How was LeDroit Park established and who built all those unique homes on U Street? Why did the neighborhood start as exclusively white but become so important to black history? As part of the annual WalkingTown DC event, I will lead two free walking tours of the neighborhood.
The tours will be on Sunday, September 30 at 1 pm and again at 3:30 pm. Meet me at the arch at 6th Street and Florida Avenue NW. The tours are free and open to the public.
- 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
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.
Park construction is underway, but when the park is ready in the coming months, what should we call it? The ultimate decision is up to the DC Council, but Councilmember Jim Graham (D – Ward 1) has assured us that the Council will strongly consider any three names that neighbors finally settle on.
You can submit your suggestions online. Anyone may submit names and you may submit as many as you like. The LeDroit Park Civic Association will gather the names and allow the public to vote for the names. The top three winners will be forwarded to the Council.
What would you like to call the park?
If we want to honor notable residents, here are a few famous figures from the neighborhood’s history:
- Walter Washington – 408 T Street – First elected mayor of DC.
- Paul Laurence Dunbar – 321 U Street – Notable poet.
- Mary Church Terrell – 326 T Street – Notable civil rights activist.
- Oscar De Priest – 419 U Street – First black Congressman elected since Reconstruction.
We have excluded Duke Ellington since he lived here for only one year and since he already has several civic works dedicated to him. We also excluded living people since their histories are still being written. We also left out Anna J. Cooper since she already has the circle park named after her.
One other deceased person who might merit distinction is Theresa Brown, who died in 2009. Ms. Brown was instrumental in establishing the LeDroit Park Historic District and protecting the neighborhood’s unique architecture from the wrecking ball. Without her, the neighborhood we know today may have been turned into parking lots.
Most parks operated by the Department of Parks and Recreation end their names with “Recreation Center”, a suffix with as much charm as the tax code. Perhaps Playground, Gardens, Park, or Field would set off our park from other projects.
What would you like to name the park?
You’ve seen them around DC. Those tall signs with historic photos and narratives explaining what happened in that neighborhood 70 or 200 years ago. Several neighborhoods in DC have heritage trails, courtesy of Cultural Tourism DC.
We in LeDroit Park and Bloomingdale are on our way to getting our very own heritage trail, but the LeDroit Park-Bloomingdale Heritage Trail Working Group needs your help.
The Working Group will meet on Wednesday, May 12 at 7 pm at St. George’s Episcopal Church (Second & U Streets) to collect stories, old photos, and to plan how to interview our neighborhoods’ long-time residents.
Do you have an old photo or an old story to tell or are you interested in local history? LeDroit Park has hosted many notable residents from Civil War generals, to Duke Ellington, to Walter Washington, and even Jesse Jackson!
Come join us Wednesday night and learn how you can help.
Wednesday, May 12
St. George’s Episcopal Church
Second & U Streets NW