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Spooky Historic Sites: Forgotten Burial Grounds in Washington, DC

Posted on: October 26th, 2012 by David Robert Weible 3 Comments

 


One of the 19th-century skeletons uncovered in the 3300 block of Q Street, NW, Washington, DC. Photo courtesy Dr. David Hunt, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

The dead couldn’t quite wait until Halloween to start rising in Washington, DC, this year.

On September 10, construction workers excavating to make way for a residential parking garage on the bucolic 3300 block of Q Street in the city’s northwest quadrant found the first of five adult remains. After the medical examiner determined that the bodies were not part of a crime scene, Ruth Trocolli, Washington’s city archaeologist  was called in to excavate the site.

The design of the coffins, the absence of grave goods, and the position of the bodies within the coffins were all consistent with early 19th-century burial practices, leading Trocolli to ballpark their deaths in the 1820s. Trocolli also discovered that the bodies -- all African Americans of adult age -- were oriented east to west, suggesting that they were not random burials, but the remains of a cemetery. The question was, which one?


Ruth Trocolli (left) and Charde Reid working on the excavation. Photo courtesy Dr. David Hunt, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

It turns out there used to be a cemetery belonging to a Georgetown Presbyterian church, dating to 1806, just across Q Street where Volta Park now stands. Trocolli says that before development of the area, the cemetery could have extended beyond Q, or, because of segregation, African Americans may have been buried outside the formal grounds.

But I wanted to know how so many burials could turn up so unexpectedly.

Trocolli had an interesting explanation for that, too. Up until the creation of the District of Columbia at the end of the 18th century, Georgetown was still a part of Maryland, which could explain why the District had no record of the remains. She also explained that the city of Washington did not always cover the entire diamond that is now DC, and in 1858, with property values rising, Congress decreed that all cemeteries (except Congressional) be moved north of Boundary Street -- present day Florida Avenue -- and into what was known as Washington County.

Cemeteries sold their property and moved the burials, putting ads in the church squire or local paper asking residents to claim loved ones or headstones. But as one might expect, they missed some here and there.

This isn’t the first time centuries-old burials have turned up in the District. Old newspaper accounts are full of burial findings, says Trocolli, and some of the cemeteries that were moved were huge. Payne’s Cemetery in the southeast quadrant contained as many as 39,000 bodies, and what is now Walter Pierce Park in the Adams Morgan neighborhood also had a significant number.


Looking from Volta Park, the alley where the skeletons were found. Photo courtesy David Robert Weible.

“Some people are very stressed to hear that their playground is on top of a former cemetery, and it just doesn’t faze others,” says Trocolli.

Though finding bodies has been uncommon, it is not unknown, and so Trocolli has developed a plan for predicting them. Using the recent book by local cemetery scholar Paul E. Sluby Sr., Bury Me Deep, to create a database of all the historic cemeteries in the District, she overlaid their locations onto a map of the current city via GIS software, allowing her to see where development projects might encounter bodies. And with development again reaching a fever-pitch in Washington, Trocolli expects the dead to continue rising, regardless of Halloween.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

 

As part of back-to-school season, we’re featuring several impressive young preservationists who are saving places all around the country. This is the third profile in the series.

For more than two decades, the city of Washington, DC, and the residents of Bloomingdale, Park View, and other neighborhoods surrounding McMillan Park in the city’s northwest quadrant haven’t been able to agree on what to do with the 25-acre site. Now, four students from nearby Catholic University of America have worked with their professor and the community to develop a plan of their own, with a little preservation mixed in.

“The feeling I’ve gotten is the city has just been focused on development, development, development, and a lot of people have felt they haven’t really listened to what the community wants and the historic value of the site,” Peter Miles, a senior architecture student and project member, says. “The project was a way for the community to develop a plan to say, ‘Look, we have answers. We’re not just saying ‘no’ to what the city wants. This is our vision.’”

Though it was designated as a permanent community green space when it was built in 1905, the site’s principle function was as a filtration plant that purified water by passing it from above-ground silos through a layer of sand and into subterranean vaults via gravity. The plant, named after Senator James McMillan of Michigan who worked to realize plans for the city in the late 1800s, helped to eradicate typhoid outbreaks in the District and included a walking path designed by the father of American landscape architecture’s son, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.

When a new purification process was developed for the District’s water supply in the late 1980s, the site was sold by the federal government to the city and has been deteriorating and closed to the public ever since.

Miles and classmates Joseph Barrick, Filipe Pereira, and Nina Tatic were asked to help with the project last spring by their professor Miriam Gusevich, who had been working with the community on the project for roughly ten years. Since then, they have collectively logged hundreds of hours in nearly every area of the project from computerized 3-D modeling to attending a hearing by the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board.


The Collage City Studio design team. From l. to r.: Filipe Pereira, Miriam Gusevich, Peter Miles, Nina Tatic, and Joseph Barrick.

The team’s plan keeps many of the same elements in place that are supported by the city, but with one key difference: They’ve designated the middle portion -- a full 50 percent of the plot -- to public use. Much of the remaining subterranean vault would be used as a community center with basketball and tennis courts and a swimming pool. The roof would serve as the park’s open green space, and several of the filtration cells would be restored and incorporated into the design as fountains and to demonstrate to the public how water filtration was practiced in the past.

“It’s really just a shame to try and tear it down and build something new because you don’t have the time and the money and effort to preserve part of it,” says Miles. “There’s a certain sense of a special place there and it’s really a phenomenal thing to be able to experience.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

An Uncertain Future for a Piece of Native American History

Posted on: September 28th, 2012 by David Robert Weible 6 Comments

 

To see it, you’d hardly ever know that the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., was once the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Established in 1879, it was the first government-funded, all-Native American off-reservation boarding school intended to assimilate Native American children into white American culture. Though other buildings still stand, the planned demolition of the school’s farmhouse would be a significant blow to the school’s memory.

Dr. Louellyn White, an assistant professor in First People’s Studies at Concordia University in Montreal whose grandfather was one of roughly 10,000 children who attended Carlisle and was likely taught in the farmhouse, says that the school was industrial in the sense that it taught the students specific skills. But “they weren’t being trained in becoming doctors or lawyers or politicians,” she says. “They were skills that would help them to partake in industrial America to keep native people as somewhat inferior as part of the working class.”

The Gothic Revival farmhouse was built in 1859 and was used by African-American soldiers Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. Afterwards, the building and surrounding barracks stood vacant continued to be the residence of the civilian Parker family until the Industrial School was established. Perhaps best known as the alma mater of the famed athlete Jim Thorpe, the school was closed in 1918 and the building again served African-American soldiers, this time as a social club.

During its years as part of the school, the farmhouse was used for agricultural training. Students would often spend the night there before waking at 4:00 a.m. to milk the cows, which makes it one of the last buildings left where children slept and were instructed.

Many of the other buildings that were once a part of the school have been deemed National Landmarks and continue to be used by the War College, but the farmhouse, set farther away from the main campus, was described in a letter from the barracks’ commander as “not eligible for historic designation due to the lack of architectural merit and historical associations.” But separate research from Stone Fort Consulting, a historic preservation consulting firm from Kansas, disputes that claim, citing a 1918 publication by the school itself closely linking the building to the school’s activities and mission.

Since learning this summer of the Army Garrison’s plans to raze the building, White and her group, Carlisle Indian School Descendants, Family and Friends, have embarked on a campaign to create a discourse with the Army Garrison that runs the property, as well as reach out to Native American tribal leaders across the country in an effort to save the farmhouse and perhaps get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Though the building still stands, its future is uncertain.

“I think the bigger picture of this whole thing is that what the school itself represented,” White says. “Tearing down this kind of a building erases part of that memory that we hold on to as descendants. But also the public needs to be aware of that history of those forced assimilation policies that the government imposed on native peoples. We’re not preserving something that was all positive… because, as I said, it was part of a whole colonial system of oppression.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

Burlington, Iowa’s Old-School Movie Theater Gets a New Lease on Life

Posted on: September 25th, 2012 by David Robert Weible 1 Comment

 

Though I’m a child of the '90s, when megaplexes were popping up like Furbies and Pokemon in suburban neighborhoods, my friend Tim and I would spend rainy Saturday afternoons at the 1924 movie house my neighborhood struggled to keep open, watching and re-watching flicks like Men in Black and the Jurassic Park series.

Though they weren’t exactly Gone With the Wind, seeing these movies in a historic setting made an impression on me -- which is why I’m always thrilled to see the restoration of historic theaters across the country, including one of the latest, the Capitol Theater in downtown Burlington, Iowa.


The Art Deco building first opened with the showing of The Prince and the Pauper in 1937 and featured countless classics before closing in 1977 after a final screening of Carrie. Though it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996, the theater remained shuttered, slowly decaying from neglect, until a friends group was formed in 2003.

Since 2005, the upstart Capitol Theater Foundation worked to restore the marquee and the lobby’s colorful terrazzo floor, uncover and restore original tin ceilings and maple floors, repair the terra cotta exterior, reconstruct the ticket booth and concession counter, repair and replace damaged acoustic tiles, and expand the stage for live performances.

The building reopened after the $3 million restoration as the Capitol Theater and Performing Arts Center on June 1, almost 35 years after it was closed. And while they may not make movies like they used to, at places like the Capitol you can at least watch them like they used to.

For my money, there’s nothing better.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

 

When I think about the Motor City area, I think rolled-up shirt sleeves, firm handshakes, and American-made. So, when two native sons told me over beers on a recent Saturday afternoon that greater Detroit’s most iconic auto repair garage had been converted into a popular new restaurant, I assumed the city had lost something special.

Turns out, I was wrong.


The electric fuel pumps out front are used frequently by customers and symbolize the progress of the Motor City.

Vinsetta Garage was built in 1919 and was believed to be the longest-operating repair shop east of the Mississippi until it closed in 2010 when longtime owner Jack Marwil decided to shift gears and attend law school.

Built on Woodward Avenue in Berkley, Michigan, just 10 minutes outside the city limits, where old-timers and youngsters alike still pull up fold-out chairs on Friday nights to watch people slowly cruise their classic Fords, Chevys, and Dodges, it was considered the best garage in greater Detroit (which is saying something), and was a monument to the identity of Detroiters and their love affair with cars -- so popular, in fact, that Marwil had to turn business away.

“If you lived in Detroit long enough, [the garage] was a landmark, and being a customer was a point of pride,” says Carol Banas, a patron of the garage for more than 25 years. “Pride. It’s what the city is all about and that building and the business summed it all up.”


“We didn’t want to strip the whole thing and then say ‘Hey, let’s start from scratch,’” says Stevenson of the interior.

Given the community’s attachment, when new owners Ann Stevenson, Curt Catallo, KC Crain, and Ashley Crain decided to turn the space into a restaurant serving revamped American comfort food, they were careful to maintain the sentimental value of the building.

“My whole stance from the first time I saw the building throughout the whole process was ‘preserve what’s here,’” says Stevenson. “So much of it was honoring the building and finding the balance between what existed there and what we needed to add in for its new usage.”

To meet health codes, a cleanable ceiling was installed above the kitchen, but as a nod to the past, Stevenson framed it with the semi-opaque security glass from the skylights. She also found a way to repurpose the double-faucet sink the repairmen had used; going so far as to completely rework the design of what is now the unisex washroom just to include it.

Stevenson told me what she strived hardest to preserve were the layers of paint on the walls that dated back decades and had built up an incredible history of the building.


Even small items, like the picture (l.), were kept. And the walls (r.) certainly still have the personality of a classic auto repair garage.

But despite these and other preservation efforts, the restaurant, which opened this past May, isn’t a static relic of Detroit’s past. Stevenson says that since 2008, the city has developed both a sense of optimism and a movement to celebrate what it’s becoming. The garage, now fixed with two frequently used electric car charging stations out front, is emblematic of that.

“You’re in this garage that’s iconic and old and has existed forever, yet it’s sort of about the future. It’s not just decorative, it’s utilized,” says Stevenson.

“If it were in Canton or Scranton or Toledo or Tulsa, I’m sure it would still be an incredibly beautiful building, but the fact that we are the Motor City and it served its purpose for what the city does so well, I think it’s very symbolic.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.