DC’s Oldest Apartment Building Hangs On — Barely

DC's oldest apartment

The Harrison Apartment Building — DC’s oldest surviving apartment building (Photo By: heydayjoe)

In the late-nineteenth century, DC residents weren’t too keen on living in apartment buildings. Washingtonians at the time associated “apartments” with New York City’s festering, crime-ridden tenements – filthy, overcrowded buildings packed with recent immigrants and lacking the basic amenities of civilized society.

When tasked with designing an apartment building, architect Charles E. Gibbs (co-founder of local architectural and contracting firm Johnson and Company) decided to disguise his apartment building as row houses, which were more acceptable to DC dwellers. The idea is akin to designing new “loft apartments.” Completed in 1890, the Harrison Apartment Building at 704 3rd Street NW (corner of 3rd & G NW) is the earliest extant example of the row-house style in DC – and the city’s oldest known surviving conventional apartment building.

The Harrison was built for Harvey Spalding, a prominent Washington lawyer who also had an eye for real estate investment. Conveniently, Spalding’s law specialties were “Government Claims, Land and Patent Cases, Postmasters’ Claims under ‘Spalding Act,’ and Claims of Soldiers Charged with Desertion.” Spalding likely named the Harrison in honor of Republican president-elect Benjamin Harrison, who defeated Democrat incumbent President Grover Cleveland in the 1888 election.

Harrison Apartments oldest DC apartment

The original-arch entryway on the east side (3rd Street) of Harrison Apartments, looking north (Photo By: heydayjoe)

The Harrison was constructed in two sections in 1888-90. The southern section was apartments in the form of super-size row houses with projecting bays. Just as the residences were being completed, however, the federal government decided to lease the building from Spalding to use as an executive office for the Census Bureau, which was ramping up its staff for the 1890 census. The feds offered to pay Spalding handsomely for the rental if he agreed to build a northern addition, to be completed by the end of the year. The Census Office stayed for only a few years before the entire building reverted to its intended use as apartments.

The five-story brick Harrison features 79 apartments and a Romanesque Revival façade, with classical Roman arches, cavernous entryways and rounded towers. (The Smithsonian Castle, c. 1847-55, is the first American representation of the Romanesque Revival, predating the second revival that began in the 1870s.)

In the late 1880s, the neighborhood around 3rd & G NW consisted of row houses that surrounded the commercial center of DC. The Harrison was the first multi-family building in the area, with a single apartment entrance that led through a spacious vestibule to a reception room and a public dining room. Originally, a barbershop and drug store also occupied space on the first floor, with their own separate entrances. The basement level served as a café around this time.

Harrison-Apartments-Bliss-Native-Herbs-DCIn 1899, Spalding sold the Harrison to Alonzo Ogilvie Bliss, who thoroughly renovated the place and renamed it the Astoria. Bliss had served in the 10th New York Calvary in the Civil War and later became a businessman, marketing the popular cure-all “Bliss Native Herbs” and owning and managing about a dozen apartment buildings in DC.

After 1941, the name was changed to the Canterbury. Today referred to as the Harrison, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. Sadly, the interior of the building is not designated historic, and the non-loadbearing walls, which delineated the apartments, were demolished years ago.

Harrison-Office-Rendering-PQLivingFrom 2006 to 2011, the building changed ownership three times. At one point it was slated to become part of an office development (see rendering at right). The Harrison’s current owner has proposed to construct a 12-story hotel addition to the landmark apartment building, keeping only the exterior walls of the historic building – but nothing’s happened yet. Our guess is that the owner is waiting to move forward until the massive nearby Capitol Crossing project is completed.

In the meantime, the grand old Harrison continues to deteriorate. Since it’s had so many owners, the City doesn’t know whom to blame for the Harrison’s neglect. Boarded up and vacant for the past 11 years, the property is currently the squat of some of DC’s homeless population. Here’s to hoping that the grand old Harrison Apartment Building can retain some of its past glory and live on as a historical reminder of DC’s past.

FDR and Friday the 13th

FDR friday 13thPresident Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a mild case of triskaidekaphobia — he didn’t like the number 13. He refused to travel on the 13th day of any month and would not sit down with 13 at dinner or host a dinner party with 13 guests.

FDR especially hated Friday the 13th. He would never start an important trip on a Friday, particularly the 13th. But as it turned out, Friday the 13th wasn’t out to get him after all.

FDR died on Thursday the 12th (April 12, 1945).

Today Washington DC Became Capital of the United States

The U.S. Capitol as it appeared circa 1800, when DC became capital

The U.S. Capitol as it appeared circa 1800 when DC became capital, in a watercolor painting by William Russell Birch (Image Courtesy of Library of Congress)

On June 11, 1800, DC became capital of the United States, leaving the country’s former capital of the previous decade, Philadelphia, to the fate of Pennsylvanians. While Washington, DC, was a young upstart, Philadelphia was the largest city in America at the time, with nearly 50,000 residents.

George Washington never saw the city named after him become the capital of the new nation; he had died more than six months before – his last words: “Tis well.”

In 1800, the U.S. Capitol building consisted only of the Senate’s north wing. The Senate and House members shared this wing until a temporary wooden pavilion was built for House members. Their south wing was finally completed in 1811, but the House members didn’t wait – they left their pavilion and moved into the unfinished wing in 1807.

At this time of the capital move from Philly, there were only about 125 federal employees newly bound for DC, and official documents and archives were transferred by ship via inland waterways.

President John Adams had to move, too, but the “President’s Palace” – which wouldn’t be called the “White House” until 1811 – was still under construction. Instead, Adams took a room over Tunnicliff’s, a Capitol Hill tavern at the corner of 1st and A NE. Good to know that our first DC resident President lived over a bar…

Presidential Inbreeding: Are All U.S. Presidents Related?

Octopus King - the genealogy of related presidents (Illustration By: Matt Wainwright)

Octopus King – the genealogy of related presidents (Illustration By: Matt Wainwright)

Does anybody else wish we could be done with all Bushes, Clintons and Kennedys? No more Roosevelts, Harrisons or Adamses?

As it turns out, ruling dynasties formed by centuries of incestuous coupling aren’t just for European monarchies. Here in America, we have our own “royal” families, a certain posterity who just can’t seem to keep their posteriors away from the seat of power.

Although no U.S. president has ever been directly related to the president that he immediately follows or who immediately follows him, some have come pretty close:

  • George W. Bush (#43) was the son of George H. W. Bush (#41).
  • John Quincy Adams (#6) was the son of John Adams (#2).
  • Benjamin Harrison (#23) was the grandson of William Henry Harrison (#9).
  • James Madison (#4) and Zachary Taylor (#12) were second cousins.
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt (#32) was a fifth cousin of Theodore Roosevelt (#26)

The presidential bloodline runs especially deep for our longest-serving president. Genealogists have determined that FDR was related to a total of 11 presidents, five by blood or and six through marriage: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, William Henry Harrison, Benjamin Harrison, James Madison, Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft, Zachary Taylor, Martin Van Buren and George Washington.

But it gets better. In 2012, a 12-year-old girl in California traced the lineage of all but one American President back to King John, who ruled England from 1166 to 1216. King John “Lackland” Plantaganet signed the Magna Carta in 1215, limiting the monarch’s power and helping form the British Parliament. According to the pre-teen, only one president was not related to King John – Martin Van Buren (#8), who has Dutch roots. (He was known as the “OK” president. Seriously.) If her research is true, it appears that all but one of the U.S. presidents are cousins. Kissing cousins. Of related royal bloodlines. Descended from European monarchs. So much for the Revolutionary War of independence

As American as Cherry Pie … and Sushi

National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC

She wants to do with Pablo Neruda what spring wants to do with the cherry trees. (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Each spring, thousands make their annual pilgrimage to DC to gaze in awe at the riotous blooming of the Japanese cherry trees. Poet Pablo Neruda, distinctly not Japanese, once wrote, “I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.” Although we think that’s pretty hot, it has nothing to do with the history of the cherry trees in Washington, DC.

The first shipment of Japanese cherry trees arrived in DC in 1910, a gift from the city of Tokyo intended as a gesture of friendship and goodwill between the people of Japan and the United States. When the trees arrived, however, they were so infested with insects and parasitic worms that there was no easy way to re-gift them to another country. So President Taft agreed to have them incinerated in a heaping big bonfire. Many thought this was no way to accept a gift.

Nothing says "thank you" like burning your gift in a bonfire. (Source: U.S. National Arboretum)

Because nothing says “thank you” like burning your gift in a bonfire… (Source: U.S. National Arboretum)

After much diplomacy to smooth over the embarrassing burning of the gift, in 1912 the people of Japan sent a new bug-free shipment of 3,020 cherry trees, and these were planted along the Potomac River. First Lady Helen Herron Taft and the wife of the Japanese ambassador planted the first two cherry trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin, and workmen planted the rest around the Tidal Basin and East Potomac Park. (The two original trees are still there, near the John Paul Jones statue at the south end of 17th Street.)

In 1965 Japan gave First Lady Lady Bird Johnson (that’s a mouthful) 3,800 more trees to plant, and today there are 3,750 trees of 16 varieties on national parkland in DC.

This year marks the 102nd anniversary of the original gift of friendship from Japan, although on the 39th anniversary, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, so how’s that for friendship? Four days later, four cherry trees were chopped down in suspected retaliation. The culprits were never caught. To prevent further attacks against the trees, the Cherry Blossom Festival was suspended during World War II (resuming in 1947), and the trees were referred to for the remainder of the war as the “Oriental” flowering cherry trees.

This wasn’t the end of the cherry tree assaults though. In 1999, the trees were attacked once more. But this time they found the vandals – beavers! The beavers were forcefully removed from the Tidal Basin, and fences were erected around some of the more defenseless trees.

Beaver Vandals (Illustration By: Matt Wainwright)

Beaver Vandals (Illustration By: Matt Wainwright)

If you’d like to take a gander at these celebrity cherry trees, you can find them in three National Park Service locations: around the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park, in East Potomac Park (Hains Point) and on the grounds of the Washington Monument. (For more info on the varieties of cherry trees and their locations, click here.)

Some random facts about the DC cherry blossoms:

(Photo By: heydayjoe)

(Photo By: heydayjoe)

  • The National Cherry Blossom Festival is scheduled every year based on when the National Park horticulturalists predict peak bloom, but nature doesn’t always cooperate. The weather determines when the trees will bloom, and sometimes it’s not during the festival.
  • Most of the trees are of the Yoshino variety, and the average blooming date for the Yoshino cherry trees is April 4.
  • Peak bloom is defined as the day on which 70 percent of the blossoms of the Yoshino trees open.
  • The earliest blooms were on March 15 in 1990.
  • The latest blooms were on April 18 in 1958.
  • The Kwanzan cherry tree, the second-most-numerous variety between the Tidal Basin and Hains Point, blooms two weeks after the Yoshino trees. So if you’re a late bloomer, you still have a shot at seeing some blossoms.

To commemorate this perennial event, please submit your very own cherry blossom haiku by email or in the comments below. We’ll read them all and publish the best of them.

Here are two to get you started…

tourists swarm around

cherry trees in luscious bloom

as if sedated

 

the beaver vandals

hide in the day, but at night

they eat your blossoms

 

All the Presidents’ Pooches

George Washington dog Drunkard

(Illustration By: Matt Wainwright)

George Washington had a dog named Drunkard, John Adams had a dog named Satan and Abraham Lincoln had a dog named Fido. (Fido never made it to DC because Lincoln didn’t think he’d survive the trip; Fido ended up outliving him.)

Harry Truman once said, “You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog.” When someone did give him a dog for Christmas in 1947, a cocker spaniel named Feller, Truman regifted him to his personal physician. Feller became nationally known as the Unwanted Dog.

Warren Harding’s dog, Laddie Boy, on the other hand, was considered an essential part of the administration. Laddie Boy sat in on high-level cabinet meetings in a hand-carved chair and even had a White House birthday party in which all the neighborhood dogs were invited to dine on dog biscuit birthday cake.

Perhaps no White House pup, however, was more acclaimed than Franklin Roosevelt’s Scottish terrier Fala. His original name was Big Boy; Franklin renamed him Murray the Outlaw of Falahill after a famous Scottish ancestor, or Fala, for short. A movie star, military member, politico and would-be diplomat, Fala was featured in an MGM film about a typical day in the White House, named an honorary Army private, given his own press secretary and brought along onboard the USS Augusta for the signing of the Atlantic Charter with Churchill in 1941.

Yes, some dogs have more illustrious careers than yours. George H.W. Bush’s springer spaniel Millie released a book, ghost-written by First Lady Barbara Bush, that outsold George’s biography.

Most presidential dogs, though, are just dogs – some with genuinely good names. James Garfield had a black Newfoundland named Veto. Calvin Coolidge had a pair of white collies, Rob Roy and Prudence Prim. Herbert Hoover had a German shepherd named King Tut, an elkhound named Weejie, an Irish wolfhound named Patrick and fox terriers named Big Ben and Sonnie. Richard Nixon had three dogs with him at the White House, a poodle named Vicky, a terrier named Pasha and an Irish setter named King Timahoe. Besides Drunkard, George Washington had more than 30 hounds, including Tipler, Tipsy and Vulcan.

But no president was more humble in naming his dogs than Lyndon Johnson, with his beagles Him and Her. A good ol’ boy to the bone, Johnson got into some deep doo with dog lovers in 1964 when he picked up his beagles by the ears in front of reporters. “Why’d you do that?” one reporter asked. “To make him bark,” Johnson replied. “It’s good for him. And, if you’ve ever followed dogs, you like to hear them yelp.”

LBJ-dogs-Him-Her-DC

Wish We Were Here! — DC Postcards #1

Here’s the first of our senseless collection of defiled postcards, depicting all of the holiday greetings from DC that we’d love to see on the gift shop racks. Each card is a store-bought gem that’s been surgically altered by hand, usually with a manual cut and paste (no Photoshop here).

(Image By: heydayjoe)

(Image By: heydayjoe)

Feel free to send us your creations. If they make us laugh, we’ll post them here with the rest of the deltiological wonders.