Compared to, say, Paris or Prague, Washington is a lost city, a place that failed, thanks to greed and poverty of imagination, to preserve its past. The District, for example, once boasted the same kind of busy public marketplaces that latter-day new urbanists hunger for, a half-dozen Eastern Markets, each a glorious collection of vendors adding spice to the federal city.
But compared to most American cities, Washington is chockablock with history, a reserve of architectural styles from every era of the nation’s past. From Georgetown’s Old Stone House — long rumored to have been George Washington’s headquarters when he surveyed the city in 1791, but later determined to be just a clockmaker’s shop that might be the city’s oldest building — to the strange but elegant limestone structure on Massachusetts Avenue NW that was once Childs Restaurant and is today a bank branch, the District is right up there with Boston, Philadelphia and New York in preserving an architectural mix that reflects the major mileposts of our physical history.
John DeFerrari, a government worker who writes the wonderfully informative Streets of Washington blog about his explorations in our former cityscape, has collected his research in the latest of several books by preservationists who blame politicians and developers for robbing us of our physical past.
This argument is not hard to make. The list of stately mansions and beloved landmarks that exist now only in black-and-white photographs and hand-colored postcards is long and familiar. We have little trace of the majestic theaters and burlesque halls that once dotted 14th Street NW, to say nothing of the jazz clubs of the old, pre-urban renewal Southwest. Griffith Stadium, where the great Negro League players and the lesser lights of the hapless Washington Senators performed, is now remembered only by an obscure marker inside Howard University Hospital.
The Knickerbocker Theater, a grand movie palace built at 18th Street and Columbia Road in 1916, collapsed just six years later in what is still probably the worst disaster in city history. A massive, 29-inch snowstorm defeated the theater’s roof, crushing hundreds of people gathered for the Comedy Night flicks. Ninety-eight patrons died.
The Knickerbocker was rebuilt as the Ambassador Theater and survived into the late 1960s, when it was briefly but famously converted into the Psychedelic Power and Light Company, a rock club where Jimi Hendrix made his D.C. debut and Norman Mailer and Robert Lowell planned their Vietnam-era march on the Pentagon. But the theater-cum-club was a flop financially, and the building was torn down in 1969. Today, a barren brick plaza and yet another bank branch sit on that site.
Such stories, enough to wring a tear from anyone who loves wandering through cities to imagine how those who came before us lived, dot DeFerrari’s thin volume. This is mainly a collection of charming tales of yesteryear, but to the extent that an argument supports the book’s structure, it is the idea that Washington has been a serial victim of what longtime Washington Post architecture critic Wolf Von Eckardt called “criminal urbicide,” or as DeFerrari puts it, “our collective failure to preserve the city’s cultural heritage.”
But of the 23 stories he tells about Washington’s commercial, residential and industrial landmarks, 10 describe buildings that are still with us.
A couple have undergone that peculiarly Washingtonian surgery, the facade-ectomy, an operation in which a developer gets showered with tax breaks for retaining an outer wall of an old building and then, in most cases, erects a stunningly unimaginative office block right behind and above the Potemkin front. (Luckily, that fashion, all the rage in the 1970s and ’80s, seems to have passed.)
But the old Woodie’s department store just got a sparkly new paint job, and although the little silver box cars that once carried the store’s receipts along a Cable Cash Railway inside the vast store are long gone, there are still retail outlets on the street level. And the dreamy, streamline Art Deco Greyhound Bus Lines Super Terminal built in 1940 survives — sort of — as the front and lobby of a New York Avenue NW office building. There’s a little exhibit inside about what The Post’s Henry Allen once described as a place with “the stale, sweet, sooty urban smell of cigar smoke, old sweat and carbon monoxide; the tart, grimy smell of winos, and the starchy air of the cafeteria, like the mess hall of a troop ship.”
Facades and exhibits are, of course, no substitute for being able to step off a sidewalk filled with iPhone- and Blackberry-wielding pedestrians oblivious to their surroundings and enter another world at Eastern Market or the National Building Museum or the Capitol itself. We have lost many such experiences, sometimes for no good reason. But much of “Lost Washington” is still here, and books such as DeFerrari’s push us to look up from our devices and enter a past that is not virtual, but part of a living city.
LOST WASHINGTON, D.C.
By John DeFerrari
History Press. 160 pp. $19.99