Monday, April 30, 2012

DC Building Permits: the Rare Original Facade and Floor Plans

Over the twenty years that I’ve been researching historic houses in Washington, DC, I find that in only about 15% of the cases do we discover the original blueprints have been retained with the building permit: some are the coveted façade drawings, and some are the even more rare floor plans. 

We recently discovered and even more rare occurrence: both façade and floor plans for a client in the 1500 block of E Street, SE.  They were thrilled to discover how their first floor had originally appeared.  It solved many mysteries for them.    
The owners of the vacant lots where 1502 to 1518 E Street, SE were to be constructed, Wilhelm Schmidt and Frederick D. Brandt, received their building permit on May 17, 1906. 

They listed architect B.Frank Meyers on the application as responsible for their design, and their own construction company, Schmidt & Brandt, as responsible for their erection.  They estimated the cost of building all nine houses as $18,000, or approximately $2,000 each.

You might recall that we composed a blog entry for grocer Wilhelm Schmidt here, who ran a grocery at the corner of 18th and T Street, NW, today home to Rosemary’s Thyme restaurant.

The floor plans revealed that a Latrobe Stove was inserted into both the front parlor and the dining room fireplaces, and that the kitchen featured a coal range, sink with cabinet overhead, and a built in wall cabinet with upper glass doors and lower wood doors and drawers on the party wall.  

BF Meyers, Washington Post
Architect Benjamin Franklin Meyers (1865-1940), known as B. Frank or BF Meyers, contributed many row houses and theaters to the Washington, D.C., area.  Meyers was born in 1865 in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.  He moved with his family to Washington, D.C., as a child and attended school here.  He also received his architectural training in Washington, D.C., not through an educational institution, but likely through his father, John Granville Meyers, a local builder and architect. 

Copyright Paul K. Williams

Thursday, April 26, 2012

In Woodley Park, a Floating Veranda Never Lies.

Once and awhile when your researching through thousands and thousands of rather boring vintage photographs looking for a building or house, you come across something like the image above that just makes you stop in your tracks.  We included this image in our book Woodley Park in 2003.   

Here we have a lovely publicity photograph taken at the Sheraton (now Marriott) Wardman Park Hotel pool in the 1960s.  It shows Miss Joan Vermett at left, a 20-year-old Miss Washington contestant from Arlington, Virginia (kind of defeats the purpose, eh?), and Miss Ray Heath, a 20-year-old resident of southeast Washington.  Apparently, Miss Heath had a few pounds on Miss Vermett, as the innovative "floating veranda" seems tipped in her direction.  Remember ladies, a floating veranda never lies.

Or, perhaps her cocktail was more full.  In any event, I would have given a thousand dollars to see a video of these two trying to get on and off that thing!   Do you suppose the ladies are still out there somewhere? 

Copyright Paul K. Williams


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

First African New Church, 10th and V Streets, NW

First African New Church, about 1930.
Ever made a cool $1.1 million in a year flipping a property without doing anything to it?  The owner of this abandoned church building did in 2002.  DCMud blog did a recent update on plans for the building here

The large vacant church structure at 2105-2107 10th Street is significant both for its architectural history, having been designed by well known architect Paul J. Peltz, and for its social history, as a structure and site that has been continually occupied and owned by an African American religious congregation from 1879 to 2002.      
Its current building has evolved from a major addition and substantial alteration in 1896 to an existing, one story brick building that had been constructed without a building permit sometime between 1887 and 1895.  In 1896, it was significantly expanded by its congregation with the addition of a large sanctuary on the third floor and a large corner tower, designed by well-known architect Paul J. Pelz, creating the church building that remains to this date.            

The adjacent corner lot at 10th and V Streets was the site of a wood frame church for many years prior to the brick one story church building that formed the basis for the structure that remains today.  Its origins can be traced to the northwest corner of Vermont and T Streets, in 1878, when the Abyssinian Baptist Church was first listed in the City Directory.  At the time, Reverend Henry Bailey was in charge of the small congregation that worshiped there in a one story, frame building.  Bailey lived at 1818 Vermont Avenue, and the year later at 1814 Vermont Avenue. 

However, on March 14, 1879, the Abyssinian Baptist Church obtained a permit to move their building to the “corner of 10th and V Street, NW.”  The cost of this move was estimated at $50.  It is assumed that the church moved its church due to the increase of land value at Vermont and T Streets, as several large homes were constructed that year and the year prior across the street, and to gain a larger lot at 10th and V.  Early maps show the new location of the frame church resting directly on the corner of 10th and V Streets.  Its congregation stemmed from freed slaves, black Washington residents, and Civil War soldiers and their dependants that had been stationed at nearby Fort Campbell at 6th and Florida Avenue.               

The church as an active worship site
Along with the move came a name change for the church, and possibly new ownership.  The 1881 City Directory lists the Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church at 10th and V Street, N.W.  It was organized in 1880.  The pastor in attendance was listed as Reverend Peter C. Louis.  Services were held at 11 am and 7:30 pm, with Sunday school at 3 pm.  City Directories classify the church as “Methodist Episcopal-Colored.”  Trinity would remain at the 10th street address until 1892 when the church was renamed “Zion.”  On March 28, 1882, the church obtained a permit to “repair building where damaged by fire.”  Washington DC Fire Department records indicate that a fire had occurred on January 30, 1882 that had caused an estimated damage of $250.     

An 1887 Baist map shows the square-shaped, wood frame building at the corner of 10th and V Street, with a vacant rear yard facing the Union Court alley (where the present day, brick church structure stands today).  Sometime between 1887 and 1896, a one story, brick church building was erected at the rear of the lot, apparently without a building permit.  It is likely that the older wood frame building was no longer viable for maintenance, and a replacement building constructed at the rear of the lots, facing 10th Street, while the congregation continued to worship in the older structure.  The brick, one story building was mentioned in an expansion permit dated 1896, when the church was significantly added onto to create what is the present day building.                

Thursday, April 19, 2012

From Mansion to Apartment: the Saunders Mansion at Wyoming and Connecticut Avenues

The Saunders mansion at Wyoming and Connecticut Avenue
The Washington city landscape began to change dramatically after the turn of the twentieth century, as newly built apartment buildings began to replace mansions and estates situated on valuable urban property and large city lots.  One such example of this is the razing of the Saunders mansion in the late 1930s that had stood on the prominent northwest corner of Connecticut and Wyoming Avenues since its construction in 1890.  The site today is occupied by the art deco styled apartment building at 2100 Connecticut Avenue. 
 The Saunders mansion faced south onto Wyoming Avenue, with a large corner turret at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue.  It was built beginning in June of 1890 to the designs of architect Robert Stead for owner Lorin M. Saunders.  It cost an astonishing $12,000 to construct, and was built measuring 41 feet wide by 63 feet deep.  Its address was 2101 Wyoming Avenue. 

Lorin M. Saunders
Architect Robert Stead was first listed in the City Directory as a draftsman in 1876.  Stead was first listed as an architect in 1883 when he was hired by Susan Okie to design a townhouse at 1714 N Street, NW.  He also designed the house at 2026 Hillyer Place, NW in 1887.  He retired in 1923, and died in Philadelphia twenty years later at the age of 87.   

Owner Lorin Maxson Saunders made a fortune in his legal practice, real estate development, and in banking.  He had been born on November 2, 1840 in Leon, located in western New York’s Cattaraugus County.  His parents were William Saunders and the former Parmelia Marsh.  After teaching school for a short period, he was known to have left the rural enclave with a mere $30 in his pocket to seek fortune in Washington, DC, obtaining employment at the Treasury Department from 1864 to 1865.

Soon after, he obtained his law degree from the Columbian University (The George Washington University today), and retired from government service in 1870.  His personal fortune that year was estimated as $5,000 in the federal census.  In 1881, Saunders realized that great profits could be realized from real estate development in this city, and he opened a real estate company at the corner of 11th and F Streets, NW (below).  

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Your Old House Had Dead Bodies In It - Almost Guaranteed.

Putting the Nail in the Coffin

Have an old house in Washington, DC?  It’s most likely that you had a dead body resting in it for a few days.  I’m not talking homicide here, but a funeral.  In your living room. 
I just finished up a house history for a client near 20th and Belmont Streets, NW that had a total of four funerals that took place inside the house, all within a twenty year time span.   I often write that the funeral took place in any given house, but now and then, a client requests that I don’t divulge if a dead body was ever in the house.
The problem is, if your house is more than 50 years old, it is most likely that many dead bodies have once been inside; people either died at home or their funeral took place in the living room.  As a young child, my mother recalls having to remove the Christmas tree from their living room for her mother’s funeral following her death on Christmas Eve.  Today, that scene might require years of therapy, but in the 1930s that was the norm.    
Most DC residents held their funeral at home, especially before modern funeral homes were licensed beginning in the 1930s.  You purchased a coffin made by the local furniture or cabinet maker, death certificate, and obtained a permit to transport a body to the cemetery, and that was the brunt of it.    
Before embalming became commercially available around the turn of the twentieth century, funerals were obviously held soon after the death.  Embalming was first developed and used during the Civil War by Dr. Thomas Holmes who was tasked with preserving the bodies of army officers so that they could be sent home for burial. 
But localities did not have that need, and it wasn’t until good old capitalism took over that traveling salesmen soon began visiting towns and cities across the nation offering embalming training and techniques, and – you guessed it – supplies for sale.  The first embalming solutions were arsenic based but were rapidly replaced with formaldehyde.

Over time, the liveryman, who was tasked with transporting the body, became more involved in the overall procedure and event coordination of death, and “undertake” many of the additional duties that began to become custom and tradition following the Victorian period.  Funeral and funeral merchandise expansion after the turn of the twentieth led to the term “Undertaker,” and they could be more efficient all in one place – the funeral home – beginning in the 1930s and 1940s.  They were often located in former homes turned businesses.   
Today, you might be surprised that most States only require a certified death certificate, a permit to transport a body, and that the body be buried, cremated, or donated to medical science.  No embalming is required, and many relatives are beginning to once again hold funerals in their homes as a cost saving measure.
Cemetery Party!

And as long as we are on the topic –I know your dying to know – let’s talk a little about cemeteries themselves.  I love exploring cemeteries, but I usually get the “how dare you" look or whispers that it is not respectful.  But then I remind them that I’m a historian, and they are about to get a history lesson.

Cemeteries designed during the Victorian era in the 1870s (and earlier) were meant to be not only explored, but to be used as parks, where one might spend the entire day, and spread out for lunch or long strolls.  They offered a respite from urban centers, high heat, and the smells of animals and smog of burning coal.  Cemeteries were outfitted with meandering paths, benches, and meadows where the entire family would gather and gossip.  You only need to look at old postcards of cemeteries to see that they were full of people, and not a place to avoid.  

Some existing cemeteries are now returning to their roots – Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill being an excellent example of attracting people to explore its surroundings and grave markers by creating a dog walkers group, volunteers for repairing and cleaning, and even a playful “dead man’s run” to raise funds for the restoration.            
Author's Note:  Entry’s will be a bit sparse for a few weeks as I’m on a deadline to complete my “Lost Washington” book due May 1st 
Copyright Paul K. Williams

Monday, April 09, 2012

Lost & Found Washington: The Hopkins-Miller Houses on Dupont Circle

This is the story of two really, really close sisters who once owned adjoining and interconnecting houses on Dupont Circle form several decades.  

The bright yellow Sun Trust bank building located at the corner of Connecticut Avenue on the south side of Dupont Circle has been providing time and temperature for local commuters for decades.  Its recent lavish paint scheme unfortunately covers what was a highly ornamented brick pattern designed into the building when it was built in 1912 (seen below).  It replaced one half of an unusual double house originally built on the site in 1880 for two apparently very close sisters.         

The U. S. Trust Company hired architect Jules Henry De Sibour to design the corner bank building, which began construction in September of 1912.  It was built by the F. J. Nesbit Company at an estimated cost of $50,000 and featured a complex design of different colored bricks with granite trim and a clay tile roof.  It later became the Dupont National Bank Building, pictured here about 1925, and the Guardian National Bank, along with other institutional names in subsequent years.        

The Miller House (right) and Hopkins House (left) adjoined between the two chimneys at left
The pair of adjoining houses previously located on the site, at the intersection of Massachusetts and Connecticut Avenues facing Dupont Circle, had been built beginning in March of 1880.  Built for two sisters, Charlotte E. and Katherine Wise, it is unusual in that each of the three levels shared balconies facing Dupont Circle, one on each floor, with each having doors that led to each individual house.

The adjoining houses, however, were each built with separate building permits at an estimated cost of $9,000 each.  Two years after they were completed, the owners no doubt stood on the balcony to watch the unveiling of the Admiral DuPont statue in the center of the circle on December 10, 1884.    

The Dupont Bank Building with the Hopkins House seen at left, sans adjoing balconies
This arrangement might have decreased future resale value in today’s market, but it allowed the sisters to interact and pass into each others houses without having to venture outside.  The sisters were the daughters of Capt. H. A. and Charlotte Everett Wise.  The homes were designed by architect J. Cleveland Cady (1837-1919) of the Cady-Gregory firm in New York.  Cady was a student of Henry Hobson Richardson, the leading architect of the post Civil War era in the country, and is perhaps best known for his Metropolitan Opera House design.  The houses were built by Robert I. Fleming.    

Monday, April 02, 2012

A must for any Old Home Owner: a Housetory Book!

Today’s post is a bit different than our typical Washington, DC history tidbit or history mystery, but it is still related to house history: rather directly as it turns out.  A large box arrived on Saturday from the State of Washington, and in it was something I’ve been anticipating for a while now, after meeting Mike and Dan Hiestand from Houstory.   

We found each other via my Twitter and their Twitter, and then met live following a conference and exhibit they were represented at in Philadelphia – when is the last time you met a Twitter follower in person?!

We had much in common beyond the love of old houses.  After a tour of my own 1906 historic house, we sat down and talked about their exciting new business at House History Book or 'Houstory.'  These fellas had done their homework and really investigated how to do it right – with the results being a fascinating large book in which to maintain and preserve a history of a house: a Home History Book. 

I can’t tell you how many of my clients take the history of their house (which we produce in a booklet format) along with them when the house is sold…prompting the new owners to contact me for a history that we’ve already completed (we tell them of course).  The Houstory book is meant to convey with the property, and I must say that its both a fantastic and creative idea, and I suspect it will become very popular.
My own book arrived in a beautiful black box which is of archival quality for storage of pictures and documents associated with your house.  It is embossed with their copyrighted logo…inside was a felt slip tied with a bow, and inside that was the book itself: about three inches thick, embossed with a front door design, handcrafted in the USA with faux leather and our address engraved in a brass plaque.  Now that is impressive indeed!  I loved it.
But it is much more than a book, and browsing inside is where you realize Mike and Dan have done their homework.  Pages are all acid free and there is a variety of page backgrounds you can choose from with screened backgrounds…as well as different cover colors to choose from.  The opening pages have places to place the earliest known photograph of your house, and other pages have areas for family information, guests, renovations, and just about anything you might want to leave