March 18, 2015 - 1:38 pm

Howard promises to renovate the Terrell House

Mary Church Terrell HouseAfter years of neglect, Howard University has agreed to finish renovations of the Mary Church Terrell House (326 T Street NW).

Mary Church Terrell was a civil rights leader who lived from 1863 to 1954 and spent the last decades of her life in LeDroit Park.  She was instrumental in lawsuit, D.C. vs. J. R. Thompson Co., Inc., that that led the U.S. Supreme Court to desegregate all restaurants in D.C. in 1953.

Mary Church Terrell and her husband Robert Terrell, D.C.’s first black judge, willed the house to their daughter and, upon her death, to Howard University, which took control of the house in 1998.

The university had long planned to renovate the house and turn into a museum focused on the Terrells and the history of the neighborhood. Those plans never came to fruition.

However, in a Feb. 26 meeting between community leaders, including me, and Howard University President Wayne Frederick, the president assured us that restoration work will start on the house within six months.

We have not seen the exact plans of the physical restoration the university will complete, but Dr. Frederick wants to revisit the concept of housing a museum as he perceives a lack of support for that specific use.

The president is well aware of the vast community support toward the house’s physical restoration. The LeDroit Park Civic Association voted in January to send a letter to the university’s leadership expressing disappointment at the state of the Mary Church Terrell House and the Walter Washington House (408-410 T Street NW), both of which are Howard properties in different state of disrepair.

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October 04, 2013 - 2:49 pm

Reminder: Free history walking tour of LeDroit Park this weekend

U Street in 1908U Street in 2009

Come on out Saturday or Sunday for a free history walking tour of LeDroit Park.  I conduct this tour annually as part of WalkingTown DC.

The tours will be on Saturday, October 5 at 1 pm and again on Sunday, October 6 at 10 am. Meet me at the arch at 6th Street and Florida Avenue NW.  The tours are free and open to the public.  No reservations are required.

We’ll cover

  • The neighborhood’s founding
  • Relationship with the Howard Theatre
  • Architectural history
  • The Park at LeDroit
  • Walter Washington
  • Ernest Everett Just
  • Robert & Mary Church Terrell
  • Anna Julia Cooper
  • William Birney
  • Edward Brooke
  • Octavius Williams
  • Oscar De Priest
  • Griffith Stadium
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October 06, 2011 - 8:01 am

Howard still owns a few properties in LeDroit Park

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.

531 & 533 U St NW in 2004. Howard University renovated 531 (right) in 2004. Image from the DC government.

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.

Historic Infill

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 Ave NW Walter Washington House Mary Church Terrell House

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.

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May 15, 2010 - 12:33 am

Where Have All the Craftsmen Gone?

Grant Epstein

DC development blog DCmud interviewed Grant Epstein, who recently withdrew his proposal for 1922 Third Street NW.  Mr. Epstein’s development company focuses primarily on adaptive reuse of historic properties.

One part of the interview caught our eye, as Mr. Epstein confirms what we have long suspected: ornate houses are difficult to build today because it’s harder to find skilled craftsmen to built custom ornaments:

It’s amazing the amount of craftsmanship that went into these houses on [Capitol Hill]. Detail that it’s very hard to replicate today. So the old townhouses, they inspire me. We’ve lost a lot in our new buildings, in the construction of them. It primarily has to do with the number of pieces that go into a house. There aren’t many craftsmen that know how to do the details.

….

[T]he people don’t exist anymore… the trades don’t exist. For instance, iron staircases. Two or three guys in the area do iron staircases the right way. Two or three guys! Back in the early 1900s there were forty! It’s a big difference. At M Street we found the iron treads from an old turn of the century house and recast the iron posts in order to use the same style that was supposed to be there, but was missing. There were only a couple of guys who knew how to do that.

While walking around LeDroit Park, we frequently notice detailed architectural ornaments that never adorn contemporary buildings.  How many bricklayers today have the experience and skill to lay bricks as was done at the Mary Church Terrell house when it was built?

Mary Church Terrell House

And how many bricklayers have the experience to construct a façade like this one on the McGill carriagehouse at 1922 Third Street?

IMG_4617

The owners of this house on Third Street told me how impossible it was to find somebody to replicate these columns:

IMG_4626

Rarely will you find anything like the gingerbread on the Anna J. Cooper house:

Gingerbread on the Cooper House

Brackets like these require a good amount of craftsmanship to carve and paint:

Juniper Eaves

Contrast these houses with the vacant apartment house at 1907 Third Street NW:

1907 Third Street NW

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