For some reason, I always knew I wanted to live in Washington, D.C. It was probably my early interest in politics that brought me here or maybe it was a sense of needing to move to a big city that wasn’t too big. Either way, in August of 2003, I found myself renting a house in American University Park, which is located in Northwest near Tenleytown. Its a wonderful neighborhood, designed and developed in the 1920s, with lots of families and beautiful historic houses. It was a great place to start out in Washington because it offered not only the small neighborhood feel I was accustom to but also a great deal of accessibility to other areas of the city via the metro. The Tenleytown Historical Society has an excellent series of photographs and background information on Tenleytown if you’re interested in reading more on this area.
After living in Washington for two years, I knew that I wanted to call this place my home. I still find it hard to describe why I feel at home here, but I do. In 2005 I decided it was time to begin the house hunting process. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the best time to be looking for houses since it was the peak of the housing bubble and affordable housing, already limited in D.C., was even harder to find. While I love the more traditional historic districts like Logan Circle and Capitol Hill, I was drawn to Southwest where housing was somewhat more affordable, and to my surprise, the neighborhood was distinctively different.
I’ll never forget the first time my realtor took me to Southwest. I visited a cooperative known as River Park. As we drove through the neighborhood I quickly realized this place was like no other in the city. Filled with an abundance of mid-century architecture, I was quickly captivated by the area. It had a totally different feel from other places, due in part to a radical and controversial urban renewal plan that occurred in the 1950s which brought in architects such as I.M. Pei, Harry Weese, Marcel Breuer, Charles Goodman, and Chloethiel Woodard Smith to design open space areas, federal office buildings, and residential housing complexes.
Southwest’s story doesn’t begin in the 1950s; instead, it begins as early as the late 1700s with one of the city’s oldest sets of buildings, known as Wheat Row, and Fort McNair. The area slowly developed into a thriving residential neighborhood for both African-Americans and European immigrants during the turn of the 20th century. Like other residential areas in the district, Southwest’s streets were lined with rowhouses of varying sizes. Over time, however, overcrowding in the area led to deteriorating housing conditions and the construction of numerous alley dwellings. In the 1950s Congress and city planners decided that Southwest should undergo a huge transformation, which resulted in the eviction of the area’s residents and the demolition of most of the buildings. While the displacement of the area’s residents and the loss of community that occurred in this area was devastating, it’s an important part of my neighborhood’s history that shouldn’t be overlooked or forgotten.
With the expansive redevelopment underway, only a few historic buildings were saved, these include Wheat Row, the Thomas Law House, Saint Dominic’s Church, and selected row houses on Half Street. The Maine Avenue Fish Market has also survived, in one form or another, since the early 1800s. Aside from these destination points, there are a variety of interesting mid-century housing developments, like Tiber Island and River Park, and the L’Enfant Promenade, which also includes a park dedicated to Benjamin Banneker.
As the first decade of the 21st century quickly approaches its end, Southwest is again experiencing another renewal with the nearby construction of the National’s baseball stadium and a second redevelopment of the Waterfront area, both are attempts to make this area a destination point for visitors and residents. As these plans move forward, it’s important that that the area’s history is not forgotten, but it’s also equally important that we protect and preserve the community that developed over the last fifty years.
I hope you’ll take some time to visit Southwest; it’s included in Cultural Tourism DC’s Neighborhood Heritage Trail system. A map of the trail, which is lined with poster-sized street signs telling the neighborhood’s story is available along with a walking tour brochure.
-- Ross Bradford
Ross Bradford is an Assistant General Counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Stay tuned leading up to the inauguration as more National Trust staffers share their stories about the greater D.C. area. Coming to town for the historic event? Be sure to visit our new Preservationist’s Guide to Washington.
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