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The InTowner
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From a Bucolic 19th Century Estate to the Hilton & Universal Buildings

Perhaps few historic sites in Washington, DC have had such grandiose yet never built plans for its redevelopment than the site of the now famed Washington Hilton Hotel, located on the northeast corner of Connecticut Avenue and T Street. Once the location of a Federal-style house owned by Washington’s oldest families, the site was proposed to become a massive development in 1924 by a Masonic group, and again in the 1940s to a design by Frank Lloyd Wright that never materialized, only becoming home to the Hilton and other office buildings two decades later.

The extensive site, which originally was bounded by Connecticut and Florida Avenues, 19th Street and the western end of Columbia Road, before T Street was extended in the 1960s, was home to both the Nourse and Holmead families who had built a their house on the wooded property. It was vastly expanded and remodeled into a Mansard styled house in 1873 by a new owner named Thomas P. Morgan, a druggist and native of Alexandria. He named the 10-acre estate Oak Lawn, due to the 400 year old oak tree that existed on the property, thought to be the site of several early treaties in the late 17th century between early European settlers and native Americans.

The house was sold a short time later to Edward Dean, the owner of the Potomac Terra Cotta Company. As housing and development expanded up Connecticut Avenue, it was only a matter of time before property uses changed along upper Connecticut, when early wood frame homes and country estates were razed and replaced with large apartment houses such as the Dresden, built in 1909. Oak Lawn’s advantage was a stunning view of the city from atop a bluff, and it was sold for an impressive $900,000 in 1922 to the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons.

That group had been seeking a vast site for a huge complex of buildings that would make a statement for several years, and they renamed the site “Temple Heights.” Architects James Marshall and Frank Pierson designed a series of neoclassical temples for the site, central tower, and an auditorium that would seat 3,000. The projected building cost of $3 million plus site and architect costs resulted in an eight-year fundraising campaign, only to be halted by the onset of the stock market crash in late October 1929; despite the announcement that construction on the first building was to have begun earlier that month.

The old and deteriorating house remained on the site throughout the Great Depression, however, and during the next ambitious planning period for the site that began in 1940 by developer Roy S. Thurman. He hired famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a $12 million mix of commercial, entertainment, parking, hotel and apartment towers that were unprecedented on a national scope by its myriad uses, and on a large scale not seen in Washington until construction began on the Pentagon several years later.

First named Crystal Heights and then Crystal City due to the 14 white marble, glass and bronze towers, the proposed 2,500-room hotel alone was more than double the size of the 1,070-room Hilton that occupies the same amount of land today.

An enormous open terrace was to be built on a raised platform that would conceal five levels of parking, behind five terraces of retail shops that stepped down to Florida Avenue. Eleven of the towers would be dedicated to the hotel, with crude plans showing that half of the rooms would have working fireplaces, an important feature in Wright designs. The apartment towers were designed with then unusual duplex apartment units that had originally been designed for another Wright project, his 1929 St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie in New York City, which also had never been built.

The project suffered difficulty in funding with a looming World War II, and was suspended when the District’s zoning board refused to give a variance allowing a commercial-residential mix for a residential zone, and objected to the height of the towers, which considerably exceeded the District’s limit. The central tower was 24 stories, or about 240 feet high; the others were 14 stories.

The old house was eventually razed in 1952, and the “Treaty Oak” was cut down a year later, as were the other trees on the site that resembled a forest more than an urban plot of land in the Nation’s Capital. Massive re-grading of the site began in October of 1962 for the construction of the Hilton Hotel, built on the northern portion of the triangular site, with a new T Street extension separating it from the office complex and retail buildings that were constructed on the southern portion, all completed by 1965. The hotel was the site of the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, Jr. on March 30, 1981; the attempt occurred at the hotel’s T Street ballroom entrance.