For two years, residents of the District's historic LeDroit Park have campaigned to restore the circle at the corner of Third and T streets NW to its original park-like state. This Saturday afternoon, their efforts will be realized when the circle officially is closed to traffic and dedicated by Mayor Marion Barry as the Anna J. Cooper Memorial Circle.
Cooper, one of the nation's foremost black suffragettes, once lived in a house less than a block from the circle, in the center of LeDroit Park. Her descendants still live in the neighborhood, designated historic in 1973 by the Joint Commission on Landmarks and known nationally for the last century as one of the few exclusive addresses for blacks.
Situated below Howard University near the corner of Rhode Island and Florida avenues, the neighborhood, established in 1873, occupies less than a square mile. It is a quiet enclave of large houses, narrow streets, wildflowers and attractive plantings--a contrast to the bustle of nearby Florida Avenue. The neighborhood's residents are a cohesive community; many of them are middle-aged or elderly and have lived there for decades. Among the neighborhood's residents is Walter Washington, the District's first mayor.
Theresa Brown, a LeDroit Park resident for 24 years and a third-term ANC commissioner from 1B-07, spearheaded efforts to close the circle as president of the LeDroit Park Preservation Society. The society, founded in 1975, asked the city four years ago to determine if the community wanted to return the circle to its original closed form.
Five hundred residents were invited to participate in the study, which found that residents wanted to close the circle.
Brown said residents want it closed because buses "are always doing 99 mph . They speed through the circle and don't stop until they hit Rhode Island Avenue. The buses scream through here, and if you are standing here at the bus stop on the circle , you don't get on."
As designed by the D.C. Department of Transportation's landscape architect, Bernard Grace, the two halves of the circle will be filled in with ground cover and bushes. In a spring questionnaire by the historical society, residents indicated overwhelmingly that they opposed benches in the park because of fears they would attract transients.
Bart Sima, chief of the Department of Transportation's small neighborhood branch, has worked with Brown on the project for nine months. He estimates work on the park will cost $90,000 and expects the "park will be in bloom in the spring." The park is one of the few in the District not maintained by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
In appearance, the neighborhood has changed little since its earlier days. Large wood-framed houses line the streets, some with wooden porches and pillars and many with their original slate roofs.
In the 1870s, architect James McGill designed 64 of the area's ornate homes built for a white clientele. About 30 of them remain, scattered among newer wood-framed homes. An example of McGill's work is the house on the northeastern corner of Third and T streets that he built for Arthur A. Birney, a Civil War general, and Birney's son.
Octavius Williams was the first black to move into the area when he bought a house in 1893 at 338 Spruce St., now U Street. At that time, a fence separated the LeDroit Park neighborhood from shantytowns that developed around it after the Civil War. That fence, made of wood and iron and said to have run along Florida Avenue between Second and Eighth streets, was permanently removed in 1900. By World War I, the neighborhood was almost entirely black.
Howard University owns many of the houses in the area, including boarded-up Slowe Hall on the border of the neighborhood. Brown said the former dorm again will house students after repairs now under way are finished. Another house, operated as a boys' home, is owned by the Catholic Charities.
Unlike residents of mostly rehabilitated areas of the District, such as Capitol Hill, very few LeDroit Park residents patrol the area to ensure that renovations are architecturally consistent with the old homes.
On a recent walking tour of the neighborhood, Brown pointed to some of the area's changes. "The traffic from Seventh and T streets throw their bottles," she said, looking down at trash in the street, "and we don't want their dirt."
The homes on U Street, between Fourth and Fifth streets, are originals, but bars have been added to some windows, a sign of the neighborhood's proximity to the high-crime strip along Rhode Island Avenue. The bars are "standard equipment on a house, not pretty, not historic, but necessary," Brown said.