Thursday, February 23, 2012

Sanitary Improvement Co. Builds Bates St, NW in 1902

Bates Street, NW pictured shortly after it completion in 1902.  Copyright PKW
Few of today's residents of Dupont Circle may realize that less than 100 years ago the area was still plagued with myriad slums, dilapidated wooden housing, and hundreds of outdoor privies.

A group of prominent citizens met in 1897 to form the Washington Sanitary Improvement Company to address the situation and to provide housing for some of the residents documented as living in 191 dwellings located in 35 different Dupont Circle alleys. It was to operate much the same as a low-income housing Community Development Corporation does today, such as MANNA, Inc. Interestingly, the general incorporation law in the city at the time did not allow such an entity, and the organization was formed under the laws of Virginia.

Original kitchen in one of the Bates Street flats
The Sanitary Improvement Company immediately set out to purchase land, and did so along the 100-300 blocks of Bates Street, NW. It was then a vacant, two-block street, surrounded North Capitol, 3rd, P and Q Streets. Nine lots were purchased on May 28, 1897 from Oscar M. Bryant for a total cost of $5,362.25, or 45-cents per square foot!

General George M. Sternberg, a member of the company's board of directors, drew up plans for the first nine houses "in which no detail was omitted which would tend to provide the best accommodations from the standpoint of hygiene." (George Kober, The History and Development of the Housing Movement in the City of Washington, 1927.) The first nine houses were erected at a total cost of $14,967.50.

Over the next five years, the entire two-block section of Bates Street was purchased, and matching houses were constructed to Sternberg's specifications, as seen in the image photographed shortly after the street's completion in 1902. Each house was 17 and-a-half feet wide, and concealed the fact that it contained two flats, one per floor. Each flat was self-contained, and featured a separate entrance at both the front and rear. Kitchens were equipped with a boiler and a wood-burning range, and each flat featured an indoor bathroom and three closets. They were occupied by both white and black tenants.

Incredibly, the first eight homes were completed and rented by November 1897. The four room flats rented for $20 or $21 dollars per month, and three room flats for $16 or $17 per month. As an added incentive to what may have been reluctance to rent to those who had never experienced indoor plumbing before, a rebate of one month's rent was provided every year to tenants whose apartments did not require any repairs. The idea for the rebate originated from the architect, and proved wildly successful. "Since it is human nature to want something for nothing, the tenant naturally feels that the landlord is willing to share profits. Quite a number of . . . tenants have used their rebate for interior wall decorations, and the company has authorized the purchase of picture rods for all the sitting rooms" (Kober).

Floor plan of two Bates Street flats
The Sanitary Housing Improvement Company went on to build 68 homes at the corner of Q, 3rd, and P Streets, as well as several five-room apartments along Bates Street over the next three decades. On April 22, 1924, the company built seven houses along Bates Street containing four- and five-room apartments for a total cost of $46,224, or approximately $6,800 each.

Until 1924, none of the houses along Bates Street had electricity, but were heated by fireplaces and the kitchen stove and lit by gas. A number of tenants had expressed a willingness to pay a slightly higher rent in exchange for the installation of electricity, and the following year, the company contracted for this improvement at a total cost of $17,755 for all 368 flats and one, eight-room house!

Individual homes were eventually sold to tenants, and by the 1950s, an Italian immigrant population dominated Bates Street, according to a homeowner on the street today, named Mary, who used to live around the corner as a teenager at the time. Some of the former, two-flat homes have been converted into single-family homes, while the majority remain two apartments owned by one of the occupants. 

While the shutters are long gone, the street widened, and the wooden bay windows covered with siding, the street remains a charming and desirable place to live, with a past as affordable rental housing that will likely surprise even a long-time resident of the neighborhood.

Copyright Paul K. Williams

1 comment:

Mari said...

The WSIC houses were quite segregated, with a majority of housing set aside for whites, at least up till the 1930 census. Also I could have sworn I've seen something that WSIC displaced black alley dwellers in order to building housing for the white middling class.
As far as affordable housing goes, Bates Street had a bunch of 'active' section 8 renters up until the last 5-7 years. And somewhere I have a 1968 report regarding Bates Street on an external hard drive somewhere. Well I have a picture at