As far back as Thurlow Tibbs Jr. can remember, his home has been crowded with faces others knew only in books and newspapers. He is the fourth generation of his family to live in the cream colored brick house in Northwest that has been a gathering place for the black elite for more than 80 years.
At the turn of the century, black leaders as philosophically diverse as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois visited Tibbs' great-grandfather. During the 1930s and 1940s, his grandmother, a nationally recognized opera singer, turned their home into a salon. Author Langston Hughes would drop by, as would dancer Bill (Bojangles) Robinson and poet Georgia Douglas Johnson.
Four years ago, Tibbs and his father applied to have the house at 1910 Vermont Ave. NW designated a historic landmark because of the home's renown as a meeting place for the black elite. They thought the process might take a year. Thurlow Tibbs Sr. died on Oct. 20, 1984, and his son is still waiting for the city to make the designation.
The city's Historic Preservation Review Board held a public hearing on the application Jan. 9 and indicated that it would support the designation. Tibbs was told that the formal decision would be made at the board's Feb. 28 meeting. However, because of the resignation of the director of the Historic Preservation Division a week before the meeting, the application was delayed again. Tibbs was never officially informed.
"I think it's the circumstance of a lot of things happening, and I'm just caught in the middle," said Tibbs, 32. "During the time we've had our application with them, not only did the directorship change two years ago, but the board, which is appointed by the mayor, has also been dissolved and reconstituted."
Hampton Cross, an acting administrator with the city's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which includes the Historic Preservation Division, said the application had been delayed two years ago because more information was needed, not because of administrative problems.
"We expect the board to consider the matter during its March meeting," Cross said. "This is not something we've been sitting on."
Tibbs' great-grandfather, Dr. Wilson Bruce Evans, bought the residence in 1904 when nearby U Street was then becoming a center for black culture and commerce. Born in Oberlin, Ohio, Evans graduated from Howard Medical School's class of 1891, became a recognized educator and was the organizer and first principal of Armstrong Manual Training School in the District.
Evans raised his children in a whirl of intellectual and cultural activity that would intensify by the time his daughter, Lillian, had children of her own.
An accomplished lyric soprano, she was better known to the public as Madam Lillian Evanti, and she was the first American black woman to sing opera professionally. She was also chosen as a national cultural ambassador to Latin America during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, and helped found the National Negro Opera Company in 1941. Her portrait is on permanent display in the Hall of Notable Americans at the National Portrait Gallery, and a 45-minute documentary on her life is being made.
"When she first decided to pursue a professional opera career," said her grandson, "she had to sail for Europe in 1924 in order to ensure any chance of success. She was one of the black people to go abroad in the '20s as a result of cultural biases, but she always came back."
Evanti had the home remodeled extensively in 1933 in a neoclassical motif -- the interior embellished with columns, trimmed with delicate molding, and aglow with soft yellow light from the windows.
Today, though the grandeur of U Street has faded, the Evans-Tibbs home remains a bastion of culture and achievement. It houses one of the most complete collections of Afro-American art in the country, and it is open to the public.
"It has always been very important to my family to remain in this neighborhood," said Tibbs, who lives there. "They were people with a certain social advantage in the black community, but when it came to the crunch, they never forgot where home base was. There was a sense of a need to contribute."
It has been his hope that District and federal recognition of 1910 Vermont Ave. will not only illuminate the achievements of a nationally prominent family, but also help rekindle the spirit of pride that once distinguished the area. "This house can serve both a symbolic and a functional purpose," Tibbs said. "Yes, I'm a little discouraged at this point, but I'm willing to wait."