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Columbia Heights Transitions from Rural to Urban Reflecting DC’ Growth

Accompanying images can be viewed in the June 2016 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

The 1920’s marked the transition of Columbia Heights from rural to urban with the advent of several important buildings, including Hines Funeral Home solidifying the corner of 14the and Harvard Streets, now occupied by the Greater Washington Urban League; the Riggs-Tompkins Building at 3400 14th Street, built in 1922, now the Kelsey Apartments; the grand opening in 1925 of the Hebrew House for the Aged at 1129 Spring Road; 1926 marked the first year of the Arcade in the 3300 block of 14th Street, which came to be known as “Washington’s Madison Square Garden”; the 1928 opening of the Cavalier Hotel at 3500 14th Street, now the Hubbard Place Apartments); and in 1929 the Tivoli Theatre, then called the “Theater of the World,” opened at 14th and Park Road.

1904 Brochure Campaign

And what was the genesis of this huge investment building boon in the 1920’s? Maybe it began with the 1904 campaign as outlined in the brochure produced by the Columbia Heights Citizens’ Association. The brochure,  “A Statement of Some of the Advantages of Beautiful Columbia Heights-A Neighborhood of Homes,” recommended public improvements in the Columbia Heights territory. The authors defined this “territory” as bounded by Florida Avenue on the south, Spring Road on the north, 15th Street on the west,  and 7th Street (named Brightwood Avenue at that time) on the east.

image-- Columbia Heights Citizens' Association.

image– Columbia Heights Citizens’ Association.

The brochure emphasized that the Columbia Heights territory included the land known as Stone Farm. The first proprietor of farm was William J. Stone of England who settled Washington in 1815. This land was then given to General John A. Logan and his wife Mary. Eighty years later, as stated in the brochure, “The late Senator John Sherman bought the Stone Farm in January, 1881. It comprised of 121 acres for a consideration of $175,000.” (There was always some question whether this sale price was correctly stated.)

The brochure authors asserted that in making the choice of a place of residence, buyers should place prime importance of the precise elevation above sea level to compensate for the corresponding change in temperature. Pennsylvania Avenue is from 6 to 12 feet above mean low tide; by contrast, Columbia Heights is 121 feet above mean low tide. They claimed that the average temperature is “ten degrees less than that of Pennsylvania Avenue,“ and that on hot summer nights, open car riders become “a grateful witness to the soothing zephyrs,> claiming the benefit of “restorative health.”

Land owner Sherman guaranteed that Columbia Heights would be full of affluent residents by requiring that all homes be set “at not less than 30 feet from the street line.” At that time, the covenant “prohibit[ed] liquor selling and all manufacturing and mechanical trades — thus setting apart the subdivision exclusively for residential site.” Congress also passed a supporting prohibition law.

The brochure prominently included an effusive quote from a local real estate broker who declared, “Nowhere else in this city are values so stable as in this section. During the financial panic of 1893, when in other sections building operations were at a standstill and sales of rare occurrence, hundreds of buildings were being erected on Columbia Heights, and were rented or sold as soon as completed.”Houses at the time readily sold from $6,000 to $20,000; rentals ranged from $40 to $72 a month.

The brochure also devoted a section to “Columbia Heights — the One Favored Spot for a Home” in which prominent personages were mentioned as residents of the area, including Supreme Court Justices John H. Harlan and Justice William R. Day, Professor S.P. Langley, Commissioner of Education William T. Harris, Superintendent of Police Major Richard Sylvester. The brochure writers envisioned that Columbia Heights would be the site of the “Presidential Mansion. . . . It is well known that President Garfield and Senator Sherman shared this belief.”

Finally, they cite a new homeowner of “National reputation” who listed the following reasons for his purchase: “It is the highest point on the highlands . . . [and] offers me a cool retreat after a hard day’s work and] . . . is free from malarias.” He also cited being “near enough to Rock Creek and the Zoo to enjoy their benefits to the full . . . church and school facilities afforded here are unrivalled elsewhere”;  also that the four street car lines serving the area “insure safe and rapid transit. . . .”

Background

In the late 1800’s former United States Senator John Sherman purchased the one-mile-square track of land that had  been the Holmead estate of Pleasant Plains, formerly known as the Village of Mt. Pleasant. It was not unusual for politicians and business people to buy undeveloped land around the District of Columbia. Springfield, Ohio, businessman Benjamin H. Warder owned the area known as Park View (see “Park View Neighborhood Sizzles …” InTowner, April 2016 issue pdf, page 1).  He named this neighborhood Columbia Heights after Columbian College which had been established in 1882 and continued in the area until relocating to Foggy Bottom in 1904, and by then already having been renamed as George Washington University.

In due course, Sherman sold the land to developers with two conditions: no manufacturing and no African-Americans; these kinds of deed restrictions were usual at the time. The developers wanted to attract the affluent or influential.

In 1901, DC adopted a new the street naming system and many in Columbia Heights were changed to those we know today, although some street names stayed the same such as Holmead, Meridian, Oak, and others to harken back to the 19th century.

The Cavalier Hotel, now Hubbard Place

The Cavalier Hotel, which opened in 1928 at 14th Street and Otis Place is fascinating. Although called an “hotel,” it may have served more or less as a boarding house for locals working in the city without easy transportation of their own. At that time, the rent was $115 for a three-bedroom apartment. During an interview with this writer, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau commented, “This site has a great deal of history, later becoming cavalier apartments and then after a decline

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