“Washington’s first streetcars trundled down Pennsylvania Avenue during the Civil War. By the end of the century, streetcar lines crisscrossed the city, expanding it into the suburbs and defining where Washingtonians lived, worked and played. From the quaint early days of small horse-drawn cars to the modern streamliners of the twentieth century, John DeFerrari’s new book, Capital Streetcars, tells the story of the dramatic rise and equally dramatic fall of streetcars in our city. John is the author of two previous books about DC history (Lost Washington, DC. and Historic Restaurants of Washington, DC) and is a frequent contributor to PoPville with articles about DC history from his Streets of Washington blog.”
Today Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez of Cuba once again raises the Cuban flag over the country’s venerable embassy building at 2630 16th Street NW, in the Meridian Hill neighborhood that was once home to many of the city’s finest embassies. Close by are the former Italian, Mexican, and Spanish embassies as well as the current embassies of Poland and Lithuania. For decades the building has quietly served as the Cuban Interests Section of the Swiss Embassy, but before that it had a long social career, hosting many of the city’s classiest balls and receptions.
Photo by the author.
The Republic of Cuba had a diplomatic outpost in Washington even before the country existed as an independent nation. In the 1890s, as Cubans mounted their war for independence from Spain, Gonzalo de Quesada (1868-1915) established a legation at the fashionable Raleigh Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. A graduate of Columbia University, Quesada had met revolutionary hero José Martí in New York at a rally of Cuban exiles; he quickly became an important figure in the struggle for independence. The movement had the sympathy of many Americans, and on President William McKinley’s inauguration day in March 1897, its flag flew proudly atop the Raleigh. “All sympathizers with the struggling patriots could not suppress a yell of patriotism as they observed the flag of the little would-be republic floating as proudly to the breeze as that of the big, powerful country the strong protection of which is sought,” wrote The Evening Star. (more…)
One of the oldest continuously-operating restaurants in D.C. is German, the venerable Old Europe on Wisconsin Avenue in Glover Park, which opened in 1948. Beyond it, Washington boasts relatively few German eateries these days. That wasn’t always the case. In the late 19th century, after a wave of German immigrants settled in the area, German restaurants were common and among the city’s best. The thriving local beer industry, also dominated by Germans, went hand in glove with the restaurant business. Here are the stories of four of the most successful German eateries from the turn of the last century, all located on or near Pennsylvania Avenue downtown.
Postcard from Engel’s Hotel and Restaurant, circa 1900 (author’s collection).
One of the best known was Fritz Reuter’s. Reuter (1862-1906) had been born in Hanover and came to the U.S. when he was 21 years old. After spending a year in Baltimore, he moved to Washington to work in a saloon. He opened up his own gasthaus (inn and restaurant) in 1889 on the northwest corner of 4½ Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW. The building he took over had been a boardinghouse for many years in the early part of the century. Run by a Mrs. Elizabeth Peyton, it had catered to congressmen, Supreme Court justices, and other statesmen, including John Marshall, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. (more…)
The iconic Masonic Temple building on the northwest corner of 9th and F Streets NW was the first major private building to be constructed downtown after the Civil War, and it was an extraordinary achievement. Richly decorated inside and out and with a grand ballroom on the second floor, it was one of the city’s important cultural centers when it first opened its doors in 1869. The building had many lives, including as a bastion of the temperance movement in the early years of the 20th century and later as a furniture store. It would also become the first major building to be successfully protected by the District’s Historic Landmark and Historic District Protection Act of 1978.
The old Masonic Temple on the northwest corner of 9th and F Streets NW (photo by the author).
The building was constructed as the headquarters for the local Grand Lodge of Masons. Freemasonry is a centuries-old tradition descended from medieval stone masons’ guilds that evolved into a strictly fraternal order dedicated to benevolent acts. Masons organize themselves into lodges, which are chartered by regional Grand Lodges. Masons were first active in Washington in the late 18th century and formed a Grand Lodge here in 1811. By the mid 19th century they were using a hall at 9th and D Streets NW and needed a larger, more prestigious building to house their meeting hall and headquarters. In 1864, as the Civil War raged, Congress gave them a charter to acquire and develop a site for a new hall. The association purchased the 9th and F Streets lot in 1865 and began raising funds to construct the building. The project was run strictly as a for-profit business, with funds raised by the sale of stock. Stockholders would earn income from rental of the building’s public spaces on the first and second floors. (more…)
Although the snowstorm that just struck the east coast was not as bad as forecasters feared, it’s worth looking back at one of the most devastating storms from the past. The great blizzard of March 11, 1888 wasn’t even predicted at all in Washington. The weather forecast that day was just for wind and rain, with clear skies to follow. Sure enough, the day began with heavy rains, but by late afternoon it turned suddenly to heavy snow. About a foot of snow fell through the night, followed by fierce winds. It turned out to be a cataclysmic storm, walloping the entire northeastern U.S. and dumping two to three feet of snow in New York and New England. Though Washington was not the worst hit, the storm’s effects had a lasting impact on the city.
A street-side snow hut made after the massive snow storm of March 1888 (Source: Library of Congress).
“The storm that visited Washington yesterday was one of the most remarkable known for years, The Evening Star reported on Monday, “In fact, the capital seemed to have dropped into the very center of a cyclone that brought with it a blinding succession of rain, snow, wind, and cold…. [T]he city was sheeted in a mantle of white that grew thicker every minute. As the night fell the heavily-laden telegraph wires began to come down, and in many places the streets were blockaded so that street cars had to turn around and make partial trips. The police wires were out of order, and to add to the discomforts of the night the electric lights began to fail. By midnight the city was almost in darkness, save for a few feeble gas jets that had flickered through the storm.” (more…)
Washington Circle is the westernmost of the many public spaces laid out in L’Enfant’s plan for Washington City, and it was designed as a circle from the start. To the south in the early days was the low-lying area known as Foggy Bottom, a desolate, semi-industrial neighborhood. Little of the land to the north was developed. While many Washingtonians passed through the circle as they traveled along Pennsylvania Avenue between Georgetown and Washington, few stopped here. Known as the “Round Tops” for the high cupolas on a pair of houses located just to the northwest, the neighborhood around the circle had a reputation for being dangerous. It is usually mentioned in early newspapers in connection with petty crimes. The circle itself was simply a large open area in the middle of the street.
The statue of George Washington in Washington Circle (photo by the author).
Meanwhile, sculptor Clark Mills created a sensation with his tour-de-force statue of Andrew Jackson on a rearing steed, which was unveiled in Lafayette Square in 1853. Proud of this American-made monument, Congress responded by immediately commissioning Mills to create another statue to honor George Washington. Everyone expected the new memorial to be even more stunning than the Jackson statue. The princely sum of $50,000 was authorized to pay for it.
It’s unclear when or how the decision was made that the new Washington statue would be placed in the circle at Pennsylvania Avenue and K Street NW. Perhaps that decision led to the sprucing up of the circle in 1855, when a wooden fence was built around the central part of the circle, thus forming the city’s first traffic circle. But by all accounts the improvements were minimal; the circle remained a wasteland until the arrival of the Washington statue. (more…)
The Prohibition era in Washington saw the rise of speakeasys and glitzy nightclubs, like Le Paradis on Thomas Circle, which we profiled last March. But the end of Prohibition in March 1934 did not bring an end to the supper club era. On the contrary, supper clubs flourished across the country, and Washington had plenty of them. Silken-voiced singers and lush orchestras continued to offer people an escape from the hard economic realities of the Depression. Exotic décor heightened the sense that one was fleeing to another place and time, to somewhere simpler and more romantic. These were the golden years of the supper clubs, a unique era when dining and entertainment were more closely linked than ever before or since.
Postcard view of the interior of the Mayfair, circa 1935 (author’s collection).
Fourteenth Street downtown hosted some of the biggest supper clubs, including the Casino Royal and Lotus Restaurant, but there were many others, including popular night spots at most of the city’s major hotels. One club that opened in 1935, the year after Prohibition ended, was the Mayfair Restaurant, nicknamed the “Café of All Nations.” It was located in a new office building at 13th and F Streets NW, in the heart of Washington’s theatre district. Within a block or two were the National and Warner theaters as well as the Palace and Capitol movie theaters. The restaurant quickly became one of the city’s most popular after-theater spots. (more…)
One of Washington’s perennial struggles has been to find suitable indoor venues for large public performances, conventions, and other events. The first convention hall was the one built at 5th and K Streets NW in 1875, which we profiled in 2010. It had many limitations, and by the beginning of the twentieth century, city leaders craved something more worthy of the nation’s capital. As we saw last June, Susan Whitney Dimock (1845-1939) tried unsuccessfully to have a grand George Washington Memorial Hall built on the mall. But even as the cornerstone for that project was being laid in November 1921, the city’s business leaders decided—wisely—not to wait for it. Instead they raised funds entirely on their own to demonstrate the business community’s independent ability to build a large, elegant new auditorium to meet the pressing need. But the beautiful and expensive theater they built would entertain Washingtonians for just ten years before being taken over by the federal government for office space.
The Washington Auditorium in 1926 (author’s collection).
The effort to build the Washington Auditorium, as it was called, was headed by “Colonel” Robert Newton Harper (1861-1940), a native of Leesburg, Virginia, who was president of the American National Bank. Harper broke fundraising up by commercial sector, with 100 different committees of business leaders in charge of raising $5,000 each. True to their business roots, the organizers decided to offer subscriptions to the project as investments, equally split between stock and bonds, rather than charitable contributions. Philip King, president of the Merchants and Manufacturers Association, pledged to head one of the fundraising committees, and in a letter to Harper he summed up the rationale for the new auditorium: “Not merely from the standpoint of the dollars that come to the community from a big assemblage but more particularly from the better understanding and educational factors, do big conventions appeal to me as an admirable acquisition to the community. Great gatherings of tradesmen, of the professions and all classes of people generally tend to the refining and betterment of all who come within the range of such gatherings.” (more…)
Mark Twain is said to have called it the ugliest building in America, a sentiment later echoed by President Harry S Truman, who thought it the country’s “greatest monstrosity.” Now, to tear down this monstrosity would be unthinkable. Declared a national historic landmark in 1971, the massive block-long Eisenhower Executive Office Building, as it is now called, is widely cherished as a stunningly exuberant relic from a bygone era that could never be replicated. Whatever has been thought of it across the years, the building achieves architecture’s highest calling, impressing its unique identity relentlessly upon all who witness it and demanding a response.
As long as the federal government has been in Washington, cabinet department office buildings have stood on this site and the corresponding space on the other side of the President’s House. George Washington wanted them here, and under his direction, architect George Hadfield (1763-1826), designed the first two distinguished, federal-style buildings, which were ready for early bureaucrats to occupy when the government moved to Washington in 1800. After the British burned the buildings in 1814, they were reconstructed, and two more matching buildings were added, one on either side, to form a neat and symmetrical Executive Branch campus surrounding the President’s House. On the east side, along 15th Street, stood the State Department to the north and the Treasury Department to the south. To the west, along 17th Street, were the Navy and War Departments. (more…)
Around the turn of the last century city planners and others worried that the nation’s capital did not have a suitably grand and dignified meeting hall where large assemblies and conventions could gather and celebrate the greatness of America. A spacious 6,000-seat convention hall had been built in Mount Vernon Square in 1875 (see our previous profile), but it was in the old red-brick Victorian style and too far removed from the Mall to satisfy the aspirations of the Beaux Arts generation. The new imperial, white-marble Washington, as envisioned by the McMillan Commission, needed a massive and powerful-looking auditorium with a forest of imposing classical columns lining its facade. At least Susan Whitney Dimock (1845-1939), a New York socialite, certainly thought so, and she made it her life’s work to have such a meeting hall built. But despite endorsements from several presidents and countless other powerful people, the hall was never meant to be.
Postcard of the planned memorial from the 1920s (author’s collection).
Dimock was born to the wealthy Whitney family of New York, the daughter of James Scollay Whitney (1811-1878). Two of her brothers became successful and powerful industrialists in an age of industrialists. She married Henry F. Dimock (1842-1911), a New York attorney who also became a prominent businessman, working in large part with Whitney family interests. Susan clearly wished to leave her own mark for the betterment of the country, and she set her sights on a memorial to George Washington—never mind that one already had been completed in 1884. (more…)