Tonight at the Goethe Institut the 38th DC Historical Studies Conference kicks off with a lecture on “Lincoln’s Citadel: The Civil War in Washington, DC” by Professor Winkle of University of Nebraska-Lincoln. MLK Library will host events Friday and Saturday. Tours will take place Saturday and Sunday.
Coming from long distances and nearby a robust and diverse group of presenters will touch on the city’s political, social, and culture throughout all periods of Washington’s history. A number of sessions touch on some aspect of the Civil War. A networking event Friday lunchtime offers an opportunity to meet authors, members of community groups, and leaders of some of the leading institutions that preserve city history such as the Jewish Historical Society of Washington.
Some unique presentations this year cover archaeology, the Sesquicentennial of the Metropolitan Police Department, escaped slaves in the DC during the Civil War, neighborhoods, and online resources, including H-DC, to dive into the city’s history.
A once in a century book sale will be hosted by the Friends of the Washingtoniana Division on Friday and Saturday. Separate tours on Saturday will explore Lafayette Square and prohibition. A Sunday tour will visit the Civil War defenses of Washington.
All are welcome to participate, engage, and discuss Washington’s history. Registration is $20. Events will continue through Sunday.
“I’m not a Ford man, but I’ll sure sell ‘em,” said Dale Richardson, owner of the recently re-opened Astro Motors at 2226 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE. With a hunter green model 1996 Corvette Coupe on his desk, Richardson confirms he’s a Chevy man. “That’s what I was raised up on. My dad had Chevys.”
Standing outside his small hut of an office, motorists passing up and down Maple View Place frequently wave their hands. Back in business, back in his element, any speculation on the death of Astro Motors has been greatly exaggerated; Richardson is back in Historic Anacostia.
A native of Smithfield, North Carolina, Richardson came to Anacostia when he was 21, an apprentice to his older brother, Gerald. “He was right out of the country and made it up here,” remembers Richardson, one of thousands of expatriated North Carolinians in the city. “Everything I learned in the business I learned from him.” In May of 1988, Gerald passed away in a car accident in his native state.
“When a person can’t afford to go through a new dealer, because their credit is as bad as all-out doors, they come see me,” Richard said understating his unique role in the community’s working class economy. With cars selling from $500 to $5000, Richardson requires a down payment of half the amount and then finances in-house. Avoiding auctions or personal sales, Richardson’s acquisitions are primarily from trade-ins at regionally known dealerships such as Rosenthal Chevrolet or Koons Fords. He estimates he sells about 300 cars a year.
“He’s a born negotiator,” divulges Cynthia Speed. “Some people have that skill to sell, Bubba’s got that.” To Speed and others that know Richardson, he’s affectionately called “Bubba” due to his country roots. Over their years of friendship, Speed, who knew Richardson’s late brother, says she’s bought no less than five cars from him. “They were good cars. They ran just fine till I dogged ‘em out.”
Fenty Crackdown on Used Car Dealers
For years, Astro Motors operated at 2001 MLK until the Fenty administration’s crackdown on used car lots had ricocheting restrictive consequences for shops like Richardson’s.
“They said the dealers were eyesores,” Richardson said while confirming the real intent was directed at unscrupulous dealerships. “But in the process they made it so you can only have 4 cars in the front of your lot.” No matter the size of your space, unless there is a garage or warehouse on-site, DCRA strictly enforces the 4 car rule. (A recent ride up Georgia Avenue NW revealed this rule tightly followed by most dealers.)
Fenty’s well-intentioned, but some say overzealous, assault on used car lots included raising bond regulations. In a DCRA press release they admitted new regulations “may be making it impossible for many legitimate dealers to obtain the licenses they need to continue operating their used car lots.” The bond requirement was lowered to $25,000, in addition to the $25,000 bond required for a dealer license.
2226 MLK’s Used Car Historicity
According to conversations on the street and old City Directories, the lot at 2226 MLK has long supported car dealerships. Classified sections from mid-1950’s newspapers advertise a ’51 Mercury, ’51 Studebaker, ’53 Pontiac Chieftan De Luxe among others for sale at Colonial Oldsmobile Co., “open till 9” at 2226 Nichols Ave. SE.”
In the early 1970s, Alco Auto Sales was here; from the mid 1970s to early 1990s it was Columbia Motor Sales, followed by B&L Auto Sales in the late 1990s. An association with this lot and used car dealerships precedes an Anacostia that is near monolithically black. When Anacostia was majority white, this lot was a used car dealership.
Newcomers to old city neighborhoods tend to make value judgments about what businesses belong and do not, based on their own values, often adversarial to history. Richardson and Astro Motors have been integral parts of the community for the past three decades. With Anacostia seeking new development and investment, Astro Motors will continue to build anew on its decades of goodwill.
*Print version to be published in September East of the River. *
“Washington’s U Street: A Biography” reception Thursday, March 24th @ National Trust For Historic Preservation
Blair Ruble, author of Washington’s U Street: A Biography, will be at the National Trust For Historic Preservation (1785 Massachusetts. Avenue, NW – Dupont Circle Metro) on Thursday, March 24th for a 5:00 p.m. reception and book Signing and 6:00 p.m. reading.
R.S.V.P. here or at 410.516.7943.
On May 1, 1991 the U Street metro station opened. In the ensuing two decades the corridor extending eastward from 16th Street to Florida Avenue has physically healed from the deep scars of the 1968 riots, but a longstanding and discernible anxiety is still palpable as U Street’s transformation continues.
Blair A. Ruble’s Washington’s U Street: A Biography (Johns Hopkins University Press / Woodrow Wilson Center Press) arrives at an apt time when U Street and the greater city’s historical and cultural integrity is being closely examined in the context of development and neighborhood change, known as the omnipresent encroachment of gentrification. Ruble’s book, with exhaustive detail, goes where some seem afraid to go at times — U Street’s vibrant past.
Previously known for writing about Russia’s urban history, Ruble says, “This book was different, because on the one hand, interest in Washington is greater than in Russia these days yet, oddly enough, the cannon of letters around the city is more scattered and less developed. I found myself having to develop an image of the field of DC history in order to relate my work to it rather than adding a new work to a well developed field.”
Complete with personal profiles of past and present DC luminaries, known locally and nationally, in more than 300 pages of text and historical and contemporary photographs, Ruble takes the reader on a journey of U Street’s history from its initial development following the arrival of runaway slaves to the city during the Civil War to President Obama’s visit to the landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl.
Sifting through public collections at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, Historical Society of Washington, Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Library, and the Library of Congress to gather material for his book, Ruble discovered an untapped wealth of DC based scholarship by graduate students and faculty of local universities. It would appear no stone is left unturned as Ruble cites sources as various as city life blog DCist to the New Deal era Federal Writers’ Project to the fiction of Edward P. Jones in his written opus to U Street’s past and present.
The Dupont Circle resident and long time city jazz patron’s genuine affection for U Street comes alive through the pages. The area’s creativity, which earned it the colloquialism “Black Broadway” in the early decades of the twentieth century, is thoroughly explored. Without jazz, the unique creation of African Americans, the book might not have been put together.
“The idea of U Street came to me after talking with the folks at Twins Jazz one night about how the neighborhood was changing,” admits Ruble. “The book took several years to write and seemed to become more important for me as U Street caught more and more attention. The street has become a symbol of profound changes in DC, which is one reason why I think this is the right moment for the book.”
Throughout the years U Street has remained a distinctive “contact zone” where people of all different walks of life, ethnicity, and class converge and interact to create a cultural experience not found anywhere else in the city, contends Ruble. His book is proof positive that the ongoing renaissance of U Street as a cultural “contact zone” and epicenter will be, in fact, soulless if the past is haphazardly forgotten and not celebrated. This important work, the first full history of the U Street neighborhood, shows that the area’s re-birth has just begun, again.
Washington’s U Street: A Biography is available at DC area chain and independent bookstores and online.
Before playing 10 seasons with the Washington Redskins, and in the process becoming beloved by fans, Brian Mitchell, known as “BMitch,” first came to Washington, DC in 1986 as a high school senior on a Presidential Classroom program sponsored by Upward Bound.
“On that trip I said, ‘I’m going to live here.’” recalled the 42-year-old Mitchell, a Louisiana native. “It sure worked out.”
Inducted into the Redskins’ Ring of Fame in 2009, Mitchell was selected by the team with the 130th pick of the 1990 NFL Draft. Although Mitchell set NCAA records as a quarterback at Southwestern Lousiana, Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs shifted him to special teams. In his second season Mitchell led the NFL with 600 punt return yards and two return touchdowns.
Mitchell retired in 2003 after playing for two of Washington’s NFC East rivals, the Philadelphia Eagles and the New York Giants.
“I identify with BMitch,” said Joshua Champ, 32, a patrol officer with the Seventh District. “He’s a short guy, like me, but he brings the biggest heart all the time.”
Officer Champ recalled what is known as the “Body Bag Game,” when Mitchell, then a rookie, played quarterback on “Monday Night Football” after the Eagles knocked the Redskins’ starting and back-up quarterbacks out of the game.
“You should have been higher,” said Champ who, a couple days before meeting Mitchell at Uniontown Bar & Grill in Anacostia, had watched a program on the NFL Network featuring its Top Ten Versatile Players of All-Time. Mitchell was ranked eighth.
First gaining experience in radio with his own segment on WHUR (96.3 FM) in 1993 and later with WTEM (980AM), Mitchell has since become a fixture on Comcast Sportsnet and WUSA (Channel 9). Fans have come to trust his perspective and inside analysis as a member of the last Redskins team to win a Super Bowl in 1991.
Mitchell, whose last season in Washington was Dan Snyder’s first, said the owner’s free-spending ways have changed how the Redskins are perceived around the league.
“People come (to Washington) to get paid,” Mitchell said. “Let somebody else buy the diamond ring for you,” challenges Mitchell, referring to the ring players on championship winning teams receive from the NFL.
“Today the game is softer. It went from being rated R to rated PG. The players are bigger and stronger but not necessarily tougher,” says Mitchell.
Mitchell believes that there’s a natural and reciprocal feeling of affection between himself and his fans. As a community, Washington is not for “pushovers” and has an “edginess” that Mitchell identifies with and fans identify in him.
“Some players have a tendency to avoid fans, but BMitch gravitates towards those who support him and he supports them back,” says Rick “Doc” Walker, a member of the Redskins’ 1982 Super Bowl champions and established local media personality.
When asked what it was like to be a return man in the NFL, Mitchell said “you have to be a crazy person” to survive within the “organized chaos” where the “fastest and craziest are coming for your head.”
“To the person who was trying to tackle me, I always tried to deliver the blow,” Mitchell fondly tells with a wide smile. “If I was the person (off the field that) I was on the field, I would be in jail.”
Veteran sportswriter David Elfin is the Washington representative on the selection committee of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“Brian was different than most kick returners who are usually speed guys. Brian was unusual in that he ran over people,” said Elfin, a former President of the Pro Football Writers of America who covered Mitchell for The Washington Times from 1993-99. “He’s number one in all-time return yards. If you are the best ever, why are you not in the Hall of Fame?”
Walker agreed that Mitchell should be enshrined.
“He is worthy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, his numbers speak for themselves,” says Walker. “Among his peers, he is in the Hall; the people have put in him, because the boy was a flat-out baller.”
But Mitchell knows that his former Redskins teammate and thee time-time Super Bowl Champion Art Monk, at the time of his retirement the leader in NFL history in receptions, waited eight years before his selection to the Hall of Fame in 2008.
In Mitchell’s last game as a Redskin on January 15, 2000 in the Divisional Playoff game versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he returned the second half kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown that put the Redskins up 10-0 in a game they would lose 14-13.
While Mitchell’s bruising style of play and fervent trash-talking earned him a special place in the hearts of local fans, his statistics are what confirm his credentials for induction into the Hall of Fame.
Mitchell currently holds the NFL’s All-Time record for most kick returns: 607; kick return yards, 14,104, punt returns, 463, and punt return yards, 4,999; combined returns at 1,070 and combined return yards at 19,013. Mitchell is second only to receiver Jerry Rice with 23,316 all-purpose yards, which adds up to more than 13 total miles.
His 13 return touchdowns (nine on punt returns and four on kick returns) are second-most-all time, behind current player Devin Hester. At the time of his retirement Mitchell was the all-time leader in return touchdowns. He also rushed for 12 touchdowns and caught 4 receiving touchdowns.
Fittingly, Mitchell actively interacts with Redskins fans through two Facebook accounts he manages and his Twitter page, “Bmitchlive,” with nearly 2,300 followers. Following the lead of former players who became successful motivational and public speakers, Mitchell plans to continue building relationships with all fans, even one as young as seven years old who claims Mitchell, and former Baltimore Colt quarterback Johnny Unitas, are his favorite players of all-time.
Docs in Progress will show a rough cut of The Legend of Cool “Disco” Dan (90 minute rough cut of a documentary feature)
by Joseph Pattisall and Roger Gastman this Friday night, March 4.
Amidst the backdrop of Washington DC’s former claim to fame as the murder
capital of the United States and its unique urban culture centered around
Go Go music, Cool “Disco” Dan emerged as an underground celebrity in the
late 1980s and early 1990s. He graffitied his moniker all over the city
until it seemed as though no wall, rooftop, street sign, or Metro bus had
been forgotten. Somehow he managed to survive while legions of his peers
were killed, incarcerated, or became utterly adrift. This film looks back
at Washington DC’s own folk hero and what has become of him today.
Friday, March 4 from 7:00-10:00 pm.
George Washington University’s Media and Public Affairs Building
Lower Level Auditorium (B-07)
805 21st Street, NW (corner of 21st and H Streets)
Washington DC 20052
TICKETS: $10 suggested donation / ($5 for Docs Insiders)
Tickets are cash only at the door.
How to Get There?
Closest Metro: Foggy Bottom/Faragut West.
Bus: S2, L2 downtown, 30 buses 21st & Penn
Limited street parking free after 6:30 pm.
Garage parking nearby on H and I Streets.
Walking through the SE neighborhood of Garfield Heights at 23rd & Hartford Street, blocks away from the Seventh District Police Station, Raymond Joshua, played by now internationally known literary figure Saul Williams, is greeted by a large group of neighborhood children happy to see him.
When the ice cream truck arrives, Joshua, a hand-to-hand drug dealer, makes sure everyone gets what they want, even a child who insists, repeatedly, “I want chocolate!”
Sitting with the children outside of a garden style apartment building Joshua, a well-known street bard, encourages a young man known as “Lil’ Troy” to add to the two-line rhyme he shares.
The opening scene of 1998’s critically acclaimed Slam, awarded the Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Feature at the Sundance Film Festival, captures the city in a way that Hollywood’s historic portrayals, focused almost exclusively on political thrillers, never quite have.
“Slam brings a light to some of the issues that are very relevant to DC,” says Weusi Baraka, credited in the film for his short speaking role where he buys a bag of weed from Joshua. Baraka was invited to the set by Williams, his cousin. His role in the film was improvised, as much of the film was, according to Baraka.
Slam, written and directed by Marc Levin, known for directing the HBO documentary “Thug Life in D.C.” and more recently producing the critically acclaimed HBO documentary miniseries about Newark, New Jersey, Brick City, tells the story of a young man trying to escape the restrictive confines of Lorton Correctional Complex through the power of the written word after being charged with drug possession while fleeing the scene of a shooting.
While in Lorton, Joshua is faced with the dilemma of joining, for protection, the “Union Crew,” led by Hopha, played by the well-known urban journalist Bonz Malone, or being attacked by a rival jail crew. In the prison recreation yard Joshua is approached by the leader of the rival crew and instead of fighting with his fists, he unleashes a verbal salvo that leaves fellow prisoners speechless.
“I forgot what I was thinking,” says Hopha as Joshua walks away unscathed from the awestruck crowd.
In the hallway back to his cell Joshua meets Lauren Bell, played by Sonja Sohn, known for her role in “The Wire” as Detective Greggs. Bell, impressed by Joshua’s poetic performance in the yard, invites him to attend the poetry class she teaches to a small group of prisoners. In an emotional tour de force, Bell, holding back tears, tells her students that due to budget cut-backs, this will be her last class. After class Joshua talks with Bell, who, although intrigued by him, knows that his uncertain future is not something she wants to get involved with.
After Hopha posts Joshua’s bail, trusting him to deliver a message of non-violence to the community he will return to, he meets up with Bell who provides emotional support and introduces him to the local DC poetry scene despite his reservations and suspicions.
The film culminates in Joshua’s triumphant performance at a U Street open mic; Joshua then wanders the city at night with his future in doubt.
Capturing scenes of Eastern Market, U Street, the metro, and cameos by well-known DC figures such as Roach Brown as a public defender and Marion Barry as a judge who chastises Joshua for his involvement in the city’s drug trade, Slam is a raw representation of DC that deserves its recognition as a valuable film.
A couple of years ago while working the front desk of the Historical Society of Washington I came upon Tally’s Corner. Having previously read Hard Living on Clay Street , an ethnographic field study of white working class families in far NE (East Washington, although nearly monolithic in 2011, was ethnically diverse with large concentrations of whites up until the late 1960′s.), I picked up Tally’s Corner.
(The book was in HSW’s collection but I was lucky enough just a couple of weeks ago to find my own copy for $1 at the SE Library used book sale.)
The book focuses on a couple of characters whose common thread is the poverty they all live with, often self-imposed because of an inability to find a job and then once a job is secured the readers sees the character’s inability to maintain that job by not showing up on time or at all. Having taken place before the city was destroyed in April of 1968, the book, chronicling street life a short walk from Congress and the White House, provides insights into the conditions that led to soul brothers rioting in the city.
The New Deal Carry-out shop is on corner in downtown Washington, DC. It would be within walking distance of the White House, the Smithsonian Institution, and other major public buildings of the nation’s capital, if anyone cared to walk there, but no one ever does. Across the street from the Carry-out is a liquor store. The other two corners of the intersection are occupied by a dry cleaning and shoe repair store and a wholesale plumbing supplies showroom and warehouse. (pg 17-18)
To any liberal, libertarian, or conservative who cares about our city and the 2011 Tally’s Corners (16th & Good Hope Rd. SE, MLK Ave & Malcolm X Ave SE, etc.) the book is a must read.
I have since mentioned Tally’s Corner to many folks, many who have no idea what I am talking about. The couple times I have found someone who is familiar with the book the discussion often leads to the location of where was Tally’s Corner? I had always claimed, or rather thought, it was 7th Street NW as south as possibly L Street. Others said it was 9th & P Street NW.
Today Answer Man aka John Kelly gives us the answer; Tally’s Corner was 11th & M Street NW.
November 4-5, 2011
Call for Submissions
Deadline: June 1, 2011
Submit your proposal now for the D.C. Historical Studies Conference for individual papers/presentations and panels. In addition to papers, you are encouraged to submit new films, walking tours, author talks, and practical advice on research and preservation.
The conference is the forum to consider the latest work on the history of Washington, D.C. and surrounds, with lively presentations of oral history, walking tours, films, new publications, and the History Network. All topics related to local D.C. area history are welcome, and the history of federal government history or the history of the nearby Northern Virginia and Maryland suburbs, if clearly related to the history of local life. Past speakers have address art, music, archaeology, biography, military, legal, social, architectural topics and many more.
For a flavor of these past conferences, see the following programs from previous years:
Individual presenters should submit an abstract of your paper, your title (if any), and affiliation, contact information (email), and audio-visual/IT equipment needs.
Panel proposals should submit a brief description of the session, the contact information, titles and affiliations of each panelist (with a primary contact).
The annual History Network on Friday provides space for historical, archival and community organizations to display brochures, fliers, and other materials explaining their activities and research. Come be a part of it!
Proposals should be emailed the conference committee at email@example.com (preferred) or may otherwise be mailed to:
2011 D.C. Historical Studies Conference
Attn: Mark Greek
DC Public Library Washingtoniana Division
901 G Street N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20001
The 38th Annual Conference on D.C. Historical Studies is co-sponsored by the Association of Oldest Inhabitants, the Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives, Cultural Tourism D.C., Friends of Washingtoniana Division, the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., Rainbow History Project, and the Washingtoniana Division of the D.C. Public Library.
Before the modern era of corporately owned multiplexes, East Washington had independently owned neighborhood movie theaters from Deanwood in NE to Anacostia in SE. However, there are now no open movie theatres in all of Ward 7 or Ward 8.
Today, there are seven movie theaters in DC from the independent Avalon Theatre, the oldest surviving movie theater in the city, first opening in 1923 as the Chevy Chase Theater in the uptown neighborhood of the same name, to the corporate Regal Gallery Place downtown.
With architectural skeletons of the Strand Theater, on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE, and the Senator Theater, on Minnesota Avenue NE, still standing, it has been more than two decades since a movie lit up the screen of a theater in East Washington. (THEARC on Mississippi Avenue SE, for the purposes of this article, is not considered a movie theater even though they have occasionally shown a movie; it is a performing arts stage.)
“We don’t know where movies were first shown there, but there were probably some venues for films before 1909,” says Robert Headley, author of the definitive guide to DC’s movie theater history, Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, DC: An Illustrated History of Parlors, Places, and Multiplexes in the Metropolitan Area, 1894-1997.
“A man named T. B. Stallings was showing movies on Nichols Avenue, now MLK Jr. Avenue, in 1909. There was an open-air theater called the Proctor, also on Nichols, in 1910,” according to Headley. “Lloyd Wineland, who would go on to build 4 movie houses in the area, started out in a former Masonic Hall at 2002 14th Street SE in 1923. He converted it into a movie theater and called it the Logan.”
In 1929, Wineland opened the two-story brick and stone Fairlawn, the first theater in Anacostia, “built from the ground up” at 1342 Good Hope Road. Early ads made special mention that the theater would show silent and sound movies, known as “talkies.”
Wineland then built the Congress Theater at 2931 Nichols Avenue to serve the Congress Heights neighborhood. Opening on December 30, 1939 with a live performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” by Lean Brusiloff’s String Ensemble, several speakers from local citizen associations spoke in welcoming the new neighborhood theater. Double or Nothing starring Bing Crosby and Martha Raye was the first feature with admission 20 cents for children under twelve and 30 cents for adults. During its last years, in the 1970’s, so many objects were thrown at and through the screen that it was removed and movies were shown on the painted rear wall of the auditorium. A liquor store now occupies the building.
The Strand Theater opened on November 3, 1928 at 5129-5131 Grant Street NE, now Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE, by Abe Lichtman to serve the black community in the Deanwood neighborhood. Lichtman, known for running the Howard and Lincoln Theaters, would retire from the business in 1946. By that time he ran 46 theaters in DC, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina with a staff of 425 employees, approximately 400 being black and representing all management positions.
“The Strand was an extension of the neighborhood in the sense; we played all kinds of games, hide-n-seek, riding bikes, roller skating, jacks, jump rope. We played in each other’s yards so going to the Strand was an extension of our street we played on,” says Celestia Tobe, who grew up on Grant Street NE.
The experience of seeing movies at the Strand made a lasting impression on Tobe. “Imitation of Life stands out, because the neighborhood tough guy cried along with the rest of us.”
“Today moving going is so different. The theaters today are surrounded by so many stores and restaurants, they seem more commercial. My memories of our neighborhood theaters were more like home,” remembers Tobe.
In 1940, the Highland Theater opened at 2533 Pennsylvania Avenue SE and in March of 1947 the Anacostia Theater, designed by John Eberson, opened at 1415 Good Hope Road, replacing the Fairlawn as the main theatre along Good Hope Road. Both theaters were maintained by Wineland.
The Anacostia Theater closed in 1967 and was subsequently razed. In 1977 the Highland was closed and converted into a clothing store and is now a child development center.
On February 19, 1942 the Senator Theater opened at 3946-3956 Minnesota Avenue built by K-B Theaters. In late 1951 it was leased by the Bernheimer organization to operate as an African-American theater. It was closed for a time in the 1970’s but was reopened in November of 1979.
The art-deco building is in use today with a Subway eatery and beauty supply store occupying the ground floor with the Senator’s blue marquee still as visible as it was when it played its last movie in 1989.
“After cutting grass and making some money in the neighborhood we used to go there as kids in the seventies and see Bruce Lee movies,” said Stephon Gray.
The first non-segregated theater to open in the area was the Carver Theater at 2405 Nichols Avenue in July of 1948. The theater was not successful and closed in 1957. The Smithsonian Anacostia Neighborhood Museum opened in the building in 1967 and was there until 1987 when they moved to their current location at 1901 Fort Place SE. The Howard Road Academy’s Middle School campus now occupies the former theater.
The largest movie house in East Washington was the Naylor Theater at 2834 Alabama Avenue with 990 seats. It was built by K-B Theaters and opened following the end of World War II on November 1, 1945. At the time of its opening a newspaper article predicated that “it will take the Southeast community at least 25 years to outgrow the Naylor Theater.” Acquired by Wineland in 1961, the theater eventually closed in 1970, approximately 25 years after it opened.
On a Saturday morning last month, I joined seventy other people on a tour of the West Campus of Saint Elizabeths led by officials from the Government Service Administration (GSA) and the DC Preservation League (DCPL). (St. Es was on DCPL’s 2008 List of Most Endangered DC Places.
In January, 2009 the federal government won approval to relocate the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the 182 acre west campus.
In September, 2009 DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano joined by GSA’s Acting Administrator, Representative Norton, Senator Lieberman (I-Connecticut), Mayor Fenty, and Councilmember Barry broke ground on the largest Washington metro area construction project since the building of the Pentagon during World War II.
In December of 2009 I took the same tour which was then comparatively quiet with little noticeable activity on the west campus. However, on this more recent tour there was a constant flow of dump trucks coming and going to the current construction of the US Coast Guard Headquarters, part of Phase 1A, scheduled for completion in 2013.
Additionally, areas of the west campus were fenced off that were not last year, providing sensory evidence that the development of Saint Elizabeths has truly begun.
“The tours began through a partnership with DCPL and the GSA in an effort to provide public outreach on the significance of this National Historic Landmark,” says Rebecca Miller, Executive Director of DCPL.
Since the middle of 2008, a few thousand have attended the tours which are on a seasonal break and will resume in the spring, according to Miller.
According to GSA press spokesman, Michael McGill, a permanent public access program is part of a larger interpretive plan for the west campus that is still under development. The public access program would allow for public tours once DHS has completed their move which is scheduled for 2016.
“While locating a cabinet-level federal agency and 14,000 federal employees east of the Anacostia River, GSA will not only provide new office space, but will also be able to put 51 historic buildings back into service and maintain St. Elizabeths unique campus setting,” says McGill
Among the most famous of the 51 historic buildings being put back into use is the Center Building, designed in accordance with the Kirkbride Plan, a mid-19th century system of mental asylum design, by Thomas U. Walter, best known as the lead architect for the US Capitol’s expansion beginning in 1851 which added the north and south wings, and the cast-iron dome which has come to define the city’s skyline.
“The preservation efforts at St Elizabeths have been tremendous,” says Miller. “GSA recognizes the importance of the campus and has spent a great deal of time and money evaluating all elements of the campus including the buildings through Historic Structures Reports, a Cultural Landscape Report and archaeological investigations.”
For example, Hitchcock Hall, constructed in 1908 as a theater for patient therapy, will be given new life as a conference center and grand theatre auditorium.
“I think that preservation efforts at St. Elizabeths are the most important such work currently underway in DC, because the site has such a long and unique history. Many of its special characteristics are irreplaceable,” said Stephen McLaughlin, a Registered Landscape Architect, on his first visit to the campus.
Hearing about the tour through the DC Preservation League, McLaughlin was one of many tour goers with a camera in hand. “The building that was most impressive was Hitchcock Hall, because of the sculptural carvings or castings that adorn the exterior.”
“From the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s perspective, the most important aspect of St. Elizabeths is that the entire 350 acres – both the east and west campus is a National Historic Landmark, one of approximately 2500 sites in the country. This is the highest designation that the United States has – it puts St. Elizabeths on par with Mount Vernon and Monticello,” says Margaret Welch, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and member of the touring group. “Compared to Mount Vernon, St. Elizabeth is almost an unknown, and the National Trust really appreciates that the DC Preservation League sponsors these series of tours, as it gives visibility to this very special place.”
A must-see is the St. Elizabeths Hospital Civil War Cemetery. According to a plaque on site it was founded “during the Civil War for wounded soldiers that died on the St. Elizabeths Campus during and after the Civil War. The small cemetery houses the remains of some 300 Civil War dead, both Confederate and Union, Black and White. When the foliage of the local forest subsides in the winter, the cemetery is visible from a considerable distance, since the white headstones are placed in the form of a cross.”
Established by Congress in 1852, with the legislation written by pioneering mental-health reformer Dorothea Dix, the Government Hospital for the Insane admitted its first patient on January 15, 1855, one-hundred and fifty-five years ago.
Intending to “provide the most humane care and enlightened treatment” for the insane, the hospital accepted patients from the Army and Navy as well as black and white residents of the city.
“Lush, landscaped grounds were an integral part of campus planning at St. Elizabeths throughout its history. Dix selected the hospital’s commanding location, with its panoramic views of Washington, because the serene setting was believed critical to patients’ recovery, according to theories of moral therapy. Numerous efforts over time to improve the natural environment that patients encountered resulted in a wealth of gardens, expansive lawns, fountains, ponds, and graded walks,” according to a 2005 article in Washington History.
At the outset of the Civil War city residents made up nearly 60 percent of the hospitals admissions. Due to the hospital’s location and open space, it was used as a military post and general hospital to treat to the war wounded. By 1865 admissions grew by more than 500 percent with military patients making up more than 85 percent of new admissions.
After 1946, the patient population began to decline as alternative treatments and new attitudes towards mental-health care reduced the need for large public hospitals. Furthermore, although World War II brought in the largest swell of patients, by the end of the war Congress had ended the long association between the hospital and the armed forces in favor of treatment at the nation’s expanding system of veterans hospitals.
By 2002, the west campus had been vacated and patient services were consolidated to the east campus.
“Situated on a bluff overlooking the convergence of the Anacostia and Potomac rivers, the hospital became known as ‘St. Elizabeths’ – often appearing in print as just ‘St Elizabeth’- after the old colonial land grant on which it was built. Congress officially renamed the institution in 1916, codifying the characteristic plural spelling the remains today. No matter what it was called, from the very beginning the institution was a model of innovative hospital design and construction,” according to Washington History.
GSA will hold a public hearing on its Draft Environmental Impact Statement on January 13th from 6pm to 8pm at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church at 2616 MLK Avenue.
For more the latest information on GSA’s development of St. Es go HERE.
This site has documents, timelines, public meeting schedules and other information that is beneficial to the general public and any citizen watchdog who wants to monitor GSA’s continued and gradual work followed by DHS and other agencies such as FEMA re-location to the current slow and cramped MLK Avenue, formerly Nichols Avenue after the first superintendent Charles H. Nichols.