC. Photo by Valerie on Flickr.

According to the National Park Service's Historic American Buildings Survey description of East Potomac Park:

The most popular means of access by far, however, was by automobile. As the number of automobiles in the District increased, the park attracted more and more visitors seeking the cool breezes at Hains Point in the midst of Washington's hot summers. To accommodate the increasing number of motorists, the OPB&G built a shelter with restrooms at the southern tip of the park in 1922.

When the United States entered World War II, NPS closed the tea house at Hains Point since its use as a recreational automotive destination was inconsistent with the national effort to conserve tires and gas... A bicycle-rental facility in the park thrived on the business from the new crowd of wartime workers.

Regional population had increased with the war and subsequently, traffic congestion worsened. The stables closed in 1950 when the mixture of automobiles and equestrians were seen as a safety hazard. Likewise the demand for bicycles decreased and the rental shop closed in 1955.

Although the bike rental shop might be long-gone, East Potomac Park does have a Capital Bikeshare station.

Meanwhile, another historic way of getting to Hains Point is about to make a comeback.

For a brief period between 1919 and 1921, the park was accessible not only by automobile, but also by ferry. A boat called the Bartholdi ferried passengers between the government wharf in Southwest and the tip of West Potomac Park, named Hains Point in 1917.
The Wharf's developers promise that they will re-launch a ferry across the Washington Channel after the development opens next year, docking at a newly built pier behind the fish market. The bike shop that's proposed nearby could prove convenient for flat-tire-stricken cyclists, and visitors to the park's golf course, mini-golf course, tennis courts, swimming pool, picnic areas, and cherry groves could enjoy different dining options besides the golf course's snack bar.


There are tunnels under Capitol Hill. Here's how they got there.

A sprawling pedestrian tunnel system under Capitol Hill allows staffers and members of congress to move underground between the office buildings, Library of Congress, and Capitol building. Today they are an integral part of security on the Hill, but when they were first built it was for a far less important reason.

Back when Studabaker cars ran through the Senate's tunnels. Image from the Architect of the Capitol.

Originally there were only two tunnels: 1909 passageways that connected the Dirkson and Cannon buildings with the Capitol's basement. They were built because of Washington's disgusting weather, not for any security reasons.

The Washington Post wrote in 1907 that "The tunnels have been planned with the idea of providing an easy access to the offices, particularly in bad weather. By using them it will not be necessary for the senators and representatives to go out into the open at all in order to reach offices from the Capitol, or vice versa."

The Cannon Tunnel today. Photo from the office of Gregorio Sablan.

The Senate, accustomed to greater luxury as the "upper house," explored several people-mover systems for their tunnel. The House of Representatives thought about it, but ultimately decided that their members could walk. The raised and partitioned walkway in the Cannon tunnel shows where pedestrian traffic would have been separated from the never-built House subway.

Superintendent of the Capitol Elliott Woods initially wanted to use a Tunis Monorail in the Senate tunnel. This ambitious proposal featured an enclosed car that had an aerodynamic shape similar to that of a ship. Passengers would have sat inside on swiveling wicker chairs.

The Senate ended up going with a much more modest solution, bringing in custom-built Studabaker electric cars to shuttle senators back and forth along the short tunnel. The cars are shown in the image at the top of the article.

Enthusiasm was high for the system when it was initially built. Contemporary newspapers were full of stories about senators, tourists, and even Vice President Charles Fairbanks enjoying joy rides on the early automobile.

The Washington Post amusingly wrote that "the question of a speed limit in the subways has not been raised, but there will be no chickens in the road, and as the walk for pedestrians is fenced off, there is thought to be no reason why the senators should not have a run for their money if they wish."

The cars become a monorail

By 1915 the Senate had tired of the cars and was in search of elegant means of transportation. The Columbia Construction Company built a unique monorail to pass through the tunnels, constructing it at the nearby at the Washington Navy Yard for $9,500.

Senators could summon the carts by ringing a bell three times. According to a Washington Post article from the time, the wicker benches could accommodate "12 senators" or, rather absurdly, "36 pages."

The Senate monorail, with the front seat reserved for senators. Image from the Architect of the Capitol.

Another new tunnel

In 1958 when the east front of the Capitol was being expanded, they built an entirely new tunnel with a station under the Senate steps. The new tunnel had a modernized subway system, and the old car was moved to the Russell basement rotunda, where you can visit it today.

Here, the old tunnel is marked in yellow. Image from the Library of Congress.

The old tunnel was repurposed for the Senate recording studio, various mechanical shops, and a fallout shelter.

Crossposted from


National Harbor's colossal never-built skyscraper

National Harbor was originally going to be called PortAmerica, and it almost included a skyscraper that might have been taller than the Washington Monument.

Port America. All images from Johnson/Burgee.

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 PortAmerica 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 an outlet mall will soon have a casino.

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 (though that won't be the case for long).

We first ran this post back in 2013, but since the facts haven't changed, we thought we'd share it again!

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.


F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are buried just a block away from the Rockville Metro station

A ride on the Red Line might take you closer to Jazz Age royalty than you'd think. The final resting place of acclaimed author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda is located in Rockville, just a few blocks away from the Metro station.

Photo by ehpien on Flickr.

I learned about the gravesite from Atlas Obscura, a geography website. The Fitzgeralds' graves are in the "Third Addition to Rockville and Old St. Mary's Church and Cemetery" historic area, which includes several Victorian residential buildings, the 1817-built Old St. Mary's Church, and the former Rockville B&O Railroad station. This historic center of Rockville reflects the time when the railroad station was the gateway to the city.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born into a prominent Maryland family: his father, Edward, was a distant cousin of Francis Scott Key, for whom Scott was named. But Fitzgerald was born in Minnesota and raised mostly in New York due to his father's job. After graduating from Princeton and marrying Alabama socialite Zelda Sayre, he went on to write several of the most quintessential novels of the Jazz Age, including This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, and The Great Gatsby.

Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Unfortunately, although Fitzgerald was an iconic writer and one of the biggest celebrities of 1920s society, his success and health had greatly declined by the time of the Depression era. He died in Hollywood in December 1940, at the age of 44. Although he hadn't left explicit instructions for where he would like to be interred, his estranged wife Zelda insisted that he be laid to rest in his family plot in Rockville.

As detailed in a 2014 Post article on the subject, St. Mary's Church initially refused to bury Scott in the Fitzgerald family plot because he was not a practicing Catholic at the time of this death. He was thus interred about a mile east at Rockville Union Cemetery, where Zelda would join him when she was tragically killed in a hospital fire eight years later. It was not until 1975 that the Fitzgeralds' daughter Scottie successfully petitioned for her parents to be moved to the family plot in St. Mary's Cemetery.

Photo by sikeri on Flickr.

Zelda and Scott's resting place is inscribed with the closing lines of his most famous novel, The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

To learn about some other obscure and interesting locales in our region, check out the Atlas Obscura guide to Washington, DC.


Proximity to transit has always been good for DC real estate, even 150 years ago

Today, DC area real estate revolves around proximity to Metro. But transit-oriented development is nothing new here. 150 years ago, owners of boarding houses used access to the city's omnibus lines to appeal to antebellum urbanists.

1854 Line of Washington omnibuses. Photo from the DC Public Library.

This ad appeared in the Daily Evening Star on June 26, 1854. That year, three omnibus lines ran throughout Washington, serving the Capitol, Georgetown and the Navy Yard:

HOUSES FOR RENT.—I have for rent several new convenient houses, with lots of two acres of ground attached to each, situated on a new street parallel with Boundary street, running along the top of the ridge west of the railroad where it leaves the city, a little more than a mile north-easterly from the Capitol.
These houses have from seven to ten rooms each, including a kitchen, with several closets and cellar, woodsheds and a stable, and pumps of excellent water near at hand. The situation is beautiful, overlooking the railroad and a large portion of the city, and having the Capitol in full view. The approach to them is by H street, Delaware Avenue, and M street, graded and graveled. The soil of the lots is generally good, and capable of being made very productive.

An omnibus now runs twice a day between these houses and the President's square, by way of M street, Delaware avenue, H street, 7th street and Pennsylvania avenue; leaving the houses at about half-past eight o'clock, a.m., and half-past two p.m.; returning, after brief stands at the War, Navy and Treasury Departments, the Centre Market, General Post Office and Patent Office.

Daily Evening Star ad from June 26, 1854 mentions proximity to omnibus line.

Like today's Metro, the omnibus was a regular source of commuter headaches. An 18-year-old Samuel Clemens chronicled his disappointment with the city's mass transit system in February of 1854:

There are scarcely any pavements, and I might almost say no gas, off the thoroughfare, Pennsylvania Avenue. Then, if you should be seized with a desire to go to the Capitol, or [somewhere]else, you may stand in a puddle of water, with the snow driving in your face for fifteen minutes or more, before an omnibus rolls lazily by; and when one does come, ten to one there are [nineteen] passengers inside and fourteen outside, and while the driver casts on you a look of commiseration, you have the inexpressible satisfaction of knowing that you closely resemble a very moist [dish-rag], (and feel so, too,) at the same time that you are unable to discover what benefit you have derived from your fifteen minutes' soaking; and so, driving your fists into the inmost recesses of your breeches pockets, you stride away in despair, with a step and a grimace that would make the fortune of a tragedy actor, while your "onery" appearance is greeted with "screems of laftur" from a pack of vagabond boys over the way.

Such is life, and such is Washington!

This post is excerpted from the book "Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: Adventures Of A Capital Correspondent". Also, this post originally ran in 2013, but since the history hasn't changed, we're sharing it again!


When the Metro first arrived in Shaw and Columbia Heights, they were far different than they are today

During rush hour, northbound Yellow Line trains need to reverse direction at Mount Vernon Square because there isn't enough capacity for all of them to run to Greenbelt. That's because when Metro designed the Yellow Line, it was hard to imagine neighborhoods like Shaw and U Street developing as rapidly as they did.

This pre-2004 map shows original full-time Yellow Line service. Image from WMATA.

Why can't Yellow Line go farther north full time?

For the Yellow Line to operate north of Mount Vernon Square full-time, there would need to be a pocket track somewhere between that station and Greenbelt, so that Yellow Line trains could turn back towards Virginia without impeding Green Line trains at rush hour. (Right now, a few Rush+ Yellow Line trains do go all the way to Greenbelt, but usually only about four per hour during peak periods).

The tunnel that carries the Green and Yellow Lines under 7th Street and U Street NW opened in two stages: from L'Enfant Plaza to Gallery Place in April 1983, and from Gallery Place to U Street in May 1991. These tracks initially only provided service for the Yellow Line, but the Green Line would soon utilize the tunnel when it began operation from U Street to Anacostia in December 1991. Check out the Evolution of Metrorail graphic below, which we initially ran two years ago to see how service has changed:

The tracks running through the 7th Street tunnel had always been intended to be shared by the Green and Yellow Lines, but only for a short portion. Although it was intended for the Green Line to operate along the entire length of the tunnel - continuing onwards to Petworth, Fort Totten, and northwest Prince George's County - the Yellow Line would short turn at a pocket track somewhere along the route, so as not to overwhelm operations at Greenbelt (as I discussed in my first post on this topic).

Metro's planners opted to build the necessary pocket track at Mount Vernon Square station, which meant that Yellow Line trains would have to end their route and turn back towards Virginia without serving neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and Petworth. Except for the brief six-month period between the opening of Mount Vernon Square, Shaw, and U Street stations in June 1991 and the commencement of Green Line service that December, the Yellow Line has always terminated at Mount Vernon Square in regular rush hour service.

Off-peak Yellow Line service all the way to Fort Totten began in 2006. This has certainly been a first step towards meeting the increased demand in DC's Mid-City area (generally thought of as the neighborhoods served by the Green Line from Shaw to Petworth). However, these areas have now grown enough in population that full-time Yellow Line service is warranted, despite the significant obstacles that stand in the way.

The growth of Mid-City has led to a need for increased Metro service

Massive redevelopment in Mid-City began around the turn of the century, and has continued at a frantic pace to the present day. That's meant increased demand for service along the Green/Yellow Lines at all hours.

When the Mid-City section of the Green Line opened in 1991 (between Gallery Place and U Street) and was completed in 1999 (from U Street to Fort Totten), the area was still reeling from the destruction caused by the 1968 riots. Shaw and Columbia Heights were still plagued with empty storefronts, and the landscape was pockmarked with empty lots where incinerated buildings had once stood.

Aftermath of DC's 1968 riots. Image from the Library of Congress.

The corridor has since benefitted from an incredible amount of reinvestment since the opening of the new Green (later Green/Yellow) Line stations in the 1990s. New construction has ranged in scale from projects like Progression Place, a huge mixed-use center that was recently built directly atop Shaw Metro, to smaller infill developments aimed at repairing the urban fabric.

Apartments at the Columbia Heights station. Photo by Alice Crain on Flickr.

A problem inherent in the system's design

Unfortunately, plans for Metro service patterns in Mid-City didn't anticipate the future growth that these neighborhoods would face. The Yellow Line was designed to provide a direct connection from Virginia to downtown for the commuting crowd; it travels express between Pentagon and L'Enfant Plaza, then provides a connection to each of the other Metro lines downtown before turning back at Mount Vernon Square.

The system's planners didn't predict that a significant amount of Yellow Line passengers would desire to travel past downtown, to neighborhoods like Shaw and Columbia Heights. Thus, it was assumed that the Green Line would provide adequate service for this portion of the line. Hence the pocket track going in at Mount Vernon Square, rather than at a more northern station like U Street.

So, could Metro build a new pocket track to account for the development spree?

Unfortunately, because this service pattern is cemented by the chosen location to build a pocket track, any attempt to correct this past oversight will be very laborious and costly.

It would be extremely difficult to add a pocket track to the Green and Yellow Lines anywhere between Mount Vernon Square and the District line because the tracks run almost entirely underground all the way to West Hyattsville. It would be prohibitively disruptive and expensive to excavate along the existing route and construct a pocket track between the mainline tracks—a WMATA study placed the cost of a Fort Totten pocket at $150 million.

Although the lower platform at Fort Totten is mostly built in an open cut (a shallow excavation that puts the tracks slightly below ground level), the tracks emerge directly from tunnels on both sides. The necessary location for a pocket track - the east side of the station, on the far side of the platforms from the city - is also the location of the B&E Connector track, a non-revenue link between the Red and Green Lines. The combination of these factors would make the construction of a pocket at this location very complex.

The track layout at Fort Totten. Light-colored tracks are below ground. Graphic by the author.

The next logical place to build a pocket track beyond Fort Totten is in Prince George's County, at the point where the tracks emerge from underground near West Hyattsville station. However, while construction of a pocket here wouldn't require excavation, it would still be extremely difficult and disruptive because the tracks are side-by-side on an elevated viaduct.

Because a pocket would have to be built between the existing mainline tracks, Metro would have to reconstruct a roughly 600-foot section of this elevated viaduct in order to pull the tracks apart and create space for a third track in between. This would be comparably disruptive and expensive to constructing a pocket track underground near Fort Totten. What's really required is a section of track that is at-grade, e.g. resting at ground level rather than underground or on a viaduct.

The Green Line viaduct and platforms at West Hyattsville. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The next feasible place to build a pocket track would be at the above-ground embankment behind Home Depot on East-West Highway near Prince George's Plaza station (although that, too, might be difficult due to the curve at that location).

Of course, a pocket track gets less and less useful the further it is from downtown. The next possible location for a pocket would be near College Park, at which point Yellow Line trains might as well continue all the way to Greenbelt.

It looks like for now, stations north of Mount Vernon Square will have to make do without full-time Yellow Line service. Until WMATA can procure $150 million to add an expensive new underground pocket track at Fort Totten, as well as $100 million for new rolling stock (plus millions more in annual operating funds), rush hour Yellow Line trains will have to continue to terminate at Mount Vernon Square. But the temporary terminus at U Street offers us a glimpse of what could have been if Metro had built a pocket track there back in 1991.


Part of the US Capitol building is in Rock Creek Park

There are heaps of sandstone in the heart of Rock Creek Park that used to be a part of the Capitol Building. They were taken down in 1958 when part of the iconic building was expanded and rebuilt in marble. Now, they've kind of been forgotten.

Photo by the author.

J. George Stewart, the architect of the Capitol, wanted to see the eastern front rebuilt in marble. The old facade was cracking, it didn't line up with the Senate and House extensions that went onto the building in the 1850s, and he thought marble was just nicer.

Steward, a former one term congressman from Delaware, had never actually received any architectural training, and he faced a huge uphill challenge convincing people this was a good idea. A bitter war played out in Washington's editorial pages over the following months between the sandstone purists and the marble backers.

Powerful Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn liked the idea. But the American Institute of Architects blasted the proposal, calling it a "desecration" and labeling Rayburn as a "historic barbarian."

Rayburn pushed the plans forward in any case.

On December 13, 1958 the Daytona Beach Morning Journal wrote that "Workmen are saving everything, even the debris and rubble, and storing it safely on the Capitol grounds".

The old Aquia Creek sandstone facade was taken apart piece by piece by the John McBeath & Sons company. They finished the job in seven months, dutifully cataloging each stone and stacking them by the House of Representatives.

In their place went Special Georgia White marble, provided by the Georgia Marble Company for $2.8 million. The new front was 33 feet farther than the original, and lined up with the House and Senate stairways.

Image from the Architect of the Capitol.

What to do with the stones?

According to the Washington Post, when the project started nobody had thought through what to do with the stones. "Eventual disposition of the dismantled portions is to be determined [at a later date] by the Commission for Extension of the Capitol, headed by House Speaker Sam Rayburn."

Steward and Rayburn consulted with the advisory architects who suggested donating the stones to the Smithsonian, or reconstructing them into a new museum. However, Steward (who was being crucified in the press during all of this) had spent the last year trying to convince everyone about all the ways in which sandstone was deficient.

Highlight the stones in a new museum? No way! He wanted the blocks out of sight and out of mind.

The stones first traveled to the Capitol Powerplant, where they sat until 1975 when facilities there expanded. That's when they made their way to a National Park Service facility deep inside Rock Creek Park.

At the time, they were under the custody of the now-defunct Commission on the Extension of the United States Capitol. According to a 1982 Washington Post article, possession of the stones then passed to the House and Senate office building commissions.

Present day

The stones have been sitting in Rock Creek Park for the last 40 years, slowly gathering moss and sinking into the ground.

The United States Capitol Historical Society has been cutting up a small number of the stones and selling them as bookends (with permission from the Speaker of the House). The stones are also occasionally used for small restoration jobs in the Capitol and White House.

The 22 corinthian columns from the old east front were rescued from obscurity in 1984 by DC local Ethel Garrett, who successfully lobbied to have them moved to a more fitting location. Today, they stand sentry over a reflecting pool and 20 acres of meadow at the National Arboretum.

Photo by Fred Dunn on Flickr.

Cross-posted from If you enjoyed reading about the capitol stones you might also like the old Civil War fort hidden in Rock Creek Park.


These Metro stationsí names might have been very different

Metro's Medical Center station was almost called "Pooks Hill," and Navy Yard could have been "Weapons Plant." This 1967 map shows some of the amusing names that WMATA considered for a number of Metro stations.

Map from WMATA.

Aside from Medical Center and Navy Yard having different names, you'll notice that Pentagon City is named Virginia Highlands and Federal Center SW is named Voice of America.

The names are crisper and more creative than the awkward over-hyphenization that is so common in today's system. Originally operating under a 15 character limit, Woodley Park - Zoo / Adams Morgan is shown more elegantly as Zoological Park (you can see where this one appears on the little map in the top left below), and Gallery Place - Chinatown is named Fine Arts (because of the Portrait Gallery).

Map from WMATA.

In 2010, Matt Johnson wrote about "namesprawl," the "result of the idea that station names have to reflect absolutely everything remotely close by. This is generally done to encourage people to ride transit to these venues."

This map was included in a pamphlet that outlined the congressionally approved "basic system." It's surprising to think that a name like Weapons Plant made it through the committee process unscathed.

It's also amusing to see the proposal's high minded promise that "SERVICE WILL BE FREQUENT: Air conditioned trains will run every two minutes at peak hours."

An expanded version of this article appears on the Architect of the Capital blog.

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