Where We Live: Historic Hyattsville sees a retail rebirth


Mike Franklin, chatting with longtime employee  Leni Lewis, opened Franklin’s Restaurant, Brewery and General Store in 1992. The store is housed in a historic hardware store in Hyattsville. (Amy Reinink/For the Washington Post)
November 29, 2011

With shelves of craft beer sitting a few yards away from bins of rubber chickens, and with a high-quality restaurant and brewery sharing space with gag gifts such as bacon-flavored gum, Franklin’s Restaurant, Brewery and General Store is a study in eclectic style.

Franklin’s, occupying an 1880s-era structure that once was a hardware store, is the brainchild of Mike Franklin, who bought the building in the early 1990s to preserve a piece of Hyattsville history. Franklin still uses its original sliding ladders and metal nail bins, among other features.

Many residents of Hyattsville’s historic district say Franklin’s exemplifies their community’s quirky, historic character. They credit the store with starting a wave of redevelopment along Route 1, which now boasts restaurants and stores such as Busboys and Poets, Tara Thai and Yes! Organic Market. Franklin’s neighbors include Arrow Bicycle and A Tangled Skein, a knitting store housed in a historic bank building.

“It always delights me to notice that our customers are black and white and old and young and just all over the place socially and economically,” said Franklin, 54, who moved to the community 23 years ago. He’s now the chairman of Hyattsville’s Community Development Corporation and has served as president of the Hyattsville Preservation Association. “You don’t come to this place, or Hyattsville in general, to see one kind of person.”

Hyattsville was developed around the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the Washington and Baltimore Turnpike (now Route 1) and the Anacostia River in the mid-1800s and incorporated in 1886, according to the Hyattsville Preservation Association, a group that aims to preserve and raise awareness of the city’s history. The city continued developing along a streetcar line into the District built in the late 1800s, according to the association.

In 1982, a large swath of the city was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2004 the historic district was expanded to include a total of 1,000 buildings covering slightly less than half a square mile.

The Victorians, Colonial Revivals, bungalows and Craftsman-style houses that make up the historic district in Prince George’s County are often priced drastically lower than similar houses in Montgomery County, residents said.

“When we were looking for houses 23 years ago, we were intrigued by older, funky homes, but we found that we were going to pay significantly more for less house in Takoma Park and Silver Spring,” said Debbie Franklin, 55, a math instructor at the University of Maryland and Mike Franklin’s wife. “That’s still the case. Where else in the Washington area can you find a beautiful Victorian home for the price you can find it here?”

Many of those houses have recently been renovated by new owners after years of neglect, said Stuart Eisenberg, executive director of the Community Development Corporation, treasurer of the preservation group and a former Hyattsville City Council president.

“Older Victorians are very expensive to maintain, and at a certain point, the heating and electrical systems need complete overhauls,” said Eisenberg, 48, who said he moved to historic Hyattsville 19 years ago because he was renting a place in Takoma Park and couldn’t afford to buy there. “Rather than redo the whole system, many homeowners move out and convert the homes into boardinghouses.”

Eisenberg said that was the case in Hyattsville a few decades ago, until the late 1990s and early 2000s brought “a new wave of activism, with an increased awareness of Hyattsville’s sense of place and its value in the region.

“That’s led to a whole new phase of capital investment, with a focus on rebuilding the city, preserving the tree canopy and revitalizing the business district,” Eisenberg said.

Gloria Felix-Thompson, 65, the president of the preservation association, said the affordability of Hyattsville’s historic houses makes the community a haven for artists, among them painter and art scholar David C. Driskell, a recognized expert on African American art.

“We have an amazing amount of talent in this town,” said Felix-Thompson, who has lived in the historic district since 1976.

She said downsides to living there are few and relate mostly to the cost and trouble of maintaining older houses.

“You have to be really crazy to have a house like this,” said Felix-Thompson, whose home is similar to a Southern Colonial, built in the late 1800s or early 1900s. “You cannot buy anything ready-made. Everything is twice as expensive, insanely expensive. It’s nuts.”

For example, she said, she paid $900 for a custom-made door for Yoga Space, the yoga studio she operates in another historic Hyattsville building.

But the beauty and character of the historic houses offset the cost, she said, and the spring Historic Hyattsville House Tour, in its 33rd year in 2012, is the most prominent and best-attended event in the community.

Ann Barrett, 45, an agent with Long & Foster Real Estate and a member of the preservation group’s board, said the neighborhood’s beauty extends beyond the ­houses themselves.

“There are these beautiful, tree-lined streets and classic rectangular lots with large back yards,” said Barrett, who lives in a 1933 Colonial Revival house on Crittenden Street. “And there’s a great hometown feel. It’s the kind of place where the police chief knows everybody.”

Some residents said they’re happy the city has seen an influx of new restaurants and shops along Route 1 over the past few years, but they added that retail is still lacking.

“Obviously, we don’t have the retail some other neighborhoods have, and we probably never will,” Mike Franklin said. “But our shopping pilgrimages are getting shorter as new stores move in.”

Franklin said many residents can satisfy all their shopping needs at Prince George’s Plaza or at nearby grocery stores such as Yes! or Safeway. But he said residents looking for upscale retail head to Montgomery County or Annapolis, or drive about 15 minutes to shop at Wegmans in Lanham.

Franklin and other residents also said it’s easy to travel to a variety of destinations, including the University of Maryland and, via the West Hyattsville Metro station, downtown Washington.

“We wanted to be inside the Beltway when we first started looking for a house,” Debbie Franklin said. “We found this was a good location for getting on 50 and I-95 and was really convenient for a lot of locations. It’s tough to walk to the Metro, but it’s an easy drive there. When our girls were young, their idea of going to the mall was getting on the Metro to go to D.C. to go to the [national] Mall. That’s pretty cool.”

Amy Reinink is a freelance writer.

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