On the day they moved into their house, the previous occupant gave Taylor a magazine, an artifact belonging to the house, which the occupant before that had, in turn, passed on to her. It’s the spring issue of “House and Home” from 1963, featuring a three-page spread on River Park, a new D.C. development. “Fresh shapes create a whole new atmosphere!” the headline reads.
One of the photographs shows Taylor’s house, or she thinks it does. It’s hard to tell because the barrel-roof townhouses of River Park all look exactly like one another and nothing like anything else in the city.
“I just thought they were fabulous,” Taylor says. She is in her 90s now. “It’s the new thing.”
She corrects herself: “At the time it was the new thing — not anymore.”
New things become old, and sometimes they become new again if they’re preserved the right way and the right planets are aligned in nostalgic retrograde.
River Park turns 50 this year. Its 518 units — 384 of which are condominiums and 134 of which are townhouses, including 80 barrel roofs — form a quiet concrete courtyard behind the gates of Fourth Street SW. Half a century ago, the city was trying to revitalize the Southwest Waterfront, and part of the solution was River Park. It worked and it didn’t; things changed and they didn’t. The future never quite happened and is already past.
Layers of history
In Southwest D.C., history is layered upon itself. It can be measured architecturally — waterfront shanties becoming tall, concrete high-rises, each construction representing another period in the quadrant’s history. It was settled by Europeans in the 17th century and rose to a commercial center in the 19th. But as ports became less vital, the area flagged. By the 1950s, the (mostly white) wealthier residents had fled to the cooler, less buggy Northwest. Southwest had grown crowded with alley shacks and was viewed as a visual and economic disaster. A Redevelopment Land Agency survey in 1951 subjectively declared that only 4 percent of the residential buildings were in “good” condition; the others were “obsolete” or “blighted.”
City and federal officials argued that a neighborhood abutting the Capitol should reflect the prestige of the Capitol. In the spring of 1954, they set about tearing down 4,800 buildings, displacing 23,000 residents and enraging as many or more.