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History


An 1886 plan would have built atop Rock Creek

An 1886 Washington Post article outlines a plan to put Rock Creek in a tunnel from about M Street to just north of R Street, fill in the ravine, and create city blocks between Georgetown and Dupont.


Photo by ep_jhu on Flickr.

Proponents estimated it would create 50 "squares" (generally city blocks) of space, for a cost of about $600,000 to $650,000, or about $15-16 million in today's dollars.

By keeping Rock Creek, DC has not only a surface waterway but a number of park spaces on the banks, such as Rose Park. Unfortunately, a different plan ultimately greatly marred the creek: Rock Creek Parkway, which dominates this section of the creek valley.

At any spot, someone trying to enjoy the edge parks or trail has to contend with a large freeway creating most of the noise and taking up much of the ravine floor. National Park Service management practice in this part of Rock Creek prioritizes motor vehicle traffic over any other user. Features in the park, like signs that tell trail users to yield to cars when crossing the on- and off-ramps, further make clear that nature and recreation come last here.

Here is the map from the article:

Tom from Ghosts of DC also posted an excerpt from the story:

"From what I have seen in the papers," said Capt. Symonds, when asked by a POST reporter for his opinion regarding the cost and practicability of the proposed Rock Creek tunnel, "I should consider it a perfectly practicable and feasible scheme, and I should think that the benefits resulting would fully justify the outlay necessary."

"How long would be the tunnel?"

"From the location as described it would require a tunnel about 2,000 feet long with some open cut work at the ends."

"What would be the cost?"

"Its cost would depend largely on the nature of the rock encountered. It would probably be necessary to arch it over throughout its length and if the excavated rock were suitable in quality it could be used for this purpose. In this case I should estimate the cost of the tunnel, with a sufficient water-way for all floods, to be about $250 per lineal foot. This would make the 2,000 feet of tunnel cost $500,000. Another $100,000 would cover all the open work at the ends, and all engineering expenses, etc. If it was found necessary to use brick for arching the cost would be about $50,000 more. This would make the cost from $600,000 to $650,000, which I believe would cover all expenses for the work proper without including any question of right of way. The excavated material would be used for arching in the form of rubble masonry, not in the form of concrete. The bed of the creek could not be used for a dumping ground. It could not be filled up directly with the excavated material, for it would have to be kept open for the passage of water until the tunnel was completed.

"It is not at all improbably," continued Capt. Symonds, "that a sufficient amount of good material would be excavated to arch the creek over from the lower terminus of the tunnel to the outlet of the canal. In this way the improvement could be made more far-reaching and beneficial. The creek would be blotted out of sight from Lyons' Mill to the mouth of the canal. I should think that the best use for the excavated material, beyond that used for curbing the tunnel, would be in building embankments across the valley of the creek connecting the streets of Washington and Georgetown, thus doing away with bridges and uniting the two cities. The spaces between the embankments could gradually be filled in. If properly managed it would be a splendid improvement.

We originally ran this post in 2013, but since the history hasn't changed, we wanted to share it with you again!

History


Building of the Week: Downtown's Woodward & Lothrop building

Located 11th Street NW between G and F Streets, DC's Woodward and Lothrop building is iconic: it appears in books and as a case study for developers, and we've even featured it ourselves (twice!). But while most of the attention focuses on the famous department store that lived in it, the building itself tells the story of how fast fashion eclipsed department store retail in the United States.


The Woodward & Lothrop building, sometime in the 1910s. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Woodward and Lothrop was founded in Washington in 1880 and settled into its flagship location on the 1000 block of F and G Streets NW in 1886. Architect James G. Hill designed the company's eclectic five-story headquarters, and real estate investor Calderon Carlisle funded the project.

The building was no skyscraper, but it shared the language of taller buildings: arcade windows and expansive showrooms covered in neoclassical ornament. The rich mix of materials included mahogany and French glass.

Thanks to continued success, owners Samuel Woodward and Alvin Lorthrop purchased most of the block by 1897. New acquisitions were renovated or expanded, notably a large addition in 1902 on G Street.


A picture from an advertisement in the 1913 edition of Rand McNally's Pictorial Guide to Washington. Photo from Streets of Washington.

Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb was hired to unify and modernize the building. The result was eight stories and 400,000 square feet of retail space adorned with cast iron and leaded glass.

Cobb's design spoke to his Chicago roots. The building's two commercial levels featured elaborate ornamentation and American-made cast iron piers. The third floor was narrower and hid its steel frame under rustication. The subsequent four stories wear a Beaux-Arts uniform and end in a heavy cornice. This segmentation resembles that of Chicago skyscrapers.

For F Street, Woodward and Lothrop hired Frederick B. Pyle to build a terra cotta segment of the building. While designed to appear as a distinct structure, it was always integrated into the larger building.


Here, you can see the terra cotta part of the building, which runs along 10th Street. Photo from Douglas Development.

By 1927 the building took on its present appearance after the original Carlisle Building had been destroyed. Woodies, as it was affectionately known, operated here until 1994 with only modest changes.


The Woodies building after 1926, viewed from 11th and F Streets, NW. Image from Streets of Washington.

By the end of the 20th century, the entire chain was bankrupt. The Washington location was abandoned, and its building auctioned to the Washington Opera. The Opera's plans to convert the landmarked space into a theater failed, and five years later it was acquired by developer Douglas Jemal.

The company renovated the space in 2002, putting offices on most floors and returning the ground level to retail space. Now a jaunt around the block allows you to shop at Zara, H&M, and Forever 21.


Image from Douglas Development.

Woodies led the way for department stores, both the rise and fall

These new tenants are no modern Woodies—because the department store as a business model is long in decline. In Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, author Elizabeth Cline delves into how department stores were revolutionary when they arrived at the turn of the 20th century, but by the end of the century, that revolution turned against them.


The Woodward & Lothrop floor at Christmas time, sometime in the 1960s. Photo by StreetsofWashington on Flickr.

In 1900, textile, patterns, and readymade home and clothing items under one roof gave upper class women a safe, socially acceptable escape from the household. These items' relative affordability meant a person didn't have to make all their own clothing anymore. By the post-war era, American pockets bulged, ready-to-wear was king, and competition was fierce in the industry. Mail order catalogs allowed you to peruse your regional chain's offerings, or you could drive to Montgomery Ward, Belk, or Burdines for mid-market sales.

But like its contemporary the land line, the department store model was due for change. Cline notes that by the 1970s malls and discount retailers mushroomed across America. These were descended upon by price conscious Americans—with an evaporating middle class, who would shop for mid-priced clothing? At the dawn of the 21st century, shopping preferences were clear: Forever 21 or the designer from whom the chain borrowed inspiration.

In the era of fast fashion—piles of stylish clothing go from sketch to store in a matter of weeks, selling for small sums—the moderate department store was too slow and expensive. Department stores tried to meet the new expectations, hastening their own demise with untenable discounts and a dwindling clientele.

Woodies was a casualty of this changing economy. Many of its stores were acquired by Macy's and Bloomingdales, chains that expanded nationally and weathered the shift partly by focusing on higher end customers. Woodies fell victim of its refusal to evolve—or as critics of fast fashion's labor and environmental effects argue, devolve.

Yet the signature building remains intact. The space itself epitomizes the changing retail tides of history. The eclectic buildings first brought together by Woodies have been recycled, reorganized, and parceled out to individual owners again. The structure remains to tell the tale.

History


This video compares LA's streets of 70 years ago to today's

How does a street change in 70 years? In some ways a lot, and in others, not at all, as this video of Los Angeles from the New Yorker shows.

Beyond the increased build-out along the streets, in some places the older streets seem more welcoming to people walking; in others today's streets seem friendlier. While this video is of LA, one can imagine a similar then-and-now for DC.

Would you be willing to create something like this, but for DC? For example, you could grab a Go-Pro and follow the route of the 82 streetcar today.

What else do you notice about the video? Tell us in the comments.

History


Not everyone agrees on where DC's Chinatown is

While DC's Chinatown officially spans roughly two square blocks in the city's central downtown area, a number of long-time residents have different ideas of the neighborhood's boundaries. This map shows how "Chinatown" means different things to different people.


The lines on the map represent 17 different definitions of where Chinatown begins and ends, along with DC's official boundaries. Map by Molly Carpenter, Pranita Rahbhise, Katy June-Friesen, and Dr. Willow Lung-Amam.

The map is part of a larger recent project by graduate students at the University of Maryland who wanted to better understand the rapid changes to the neighborhood and what they have meant for those in the Chinese American community with long term connections to it.

The researchers conducted 16 interviews with people who have long-term connections to Chinatown, either because they live there or are involved in the neighborhood through business and cultural organizations. They also interviewed eight people they met on the street or in restaurants or coffee shops. They asked those they spoke with to draw their own map of Chinatown and identify the places that were important to them.

While some identified Chinatown as a narrow strip of shops and restaurants along H Street, others saw the neighborhood as stretching from E Street to M Street. Meanwhile, others saw Chinatown as part of the larger Gallery Place or Penn Quarter neighborhoods.

Those more familiar with the neighborhood tended to see Chinatown as a shrinking span of restaurants along H Street NW, while newcomers or visitors tended to point to the Verizon Center and Gallery Place as the defining features of the neighborhood. And while many interviewed acknowledged that Chinatown has been shrinking, others recognized that the community has also spread out to the suburbs and is not dying.

Katy June-Friesen, one of the researchers, offered her take on why the people she interviewed had such varying definitions of Chinatown:

I think the way people understand the space, the neighborhood, depends on how they use and experience it. So for some elderly residents of Wah Luck House who speak little English, the neighborhood feels like it is shrinking, because there are fewer services and shops for them, such as a Chinese-speaking doctor or Chinese grocery store. Others (of Chinese background) who have long-term connections to Chinatown but don't live there may feel the place is more symbolic of history, culture, and traditions, but the boundaries or size of the neighborhood itself don't matter as much. A restaurant worker might think of Chinatown as just the strip of Chinese restaurants on H Street, while a non-Chinese newcomer to the area might not frequent those restaurants and might think of the neighborhood as "Gallery Place" or something other than "Chinatown."
Chinatown used to be in a different place, and it has seen a lot of change

First established in the 1880s at Pennsylvania Avenue and 5th Street NW, DC's first Chinatown was displaced in the 1930s by the Federal Triangle complex. As a result, Chinese immigrants began to settle in today's location.

In this new location, the community continued to grow through the mid-1960s, establishing schools, clubs, and other community organizations. However, by the mid-1960s, the population of the community began to decline, with many residents moving to the suburbs. Despite this decline, the population of Chinatown was 3,000 in 1970.

In subsequent years, the neighborhood has been the site of a number of revitalization efforts, including the construction of the Gallery Place Metro station and a new convention center (not to be confused with the current convention center), the establishment of a downtown historic zone, which includes Chinatown, as well as the later construction of the Verizon Center.

Recent years have seen changes to the neighborhood accelerate with the continued loss of Chinese residents and businesses. Much of this has been attributed to neighborhood affordability and buyout offers for local residents and business owners as part of a broader trend of redevelopment in the city.

Today, most of Chinatown's approximately 300 Chinese-American residents live in Wah Luck House and Museum Square, two subsidized housing complexes in the neighborhood.

Despite the diverse views of what constitutes Chinatown, all those interviewed expressed concern about keeping alive what the neighborhood means to them, namely Chinese culture and traditions.

History


In 1979, was your neighborhood "sound" or "distressed"?

DC looked very different in 1979. A map of neighborhood housing conditions shows just how much. In many DC neighborhoods that are now in high demand, the housing stock was in danger 35 years ago.


Image from the DC Public Library, Special Collections. Click for larger version.

This map is from a report by the Department of Housing and Community Development in June 1979, during Marion Barry's first mayoral term, entitled "Housing Problems, Conditions & Trends in the District of Columbia."

The report sounded the alarm for "Petworth, Parkview, Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park, Bloomingdale, Eckington, Edgewood and most of the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River." Those areas already had, or were in danger of developing, "deteriorating building conditions because resident incomes are not keeping pace with increasing costs of home ownership."

Here is the explanatory text and key for the map:

This map clarifies neighborhoods according to the categories shown in the legend. They are based on the following factors which are illustrated in subsequent maps: ownership patterns, yearly income of residents, real estate sales and prices, welfare assistance and the condition of housing.

Sound [Yellow]: Residents in these neighborhoods have high enough incomes to maintain their properties without public assistance. Northwest areas west of Rock Creek Park are classified as sound neighborhoods together with Capitol Hill. The only sound neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River are located south of Fort Dupont Park.

Distressed [Blue]: Residents require considerable assistance because of low incomes and poor housing conditions. Many of these areas also contain a concentration of public housing in need of significant improvement. Distressed neighborhoods west of the river include Ivy City and portions of the Southwest. East of the Anacostia River, the poorest housing conditions are found in Deanwood, Burrville, Northeast Boundary, Greenway, Anacostia, Congress Heights, Washington Highlands and Douglass.

Stable / Declining [Green]: Neighborhoods are in stable condition, with households of moderate income and high ownership, requiring little or no public assistance; or, are beginning to show deteriorating building conditions because resident incomes are not keeping pace with increasing costs of home ownership. West of the River, neighborhoods in this category are south Petworth, Parkview, Columbia Heights, LeDroit Park, Bloomingdale, Eckington, Edgewood and most of the neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River.

Transitional (early or advanced) [Red]: Neighborhoods in the early stages of transition are characterized by a surge in reinvestment and rehabilitation; whereas, neighborhoods in the most advanced stages are those experiencing extensive displacement of low and moderate income families by higher income households. Change began in Dupont Circle and Adams Morgan and spread east into Shaw and north along 14th Street, as well as into LeDroit Park and Eckington. The change which began in Capitol Hill spread further east into Lincoln Park, south to the Southeast, and north to the Stanton Park. No radical changes are occurring east of the River, though real estate activity is becoming significant but at a lower level of intensity.

This map further serves to highlight the different characteristics between areas east and west of the Anacostia River. West of the River and west of Rock Creek Park, neighborhoods are in basically sound and stable condition. The most concentrated real estate activity is found in and around the central city. Displacement is, therefore, the major problem west of the River; whereas the main concern east of the Anacostia River is the declining condition of the housing stock. Also, the majority of distressed and declining neighborhoods are found east of the River.

It's also interesting to look at the neighborhood names. NoMA didn't exist; it was "NE 1," adjacent to "NW 1" across North Capitol Street. What we now call U Street is "Westminster." And "Stanton Park" extended all the way across H Street. East of the River, neighborhood names such as "Good Hope," "Buena Vista," and "Douglass" have fallen out of currency.

The Green and Yellow Metrorail lines had not yet opened, the Red Line didn't go beyond Dupont Circle, and the Blue Line stopped at Stadium-Armory.

What else do you notice? How was your neighborhood categorized in 1979? Would it be categorized differently today?

This post first ran in 2014. Since the history hasn't changed, we thought we'd share it with you again!

History


A streetcar used to run down Rhode Island Avenue, connecting College Park and downtown DC

Most of Washington's original "streetcar suburbs" were built within the District's boundaries. However, one important corridor of streetcar suburbs went up in Prince George's County, in the communities along Route 1 south of the Beltway.


A map of the route of the Rhode Island Avenue streetcar in Prince George's County to Branchville Road. North of Branchville road, an hourly single-track shuttle service ran to Laurel until it was abandoned in 1925. Map by the author using OpenStreet Map. Click for a larger version.

A streetcar from Baltimore to Washington?

While steam railroads had linked Baltimore to Washington for half a century, the introduction of electric streetcars in Baltimore in 1885 and Washington in 1888 led to interest in the idea of an electric interurban line to link the two cities.

In 1892, the Columbia and Maryland Railway was chartered by a group of businessmen who hoped to construct an electric streetcar line from Baltimore to Washington by way of Ellicott City, Laurel, and Hyattsville. Called the Washington, Berwyn & Laurel, this line roughly paralleled the route of the B&O line (now the MARC Camden Line) between the two cities. The businessmen expected that the growth of suburbs would create a "great country city" along the route and provide enough traffic to justify the construction of a new rail line and adjacent roadway.

Although the plan as a whole never came to fruition, tracks were built along Rhode Island Avenue from 4th Street NE to a station called District Line, where there was a loop for streetcars to turn around, at 34th Street in Mount Rainier, Maryland (today, it's a bus loop). From there, the line continued to Laurel, leaving a gap of twenty miles to the Elliott City terminus of the Baltimore streetcar line it had been intended to connect to.


34th Street Terminal: the short-turn loop at 34th St in Mt. Rainier still exists, and is used by several WMATA and Prince George's County bus routes. Photo by the author.

The Route 1 suburbs and the streetcar

Service on the line to Mt. Rainier began in 1897 and, by September 1900, the line—now called the City and Suburban—provided half-hourly service from Branchville Road (just north of what is now Greenbelt Road in College Park) along Rhode Island Avenue and New York Avenue to the Treasury Building at 15th Street NW.

Several years later, a single-tracked line was extended to Laurel and served by an hourly shuttle. Shortly afterward, the line was merged into the Washington Railway and Electric Company, one of the District's two major streetcar systems, and became known as the "Maryland Line."

Rhode Island Avenue was extended north alongside the streetcar tracks to the Hyattsville rail station, located near the current county court building. North of Hyattsville, the streetcar stayed close to the railroad as it passed through what was still the Calvert family estate. From the line's entrance into what is now College Park to its northern terminus in Laurel, it again largely followed its own private right-of-way.

The residential developments that became Mt. Rainier, Brentwood, North Brentwood, Riverdale, and much of College Park were built along the Maryland Line while the areas around them remained farmland. Up until World War II, the streetcar line into DC was central to the sale of homes in these new communities.

Rise of the roads

The rise of the automobile, which began in the 1920's, changed the nature of the streetcar route and the communities along it.

US Route 1 was eventually switched from its original alignment along Baltimore Avenue and Bladensburg Road to follow Rhode Island Avenue into the District, and the stretch of Baltimore Avenue south of this junction, which had been a major commercial strip in Hyattsville and Bladensburg, gradually decayed and became home to light industrial uses.

North of the junction with Baltimore Avenue, Rhode Island Avenue was not extended consistently along the streetcar tracks, but disconnected segments of residential streets alongside the track were built and took on the same name. In the last decade, College Park and Riverdale have constructed a multi-use trail along this right-of-way, connecting previously disconnected neighborhoods.

The never-popular shuttle to Laurel was terminated in 1925, resulting in the construction of Rhode Island Avenue as an arterial road in the former right-of-way from Branchville Road north into Beltsville. However, service from downtown to Branchville became Capital Transit's route 82 and continued until 1958, only four years before the end of streetcar service in Washington.

History


DC Home Rule almost had... the FBI picking the police chief

What if, instead of DC's mayor picking Chief Cathy Lanier to run the city's police department, we had a chief chosen by the FBI, or the Secret Service? Some members of Congress wanted it to be that way when they gave DC home rule in 1973.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

Before the Home Rule Act, Congress made all of DC's laws, and the executive branch ultimately reported to the President of the United States, as if DC were another agency of the federal government (basically, it was). But in 1973, Congress set up our current system of an elected mayor and council. Only they balked at giving DC full autonomy.

Some worried that giving up the police power to local officials would let them blockade the Capitol and force Congress to submit to the will of local residents. Others, amazingly, feared that a popularly elected leader representing the people of DC might not actually be in favor of law and order.

This goes back to 1783

Control of the police is, in fact, the reason there is a District of Columbia in the first place. In the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783, 400 soldiers of the Continental Army briefly besieged the delegates of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, demanding payment for services during the Revolutionary War.

The Pennsylvania Executive Council, then the executive branch of the Pennsylvania state government, refused to guarantee it would protect the Congress from the protest, so the delegates moved the capital out of Philadelphia. That experience was the reason the Constitution's authors provided for a federal district, to which the federal capital eventually moved in 1800.

Members worry the Mayor would not want order

In 1973, memories of the 1968 riots were still very fresh. The President had used the National Guard to keep peace, and members of Congress worried that without federal control, this might not happen. But why? At least a few members actually worried that the Mayor would actually be unwilling to act.

Congressman Delbert "Del" Latta (R-OH) said,

Another matter that concerns me about this bill is the matter of who is going to take over this police force in times of revolt or revolution or riot, whatever you have, like we had in the city a couple of years ago.

If we have an elected Mayor who is going to be looking to his constituency in the District of Columbia to reelect him the next election, is he going to respond when the city is burning such as we saw from the Capitol steps a few years ago, as readily as if the President of the United States had the authority right now to sign an order and take over the police department of the city? (p.1764)

Rep. Charles "Charlie" Rangel (D-NY, and still in Congress today) said, "One ... rationale, commonly used by persons against home rule is that home rule will result in a drastic increase in the crime rate for the District. ... Opponents of self-determination for the District are implying that the local government of the city, specifically the Mayor and City Council, would act in bad faith. (1723-1724)

Then-Police Chief Jerry Wilson wrote a letter to Congress addressing some of the concerns:

I recognize, as I am sure you do also, that some of the concerns over home rule for the District of Columbia directly relate to fear that local control of the police may result in misuse or nonuse of the police power in a manner adverse to the interests of the city, either as a local community or as the national capital. ...

Personally, I feel that apprehension over local control of police power in the District is misplaced. My own sense of this community is the overwhelming majority are responsible citizens who want effective law enforcement just as much as residents do in any other city. If the city of Washington is to be treated substantially as a local community, albeit a special one, rather than a federal enclave, then there is no reason to deprive local citizens of control over that fundamental local service, the police force. (1699)

The bill's authors and other members of Congress also noted that the President would have the authority to take over the police in a true emergency. Rep. Charles Diggs (D-MI) replied to critics, saying, "The committee felt that the President has inherent power to invoke whatever police power is required in case of an emergency. We are prepared to put this in more explicit language." (1764)

A provision specifically emphasizing this power was then part of the committee print of the bill which went to the House floor.

Amendments try to take the police chief appointment away from the Mayor

Some Congressmen were still not satisfied. Ancher Nelsen (R-MN) tried to introduce amendments that would have given other people besides the mayor the power to appoint the police chief.

His first proposal was to set up a Board of Police Commissioners with 3 members: the head of the US Secret Service, the head of the FBI, and the Mayor of the District of Columbia. They would submit 3 candidates for police chief to the President, who would pick among them. (2406)

Nelsen notes there was a Police Board in the 1860s, DC's previous episode of home rule, but it was abolished when Congress took control of the District back.

Rep. Brock Adams (D-WA) pointed out that there are lots of federal police forces to protect the federal interest, such as the Capitol Police, Park Police, Secret Service, FBI and more. This was not the case in 1783, when the Continental Congress did not even control the military during peacetime and depended entirely on state militias.

Stewart McKinney (R-CT) also disagreed with Nelsen, saying, "With regard to the problems we have been having in urban centers a police chief has to be one of the strongest and most compatible figures in the community's relationship." (2409)

This was also not something the White House had asked for, and the House defeated Nelsen's amendment, 132-275 with 27 not voting.

Nelson tried again, this time having the board of 3 commissioners nominate individuals to the Mayor. (2424)

Diggs said, "I would just like to understand from the distinguished ranking minority member of the committee [Nelsen] just what is his rationale behind wanting to have this kind of insulation with respect to the Police Commissioner or Chief of Police for this community." (2425) The House rejected this amendment on a voice vote, and that was the end of the matter. (2426)

However, Congress did limit the District's power over its criminal justice system in other ways, which we'll discuss in coming installments of this series.

All numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in Home Rule for the District of Columbia, 1973-1974, Background and Legislative History of H.R. 9056, H.R. 9682, and Related Bills Culminating in the District of Columbia Self-Government and Governmental Reorganization Act, Approved December 24, 1973 (Public Law 93-198), Serial No, S-4, US Government Printing Office, December 31, 1974.

This post first ran back in 2012. Since the history hasn't changed, we thought we'd share it with you again!

History


You know the Watergate, but what about the Water Gate?

You might know the Watergate as the famous hotel that Richard Nixon's henchmen broke into, and maybe you think of it anytime journalists default to adding "-gate" to a word associated with whatever modern day scandal they're reporting on. But they all get their name from a real Water Gate, an actual structure to hold back water. It's still here on the Georgetown Waterfront for anyone to see.


The tide lock with Water Gate ruins and the Watergate development in the background. Images by the author.

Built in the 1830s as an integral part of the C & O Canal, the Water Gate was a reinforced wooden dam at the mouth of Rock Creek that filled a basin with water so that the adjacent Tide Lock could be used to raise canal boats from the Potomac River into Rock Creek, and up to Lock 1 for their trip in the canal.

The basin's water level was maintained with a spillway at the top of the Water Gate, allowing excess flow into the Potomac River, while always maintaining a large amount of water to operate the Tide Lock so boats could navigate into Rock Creek Basin and up to Lock 1.


The tide lock looking out to Rosslyn skyline.

The canal quickly became obsolete in the early 20th century, no longer commercially viable due to competition from railroads and a growing roadway network. Commercial operations stopped in 1924. Without the revenue to make repairs, the canal and Water Gate slipped into disrepair over the next 30 years.

In 1954, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas led a walk along the entire 184.5 mile canal, calling to preserve it in response to the Washington Post supporting a plan to fill-in the canal and turn it into an automobile parkway—Douglas was the most notable local advocate, though many other local advocates were involved in this effort. The preservation efforts came to full fruition in 1971, when the C & O Canal and adjacent lands were designated as a national park.


Water Gate ruins at the mouth of Rock Creek with spillway control screws still in place.

The physical work to maintain the canal is an ongoing effort. Though the Water Gate itself is now an industrial ruin, NPS and Georgetown Heritage recently announced the funding for reconstruction of Locks 3 and 4, and a planning effort and conditions assessment for other canal structures in Georgetown will commence later this year.

So the next time you see a scandal with "gate" lazily stapled to it, remember that it comes from a real place with its own very interesting history.


Development


This vacant tower could become your favorite new bar

There's an old rail control tower on 2nd Street SW, a few blocks from where CSX is rebuilding the Virginia Avenue Tunnel, and CSX has agreed to do major work on the tower as part of the rail project. Could it become a museum or a bar? Could someone live there? There are great possibilities, but also unique challenges.


Image from DC's Historic Preservation Office.

The Control Point Virginia Tower, which sits at 2nd Street and Virginia Avenue SW next to the railroad tracks that take VRE and Amtrak passengers between Union Station and CSX's rails that run along the east coast. It's an interlocking tower, which is where a leverman used to manually switch which railroad tracks a train was using.

The Virginia Tower was built between 1904 and 1906 along with the First Street Tunnel, and around the same time as seven other such towers in Washington, DC.

Though a marvel of the late 19th century, by the 1930's CP towers started to be replaced by centralized traffic control from remote control centers. By the late 1980's almost all such towers were closed.

Of those eight DC towers, only Virginia and "K", so named because it is just south of K Street on the approach to Union Station, still stand. CSX stopped using the Virginia Tower in 1989, and according to a 2007 article in Trains magazine, there were plans at the time to demolish it (which is what the agency did with the Anacostia Tower in 2008).


Base image from Google Maps.

CSX is fixing up the Virginia Tower on the outside...

The Virginia Tower, however, has dodged the wrecking ball, and under the terms of the 2015 Memorandum of Agreement for the Virginia Avenue Tunnel project, CSX has agreed to preserve the tower.

Moreover, the agency has filed the necessary paperwork to add the tower to the National Register of Historic Places and the DC Inventory of Historic Sites, and it has agreed to rehabilitate the tower.

The rehabilitation will improve the appearance, repair the structure and provide added security. CSX will remove all exterior additions that are no longer needed such as antennas, steel window mesh, utility connections, and cabinets, along with the graffiti and cover-up paint. The agency will repair, replace or restore all of the floors, roof, windows, doors, and walls. Finally, CSX will add security features such as fencing, gates, and cameras.

...the inside is a different story, but think of the possibilities

The plan is to only rehabilitate the exterior of the tower and leave the interior alone. According to CSX the tower "will remain an active building to support CSX operations" as it "is still a vital part of the railroad infrastructure."

It's hard to see how that's the case since CSX was planning to demolish it only nine years ago. Interlocking towers such as this one have been reused at other sites, but almost exclusively as small railroad museums. And while there are several serious and likely insurmountable barriers to any adaptive reuse—CSX resistance, the location between an active railroad track and a secure congressional office building, and its unusual size and location—below are some ideas for what could be done with it if those barriers weren't there.

Museum

As I mentioned above, other such towers have been turned into museums or rail fan club houses. A museum run by volunteers with infrequent tours could better address security concerns by leaving it closed and locked at most times. The museum in Bradford, Ohio, for example, is only open six hours a week for nine months of the year.

Restaurant or bar

The building itself wouldn't hold many patrons, but the courtyard could support an outdoor beer garden like the Brig at 8th and L SE. The building could could serve as a kitchen and storage. The idea is not totally crazy. K Tower, the other remaining interlocking tower in DC, is still used by Amtrak. According to one source it is the only such tower in use south of Philadelphia, but in the 2012 Union Station Master Plan, Amtrak envisioned turning it into restaurant or bar.


The reconstructed K Tower as a destination bar/restaurant in the air rights development. Image from Akridge/SBA.

Canal Quarters

It would be the most unique hotel in DC, but the tower could be turned into a small, rustic rental similar to what the C&O Canal has done with its lockhouses as part of its Canal Quarters program. It would be cramped, but you can't beat the steps-from-the-Mall location (assuming you can sleep through train noise). Maybe the Canal Trust would even manage it for a cut of the profits.

Housing

Before the Canal Quarters rental program, the C&O Canal park attempted to lease its Lockhouses. Micro-units are the hot thing in real estate, and this cozy condominium might be a step up for a Congressmember currently sleeping in her office. It's only a three block walk to the Rayburn Building. Perhaps it could even become the Official Residence of the Speaker of the House?

History


A streetcar used to run from H Street to Berwyn Heights, near College Park

Like those in a lot of other US cities, DC and surrounding areas' best-known streetcar lines tend to be ones where service survived into the 1950's and 1960's. However, routes like the Washington, Gretta, & Spa Spring, which perished during the 1920's heyday of streetcar service, often had a lasting effect on the urban landscape.


A map of the WSS&G streetcar line. Click for a larger version. Map by the author using OpenStreetMap.

Land speculation helped birth the streetcar

The town of Berwyn Heights, Maryland began in the 1890's as a subdivision on the east side of the B&O Railroad tracks (now the MARC Camden Line) just south of Branchville Road (now Greenbelt Road). However, development was slowed by competition from subdivisions on the west side of the B&O tracks, which were served by the Washington, Berwyn, & Laurel Streetcar starting in 1900.

In 1905 a group of land speculators, including Ohio Congressman Samuel Yoder and Benjamin Stephen, the owner of Gretta, the estate that would later become Riverdale Heights, bought up most of the available land in Berwyn Heights. They then obtained a charter for a streetcar line to be called the Washington, Spa Spring & Gretta, which would serve Bladensburg (then home to a well known spring with supposedly curative waters), the Gretta estate, and Berwyn Heights.

Construction on the WSS&G progressed slowly, in part due to funding difficulties: Congressman Yoder funded nearly the entire project with his personal assets. In August 1910, a single-tracked line along Bladensburg Road from 15th and H Streets NE to the Bladensburg School (now the Prince George's County library system's Bladensburg Branch) finally opened.

An extension to Berwyn Heights

After the opening of the line to Bladensburg, work began to construct an extension along Edmonston Road. To save money, this portion of the line wasn't electrified, and passengers were instead required to transfer to "Edison-Beach" battery-powered cars.

The Berwyn Heights extension was opened in 1912, but the Edison-Beach cars had difficulty climbing the final hill from Good Luck Road into Berwyn Heights—some passengers reported being asked to get out and push—and service was soon truncated to Brownings Road in Riverdale.


58th and Berwyn, the northern terminus of the streetcar in Berwyn Heights. It's now a quite suburban intersection. Photo by the author.

In October 1913, the Washington Railway & Electric Company (then one of Washington's two main streetcar systems, and the operator of the competing Washington, Berwyn, and Laurel line) agreed to operate the line as an extension of its H Street Line. Although the new operators electrified the entire line to Berwyn Heights, they decided that patronage was insufficient to justify through service, and the practice of requiring a transfer at Bladensburg School continued.

The Washington, Gretta, & Spa Spring Streetcar stops running

In 1916, the WSS&G corporation went bankrupt and the line was sold to the Washington Railway. The line continued to be unprofitable, and in 1921, Washington Railway terminated service north of Riverdale Heights.

Two years later, the District of Columbia decided to pave Bladensburg Road and required a payment of $150,000 to maintain the streetcar tracks. Given the unprofitability of the line, the company instead replaced streetcars with buses on the Bladensburg Road section of the line in April 1923. However, the Public Service Commission did not immediately allow buses on the Bladensburg School-East Riverdale section of the line, and it remained in operation as a streetcar shuttle until April 1925.

Finally, in 1949, Capital Transit—by then the operator of DC's unified streetcar network—replaced the 10/12 H Street-Benning Road line, which the WSS&G had served as a branch of, with the X2 bus. The H Street-Benning Road line had been one of the first streetcar lines in the city, and was the first of the city's major trunk lines to be completely replaced by buses.

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