Go to Main District of Columbia Page

Suburban Charms
Belie City Setting

By Michele L. Norris
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 21, 1992

Elizabeth and Richard Banks recall being somewhat awestruck when they first visited the Crestwood community to celebrate their friends' 25th wedding anniversary. The Bankses headed up the well-traveled 16th Street corridor from the heart of the city, turned left onto Upshur Avenue NW and entered a world of wooded groves, stately homes and rural serenity that the two native Washingtonians never imagined could exist less than 15 minutes from downtown.

"Suddenly it seemed like were way out in the suburbs somewhere," said Elizabeth, a retired federal government employee who has been corresponding secretary for one of the neighborhood's two citizens' association for more than 20 years. "There was no traffic, no city noise, just the voices of small children playing in their yards, and the houses were so beautiful and large, I thought this is the ideal place to raise children."

The Bankses returned to Crestwood to do just that, buying a roomy brick home in 1960 that featured porches on the first and second levels and a large lot on which their son and daughter could play. "I knew when we came here that this was a place that were going to stay for a long, long time." Richard said.

Bounded by Colorado Avenue to the north, 16th Street to the east, Randolph Street to the south and Rock Creek Park on the west side, the area that is commonly known as Crestwood actually began as two separate communities. The area's northeast portion, once loosely associated with the 16th Street Heights community, was developed beginning in the 1920s as a sylvan alternative to hustle and bustle of urban life. Nestled in an arc north of Rock Creek Parkway, the community of large, custom-built homes attracted a mixture of wealthy and working-class Jewish and Catholic residents in its early years.

Beginning in the 1940s the primary nesting ground for Washington's black elite began to shift from LeDroit Park to the upper 16th Street corridor, earning the strip its title as Washington's "Gold Coast."

Meanwhile, a separate development of homes was underway to the southwest where builder Paul P. Stone was constructing a community of spacious detached brick homes on 187 lots that Stone called the "Crestwood Community."

A former stonemason, Stone sought to create a tony suburban community close to the city with elegant homes that often featured expansive entrance foyers, maids' quarters, first-floor libraries, screened-in porches, and Easter egg-colored tiled bathrooms. Buyers can often identify homes built by Stone through the basement shower stalls that usually feature a surplus of tiles in several shapes and colors that form a kind of funky mosaic.

Stone also meant for his community to be exclusive and included restrictive covenants in the deeds that barred Jews and blacks from buying in his Crestwood subdivision, said John Eason, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the area who owns a home in the Crestwood subdivision and has researched the neighborhood's history. Such covenants were eventually struck down by the courts and the subdivision took on a greater ethnic mix.

Over time, the community inside Colorado and 16th colloquially became known as Crestwood. Residents today are proud of their neighborhood's ethnic and socioeconomic mix and many said they were drawn to the area by both its diversity and proximity to downtown Washington.

"I moved here because I wanted a good mix of neighbors," said Lenda Washington, a stock broker who brought a home at 17th and Allison streets 10 years ago and recently moved to a larger home around the corner. "There are very, very wealthy people in the neighborhood and some who are just regular old middle class folks and I like that. I want my son to grow up around all kinds of people and that is what we have found here."

The stately Colonial, Tudor, and Beaux Arts style homes that have graced Crestwood's sloping streets over the years have been home to many of Washington's empire builders, including Phil Lustine, whose family founded a string of successful automotive dealerships, N.M. Cohen of Giant Food Inc., George Beverly of the Beverly Ice Co., the Wellington family that founded a chain of jewelry stores that bears its name, Malcolm Gibbs, who founded People's Drug Stores and Clark Griffith, who owned the Washington Senators baseball franchise.

The more than 1,000 residents who call Crestwood home now include FBI Director William Sessions, Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), Georgetown University basketball coach John Thompson, D.C. Council member Linda Cropp, former D.C. police chief Maurice Turner and professional golfer Lee Elder, along with large concentrations of judges, physicians, architects, journalists, college professors and lawyers.

The number of attorneys who live in Crestwood is so large that the neighborhood is featured in a number of jokes that poke fun at the legal profession. One such wisecrack suggests that anyone wishing to carry out William Shakespeare's suggestion to "first, kill all the lawyers" should visit K Street by day and Crestwood by night.

Crestwood's most prominent resident today is Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) and his wife, Sharon, who live in a sprawling 22-acre estate tucked away in a southern corner of Crestwood near Rock Creek Park. Rockefeller paid $6.6 million for the estate in 1985 in a highly publicized transaction that helped boost Crestwood's stature and home values.

The Rockefeller purchase and the go-go real estate market of the past decade caused home values throughout most of Crestwood to double from 1980 to 1989, according to home sale records. In recent years the average rate of appreciation has slowed, ranging from 6 percent to 10 percent, according to real estate agents who specialize in Crestwood and the 16th Street corridor.

Today homes in Crestwood sell for $200,000 to $750,000.

While residents welcome the rise in their home values, some worry that over time it will erode the neighborhood's socioeconomic diversity by making it difficult for working-class families to muster the massive down payments required for pricey homes. Crestwood recently was listed as one of the Washington region's best-kept secrets by Washingtonian magazine because its homes, while costly, are priced well below similar homes in neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park, such as Forest Hills, Woodley Park, Burleith and Chevy Chase. One factor that accounts for the price differential is the cluster of acclaimed public magnet schools that serve those neighborhoods, such as Lafayette Elementary, Deale Junior High School and Wilson Senior High.

Most parents in Crestwood do not send their children to the neighborhood public schools, which include West Elementary and Roosevelt High School. Instead, most choose private schools or public schools west of Rock Creek Park.

Crestwood is a neighborhood known for its civic activism. When the Washington Tennis Foundation built its tennis stadium at 16th Street and Colorado Avenue, residents of the neighboring Crestwood community held their breath and hoped that the traffic during the twice-yearly tournaments would not impose on the serenity of their enclave just west of Rock Creek Park.

But when the Tennis Foundation asked the National Park Service to approve a plan to expand the schedule of events to include boxing matches and two-ring circuses, the Crestwood community collectively cried foul and waged a battle that is still being fought to restrict the stadium's schedule to two tournaments per year.

Crestwood residents do not suffer intrusion easily and fight hard to protect the peace and quiet in their neighborhood. In the 1960s, residents hounded D.C. officials about zoning violations at a service station on 16th Street until the station finally shut down and sold most of the property to a Greek Orthodox church. Likewise, Crestwood residents successfully fought a church's plans to convert a neighborhood estate into a nursing home in the 1980s.

The residents don't win all their battles. The Crestwood Civic Association, which was formed to represent the exclusive Crestwood subdivision, tried in vain to prevent builder Harry Poretsky from building a large apartment house at 16th and Shepherd streets.

© Copyright The Washington Post

Back to the top