Monday, June 23, 2014

U Street: Storage Central

 The thriving greater U Street corridor is celebrated as the location of an impressive array of historical African American entertainment sites and architectural firsts, but for many years, it also had the distinction of being home to three large moving and storage facilities that could be seen from many blocks away. These included the Federal Security Storage at 1707 Florida Avenue, the Fidelity Storage Company at 1420 U Street, and the Smith Transfer and Storage Company, once located at 1313 U Street.

One of the largest of the three storage facilities was located at 1313 U Street, demolished in the 1970s along with the Republic Theater in anticipation of construction for the U Street entrance and tunnel of the Green line of the Metro.  Its site stood as a vacant lot for decades, and was only fairly recently replaced with the large Ellington apartment complex. 

Smith Transfer and Storage was established in 1909 and was owned by Claredon and Arthur Smith with its U Street located managed for along time by J. H. Glaszner.  They specialized in the moving of household goods only, and advertised in 1930 that they “had gained the confidence and patronage of all who have ever availed themselves of this most excellent storage.”  Their early horse drawn moving trucks no doubt were fixtures all across the city, and the fire proof facility offered dust free rooms “greatly in demand for those desiring to store valuable furniture.”  They employed 60 employees by 1930.       

Still located at the corner of Florida Avenue and Ontario Road is a storage facility originally built as Federal Security Storage.  It was designed by New York architect Charles H. Moores, and built in 1925.  When it opened, it was declared “one of the most beautiful and best-equipped warehouses in the country” by Distributing and Warehousing magazine. 

It was built as a fireproof structure to store household furnishings, including “private rooms for furniture, silver vault, cold storage vault for furs, draperies, rugs, and tapestries, fumigation chamber for overstuffed furniture, insurance department, rug cleaning plant, and packing department where valuable articles are prepared for shipment all over the world.”  In 1925, the company “owned and operated a fleet of modern six cylinder pneumatic tired motor vans for household removals.”  They featured an innovative “Bowling Green steel Lift Van” that was an early precedent to the container cargo compartments of today; one steel box that could be transported on ship, rail, or truck.  It now serves as the Security Moving and Storage building.        
The building that still serves as a storage facility today at 1420 U Street was originally built for the Fidelity Storage Company in 1905.  It was designed by the architectural firm of Beecher, Fiz & Gregg and owned by James L. Kanick, who served as its President for many years.  Other storage facilities were built by Fidelity in cities such as Philadelphia about the same time.  Today, the building is owned by Storage USA, offering self storage services, and storage for such local vendors such as a flower shop and even the nearby McDonalds fast food restaurant.        

These three storage businesses served the needs of most transient Washingtonians in an era when wealthy residents routinely stored their household furnishings for a year while they traveled abroad, summered in the country, or stored off season furniture and clothing.  They also served as a cleaning and fumigating need in an era of wool, fur, and household pests that could destroy exquisite fabrics within days.  Two of the three buildings remain, but are no longer operated by a local based storage business, with self storage now a way of life for city residents.          

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Before there was La Tomate: the Sawyer mansion

Though a major commercial corridor today, Connecticut Avenue north of Dupont Circle and the Circle itself was originally developed as a fashionable residential neighborhood beginning in the early 1880s.  The large triangular lot at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue, R Street and 20th Streets is today occupied by a distinctive triangular building built in 1922, housing the La Tomate Restaurant at 1701 Connecticut Avenue  Before that, however, it was the site of a spectacular brown stone mansion built by Senator Philetus Sawyer in 1888.     

Philetus Sawyer (1816 – 1900), right, was an American politician of the Republican Party who had the unique title of representing Wisconsin in both houses of Congress.  He was born on September 22, 1816 in Whiting, Vermont, and moved to Crown Point, New York, as an infant in 1817.  He was the fifth child of Ephraim Sawyer and Mary Parks, and eventually attended rural schools there, worked as a woodsman and sawmill hand, and for a time operated a lumbermill.  In 1841, he married Malvina M. Hadley, and they would eventually have five children together: Ella, Earl, Edgar, Emma, and Erma.    

He moved to Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin in 1847 and soon thereafter became a millionaire in the lumber industry in Oshkosh, surrounded by thick forests of old growth.  Oshkosh became known as “Sawdust City,” and her sister cities on the Lake Winnebago-Fox River waterway soon became the center of early lumber milling and commerce. One of his best customers would eventually be the Diamond match company.   

Amusingly, his competitors in the lumber industry spread the rumor that he always signed his letters and documents P. Sawyer because he himself could not spell his first name.  Later in life, he seemingly changed his habit and signed his full name as if to prove his enemies wrong.  Sawyer amassed a fortune, which during the Civil War became even larger as his industry evolved from the sawmill and rough-hewn lumber stage to planing mill and finished woodwork.  

In 1878, Sawyer formed a lumber company with his son, Edgar P. and a former employee named William O. Goodman named Sawyer-Goodman & Co. that expanded operations into Illinios, Iowa, and Nebraska. They owned yards in Chicago and mills in the Menominee Valley, and were successful speculators in the Wolf and Chippewa valley timberlands, along with large investments in Wisconsin banking and railroad enterprises.  Sawyer’s daughter Erna eventually married Goodman.      

Sawyer's early political career included serving in the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1857 and 1861, and serving as mayor of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, from 1863 to 1864.  He ran for and was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1864 and served for ten years, from 1865 until 1875; he did not run for reelection in 1874.  He gained a reputation as being the “foremost logroller” of his time through his handling of river and harbor appropriation bills.

Sawyer apparently had strong feelings about his time in public life, writing in 1875 “As for me being a Candidate for Govr. or any other office I most emphaticaly decline. I will not except the the nomination for Any Office…I have kissed a--s enough for the privlage of doing peoples Chores and I have got through."  (Stated in a letter to Cadwallader C. Washburn, dated April 2, 1875, in the Washburn Papers, collection of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin)

However, Sawyer returned to Congress in 1881 as a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, and served two terms, from 1881 to 1893.  The US Senate was then a wealthy men’s club, whose members didn’t represent political entities so much as they represented economic empires.  From Nevada, for example, then hailed James G. Fair, known as “Bonanza Fair,” the wealthiest of them all; he had accumulated a fortune of thirty millions from silver mines. 

Sawyer’s stone mansion at 1701 Connecticut Avenue had begun to be constructed in March of 1888, and while he himself resided there, it was apparently built for his daughter Emma, then the wife of Syracuse, NY journalist Howard White.  The mansion was designed by architect William H. Miller and was built at an impressive estimated cost of $80,000, when the typical townhouse in Washington was built for less than $3,000.  It was built by William P. Lipscomb, who lost money on the elaborate construction, but Sawyer was so pleased with the house that he offered to pay beyond the contract price for the house.    

In 1891, as bondsman for two of the defendants in a Wisconsin treasury legal case, Sawyer offered money to Robert M. La Follette, Sr., brother-in-law of the judge scheduled to try the cases; La Follette denounced the offer as an intended bribe, while Sawyer maintained that his offer had been made only in the hope of obtaining La Follette’s legal services.  The resulting scandal split the state Republican party, and, after leaving the Senate in 1893, Sawyer spent his last years fighting the ensuing revolt of the La Follette, or Progressive, faction of the party which gained control shortly thereafter.   

Sawyer sold 1701 Connecticut Avenue just two weeks before he died in March of 1900 for the stunning amount of $100,000.  Its new owner was Henry Cleveland Perkins, a wealthy mining engineer and owner of the Oriental Consolidated Mining Company that owned mines in California, Alaska, Venezuela, Korea, and South Africa.    
Sawyer's house in Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Known as the “grand old man” of Oshkosh, in his later years, Sawyer performed various local philanthropic acts, many of them anonymous, and was a trustee and generous benefactor of Lawrence College.  Sawyer died on March 29, 1900 in Oshkosh at age 83, where he was also interred.  Sawyer County, Wisconsin, was named for him, and a book of his life entitled Pine Logs and Politics: A Life of Philetus Sawyer, 1816- 1900 was written by Richard Nelson Current, published by the Wisconsin State Historical Society in 1950.

Sadly, the Sawyer mansion was sold in 1921 and demolished after existing on the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and 20th Street for thirty-three years.  Architect George N. Ray designed the current building at 1701 Connecticut Avenue, which was begun in May of 1923.  Ironically, it too was built by the William Lipscomb company that had build Sawyers house on the site in 1888.  It was built as an office building, but subsequently housed the Regina Valet and today is home to the La Tomate restaurant.    

Copyright Paul K. Williams

Monday, March 17, 2014

Washington Nationals at the Swampoodle Grounds

Swampoodle Grounds.  Photograph courtesy Architect of the Capitol

Swampoodle Grounds, also known as Capitol Park (II), was the home of the Washington Nationals baseball team of the National League from 1886 to 1889.  The park was named for the surrounding  Swampoodle neighborhood.   The right field and the infield portions of the site are now occupied by the Union Station (Square 678). The left field portion was later occupied by the Main Post Office, which is now the National Postal Museum.

The owners of Square 678 in 1887 were listed as Thomas Galt and William Smith; they owned the west side together, and had split up the east side with Smith owning the top portion and Galt the lower half. On the 1887 Hopkins map seen here, there are just a few small wood frame buildings on the entire square (those yellow squares you see on the west side of the square).

One was built in 1887 as a "clubhouse" by the Washington Baseball Club, according to the building permit index.  It measured 10x30 feet, and had to be removed within 90 days upon request from the owner of the land.  That was all about there was in regard to physical structures.  Spectators apparently lined the edge of the field instead of sitting in grandstand seats.  

Swampoodle Grounds held 6,000. The Washington Statesmen folded after the end of the 1889 season.

Copyright Paul K. Williams

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

5609 32nd Street: Proof that every house has a history!

You never know what might be discovered when you are researching an older house in Washington, DC, and we had quite a surprise when we researched one recently in Chevy Chase DC at 5609 32nd Street for the current owners (left).  I think they were surprised as well!  

Construction began in September of 1931, and the house was built for an estimated cost of just $8,000.  It was designed by prolific architect George T. Santmyers.  It was sold to a government accountant named Frank Read.  The Read’s may have been a typical DC homeowner of the era, but it was who they sold the house to, and when, that was the real interesting story – along with their tragic demise.    

They sold the house on June 6, 1963 to Tran Van Chuong, who had resigned as the South Vietnam Ambassador to the United States shortly before the purchase (right).  Trần Văn Chương (c. 1898 — 24 July 1986) was the father of the country's de facto first lady, Madame Nhu (1924-2011). They would own the house for three years. 

He had married Thân Thị Nam Trân, who was a member of the extended Vietnamese royal family (left). Her father was Thân Trọng Huề, who became Vietnam's minister for national education, and her mother was a daughter of Emperor Đồng Khánh. They had a son Trần Văn Khiêm and three daughters, including Lệ Xuân, who became the wife of Ngô Ðình Nhu, the brother of South Vietnam's first President, Ngô Ðình Diệm. 

Chương's family alliances enabled him to rise from being a member of a small law practice in the Cochin-Chinese (South Vietnamese) town of Bạc Liêu in the 1920s to become Vietnam's first Foreign Secretary under his wife's cousin Emperor Bảo Đại, while Japan occupied Vietnam during World War II. 

As stated in the LA Times: “Chuong and his wife were near the center of a movement to create a new Vietnam, free of French rule. Their lives and the lives of their children were always part of the roiling pot that was the politics of Vietnam, forever filled with intrigue."

In 1945, when many believed that the way to independence was through Japanese support, Chuong was vice premier in a short-lived Japanese puppet government. Later that year, when the communist Viet Minh took control of the government, Chuong was arrested. His wife, whom the Viet Minh were willing to leave behind, insisted on going with her husband. 

The couple escaped, taking refuge in the south, and in 1947 they made their way to Paris. When Diem became prime minister in 1954 and then the nation's president, Chuong was named Vietnam's ambassador to the United States. His wife became Vietnam's permanent observer at the United Nations. He eventually became South Vietnam's ambassador to the United States, but resigned in protest in 1963, denouncing his government's anti-Buddhist policies. 

On November 1, 1963, Chuong's son-in-law Ngô Ðình Nhu and Nhu's brother, President Ngô Ðình Diệm were assassinated in a coup d'état led by General Dương Văn Minh. Chuong's daughter, Ngô Ðình Nhu's wife, the rather famous Madame Nhu (1924-2011), was in Beverly Hills, California at the time of the coup. 

Chương and his wife remained in the United States in Washington, D.C.  On July 24, 1986, they were found strangled to death at their home on Western Avenue NW.  Their son Trần Văn Khiêm (left), was accused but found unfit for trial.  The remains of Chương and his wife were interred at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.  

Copyright Paul K. Williams: Pictures courtesy The Washington Post