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Columbia Heights Neighborhood: A Short History
Kelsey & Associates
The area coined Columbia Heights today is located is outside the original boundaries of the Federal City of Washington established by the laws that the District of Columbia in 1791. It was then known as a political division called Washington County, District of Columbia. This included the area bounded by Florida (Boundary) Avenue to the south, Spring Road on the north, 16th Street on the west, and Sherman Avenue on the east.
The area remained designated farmland until passage of the Organic Act in 1878, which expanded the City of Washington’s boundaries to be contiguous with those of the District of Columbia and thus eliminated Washington County. Some large northern parcels remained in agricultural use until World War One. The entire area was once a large estate owned by Robert Peter that stretched from 7th Street to Georgetown. It was known as “Pleasant Plains,” an origin of the term Mount Pleasant used to describe that neighborhood today. Peter had a large farmhouse that encompassed Square 234, bounded by 13th and 14th, W Street and Florida Avenue.
In the 1790’s, Anthony Holmead acquired the Peter estate above Florida Avenue, and his heirs went on to become the most prominent landowners in the City until the late nineteenth century. Anthony’s son John Holmead built a mansion known as Meridian Hill on a 46 acre tract of land just west of 14th Street which became the site for Columbia College in 1822. John’s son William Holmead inherited the entire estate, but built his own mansion called Holmead Manor which was located on the land now bounded by 11th and 14th Street, Park Road and Spring Road. It became a famous mecca for horse racing and gambling in the early nineteenth century. Constructed in 1802, a one mile circular racetrack, centered on what is 14th Street today, was laid out just above the Columbia College grounds. Colonel John Tayloe, a wealthy Virginian who moved into the now-famous Octagon House in 1800, was an avid horse racing enthusiast and thoroughbred owner. At this time, the area was considered the country, and the rise in slope meant relief of the heat and humidity associated with the downtown area.
At its peak in 1822, as many as 5,000 spectators ventured out from the city to watch a $5,000 match race which was won by a horse named Eclipse; the popularity and financial success of track remained until social pressures and changing interests dictated its decline in the late 1830’s. Up until the Civil War, this area remained rural in nature, with a few large estates built to take advantage of the spectacular view of the emerging city. The principal routes in and out of town were 14th and 7th street, both tree lines avenues leading to and from the city limits defined by the 1791 L’Enfant plan.
The Holmead’s began selling most of their land following the Civil War, although earlier in 1822, approximately 47 acres bounded by 14th and 15th Streets, Florida Avenue and Columbia Road on the north had been purchased by Columbia College. The College started selling off its land in the 1860s, finally selling the last plot in 1912, by which time it had moved to its present day located in Foggy Bottom, known today as The George Washington University.
In 1865, the area now bounded by Florida Avenue and approximately Clifton Street, 14th and 16th Streets, was the first plat divided by Columbia College, which divided up the grounds south of the College lawn into streets and alleys. The scheme was presented to the College Board of Trustees in 1865, and it was an attempt to lease or rent the land to produce a source of permanent revenue. The college eventually offered the land for sale twice in the 1880s; once in 1882 and again in 1884. The property was then divided into three major parts; the south plot (including Belmont Street today), the College grounds or the center part where the majority of their buildings were located, and the northern plot. The southern portions building lots were leased and then sold to individual owners, the north plot was bought by Mrs. Mary D. Biddle of Philadelphia for $49,236, and the center part was sold to Mr. and Mrs. William Dunn, who paid $87,500. Three weeks later, William M. Hill bought the Dunn’s plot for $142,026, the Dunn’s making a profit of more than $54,000.
The first large scale development of the entire area was a 121 acre area between Florida Avenue and Park Road, and 11th and 14th Streets. This tract of land was purchased by Senator John Sherman of Ohio from William J. Stone, and platted as a suburb in 1881-1882. Initially advertised as “Columbian Heights” the name referred to Columbia College who owned most of the land west of it, 14th to 16th Street, including the land which developed into Belmont Street and Meridian Hill Park. The name Cardozo, which this area is sometimes called, was added in 1950 to honor the great African American educator Francis L. Cardozo, and marks the recognition of the community’s modern identity as a largely black urban area.
In addition to the largest portion, the Columbian Heights 1881-1882 subdivision, several other parcels were divided up and advertised with a variety of features to lure residents away from the congested and polluted downtown area. These included old Mount Pleasant (1865), Meridian Hill (1867), Pleasant plains (1868), Sherman’s Subdivision (1868), Praether, Wright, and Cox and Wright and Dole’s Subdivisions (1868), Columbia College lands (1865, 1882, 1884), and Holmead Manor (1883). While these areas were all indicated on the real estate atlases of the time, most were not built upon until well into the early twentieth century.
Sherman’s associate in his real estate venture was Amzi L. Barber (1843-1909). Barber reserved the land above Florida Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets to Clifton Street, where be commissioned architect Theophilus P. Chandler in 1886 to design a large stone chateauesque Queen Anne mansion on the grounds. At the time it was built, it was one of Washington’s most imposing mansions, and Barber had it named “Belmont.” He had made his fortune in other real estate ventures like LeDroit Park, and had wisely invested in the asphalt pavement business just prior to Alexander “Boss” Shepherds city-wide improvement campaign in the 1870’s. His son, named LeDroit, continued to live at Belmont until he sold it in 1913.
The promoters of the healthy aspect of living in the country still predominated as late as 1902, when the Columbian Heights area was advertised in the 16 December 1902 Washington Post as “High, Healthy, convenient....location free of Malaria.” Built in 1873-1874 on what is today Meridian Hill Park, the American Baptist Home Missionary Society was an institution established to train black clergy and teachers. It remained in existence until 1900, when it moved to Virginia, and the buildings were razed by Mrs. John Henderson during her campaign to make 16th Street surrounding her mansion, known as Henderson Castle, home to numerous Congressmen, foreign Embassies, and even one at #2437 15th Street in which she offered to the Vice President. She accomplished much of this vision by commissioning architect George O. Totten, Jr. to design more than a dozen lavish mansions in which she rented to prestigious families and foreign governments.
In the 1880s, Washington experienced a burst of peacetime urban growth fueled by the vast post-Civil War expansion of the federal government. After a period of uncertainty about the location of the new federal government, workers began to purchase their homes instead of rent them as previously preferred. Although the entire area surrounding what is now Belmont Street was plotted by 1887, the pace of new house construction remained slow, due to competition among other areas within the City, such as LeDroit Park, Capitol Hill, and even Dupont Circle. Sherman’s subdivision had only 25 houses erected on it by 1885.
Sherman, however, utilized legal restrictive covenants on each parcel to control the development and encourage a cohesive uniform look to the emerging neighborhood. One of the convenants on Clifton Street required a set back of thirty feet from the street, to be used to “parking” and landscaping, which resulted in the tall three story townhomes still in existence today. He also prohibited the erection of commercial buildings and the sale of alcoholic beverages or the operation of manufacturing or commercial business districts within his planned community. After the installation of sewers, watermains, streets, and street railway terminals in the 1890s, this section of Columbia Heights developed rapidly.
Combined with Sherman and his real estate agents to attract prominent residents to the area, the covenants and easy access resulted in a highly desired neighborhood that attracted upper level managers of the Federal government, U.S. Supreme Court justices, and high-ranking military officers. Barber’s mansion “Belmont” marked the imposing entrance to the neighborhood, and was emblematic of the confidence that the affluent placed in the concept that Columbia Heights represented the ideal suburb.
This perception of the suburb as an emerging elite enclave led to the Columbia Heights Citizens Association to pass a resolution in 1897 to encourage the government to purchase a site between Florida Avenue and Clifton Street for a new Executive Mansion. In 1904, the group published an illustrated brochure entitled A Statement of Some of the Advantages of Beautiful Columbia Heights as a Residential Section Populated by Public and Spirited Citizens. It revealed that the residents were “ever alive to the mental, moral, and spiritual advancements of their homes surroundings,” and beckoned “homeseekers of the desired class” to buy property on the hill.
The neighborhood organization sponsored competitions for landscaping house lots and offered prizes to the best kept lawn and garden, at the same time fought the erection of street poles and overhead telegraph and telephone lines. By 1914, four street car lines served the section providing transportation to downtown Washington in twenty minutes. The popularity of the neighborhood resulted in the construction of several large apartment buildings during the beginning of the twentieth century that changed the suburban development of the area into a more urban and densely populated district.
The Columbia Heights Citizens Association formed a special committee to save the threatened “Belmont” mansion that had been purchased from the Barber family in 1913 by prolific Washington developer Harry Wardman. He had made his fortune building and selling 300 Colonial Revival homes in the Holmead Manor subdivision between 1909 and 1911. The community organization attempted to raise funds to buy the mansion, and thus save their well known landmark and neighborhood identifier. Its location in the center of 10 acres in the neighborhood helped to demarcate the area as an affluent suburb. Wardman himself pledged $1,000 to the fund-raisers, but the plan failed, and by 1914 the large great oaks on the property were removed, and the house demolished. Construction began later that year for Wardman Court, a million dollar apartment house project, today infamously known as Clifton Terrace.
Built in 1919 on the southern end of Sherman’s subdivision which had been a planned apple orchard, the Central High School building also demarcated the emerging densely populated neighborhood.
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