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Meridian Hill Park and Adjacent Blocks Now Designated as an Historic District

Accompanying images can be viewed on page 1 of the April 2014 issue PDF

By Matthew G. Gillmore

On March 6, 2014 the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) voted unanimously to designate Meridian Hill as a District of Columbia Historic District. The process of designating the district had taken a number of years, culminating with the Board’s approval. In 2013 Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staff presented to the Columbia Heights ANC 1A and received unanimous support. This contrasted sharply with other recent historic district designation attempts, although the neighboring ANC 1B attempted to have Augustana Lutheran Church excluded. Attempts to designate the district date back to 2006, although the historic importance of the area was recognized as early as 1964 by the Joint Committee on Landmarks (established by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission).

The Meridian Hill Historic District nomination was jointly sponsored by the Reed-Cooke Neighborhood Association, Historic Mount Pleasant, Inc., and the Historic Preservation Office. Roughly bounded by V, Irving, 15th and 16th Streets NW, it contains a total of 61 buildings, three sites (Meridian Hill Park and Reservations 309 B and 309 C), one structure (Henderson Castle wall), and one object (Francis Asbury Memorial). Of these resources, 51 are contributing and 15 are non-contributing. Seventeen of them are listed in the DC Inventory of Historic Sites, and 12 of the 17 are also listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Meridian Hill Park is also designated a National Historic Landmark.

There are four primary components and themes to the district: the edifices erected by Mary Foote Henderson and Senator John Henderson for embassy use, luxury apartment buildings, churches (and the Scottish Rite Temple), and the park itself. The eclectic Beaux Arts-style mansions in the district reflect exceptional architectural value, and were largely built between 1905 and 1928. Meridian Hill includes eight of 12 embassies built through the collaborative effort of Mary Foote Henderson and notable architect George Oakley Totten, Jr. and a number of other private mansions commissioned by some of the city’s most socially prominent families. Henderson was unable, however, to bring to fruition her two grandest plans — locating a new White House on Meridian Hill, or failing that, the Lincoln memorial.

There are 30 apartment buildings within the new historic district’s boundaries. These buildings range significantly in size and character, having been built over the course of several decades and designed according to the stylistic preferences of their time. Generally, the apartment buildings of Meridian Hill were built as luxury apartments meant to appeal to wealthy residents, and were thus in keeping with the established socio-economic composition of the neighborhood, though there are exceptions. The first apartment building constructed within the boundaries of the historic district dates to 1905, but the majority of the buildings were constructed after 1925. These  provide important visual examples of the increasing acceptance of apartment building living among the city’s elite.

A number of monumental religious edifices cluster at the district’s northern end visually highlighting 16th Street as a sort of exclamation point. National Baptist Memorial Church, All Soul’s Church, Washington Chapel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cluster along 16th Street at the north end of the district and Augustana Lutheran Church anchors the south. The Scottish Rite Temple is at 2800 16th Street and represents an additional architectural monumentality along the street.

At its center, the district includes the grand Neoclassical-style Meridian Hill Park; it is the centerpiece of the historic district. The impressive collection of buildings that surround the park were deliberately arranged in a linear fashion along 15th and 16th streets to frame the grand, European-style urban park and to take advantage of views into the park’s greensward.

Meridian Hill, as seen now, truly is the creation of Mary Foote Henderson and her husband, Senator John Henderson, having set the architectural framework and social tone. The earlier pre- and post-Civil War development and subdivisions were swept away for the creation of an almost imperial 16th Street embassy row and the magnificent green space of Meridian Hill Park. The grandeur was only added to and enhanced by additional apartments and religious structures.

For resources, besides the historic district nomination itself, the Meridian Hill Center has a resource-rich website at  http://www.meridian.org/meridianhill.

*Matthew Gilmore is editor of the Washington DC History Network (H-DC) and chair of the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies. He previously served as reference and collection development librarian in the DC Public Library’s Washingtoniana Division.

Copyright © 2014 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew Gilmore. All rights reserved.