DC as Canvas: From Crack to Canvas to Condo

Hanover Place DC street art

A taste of the murals that formerly graced Hanover Place NW (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Before it became home to one of the greatest collections of street art in Washington, DC, Hanover Place NW in Truxton Circle was a narrow, dead-end street where you could easily see the cops coming. It was also the place to buy cocaine in the 1980s, so much so that newspapers called it the city’s “cocaine supermarket.”

Until a few weeks ago, the west end of Hanover Place was lined with spectacular murals, but today most of the paintings are lost in a pile of rubble. What was once stables, then one of the city’s first automobile garages, a box factory, then part of a brass knob warehouse and lastly an artists’ space, is now debris, soon to be cleared away for new condos.

Hanover Place DC street art

Before (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Hanover Place DC

And after (Photo By: Bradley Glanzrock)

The building at 79 Hanover Place NW, most recently home to the artist-run warehouse and studio space called Wonderbox, was built in 1906 as a three-story stable and box factory. In 1928, it was converted into a storage warehouse, with only the first-floor walls of the stable remaining intact. The stable-turned-warehouse was formerly part of Chapman Coal Company Stable and Garage, an N Street complex that stretched north to fill the space between N Street and Hanover Place. Chapman Stables had originally been built as a coal yard with stables for horses and later transitioned into a garage for cars and buses. Wonderbox transformed the interior by hosting art openings, performance art shows and modern dance, although some might argue that the building continued to be home to a bunch of horseshit.

Hanover Place DC street art

Kelly Towles mural (Photo By: heydayjoe)

The murals first appeared as part of the But Is It Art? Fair, a DIY contemporary art show held at Wonderbox in September 2011. Created by Kelly Towles, Alicia “Decoy” Cosnahan and Aaron Lim, these paintings gave life to an otherwise bland stretch of blank building facades facing Hanover Place.

Hanover Place DC street art

(Photo By: heydayjoe)

Hanover Place DC street art

(Photo By: heydayjoe)

Before the Preservation League submitted a proposal to the Historic Preservation Review Board, plans had been in the works to raze all the Chapman Stables buildings to make way for new development. The main Chapman building on N Street, previously home to the Brass Knob Warehouse, was saved from demolition when it was entered into the DC Inventory of Historic Sites in April 2013. Six months later, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Chapman Stable DC

Chapman Coal Company Stable and Garage (and later, Brass Knob Warehouse) on N Street NW (Photo Courtesy of NPS)

The former storage warehouse and bus garage didn’t fare so well. Both were deemed to have “no artistic distinction … [or] architectural value” and were torn down in early September 2014.

But let’s get back to crack. In July 1984, police launched “Operation Beat It” to confront powder cocaine dealing on Hanover Place. (Michael Jackson’s Thriller, with the hit song “Beat It,” had been the No. 1 album in the country until April 1984.) The law-enforcement action was at first successful, but dealers were back on the streets just five months later.

By December 1985, Washington, DC, outranked all other U.S. cities in per capita drug arrests. (We’re still No. 1 in per capita arrests for PCP – in your face, L.A.!) And by 1986, crack had hit the streets of DC, edging out heroin for the first time as the city’s most popular illicit drug.

Hanover Place was in full swing as the most notorious open-air drug market in crack-infested Washington, DC. From the east end of the block, one could look down Capitol Street and clearly see the white dome of the Capitol Building. Dealers used to quip: “Over there, they make the laws; over here, we break the laws.”

To keep the police from raiding the market, kids acted as sentries at the corners, hollering “OLE-ER-RAY” (pig Latin for “rollers”) whenever they saw a police cruiser approach. But for the most part, the street was a self-regulating marketplace. And with the trafficking came traffic. Sometimes the line of cars turning onto Hanover Place was so long it backed up traffic on Capitol Street, with cars honking to keep the checkout lines moving.

Hanover Place DC crack

The Hanover Place drug market, open for business on the early evening of Dec. 6, 1984 (Photo By: Linda Wheeler/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

By this point, the cops had had enough and decided to crack down on Hanover Place. A year-long, 24/7 occupation ensued, with a command-center trailer on the street and a daily rotation of 60 officers patrolling the immediate area. It was still 1986, but Hanover Place was closed for business.

Two decades later, Hanover Place is mostly quiet. The housing prices have rebounded from their 1990s lows and are now selling for five to 10 times as much. The artists have come and gone, and the condo-dwellers are about to arrive.

Here are more photos of the art of Hanover Place. Some of these murals remain. Others are gone but not forgotten.

DC as Canvas: International Graduate University Sculpture

  International Graduate University sculpture

Buchanan School (International Graduate University) numbers sculpture (Photo By: heydayjoe)

The placement of this Brutalist sculpture next to an elementary school looks as if it may have been intended to enhance the learning environs by bringing some whimsy to the playground. Hey kids! Hulking blocks of concrete can be fun! Just look at those jaunty integers! Or it may have been a reminder to the young students that school isn’t fun at all – numbers are serious business!

The truth is, this sculpture is a small part of what was a massive redevelopment of a deteriorating inner-city school’s playground facilities. This sculpture and two others are practically all that remains of what was once one of DC’s greatest playgrounds.

Built in 1895, the Buchanan School (1325 D Street SE) was old and run-down by the 1960s. The schoolyard was a barren site hemmed in on two sides by a chain-link fence. It was of little use to students or the local residents.

With the goal of reimagining the desolate schoolyard as an adventure playground for the whole community, the Vincent Astor Foundation, a proponent of innovative social projects, provided $428,940 to the Buchanan School as part of Ladybird Johnson’s “Beautify America” program. The results transformed the schoolyard into one of the best playgrounds in DC.

Buchanan School playground

Buchanan School Courtyard, shortly after opening in 1968 — looks like a lawsuit waiting to happen…

Patterned after the Jacob Riis Plaza Playground in New York City, the revamped site included a sunken basketball court, amphitheater and water-spray area with wall-spray jets that transformed it into an outdoor shower during the hot summer months; a community area with picnic tables, game pedestals and benches; play equipment including bridges, towers, swings, cable jungles, ramps and pulleys on wire ramps for sliding and swinging; and art objects – for climbing!

Buchanan School playground

In the upper-left corner of the upper-left photo, you can see the taller Tarr sculpture. In the photo on the right, live-action Q*Bert! (Buchanan School Courtyard, 1968)

“The play section for children is a dense forest of climbing poles, ‘hills’ of granite cobblestones to climb up on and tunnels to crawl under, sliding boards, a tree house, trampoline boards, a ‘spider’ made of radiating cables, a loose cable with a sliding ring to swoosh, like Tarzan, from hill to hill on, and all manner of stepping stones and bridges. All this rises on a deep layer of sand so no one gets hurt if he falls.” (Washington Post – May 8, 1968)

Buchanan School playground

Buchanan School Courtyard, 1968

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for that sand to be filled with garbage and broken glass.

Before the playground was built, the Washington Post called the schoolyard a “mess of broken concrete, weeds and trash.” Two years after the “children’s paradise” opened, the newspaper reported that “it sits among weeds, litter and desolation.”

So what happened?

Maintenance of the community playground was handed over to the cash-strapped DC Department of Parks and Recreation, which did … nothing. Ceaseless vandalism and poor maintenance plagued the playground. One fed the other until the entire site was dilapidated once more. Now, all that remains of the “round-the-clock community playground” are three concrete-block sculptures designed for climbing.

International Graduate University sculpture

Buchanan School (International Graduate University) tall sculpture, with one of the four campus buildings in background (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Created by William Tarr (1925-2006) and erected in 1967, the concrete numerical block (pictured at top of story) is located on the south side of what was originally the James Buchanan Secondary Learning Center, a high school. A larger, 15-foot-tall concrete column (right), also by Tarr, sits directly west of the main school, facing Watkins Field. This one is carved with circles, squares, arrows and rectangles, all laid in random patterns. It’s just as whimsical.

In the 1960s, urban planners were beginning to recognize that the sites of inner-city schools like Buchanan assume greater significance to the surrounding community than suburban or rural sites, because congested urban areas are often lacking recreational facilities within easy reach of their homes. They realized that many schools had taken on the appearance of prisons. They realized that no one likes to be in prison. They also realized that kids like to climb on things – even if they look like totalitarian totems. What they didn’t realize is that playgrounds need regular maintenance and protection from vandalism. Unfortunately, they left those tasks to the District government, which failed on all counts.

William Tarr’s concrete and steel sculptures appear to have been influenced by the anti-bourgeois nature of Soviet era architecture. (The Buchanan School sculptures are reminiscent of Brutalist architecture works in DC, such as the FBI Building and the University of Washington DC). His most famous work in DC is the 5,900-pound bronze “Gates of Hell,” also known as the “Gates of the Six Million,” displayed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Tarr’s sculptures for schools are still visible in both cities: New York landed the 63-ton welded-steel tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. in Manhattan, and DC ended up with a few concrete totems for a Capitol Hill elementary school.

The secondary school that had since become James Buchanan Elementary School had been slowly deteriorating for decades before it closed around 1994. In 1999, former professor and septuagenarian Walter Boek bought the four-building campus and converted it into the National Graduate University (dubbed the International Graduate University in 2009), saying that he was heeding the call of Congress for instituting such a school.

No one has been able to verify any of Boek’s statements regarding the origin or legitimacy of the university.

International Graduate University sculpture

The abandoned International Graduate University (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Given its mysterious origins, it’s not surprising that International Graduate University has a very weird history, with at most one or two rooms ever being used for classes on its massive campus. DC Councilmember Tommy Wells said of Boek in 2012 “… the guy creeps me out.” In November 2012, Boek died at age 89, leaving the fate of the International Graduate University in limbo. The William Tarr sculptures still grace the school grounds, just waiting to greet the next batch of students and haunt their dystopian dreams.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was updated after a reader notified us of factual in accuracies in the original. Thank you, friend of Heyday. You know who you are!

DC as Canvas: Bohemian Caverns Mural – Miles Misses Shirley

Bohemian caverns mural

What’s left of the Bohemian Caverns mural by Alonso Tamayo (Photo By: heydayjoe)

The Bohemian Caverns mural is half the mural it used to be. Created by artist Alonso Tamayo in 2000, the original artwork spanned the entire north side of the famous restaurant and jazz nightclub at 2001 11th Street NW and featured both Miles Davis and Shirley Horn. If Miles’ portrait could speak, he would probably encourage you to look a little deeper, to see beyond what’s in front of you and find what’s not there (i.e., Shirley).

Bohemian Caverns mural 2007

The Bohemian Caverns mural as it appeared in 2007 (Photo By: Holley St. Germain)

Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.” – Miles Davis

During Prohibition, the Bohemian Caverns (aka Club Caverns, then Crystal Caverns) was the swingingest jazz joint in DC, operating out of the basement of what was then the Davis Drugstore at the corner of 11th & U Street. Guests of all colors gathered for brined pork chops, liquor served in teacups and jazz jams that blew their socks off. Everyone who was anyone played the Caverns – not only Miles and Shirley, but also Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, Pearl Bailey, Ramsey Lewis, Bill Evans, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane.

When Bohemian Taverns commissioned Alonso Tamayo to create the outdoor mural, he was in his final year at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. Soon after, he moved to New York to earn an MFA in Digital Communication and Media/Multimedia from Pratt Institute, followed by motion graphic and web design work for MTV Networks, CSTV/CBS and Armani Exchange.

Bohemian Caverns mural Miles Davis

Miles Davis detail, Bohemian Caverns mural (Photo By: heydayjoe)

After returning to his native Bolivia, Tamayo earlier this year founded Abstrakt Studios in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, where he spends his time as Creative Director of multimedia projects. You can see Tamayo painting his last known mural at the beginning of this BBC video. The mural was created in August 2013 at the recently whitewashed graffiti landmark 5Pointz in Long Island City, Queens.

Like his 5Pointz mural, the Bohemian Caverns painting has also suffered. In 2009, half of the piece was lost to weathering and wall repair. Workers repaired the west end of the wall and painted over Shirley Horn’s face with a layer of gray. The owners have said they plan to restore the Caverns mural, but as of July 2014, Miles stands alone.

DC as Canvas: “WallNut” Acorn H Street Art by BroCoLoco

"WallNut" by BroCoLoco, on H Street NE (Image By heydayjoe)

“WallNut” acorn mural by BroCoLoco, on H Street NE  in DC’s Atlas District (Image By heydayjoe)

We used an acorn with a cross section showing all the parts of the future oak being constructed within it to indicate that just because you don’t see growth on the surface, there’s still a lot going on behind the scenes.” — BroCoLoco

Created by the brotherly team BroCoLoco, the “WallNut” acorn H Street art appears on the side of the former Korame Home Products building at 620 H Street NE in the Atlas District. Commissioned for the 2013 H Street Festival, this acorn mural helps bring a little life to a mind-numbing stretch of blank beige wall – a wall that won’t exist for very much longer thanks to the sponsors of the mural, Insight Property Group.

Founded in 2012 and headquartered in Lexington, Ky., the Brothers Company Art Venture (aka BroCoLoco) is Aaron and Jared Scales’ design collaboration, which offers “storytelling services through art, architecture, branding, marketing & design.” Older brother Aaron is an architect who’s designed U.S. embassies and an award-winning Kentucky bus shelter. Jared is a sous chef on the side. The brothers have traveled to nearly 30 countries and use their travels as inspiration for global humanitarian endeavors. BroCoLoco donates funds to sponsor children through both Children International and ChildFund.

But let’s get back to the transected acorn. Just to the left of “WallNut” appear the phrases “Apollo Returning to H Street Soon” and “Mighty oaks hide in small seeds.” From 1913 to 1955, the Apollo Theatre, an ornate early Washington movie theater, stood here at 624 H Street NE. Like so many other once-cherished sites now demolished, the Apollo will live on in the massive new development taking its name. The $120 million Apollo H Street will include 321 residential units, 74,000 square feet of retail, more than 440 parking spaces and bicycle parking.

Say goodbye to longtime neighbors Murry’s Fine Foods, Korame Home Products, Good Danny’s Carry Out and H Street Storage. All will be closing this summer to make room for the mixed-use community, which will include a Whole Foods. The project, developed by acorn mural sponsors Insight Property Group, breaks ground in the fall. As for the “mighty oaks” phrase, yeah, we get it: Marketers have been co-opting the “great things come from small beginnings” idea for centuries, as in, great big new buildings come from the demolition of smaller older buildings.

BONUS: In addition to being artists, designers, photographers and self-proclaimed “creative extraordinaires,” the BroCoLoco brothers are also musicians. This video of “Hello Goodbye” should make it clear why we say hello to their murals and goodbye to their music.

DC as Canvas: “Marvin” Mural Brings Architectural Healing

"Marvin" by Aniekan Udofia (Photo By: heydayjoe)

“Marvin” by Aniekan Udofia (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Artist Aniekan Udofia created his Marvin Gaye mural in DC, “Marvin,” in September 2013 as part of a citywide mural project sponsored by Heineken. This tribute to Marvin Gaye** graces the east wall of 711 S Street NW, just west of the Shaw–Howard University Metro station.

“Art makes a random place a landmark,” says Udofia of street art. To prove it, he’s created new landmarks all over DC.

Perhaps known best locally for his murals and large-scale paintings, Udofia gained national prominence for his photorealistic illustrations and caricatures appearing in urban publications such as Vibe, The Source and XXL.

Though he was born in DC in 1976, Udofia’s parents returned their young family to Nigeria soon after completing their education in the States. Growing up in southeast Nigeria as part of the Ibibio tribe, regarded as the most ancient of Nigeria’s ethnic groups, Udofia was heavily inspired by a local culture blended with American hip hop. He never attended art school, and he never received any formal training. A love of art, music and visual expression keeps his artwork flowing.

He most recently exhibited paintings and custom pieces for the “WAT-AAH! Taking Back the Streets” exhibit at DC’s Long View Gallery. To learn more about Udofia and his vivid street art, click here.

(Photo By: heydayjoe)**[Marvin Gaye was born in DC. He first grew up in a house at 1617 First Street SW and then in his teens relocated to the Deanwood neighborhood, where he attended Cardozo High School in Columbia Heights. At Cardozo, he joined his first band, D.C. Tones.]

UPDATE: As of August 20, 2014, the Marvin Gaye mural is being covered over by construction of a two-unit condo building in the adjacent lot. Artist Udofia says that a new mural is in the works. Details to come…

DC as Canvas: “Higher” by Gaia and Con

"Higher" by Gaia and Con graces a U Street alleyway. (Photo By: heydayjoe)

“Higher” by Gaia and Con graces a U Street alleyway. (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Commissioned by DCArts in 2010, this backstreet gem appears on the east side of 1017 U Street NW in the alley between Lovely Yogurt and Corte Salon. It’s a relatively early creation by street muralist Gaia, who was still in college at the time, and Con, a graffiti artist.

Now considered a rising star in the art world, Gaia grew up in New York City and is a 2011 graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, where he lives and works. His murals appear on buildings in cities across America as well as Canada, Argentina, Italy, France, the U.K., the Netherlands, South Africa and South Korea.

Earlier this month, Gaia completed work on a wall in Perth, Australia, for the independent nonprofit arts organization FORM. Titled “dementia,” the mural is a “depiction of wetlands fading into a collage of moments from the city of early modern planning to skyscraper development in the CBD.”

Among his many other murals, “Higher” is a modest piece that provides a small taste of his work – and his talent. We’ll continue to showcase this talent by featuring other neighborhood murals Gaia’s created throughout DC. Stay tuned…

DC as Canvas: “The Battle: Felipe’s Story Remixed”

Here’s the first image in our collection of DC street art. “The Battle: Felipe’s Story Remixed” was created by Joel Bergner in 2012 and appears on the sidewall of BloomBars (3221 11th Street NW), facing the alley, in Columbia Heights. While working with CUFA, Bergner lived with 11-year-old Felipe and his family in the Cidade de Deus (City of God), a shantytown in Rio de Janeiro made famous by the 2002 movie of the same name.

Felipe's Story Columbia Heights Mural DC

“The Battle: Felipe’s Story Remixed” by Joel Bergner (Photo By: heydayjoe)

Caught between feuding gods and demons, Felipe appears oblivious to the violence raging about him. “The Battle” is a reworking of a more traditional mural Bergner created in 2009, “Felipe’s Story.” He kept the main character while remaking the city scene into an epic battle for Felipe’s soul. Here’s a time-lapse video of Bergner’s remix.

We love urban exploration and discovering new gems hidden in the cityscape, whether they’re city approved or awesomely unauthorized. If you’d like to share your finds, send us your photos of DC’s street art. We’re interested in murals, wheatpastes, altered street signs, chalk sidewalk portraits, homegrown sculptures, spectacular graffiti and any other bits of beauty you may find.