It is 1929, a Friday night in summer, and from the brick LeDroit Park house at 1904 Third St. NW the glow of porch lights throws long shadows under the oak trees. Inside the reception room Geraldine Marie Mosley steps stiffly through the foxtrot, petticoats rustling under her organdy dress. She is 12 years old and the great-granddaughter of a slave. "Head up, Geraldine," says Mrs. Mosely. "Don't look down at your feet, Glide."
It is May 1940, and in the Piper house at 333 U St. NW the air still smells of smoke and kerosene. A fire has gutted the rooming house next door, a fire that started when quarreling poker players, kicked over the oil stove. Mary Piper stands in her living room and remembers when 331 U St. was not a rooming house but a respectable LeDroit Park family house. "Gambling," she whispers, disgusted. "The whole neighborhood is going to the dogs."
It is December, 1976, and in the 500 block of T St. NW a great brick LeDroit Park mansion stands imbedded in a carpet of broken glass. Gray boards cover the windows. Pigeons roost on the iron filigreed turret, and in back, where a stable once housed carriage horses, a dead cat lies in the weeds. The owner lives outside LeDroit Park and says the house has been empty for several years. He is trying to sell it. "It's been vandalized so bad that when you go in there's nothing to see," the owner says.
A hundred years ago, a Howard University trustee named Amzi Barber bought some university-owned land, built fifty spectacular brick homes on it, and named the place after LeDroit Langdon, his father-in-law. It was only eight blocks square, but for the city of Washington and later for a network of black professionals nationwide, LeDroit Park became history.
At its heights the park, like the campus it bordered, drew a wealth of black leaders from all over the country. And like Howard it faded, too, as housing and colleges opened elsewhere to blacks.
LeDroit Park is two worlds now, where decaying rowhouses about beautifully preserved Victorian mansions. Mayor Walter E. Washington lives in the park, next door to an abandoned brick shell.
A classic university-homeowners conflict has developed there, as Howard tries to expand onto LeDroit Park land. Renovators and young families have begun to move into the hundred-year-old streets, and as the neighborhood slowly changes, a group of local residents are trying to restore LeDroit Park to the elegance it once enjoyed.
"To First Class Parties Only," Barber trumpted in an 1877 advertising booklet, "The LeDroit Park Building Company have Several New Houses . . built of brick, in the most substantial manner . . . supplied with gas, water and sewerage, Latrobe stoves, marble mantles, bells, etc., etc." They were elaborate homes with turrets and conservatories, piazzas and bay windows. They sold for $3,000 to $12,000.
Barber bought hedges and tall trees for his park, and named the streets after the foliage: Juniper, Linden, Maple. He had the sidewalks inlaid with brick. He ordered chrysanthemums and roses planted in wild profusion, and designed the front lawns to run together, "affording a continuous green sward," as his advertisement said.
And all around the park Barber erected a wood and wrought iron fence. He was a white man, and, although the nation's first university for freed slaves stood next door, only whites were permitted to buy within the boudaries of the LeDroit Park fence.
Some who live there now say that every evening a bell rang out in the park, signalling the departure time for servants. Then the fence that separated LeDroit Park from what early newspaper accounts called "Howardtown" was pulled shut and locked.
From the outside the fense was an indignity, according to those stories, both to Howard students and to frustrated developers who owned surrounding land. On a July afternoon in 1888, a small crowd descended on an all-wood section of the fence and rupped it down.
The LeDroit Park residents instantly put up another one, this time made of barbed wire. "Three colored men who worked for residents in the sacred inclosure were at once pressed into service," wrote a Washington Post reporter on Aug. 4, 1888. "The cruel barbs tore the laborers' clothes and scratches their hands, but their petty troubles went unheeded."
The new fence lasted two years, and then it too was dismantled by outsiders. It stayed down, and in 1893 a new resident quietly moved into the neighborhood that no longer locked itself in a night. His name was Octavius Williams, and he worked as a barber at the Capitol. When he bought the house at 338 Spruce St. - now U St. NW - he was by most accounts, the first back homeowner in LeDroit Park.
In stiffly segregated turn-of-the-century Washington, that was a signal for a change. Slowly, professional blacks began inquiring about houses in the elegant little park. Sometimes they boutht little outright; sometimes they bought through whites who then gave them the mortgages.
One older LeDroit Park resident remembers buying his house from an eccentric old widower who said, before he agreed to sell, "Well, I like you. You have nice feet. You have feet like a Caucasian."
The new residents were teachers, doctors, writers of books. They were civic leaders, scientists, and career Army officers, and their achievements read like a roster of firsts: Maary Church Terrell, women's appointed to the Board of Education, and her husband Judge Robert H. Terrell, first black Municipal Court judge. General Benjamin D. Davis, first black Army general, Major Christian A. Fleetwood, back Civi War hero and Medal of Honor soldier, and his wife, Sara, first black superintendent of nurses at Freedmen's Hospital. Oscar DePriest, first black congressman since the decline of the Reconstruction era.
For thirty years, LeDroit Park flourished, an extraordinary cloister of black professionals. From Howard University came scholars, drawn by what was then the most prestigious school in the country for blacks; as students they rented rooms in family homes, and as professors they bought homes of their own.
From the Howard Theatre, a 7th and T Streets NW, came actors and entertainers - Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald - the stars banned from some segregated white theaters, who worked instead New York's apollo, Philadelphia's Pear, Baltimore's Uptown, and Washington's Howard.
There were matinees at th Howard, and the route to the theater would past sweets shops, as one LeDroit Park woman recalls it now: to the grocery for fragrant bags of peanut blocks, molasses candy, licorice, and jawbreaders; to German bakery for 5c sacks of the crumbs and odd pastry chunks they called "scrap cake;" to the peanut store at 7th and Florida Avenue for fistfuls of toasted nuts to devour at the Howard until the balcony was slippery with shells.
After church on Sundays there was dinner at Harrison's, the big meat-and-potatoes restaurant at 457 Florida Ave., where Lindsay's Catering Service stands now.
Families in the stiff clothes of Sunday passed up the noisy college crowd at the first floor bar and went upstairs, up to the linen tablecloths and heavy silver and thick china plates, to the $2.00 calves' liver and giblet stew dinners that began with Harrison's hot rolls and ended with homemade ice cream.
The trees in the park grew tall and arched over the streets - broad oaks, maples, elms. In summer the flower gardens blossomed out and the Rhode Island Avenue Elks Lodge assembled Sunday band concerts on the front lawn. The women wore long dresses to these concert, and hats. The Elks wore scarlet tunics with gold shoulder braids, and as the music started up girls like Geraldine Marie Mosely sat on wooden folding chairs and tried to remember that ladies do not cross their legs at the knee.
"Lord, that was the prettiest place," an older Geraldine Mosely recalled the other day, hands clasped over a photograph album. Her name is Mrs. Geraldine Johnson now. "I never wanted to leave."
It was far Northeast Washington, some say, the first drew the park's homeowners away when housing segregation began to crumble. Then if was other parts of Northeast - Brookland, the Soldiers' Home area - and Northwest, along 16th Street.
From the early 1940s on, the bigger homes and broader lawns of northern Washington were opening up to blacks. In an exodus that gradually shifted housing patterns all over the city, many of the LeDroit Park professionals moved out.
"We could afford to move, so we moved," said Col. West Hamilton, a career Army officer and longtime school board member who bought his LeDroit Park rowhouse as a young school teacher in 1910. Hamilton and his wife left the park in 1953 for a big brick house on Argyle Terrace, off 16th Street NW.
"A very desirable neighborhood," Hamilton said. "We don't have a lot of hoodlums standing on the corner and raising Cain," But he never sold his rowhouse. Like many of the professionals who moved away, Hamilton kept his LeDroit Park home and rented it out.
LeDroit Park became a neighborhood of renters, a hodgepodge of students and families and the few older residents who stayed in their own homes. In the mid 1940's, Mary Piper Waring, one of the homeowners who stayed, began bringing the rocking chairs in off the front porch at night so no one could steal them. For the first time, she said, she heard foul language in the streets. She was sharing a neighborhood, as she remembered recently, with "a cross section of anything that can pay the rent."
By the 1970-s, newspapers were describing LeDroit Park as an inter-city slum with a glorious past. There were beatings and robberies on the streets of the park, and addicts sometimes used the vacant houses to shoot heroin. A Safeway supermarket, shabby rowhousing, and a few Howard University dormitories had replaced much of the original Gothic architecgure.
But there were old families, too, families who refused to be uprooted from LeDroit Park, and in 1974 a civic association nominated the area for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. The nomination, part of an effort to preserve and restore the buildings still standing in the park, was approved. There were only one vocal opponent to the preservation effort - Howard University.
"We're a landlocked institution," Dr. Roger Estep, Howard vice president for development and university relations, explained recently. Bordered by Georgia Avenue on the west and McMillan Reservior on the east, the university has in recent years been accumulating LeDroit Park houses near the hospital at College and 4th Streets NW. Some were willed to Howard when the owners died; some were bought. In all, 39 houses, many of them badly deteriorating, now have Howard University as an absentee landlord.
Howard, like LeDroit Park, lost a little of its glory when other universities began accepting black students. The school wants to expand now, to attract new faculty and students, and had hoped to build more health research facilities or hospital staff housing along U Street NW, where it owns nearly a whole block of rowhouses.
The preservation group protested. They said Howard should restore the houses, not raze them. Howard said, as Estep put it, "We're not realtors," said that restoration was not the businesss of the university.
They compromised by designing a hospital staff sleeping quarters for the U Street properties that would retain the buildings' front facades while removing the walls between them. And Howard, after some angry meetings with homeowners in the park it once owned, has agreed to consider future compromises and has asked public relations experts to help "improve the image of the university," an administrator said.
Now there is a quiet in the park, a pause between eras. The decay has slowed, and active restoration has not yet really begun. "We've seen this neighborhood rise and fall like the tide," said Mary Piper from her living room at 333 U St. NW, her lap filled with photographs of a LeDroit Park that is mostly memory now, and hope.