Architect of the Everyday

(By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)
Sunday, November 6, 2005

This is Washington's year for builders. Harry Wardman, who developed 3,000 residential buildings during the early 20th century, was the subject of an exhibit last month at the John A. Wilson Building, now moved to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Also last month, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams unveiled an Eastern Market commemorative plaque to Adolf Cluss, architect of the post-Civil War, red-brick "New Washington."

But another designer of Washington also should be receiving plaudits: Snowden Ashford. Unlike Cluss and Wardman, Ashford (1866-1927) was a D.C. native. He studied engineering in college, then worked as a draftsman for Treasury architect A.B. Mullett. Ashford also worked for John L. Smithmeyer, architect of the Library of Congress, but by 1892 he was a practicing architect himself. He organized the Washington Architectural Club, which campaigned to revisit L'Enfant's neglected plan for the federal city.

In 1895 Ashford became assistant inspector of buildings in the District, and in 1906, he was promoted to inspector. In addition to inspecting building sites, Ashford designed firehouses and police stations. He updated structures too; for instance, he adapted the Tenleytown firehouse for motorized vehicles.

Ashford designed or supervised everything the District built between 1895 and 1921, including the North Hall at the Eastern Market. But he was most proud of his schools.

By 1912 Ashford claimed more experience with schoolhouse work than any other architect in the country. He didn't just build schools; he maintained them, inspecting half the city's inventory each year, with major repairs made each summer. No city school fell into disrepair on his watch.

Like his mentor, Cluss, Ashford designed well-lighted, well-ventilated and fire-safe schools that embodied the dignity of education. In an era of racial segregation, neither he nor Cluss discriminated architecturally -- Washington's black schools were separate but truly equal to their white counterparts.

At a Sept. 29 meeting of the D.C. Council, residents protested the privatization of surplus school buildings, including Crummel (1912) and Congress Heights (1897; 1913). Loyal alumni champion the preservation of Military Road School (1911). All these schools were designed and maintained by Ashford.

As the city grew to the north and east, Ashford's municipal buildings became public bookends supporting the residential rows of Wardman's new neighborhoods.

He resigned from his inspector's position in 1921, tired of the hassles and the poor pay, although he went on to design the imposing Eastern High School in 1923.

Ashford's buildings don't make the guidebooks. They're for residents, not tourists, and they are woven into the fabric of the city. But keep an eye out for them. It's a good bet that one is located near you.

-- S. J. Ackerman

© 2005 The Washington Post Company