In preparation for the Monday’s grand (re)opening of the Howard Theatre, the Post ran a story about the theater’s past and how the Shaw and LeDroit Park have changed over the decades since the theater’s heyday.
The article also describes the histories of some long-time local businesses, including the Hall Brothers Funeral Home, the HJM Variety Shop, and Gregg’s Barber Shop.
A neighbor we know who studies local history likes to ask long-time residents if they feel the city has lost anything with the influx of residents, wealth, and investment over the past 15 years. Inevitably, the answer is yes and the answers differ to some degree.
The Post article is striking in that the residents who remember the theater in its golden age don’t expect its current incarnation to live up to the excitement of its younger self.
For those Washingtonians, the Howard’s rebirth stirs a mix of curiosity and excitement for what is new, and nostalgia and melancholy for what has been lost.
“It looks like a mausoleum to me,” said Juan Rosebar, 61, eyeing the theater on a recent afternoon, as workers laid cobblestones on the street outside.
As a kid, Rosebar watched the stars migrate from the Howard to Cecilia’s Stage Door, a bar a few yards away where they’d mix with their fans and drink post-performance cocktails. Cecilia’s closed long ago, as did Jimmy’s Golden Cue, the pool hall across the street where Rosebar learned to hustle. All that’s left is Jimmy’s rusted sign, the letters barely legible.
“You can’t turn the clock back,” Rosebar said. “You won’t get the scene; you won’t get the flamboyance.”
Another resident, Frank Love, concurs:
“It’s all changed around here,” said Love, 77, shaving a customer’s sideburns and listing the names of a half dozen long-gone barbershops. He can’t wait for the Howard’s reopening and the chance to step inside the place where he went to see Jackie Wilson with his future wife, Pearl Love.
He knows the theater can’t be what it was, but he’s okay with that. “That was then, and this is now,” he said. “You can’t look for it to be the same.”
You can tell from the posts on this blog that history fascinates us. However, the study of history is part real and part imagined. Though buildings can be preserved and restored, the people and societies that made them relevant cannot. The Howard will reopen on Monday and it will serve as a lively venue for a diverse array of national acts, but its cultural relevance may never again match its storied past.
On April 17, 1953, Mickey Mantle hit one of the longest home runs in baseball history at Griffith Stadium, which stood where Howard University Hospital stands today. The ball landed in LeDroit Park and was alleged to have traveled the remarkable distance of 565 feet.
Sports historian Jane Leavey investigated the so-called “tape measure home run” in her 2010 book The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood. She appeared on NPR’s Talk of the Nation yesterday to discuss that record-setting home run that landed in LeDroit Park and she described her efforts to verify distance claim.
U.S. Census records are kept confidential for 72 years, meaning that the 1940 Census went public yesterday. Whereas previous census ledgers were difficult to find online for free, the U.S. Archives released the full 1940 Census online. We have started perusing the pages to look for famous figures and interesting patterns in LeDroit Park, which is covered by enumeration districts 1-514 through 1-516.
A few things stand out. First, nearly the entire population of LeDroit Park in 1940 was black, illustrating the sharp racial segregation at the time. Second, nearly every house was packed with residents and many residents took on lodgers. Our house, a modest two-bedroom built in 1907, housed 13 people!
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We will publish some interesting records as we find them, but let’s start off with the listing for Anna J. Cooper (née Haywood), her lodger, and her nephew, who lived at 201 T Street (pictured below). The Cooper household is listed as entries 53 – 55 in the ledger at the top of this post.
Cooper was the principal of the M Street High School, she was an author, a feminist, and a teacher. The census only collects unambiguous personal statistics, so there is actually a longer story behind every column entry.
The first column in the snippet above states the value of her home as $20,000, a high sum compared to other LeDroit Park homes.
The 11th column lists “C8″, meaning that she received eight years of a college education. What the record doesn’t state is that she received a PhD from the Sorbonne in 1924, making her among the first black American women to receive a doctorate.
The 8th column states her age as 80 (she was actually 81) and the 13th column simply states that she was born in North Carolina. What the record doesn’t state is that she was born in North Carolina in 1858 into slavery.
The rest of the record not pictured in the above snippet states that by 1940 she was unable to work, though in reality she was likely still running a small night school.
She died in 1964 at the age of 105. The circle at 3rd and T Streets is named in her honor, she is featured on a postage stamp and on pages 26 and 27 of the U.S. passport.
The Howard Theatre is nearly complete. You may have noticed that the sidewalk on the north side of T Street is now open, giving residents a close-up view of the new façade. More importantly, the plaza at T Street and Florida Avenue is now open and the new sculpture of Duke Ellington stands prominently at the vegetated plaza. The sculpture depicts Ellington seated on a treble clef while playing a piano keyboard.
The most delightful feature of the sculpture is the energy it portrays. As Ellington plays, the keys appear to fly off the keyboard and into the sky behind him, signifying a magical quality to his music.
Duke Ellington grew up in Washington and even lived on Elm Street in LeDroit Park for a year. He played at the Howard Theatre and frequently visited the adjacent Frank Holliday’s pool hall, most recently known as Cafe Mawonaj.
The hall was a popular gathering spot for Howard scholars, jazz musicians, and city laborers alike. Duke Ellington captured the scene at the pool hall:
Guys from all walks of life seemed to converge there: school kids over and under sixteen; college students and graduates, some starting out in law and medicine and science; and lots of Pullman porters and dining-car waiters.
And now Ellington’s statue sits on the same storied block.
The JBG apartment project on the 700 and 800 blocks of Florida Avenue NW moved forward last week when the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) gave partial approval to the project. The modernist design will likely have to endure a few more refinements before the board grants its final approval for the site.
Building alterations, additions, demolitions, and construction in historic districts are subject to review by the Historic Preservation Review Board. Since the site sits in the U Street Historic District, it must also gain HPRB approval before it can receive building permits.
Though we are supporters of historic preservation, we can see why this extra level of review frustrates builders and property owners. The main problem is that historic review requires property owners, architects, and developers to adjust their designs based on subjective judgments of historic compatibility.
The historic review process is less predictable that the typical building process, which simply requires that a builder meet unambiguous zoning regulations and building codes. For instance, the JBG site is zoned C-2-B, which permits residential projects to rise to 65 feet or to rise to 70 feet if they include affordable housing.
Distances are easy and unambiguous measurements, but how does one determine if a proposed design is historically compatible?
As in most cases where subjectivity needs analysis, you can easily define the extreme cases. The Weaver Building (HUD’s headquarters) is undoubtedly incompatible with the Victorian rowhouse architecture of the U Street area. Likewise, a good number of preservationists despise projects that attempt precise replication of historic structures. The right answers lies somewhere between aping historic forms and shunnig them all together.
Modernism, a 20th century invention, can work well in historic districts if done right and Miller Hull has worked to refine its designs to pass HPRB muster.
Though the HPRB asked for further refinement that will have to go to the board again, the board did support the design on six features so far:
- Relocation of the front, original section of 1933-35 9th Street to the southern portion of the site, adjacent to the row of similarly-sized and scaled historic buildings, and removal of the later rear additions
- Reconfiguration of the alley on the western parcel to exit on 9th Street
- Subdivision to allow lot combination on both the west and east sites
- Overall site organization of the new construction
- Height and massing along Florida Avenue
- General architectural direction, subject to further development and material selection.
Here are the concept designs the board reviewed when it reached this decision:
Who are your neighbors? In December, LeDroit Park resident Robert Sullivan launched a website Portait City that features audio and photographic profiles of several LeDroit Park residents. You may not know these subjects personally and perhaps maybe you have seen them in the neighborhood. Nonetheless, they each provide a fascinating mosaic of LeDroit Park.
Interview subjects include Bobby Donaldson, the South Carolina native who opened B&J Barbeque at Rhode Island Avenue and 3rd Street. You’ll find out what inspired him to open a restaurant and what people like in their barbeque.
LeDroit resident and former Ward 1 councilmember Frank Smith spent part of his youth as a civil rights worker in rural Mississippi. Mr. Smith recorded and reported civil rights abuses, such as bogus “literacy tests” that southern states used to prohibit black residents from voting. Here how he reacted to Marion Barry’s infamous arrest.
Hear from the Elks Lodge and their relationship with the neighborhood. You can also hear Elks reminisce about performances at the Howard Theatre back in the day.
Finally, Robert was able to interview LeDroit residents Dolores Baylor and her daughter Mechelle just before Dolores died in December. Mechelle explains what it was like growing up in the neighborhood and Dolores recounts what it was like living through the riots of 1968.
The lives of famous figures in history are well-documented, but it is also important to record the experiences and views of the not-so-famous. Robert contracted your author, who is a professional web developer by day, to build the site. While building the site, we couldn’t help but notice that each story delivered its own unexpected poignancy.
In reviewing Howard University’s proposed campus plan, we started to take account of all of the property in DC that the university owns. Up until 10 years ago, Howard University was accused of being LeDroit Park’s biggest slumlord, owning numerous properties in the neighborhood and letting them lie vacant, blighted, and decaying.
Under the reign of university president H. Patrick Swygert, Howard made a significant and commendable effort to rehab and sell many of its vacant properties in the neighborhood.
For instance, the university owned all but one house on 400 block of Oakdale Place. It let these houses lie vacant, blighted, and boarded up. Under Pres. Swygert, the university renovated the houses and sold them to employees. Today the 400 block of Oakdale Place is fully occupied and a new condo building is nearing completion on the western end.
In other cases, the university renovated properties but has retained ownership. 531 U Street NW looked terrible in 2004 (right), but now looks very nice. We can’t quite tell if the house is occupied, but it consistently appears to be in good condition.
Elsewhere on the 500 and 600 blocks of U Street, Howard built historic infill houses (below) on vacant lots it owned on the north side of the street. The result is a block with with a continuous wall of housing on the street’s northern face. The houses’ façades are of high quality, with detailed brick work, ornate porches, and a variety of detailing.
The job is not entirely done, however, and Howard University retains ownership of a few properties that raise eyebrows. Let’s look at these three:
649 Florida Avenue (left) sits as a vacant lot, frequently collecting trash and debris. A university official told us that long ago Howard had considered using the lot to create a delightful pedestrian path to the university from the Shaw Metro. That never happened and now the lot sits vacant.
408-410 T Street (center) was the home of Walter Washington, DC’s first elected mayor. The university owns the property, and though it’s not blighted, it may be vacant. With some renovation work, this would make an excellent rental home for a Howard professor or anyone else for that matter.
326 T Street (right) is the Mary Church Terrell House, future home of the Robert and Mary Church Terrell House & LeDroit Park Museum and Cultural Center. Though it’s vacant and undoubtedly meets the District’s definition of blight, we are willing to cut the university more slack in this case since the eventual outcome will be a wonderful addition to the neighborhood. Unfortunately, the campus plan does not specify any additional Howard funding to restore the site.
In addition to the properties above, Howard owns a few more properties in LeDroit Park:
- Gravel parking lot at the SE corner of 5th and W Streets. (Square 3072, Lot 818). Campus plan does not mention any change to this lot.
- Carver Hall, 211 Elm St NW (Square 3084, Lot 830). Campus plan mentions the dorm’s decommission, but no reuse plans.
- Slowe Hall, 1919 3rd St NW (Square 3088, Lot 835). Campus plan mentions the dorm’s decommission, but no reuse plans.
- Howard University Hospital daycare, 1907-11 5th St NW (Square 3090, Lot 41)
- 420 T St NW – a house that appears to be occupied (Square 3094, Lot 800)
- Howard University Hospital (Square 3075, Lot 807)
- Parking garage bounded by 4th St, Oakdale Pl, 5th St, and V St. (Square 3080, Lot 73)
- Parking garage bounded by 4th St, V St, 5th St, and an alley. (Square 3072, Lot 52)
Though Howard retains a few problematic properties, it’s important to note the great strides the university has made in taking responsibility for its property portfolio in the neighborhood. A plan for these few remaining properties, even one in which the university retains ownership but leases, would put residents at greater ease.
Cultural Tourism DC is finishing the installation of the signs for the Georgia Ave./Pleasant Plains Heritage Trail. Here is one we spotted outside the Dunbar Theater (now Wells Fargo bank) at 7th and T Streets NW.
The trail opening event will be on Saturday, October 15 at 11 am at the plaza in front of Howard University Hospital.
Work on the heritage trail for LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale has progressed greatly and we are on our way to having our own trail to honor LeDroit Park’s rich history.
Two century-old DC fountains sit decaying and neglected in the woods of a national park in Maryland. The fountains had been missing from the 1940s until they were rediscovered in the woods of Fort Washington National Park in the 1970s.
The top portion of the McMillan fountain, pictured below, was returned to Crispus Attucks park in the Bloomingdale neighborhood in 1983. In 1992 it was moved back to the fenced-off grounds of the McMillan Reservoir just a few blocks away.
The fountain was installed in 1913 at the McMillan Reservoir as a memorial to Senator James McMillan (R – Michigan), who is more remembered locally for his his ambitious McMillan Plan to beautify Washington. The fountain was dismantled in 1941, when the reservoir was fenced off from the public.
Though the top of the McMillan Fountain had been restored to the reservoir grounds, a Bloomingdale ANC commissioner told me the base of the fountain was in the woods in Fort Washington along with the remains of the fountain that stood at the center of the now-razed Truxton Circle.
I went to Fort Washington in search of these discarded works of art. I asked a park ranger where the fountain was and she drew me a map, saying that it stood in the park’s “dump” and partly behind a fence.
I went to the picnic area nearest the site and walked into the woods a short distance where I found a fence. Behind it stood piles of bricks and other discarded building materials.
Beside the site is a dugout that serves as the back court to Battery Emory, a concrete gun battery built in 1898 to protect the capital city from enemy ships.
As I passed through the unfenced dugout, I immediately spotted few granite blocks that served as the cornerstones of the base bowl. Though they are strewn about the ground, a 1912 photograph can help us identify what pieces went where.
The elements of the fountain were stacked like totem pole. The bottom element features carved classical allegorical heads from whose mouths water gushed into the carved bowls below.
Fence material and tree debris cover the carved granite (left) that stood as the fountain base (right).
The next element of the stack is the fluted base to the top bowl.
Several other large granite stones are stacked and marked with numbers, presumably to help in reassembly.
The site also contains the rusting remains of the fountain that stood at Truxton Circle, which formed the intersection of North Capitol Street, Florida Avenue, Lincoln Road, and Q Street. The circle was built around 1901 and the fountain installed there originally stood at the triangle park at Pennsylvania Avenue and M Street in Georgetown.
Truxton Circle stood at Florida Avenue, North Capitol Street, Q Street, and Lincoln Road from 1901 to 1940, when it was demolished to aid commuter traffic.
A newspaper at the time described it as one of the largest fountains in the city. The circle was removed in 1940 to ease the flow of commuter traffic. At that time, the fountain, which may date to as early as the 1880s, made its way to Fort Washington to rust in the woods.
The metal pedestal (left) held up the fountain bowl whose rim rusts in pieces on the ground (right). Notice the classical egg-and-dart pattern.
The fountain was also noted for the metal grates that stood near its base. Now these grates sit rusting in the woods.
If you want to see the fountain remains for yourself at Fort Washington National Park, go to picnic area C. Beyond the end of the parking lot is a restroom building and behind that is the fountain “graveyard.” A fence encloses part of the site, but you can enter through the large gap down the hillside.
Rather than tossing aside our city’s artistic patrimony, we should aim to restore these treasures to the neighborhoods from which they came. Public art is part of what differentiates cherished neighborhoods from unmemorable places.
These works remind us of the accomplishments and civic-mindedness of generations past and urge us to carry on the tradition of civic improvement for generations to come.
Two years ago we wrote about the old street names for LeDroit Park. Finding out just when the name change occurred is hard to pin down. Different sources, from address directories to newspaper articles, refer to old names and new names during the same period of time.
The mystery is closer to resolution, however, as we found what we believe to be the earliest reference to the name change:
New Names for Le Droit Park Streets.
July 31, 1890
The names of the streets in Le Droit Park have been changed as follows: Le Droit Park avenue to Second street, Harewood avenue to Third street, Linden street to Fourth street, Larch street to Fifth street, Juniper street to Sixth street, and Maple avenue to T street.
There appears to be an error in the article as ‘Le Droit avenue’ never actually had ‘Park’ in its name.