What Once Was
Mrs. Cole’s Bay Window: Parking, streets, trees, projections, and the Secretary of War
Published: July 19th, 2016
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By Matthew B. Gilmore*
What is that space between the curb and the sidewalk (or even some entire front yards in certain neighborhoods)? Who owns it, controls it, manages it? The term of art from the late 19th century for this intermediate space is “parking” (sometimes “parkings” — and not about parking carriages but rather about green space). That question of use and control was at the heart of a contentious lawsuit in 1889 pitting Mrs. Annie Cole and the District Commissioners against the United States government.
Washington has always been known for its wide streets. It is and has been known as the “City of Trees.” The two — streets and trees — are intimately intertwined. The image here from around 1907 looking south on Connecticut Avenue illustrates that connection. The avenue is 130 feet wide from building face to building face. The roadway carrying traffic is just 5- feet.
Street widths were set at the founding of the city as part of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan for the City of Washington. The plan as finalized by Andrew Ellicott and published in 1792 set street widths ranging from 90 to 110 feet, with the grand avenues wider still at 130 to 160 feet. By comparison, New York’s major streets are 100 feet wide and others 60 feet; Chicago’s arterials are 100 feet and other streets 66 feet wide; Phoenix streets range from 50 to 140 feet wide.
It’s clear that L’Enfant had “foot ways [and] walks of trees” in mind in his plan, but the parking as we know it did not come into existence until 1870.
Famous for its wide streets, Washington became infamous for its dust in dry weather and mud when wet. Any visitor or resident expectations to the contrary were surely misguided, particularly in the city’s early years. Most American cities were dusty in dry weather and muddy when it rained. Washington was no different and was planned on a grand scale, with much space for expansion and growth; the spacious streets being a singular feature of that.
Unfortunately, the city’s finances couldn’t support extensive roadway paving. Few seem to realize that pavement, while expensive to install, can be ruinously expensive to continually maintain. Broken, poorly maintained pavement would have been far more harmful than the alternating clouds of dust and puddles of mud.
As president, Thomas Jefferson oversaw the improvement of Pennsylvania Avenue in 1803 — Lombardy poplars were planted at the edge of the main roadway, setting off an accessory lane on each side with another row of poplars (similar to certain stretches of K Street, NW today — absent the poplars).
President Andrew Jackson had the poplars removed in the 1830s and the roadway paved. Coping effectively with the remaining width of the streets in the rest of the city had to wait until 1870 with the development of the “parking.”
Congress approved and the President signed on April 6, 1870 “An Act authorizing the corporation the City of Washington to set apart portions of streets and avenues as parks for trees and walks . . . to be adorned with shade-trees, walks, and enclosed with curb stones, not exceeding one-half the width of any and all avenues and streets in the said city of Washington, leaving a roadway of not less than thirty-five feet. . . .” and it included the stipulation that “nothing in this act shall authorize the occupancy of any portion of the public streets or avenues for private purposes.”
The legislation passed with lightning rapidity. As related by the Evening Star, Mayor Sayles Bowen and others visited Senator Morrill on March 31 who then drafted the legislation right then and there, submitted it the next day, and it sailed through both houses and was signed by the President. Several men have been credited with or have taken credit for the parking plan. Superintendent of Public Buildings and Grounds Nathaniel Michler proposed narrowing the streets with plantings. Abram Farndon, a member of the Washington Common Council, moved legislation to do the same. Tindall suggests Mayor Bowen may have originated the idea, but the legislation was moved by Vermont Senator Justin Morrill and supported by Ohio Senator John Sherman.
No time was lost. The day the legislation was approved the Star was reporting surveyor and civil engineer Charles H. Bliss was considering undertaking a parking project. The first street to be so treated (parked) was K Street Northwest between 12th and 16th Streets. The city’s government passed “An Act to improve and ornament K street north, between Twelfth and Sixteenth streets west” which read:
“Be it enacted by the Board of Aldermen and Board of Common Council of the City of Washington, That the Mayor be, and he is hereby authorized and requested to cause K street north, between Twelfth and Sixteenth streets west to be improved and ornamented as follows, viz; The curb-stones and gutters on both sides of said street to be taken up and placed twenty-five feet nearer the center of said street, the intervening spaces between the present sidewalks and the curbstones, as herein authorized to be set, to be graded, and converted into grassplats, the same to be ornamented by a row of trees upon each side, and with such shrubbery as may from time to time be deemed advisable by the Mayor and Superintendent of Streets, Carriageways, &c.; also, a paved walk to be constructed in front of each lot from the sidewalk to the. . . .” (Approved, April 18, 1870.)
The Evening Star was well-nigh ecstatic with the parking along K Street, as revealed in its report of July 2, 1870.
By September, the K Street project, Franklin Terrace, was completed and suggestions were made to extend these improvements along K Street to 9th.
While its origins lay with the municipal City of Washington government implementation of parking was truly begun under the Territorial government’s Board of Public Works. The Board’s minutes for September 4, 1871 make note of the appointment of William Saunders, William R. Smith, and John Saul, as a commission to report to the Board recommendations of what trees were to be planted and the best places to procure them. Saunders, born in St. Andrews, Scotland, was Chief of the Experimental Gardens of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Smith was long-time superintendent of the U.S. Botanic Gardens. Irishman Saul was a prominent local nurseryman and horticultural writer.
Historian William Tindall notes that there wasn’t any legislation creating this “Parking Commission” and it simply continued to function, with the same three members, well after the abolition of the Territorial government.
In 1887 a tree survey was conducted and contained the following statement: “A careful count was made of the trees in 1887, and by comparing this with the number of trees since planted and those removed there is found to be more than 78,000 trees, which, if placed 30 feet apart, would line both sides of a boulevard between Washington and New York. These consist of more than 30 varieties, but seven-eighths of the number may be placed in less than 12 varieties.”
Another example is their work in 1894-95 was reported as follows: “. . . [F]iscal year ended June 30, 1895: One thousand six hundred and forty trees were planted on the streets during the year, the larger portion of which was done in the eastern section of the city. This was an increase of 950 over the number planted last year. About 7,000 seedlings were set out in the nursery, namely, oriental planes, oaks, elms, ginckos, lindens, poplars, Norway, sugar and silver maples.” Senator James Williams had quizzed them hard about doubling their budget just a few months earlier.
In the February 21, 1871 act of Congress to create a Territorial government in Washington, Section 37 provided for the establishment of a Board of Public Works, with specific authority to regulate buildings, mandating that the Board “shall make all necessary regulations respecting the construction of private buildings in the District of Columbia, subject to the supervision of the legislative assembly.”
The Commissioners enacted building regulations in 1878, which, among other provisions, encouraged building projections into the parking spaces. These regulations were revised periodically, redefining and refining types of allowed projections.
Annie Cole did not live in the Thomas Circle area, rather a few blocks away at 1730Massachusetts Avenue, NW. She did own 1402 Massachusetts Avenue NW, which was an income-producing investment property for her. She was 52 years old in 1888 and transacting real estate deals in her name alone — unusual for a woman in that era. Her father, Horatio King of Maine, had briefly been Postmaster General under President James Buchanan and her obituary credits her with having been a fixture of society during that administration. In 1888, 30 years later, she had gone through an acrimonious divorce and remarried. She was not listed in the new Elite List (first edition of which was 1888).
Cole evidently decided to take full (and perhaps more than full, stretching to outrageous) advantage of the regulations. Her house abutted a vacant narrow triangular lot to the east, the point of which terminated at Thomas Circle. (The statue which gave the circle its name had been unveiled on November 19, 1879.)
The neighborhood was one inhabited by the elite. The exclusive Portland Flats was completed in 1881, immediately acquiring several congressional residents. Apartment buildings, or “French flats,” were new to the United States and to Washington particularly. It was a popular and elegant new boarding option for senators, congressman, and their families.
The storm over her permit began small — it was just one alteration permit among several issued on a Friday afternoon. The September 7, 1888 Evening Star reported “BUILDING PERMITS were Issued to-day to Mrs. Annie A. Cole to build an addition to house 1400 Massachusetts avenue $8,000; M. Studer, frame dwelling Good Hope road, $400; Harvey Spalding. Brick dwelling, alley between 9th and 10th and F and G streets southwest, $1,000; Jas. K. Probey brick dwelling, 1305 30th northwest $4,500.”
There had been some question about the plans earlier, since on June 4th she’d applied directly to the Commissioners for a permit, having been told by Building Inspector Entwisle it was a special case which fell under their jurisdiction.
Her plans came from the eminent Washington, DC architect A.B. Mullett. But there must have been something questionable from the very start. Wednesday of the next week she had a new construction plan substituted. It’s hard to believe that this new plan hadn’t been a contingency — an architect could hardly whip up a new plan in two days.
Further dubious requests came about — Cole asking for confirmation from the Commissioners of plan changes given verbal approval by the Entwisle, the Building Inspector.
The probity of the permit is questionable on its face. The new structure wasn’t an “addition”; it was nearly two-thirds the size of the house to which it was being added, with its own entrance. The sheer audacity of how much it projected onto parking is amazing, and in addition to the actual walls built outside of the property line, the corner tower had further projecting balconies on two floors.
Later in September Col. John M. Wilson’s complaint about the construction was reported in the Evening Star. By September 29th a committee of neighbors (Justice Miller and John T. Arms) appealed to the Commissioners. ”Citizen” writing in the October 2, 1888 Star accused the commissioners of favoritism and violating their own building regulations in approving such outsized projections.
Under the headline “Mrs. Cole’s Bay Window,” the Evening Star reported on November 20th that the United States had filed suit against Cole, the Commissioners and Building Inspector Thomas Entwisle to prevent the construction. It was heard quickly, the District arguing that the permit that had been issued was correct and that they had the authority to allow construction in parking under regulations passed in 1878, as well as Building Regulation 2 of George Washington in 1794.
Then in May of 1889 Cole was sued by John Bartlett for damages incurred at her unsafe excavation. Implications of the case were neatly spelled out in the Equity Court’s ruling: “status and future of the City of Washington as a NATIONAL CITY considered.”
The Star in October 1889 reported on the arguments again, the cases having been moved from Equity Court to the Court in General Term. And on December 29, 1890 the Star was reporting on the front page on motions in the case before the Supreme Court. In January 1891 the Commissioners were still fighting the case. Cole and the Commissioners did ultimately lose the case, but since by that time her new building was completed she was not required to take it down, despite that “this structure is an unauthorized intrusion on the public space it should be abated.”
As part of the land swap deal President George Washington worked out with the original proprietors of the location which would become Washington City, the streets of the city belonged to the United States Government. This understandably caused confusion when parking was developed on that federal land. Congress retrospectively legalized the objectionably permitted projections but added greater oversight. Cole’s legacy lived on and starting on March 5, 1891 permits for projections required the approval of the Secretary of War. Entwisle “thought it was a “piece of nuisance” and tried to persuade the Commissioners to rewrite regulations to circumvent the referral to the Secretary of War. He failed, despite the complaints of permit applicants. The Commissioners objected to the extra step, indicating they were fully capable of regulating the process, forgetting that it was their excessive generosity in permitting private construction on federal land that created the situation.
The rigor of the review varied until 1897 when the new Secretary of war Russell Alger required plans for personal inspection; Alger even rejected at least one application. In 1898 the Commissioners cracked down on the practice of issuing projection permits prior to Secretary of War approval.
July 1, 1898 Congress passed “An Act to vest in the commissioners of the District of Columbia control of street parking in said District,” thereby clarifying that “. . . jurisdiction and control of the street parking in the streets and avenues of the District of Columbia is hereby transferred to and vested in the Commissioners of the District of Columbia.” Simultaneously Congress was attempting to clear title on nearly 1,200 federally owned lots in the city.
Yet the War Department review remained. “This Act shall not affect in any manner the provisions in the Act of March third, eighteen hundred and ninety-one, entitled ‘An Act making appropriations to supply deficiencies in the appropriations for the fiscal year ending June thirtieth, eighteen hundred and ninety-one, and for prior years, and for other purposes,’ that no permits for projections beyond the building line on the streets and avenues of the city of Washington shall be granted except upon special application and with the concurrence of all said Commissioners and the approval of the Secretary of War; and the operation of said provision is hereby extended to the entire District of Columbia [emphasis supplied].” By 1905 the Engineer Officer in charge of Public Grounds was ready to relinquish the burden of reviewing all those permits; there had been nearly 700 in the previous fiscal year.
On May 5, 1906, the Washington Post reported that Cole’s antagonist, John T. Arms, suggested to the District Commissioners that an association of residents “for the improvement of parkings and grass plats in front of private residences” should be formed.In June, legislation was proposed reducing the need for War Secretary review of building permits, limiting that review to only those permits adjacent to federal property.
Building Inspector Entwisle had died suddenly in 1894. Cole sold the house(s) in 1903; she died in 1913 (leaving an estate worth $100,000). The houses were razed in the 1970s.
 Wilhelmus B. Bryan, A History of the National Capital from Its Foundation Through the Period of the Adoption of the Organic Act, vol. 1, 1790-1814, p. 456. McMillan (1914).
 William Tindall, “The Origin of the Parking System of This City.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, p. 78ff (1901).
 “Tree Planting in The Streets of Washington,” William P. Richards, Assistant Engineer, District of Columbia. Report of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia for The Year Ended June 30, 1899, vol. II. [Engineer Department.]
 Alison K. Hoagland. “Nineteenth-Century Building Regulations in Washington, D. C.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, vol. 52, p. 60 (1989).
Thanks are due to John DeFerrari for invaluable postcard images and to Robert Ellis at the National Archives for help with the Equity case materials.
Recommended for further reading
Bednar, Michael. L’Enfant’s Legacy: Public Open Spaces in Washington, D.C. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
Capitol Hill Restoration Society. “Yours, mine, and ours: front yards and other public space on Capitol Hill.”
DeFerrari, John. “A walk down Connecticut Avenue, circa 1907,” StreetsofWashington.com.
DeFerrari, John. “The Portland, Washington’s first luxury apartment house,”StreetsofWashington.com.
District of Columbia Building Code Schedule of Limitations and Provisions Relative to Projections and Encroachments Beyond Building Lines–As defined in the District of Columbia Municipal Regulations, Title 12: Building Code (2013), Chapter 32 Encroachments into the Public Right-of-Way.
D.C. Department of Transportation and Office of Planning. Public Realm Design Manual-A Summary of District of Columbia Regulations and Specifications for the Design of Public Space Elements.
Alison K. Hoagland. “Nineteenth-Century Building Regulations in Washington, D. C.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 52, (1989), pp. 57-77
Massachusetts Avenue Architecture, Northwest Washington, District of Columbia. 1973. V.2
Report of the Operations of the Engineer Department of the District of Columbia Under the direction of the Engineer Commissioner, District of Columbia, For the Year ending June 30, 1895.
Matthew B. Gilmore and Michael R. Harrison. A Catalog of Suburban Subdivisions of the District of Columbia, 1854-1902. Washington History, Vol. 14, No. 2, Commemorating the Centennial of the McMillan Plan, Part II (Fall/Winter, 2002/2003), pp. 26-55
Richmond, Michele. “The Etymology of Parking” Arnoldia 73/2 (Oct. 2015).
Richmond, Michele. “When parking Meant ‘Space for Trees‘,” DeepRoot.com/blog.
Saul, John A. “Tree Culture, or a sketch of Nurseries in the District of Columbia.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, 10: 38-62, 1907.
Tindall, William. “The Origin of the Parking System of This City”. Records of the Columbia Historical Society, 4: 75–99, 1901.
Paul K. Williams, “Scenes from the Past: The Annie Cole House,” The InTowner (Sep. 2001).
*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.
© 2016 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.
All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.