The Joint Committee on Landmarks voted last week to create a new historic district in a Northwest neighborhood between Florida and New Hampshire avenues that was once a choice community for middle-class black families.
The new Striver's Section historic district is generally bounded by 19th Street on the west, 16th Street on the east, T Street on the south and Florida Avenue on the north.
The historic designation was the joint committee's first action on a year-old application filed by four Dupont Circle groups that called for doubling the size of the existing Dupont Circle historic district, primarily by extending it east from 17th Street to 14th Street.
Instead of expanding the Dupont Circle district, the committee created a new district in that area. The name, Striver's Section, recognizes the upwardly mobile black professionals who made their homes there 50 years ago.
In addition, the committee decided to wait until later this month to rule on the most controversial aspect of the application, which calls for including the blocks between 16th and 14th streets and Florida and Rhode Island avenues in the Dupont Circle historic district.
Historic districts protect neighborhoods from new developments that do not conform to the prevailing architecture in those areas. The joint committee, which oversees the city's historic buildings and neighborhoods, must approve even the smallest proposed changes in historic districts.
Some black community groups support the proposed expansion east of 16th Street, saying it would protect their Victorian-style houses, but other groups oppose the expansion, calling it an attempt by primarily white upper-middle-class preservationists to extend their turf into a black neighborhood with little historical connection to Dupont Circle.
The applicants, representatives of the Dupont Circle Conservancy and the Dupont Circle Citizens Association, supported the committee's decision to create a new district. "Something is better than nothing," said Charles Robertson, the president of the conservancy.
Some opponents of the expansion said they would have no comment until the committee acts on the remaining portion of the application. "Several serious issues were raised about the disputed area ," said D.C. school board member Edna Frazier-Cromwell, who also is chairman of the 14th & U Street Coalition, one of the groups opposing the historic district expansion. "When there's no comment at all, it makes you wonder what they plan to do."
Frazier-Cromwell said the Shaw community groups oppose the Dupont Circle application because they want their own separate historic district for the Shaw area.
Calling the new district "a special enclave of black leaders," the joint committee said the area has been associated with the upper crust of Washington's black community since it was first developed in the 1870s. Frederick Douglass, the noted 19th-century civil rights leader, is believed to have built three houses at 2000, 2002 and 2004 17th St. in 1875, and owned number 2000 and 2004 until he died in 1895, according to documents filed with the committee. His son, Lewis H. Douglass, lived at 2002 17th St. until 1908.
Other prominent blacks who lived in the neighborhood included James E. Storum, founder of the Capital Savings Bank, the first black-owned and operated bank in the city; Calvin Brent, a 19th century black architect who designed St. Luke's Episcopal Church at 15th and Church streets NW; and James C. Dancy, the D.C. recorder of deeds from 1904 to 1910, according to the documents.
In the 20th century, the area was a prestigious address for black doctors, dentists and educators, some of whom had moved there from Le Droit Park, a community at the foot of Howard University that was the first black middle-class neighborhood.
Other upwardly mobile black families came there from Georgetown, then a partly run-down neighborhood where many blacks lived in small houses that faced the streets or were located in narrow alleys while others lived in small frame houses built along the canal.
"If you moved into that block the 1700 block of U Street NW , you were really supposed to have arrived," said Gladys Scott Roberts, former president of the Midway Civic Association, one of the oldest black civic associations in the city. "They didn't take just anybody. Those were people of high achievement."
Dr. William (Stud) Green, 82, who has lived in the 1700 block of T Street since 1927, recalled some of the well-known residents of the block, including Dr. A.M. Curtis, a surgeon at Freedmen's Hospital and his son, Dr. Merrill Curtis, an ophthamologist; Dr. Ira Frank Jones, a urologist who owned an apartment building at 1721 T St.; and Doc Perry, the leader of Dr. Perry's society orchestra.
Green noted three apartment buildings at 1717, 1721 and 1725 T St. were among the first multifamily buildings owned by blacks. "There was quite a nice set of people living around here in the '20s", he said.
Eunice Thompson-Shepherd, who has taught piano to several generations of successful black professionals from her music studio at 1763 U St. NW, recalled that homeowners and their neighbors were "selective" when selling their homes. "They would look around and see if they wanted you on the block or not," she said.
When Thompson-Shepherd graduated from Oberlin University and returned to Washington, she entered a small elite society carefully isolated from the harsh segregated city that surrounded it. Here the wives of the doctors and lawyers living along U Street gathered in the afternoons to play bridge. Young men and women came calling at the music studio to eat finger sandwiches and drink punch while others learned tennis and studied the classics.
"The people around this way were refined. They weren't like the people around here now," she said.
After a 1948 Supreme Court decision striking down racial covenants that had kept blacks and Jews out of most of Washington's nicer neighborhoods, the area around U Street declined as these black professional families moved north on 16th Street to the quiet suburban-like Gold Coast, the neighborhood west of 16th Street between Upshur Street and Colorado Avenue.
While some older families stayed behind, increasingly the large Victorian houses that dot these blocks were converted into rooming and boarding houses or apartment buildings.
In recent years, however, whites have moved into the neighborhood, restoring many of the distinctive houses to their former elegance. Green estimated whites now outnumber blacks on his block, the 1900 block of 17th Street.
In addition to the new historic district, the joint committee added several scattered blocks and sections to the existing Dupont Circle historic area. These include the 1300 block of 22nd Street NW and the 2100 blocks of O and N streets and Newport Place. The committee also added the 1600 blocks of R and S streets and Riggs Place and 1631 through 1741 17th St.
The joint committee's actions now go to Carol Thompson, the city's historic preservation officer, who is head of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Thompson must decide if the areas will be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places.