A professional historian, she had spent decades also pursuing an avocation – collecting oral histories, photographs, maps and other materials with intentions of writing a definitive chronicle of her own community’s origins and development. With that plan cut short by an untimely death, we have instead this remarkable set of conversations with John Franzén, recorded in early 2000 in an effort to capture as much as possible of what Ruth Ann had learned. This parting gift to her neighborhood, comprising some twenty-four hours of material and stretching from the Native Americans who lived here before European contact to late-twentieth century development and gentrification, inspired the Capitol Hill Community Foundation to launch the Overbeck Project in her name.
Capitol Hill History
Ruth Ann Overbeck
February 27 to March 30, 2000
Interviewer: John Franzén
A volunteer project
undertaken for the
CHAMPS Community Foundation
[now Capitol Hill Community Foundation]
Capitol Hill Community Foundation
419 East Capitol Street, S.E.
Washington, DC 20003
Table of Contents
How these interviews came to be.
Tape #1, recorded February 27, 2000 6
Overbeck's arrival on Capitol Hill; first native American inhabitants;
early white land holders; establishment of the Federal city.
Tape #2, continuing the February 27 session
The idea of a Central Exchange; division and development of land;
establishment of the Navy Yard.
Tape #2 (cont.), start of March 1, 2000 session 28
Hill life and topography before 1800; layout and development
of the Federal city.
Tape #3, continuing the March 1 session 36
Early land holders; early buildings; the harbor and Central Exchange.
Tape #3 (cont.), start of March 7, 2000 session 46
The early Navy Yard and its impact on Capitol Hill;
the War of 1812.
Tape #4, continuing the March 7 session 53
War of 1812; Navy Yard and Marine Barracks; early 19th Century
community development; original public market; Union Town.
Tape #5, recorded March 12, 2000 68
African Americans on the Hill in the 19th Century;
the Beverly Snow incident.
Tape #6, recorded March 14, 2000 83
Stories of slaves and free blacks; emancipation in D.C.; the Civil War
and Civil War hospitals; Keeler diary from the Monitor.
Tape #7, continuing the March 14 session 100
Lincoln Hospital; Philadelphia Row; life in D.C. during the Civil War.
Tape #7 (cont.), start of March 21, 2000 session 111
Capitol Hill decline and "gentrification" in the 20th Century.
Tape #8, continuing the March 21 session 119
Evolution of Capitol Hill housing; effects of World War I, the Great
Depression and World War II.
Tape #9, recorded March 30, 2000 132
Discussion with Overbeck and Peter Powers about the Capitol Hill
Restoration Society and 20th Century preservation efforts.
Tape #9 (cont.): a final word, April 2, 2000 148
Upon Overbeck's death.
Early in the Winter of 2000, I received a phone call from Steve and Nicky Cymrot bringing the sad news that Ruth Ann Overbeck, beloved Capitol Hill resident and unparalleled expert on the community's history, had been diagnosed with a far-advanced cancer and was not expected to recover. The Capitol Hill history she had long planned to write, based on some thirty years of research, now would not be written, and a vast store of information about the early life of our community would go with her to her grave.
Did I know anyone, they asked, who might be able to interview Ruth Ann – to tape record her words and preserve some of her knowledge for posterity?
I immediately volunteered – although at that time I knew Ruth Ann only slightly. I was aware of her reputation as a scholar and community leader, and had spent an evening seated next to her at the annual fundraising dinner of the CHAMPS Foundation in the Spring of 1999. In the course of that evening she had utterly charmed me with her wit and her knowledge of our neighborhood, and I had resolved to get to know her better – not just to enjoy her wonderful company but to deepen my woefully superficial understanding of my own community. I could not have guessed the unfortunate terms under which my wish would be granted.
The interviews transcribed here were conducted over a period of 32 days, beginning on February 27. By that time Ruth Ann's condition had deteriorated to the point where, for all of our sessions, she had to remain lying down, and although she stayed mentally sharp to the end, the reader will notice some diminishment, in the later sessions, in her ability to put thoughts clearly into words. To the very last, however – and we recorded our final interview only two days before her death – she maintained a clear-eyed acceptance of the fact that she was about to die, without ever losing her enthusiasm for our project or her marvelous sense of humor.
In these final weeks of her life, Ruth Ann was attended by a rotating team of longtime neighbors and friends. As they came and went, monitoring her condition and helping with daily chores, they were an ongoing reminder to me that Capitol Hill is indeed a small town within a large city. The community to which Ruth Ann had given so much was quietly, lovingly, giving back.
Ruth Ann, for her part, more than confirmed my first impression of her. She was a woman of incandescent intelligence, with a Southerner's gift for storytelling. She approached her research, her causes, her whole life, with joy and passion, and I trust the reader will sense this in what follows.
We attempted in these interviews to "start at the beginning" and proceed chronologically, but the reader will notice that we didn't adhere strictly to that pattern.
With occasional detours, our historical route was very roughly sequential up through the Civil War era, but then, at Ruth Ann's request, we jumped forward to discuss Capitol Hill development and preservation efforts in the 20th Century. Our intention was to return after that to the late 19th Century and the Boss Shepherd era, but our efforts were cut short by Ruth Ann's death. To help the reader navigate the route, I've included a subject index at the end.
I should note for the record that although Ruth Ann was best known locally for her research and preservation efforts on Capitol Hill, her work as a historian carried her far beyond the confines of this community and the District of Columbia. As she was careful to specify in our first interview, she didn't view herself as a "Capitol Hill historian" but as a historian whose interests included the origin and development of her own neighborhood.
It's also worth remembering that Ruth Ann conducted her historical research in an unusual way – as an independent business person, taking on projects for various paying clients. The projects included work for history-minded homeowners, for architectural and engineering firms, and for various large institutions such as the U.S. Naval Academy and the Department of Justice. Approaching her work in this way, I believe, helped to keep her out of the ivory tower to which historians are prone to retreat and gave her an especially keen appreciation for the "interconnectedness" of a community's life over time. In other words, it made her a better historian.
In closing I must express my thanks and admiration to Ruth Ann's devoted husband Robert Hughes, who worked with her in her business and now holds her precious trove of notes, photographs, maps, and other documents and materials. [NOTE: These materials have since been donated to the Gelman Library at George Washington University.] Special thanks are also due to longtime Capitol Hill resident Katie Jane Teel, who generously volunteered her services in transcribing all of these interviews. Hers was an act of kindness and community spirit that Ruth Ann would have appreciated.
Tape #1 – Recorded February 27, 2000
Franzén: This is Sunday, February 27th, in the year 2000. I'm John Franzén, and I'm here at Sibley Hospital in the room of Ruth Ann Overbeck, who is here as a patient. Ruth Ann is a long-time resident of Capitol Hill and an expert on Capitol Hill history.
Ruth Ann, why don't you start out by telling us a little about how you came to Capitol Hill and got interested in this subject.
Overbeck: I came to Capitol Hill because, first, I had been to Washington, DC, and I absolutely and totally loved Washington when I was here as an urban study student one summer. I decided that if I could possibly get back I would. So in between college and graduate school – it was 1968, in the spring. And in May, on Mother's Day, the house tour takes place for the Capitol Hill Restoration Society.
It never occurred to me that I would be doing anything unusual or different when friends asked me to go along on the tour. Later that afternoon, I found out every other house and garden tour in the city had been canceled that spring because of the fear of additional problems following the assassination of Martin Luther King. And here we were, walking through this neighborhood of little bitty to medium-sized buildings, some frame, some brick, some very plain and some highly ornate. Moms and dads were out with babies in strollers. There were middle-class people who were obviously mid-level government functionaries. There were people who were not so middle-class who were decked out in Easter finery, or maybe their everyday finery, and they were out looking to see what the decorators would have done to the houses.
It was a long tour that year. If memory serves me right, the tour house that was farthest east was in the 100 block of Kentucky – which was really pushing things at that point because a lot of people felt that that just wasn't part of Capitol Hill, and that it was almost dangerous ground, as it were.
So, off we trekked and in we went. And out the front doors we came, and it had such a sense of community and such a sense of: "Hello, how are you? I haven't seen you in six months." Well, nobody sees anybody in the winter in Washington. We all stay inside, unless we go to a party or something like that.
So, it really was an interesting take on a community within a city. I had spent my earliest years in Dallas. I absolutely and totally loved Dallas, hated being moved from Dallas to Denison, which was a small Texas town, but knew the advantages of both – the art museums and the symphonies, and [on the other hand] the little, tiny town-ness, where you can walk into the bank and say: "What is my balance, please?"
And this seemed like it was a good place for me.
My people in Texas – friends, and not so many relatives, because relatives didn't want me to come to Washington, DC – but my friends had said, if you go to Washington, the very least you should do is move to Capitol Hill because that's where all the eggheads live. Well, that was a definition I wasn't really sure fit, but that's okay.
And before I went back to Texas and to graduate school, I had bought a house. Now, buying the house was at the fringe, because I didn't want to have to spend a lot of time doing rehab, because I had other things I wanted to do. So I bought a house in the 100 block of 12th Street Southeast, at number 148, to be precise.
It wasn't the first bid I put in. I put a bid in the 600 block of North Carolina Avenue, and that didn't go through – and thank heavens, because that house later, I found out, had structural problems. I put a bid in on a house at  12th Street Southeast.
Real estate agents were very clever; they still are. Some of my best friends are agents, so don't take offense. But nobody told me that two of the few murders that had happened on Capitol Hill during the riots had happened at 148 12th Street. An elderly woman had left her door open while she walked across the street to the corner of 12th and Independence to post a letter. Two little boys – the oldest of whom was 11 – being opportunistic, saw an open door to a house and they decided they wanted to help themselves. They got surprised when Mrs. Schofe [sp?] went back into her house. There she was; there were these little boys. They started evidently pummeling her or tackling her. She screamed and an elderly man from across the street came over, armed with fireplace tongs. The little boy was strong enough to succumb both of them. Mrs. Schofe died on the spot and the elderly man died later.
And all of this was because these kids had thought it would really be neat to have deep-sea fishing rods.
We thought, the majority of us thought, at that point, of 11-year-olds and younger as being kids. Some of that has changed now, that attitude.
So, in the 32 years there have been social changes, there have been wonderful opportunities, there have been new things that have happened on the Hill. There have been some old things we have lost, but for the most part the Hill has remained a community.
I got out of graduate school in 1970, in May. I came and I moved into my house on 12th Street. And I have never left it.
Franzén: Now, you came with an interest in history already – you were a student of history – and you simply applied that interest to the place where you came to live, yes?
Overbeck: Yes. I'm from Texas, as I said. In Texas, one does not get out – or at least when I was in school – did not get out of school without having had Texas history at fourth, eighth, and eleventh grade. And no matter what your major in college, if it was in anything in the liberal arts, you had to have had at least one semester of Texas history. So you were well grounded, you were rooted, you knew where you came from, you knew who the people were who had given their blood, their sweat, their tears, their joy. In many ways it made the place make a lot of sense.
In Washington, I found that not very many people knew what made Washington make sense. Most of the history that had been done, to that time, had been focused on the "monumental" Washington – certainly not on Capitol Hill.
Georgetown had gotten more than its share of history, because it was the oldest part of the city. It predates the rest of Washington, as we now know it, by at least 50 years. And we also had a whole group of people who were interested in very specific aspects of Washington, such as city planning, the Congress's interaction with the city in terms of such things as where Congress had lived, what had been the influence patterns of Congress, et cetera. But about hometown Washington, I could probably have put everything that had been written in my two hands and it would have measured a stack of maybe six inches. It was very frustrating.
There was a lot of mythology running around. The Restoration Society had done its share of mythology. The real estate community had certainly done its share of mythology. And as I began to try to find the answers, I got deeper and deeper into it. This was not necessarily my primary work, because my primary work was owning our history company, that let people have access to their history, whether it was the general public or the Congress or another Federal institution or whatever. So, digging for Capitol Hill history was tangential, for the most part.
Somebody the other day suggested that my tombstone say "Ruth Ann Overbeck, Capitol Hill historian." I kind of bristled because that is sort of the last of the things that I would have put on there. I would have said "Historian," but I would not have put "Capitol Hill," because I haven't done Capitol Hill history yet. And that is part of what we are doing now.
Franzén: You don't want to be remembered as just a Capitol Hill historian.
Overbeck: No. Somebody said, okay, fine, put "Historian, parentheses, Capitol Hill." [Laughs] Which is probably okay.
It's not that I'm not delighted with the work I've done on Capitol Hill. I'm proud of the work that I have brought to Capitol Hill. It's just that it has not been by any means the full flesh of the history I've done. But most people on Capitol Hill have no idea of the history I have done, so they focus on where we are.
One of the first things I found out was that the mythology was that Daniel Carroll, the original proprietor – and this is not the signer of the Declaration of Independence; it's his nephew. He always had applied a place after his name – not always, but most of the time – this Daniel Carroll had applied after his name something written out as "of Duddington" or "of Ddngton" – any kind of short form like that – and there are people who can't translate it well. So, even in a wonderful manuscript collection such as John Nicholson's Papers, the things that refer to Daniel Carroll are written wrong because "Duddington" is listed incorrectly.
Franzén: What does "of Duddington" actually refer to?
Overbeck: It refers to the fact that he lived on Duddington, and the other Daniel Carroll didn't. It was the same thing as saying John Carlisle of Boston versus a John Carlisle of Queens, or something like that. Just letting you know, but usually in more proximity.
People had a tremendous time naming themselves for each other. Families would perpetuate names. We would have as many as five or six John's, James's and Tom's in the same large family. And trying to keep track of all these people got kind of horrendous. That was one of the reasons why something like "of Duddington" got applied to Daniel Carroll.
Franzén: I know there is a Duddington Place on Capitol Hill.
Overbeck: Duddington Place on Capitol Hill is part of the land that Daniel Carroll owned. It may or may not – because I haven't platted it out – contain an actual piece of the property that he retained and on which he had his estate, his town estate, after the city divided up the property.
Franzén: He called his estate Duddington?
Overbeck: He called his estate Duddington. The Duddington name [for the street] is recent. The real estate industry got into it again. The original name of the street when it was carved out after Daniel Carroll's estate was torn down in the 1880s, the original name of the street was Heckman [sp?] Place.
Overbeck: And that didn't sound fancy enough and it wasn't going to intrigue people to come and look at anything that was there.
Franzén: This was when?
Overbeck: Probably 1950s, I believe. I haven't checked the exact date on the map.
Franzén: The name changed that recently?
Overbeck: Yes, yes. It was definitely a let's-get-people-to-move-to-Capitol-Hill place.
Franzén: Daniel Carroll owned a lot of the property in what is now Capitol Hill, going back to when?
Overbeck: To the 1680s. The Carroll/Young family had inherited it from the original proprietor, who had received the land grant from Lord Baltimore when the English came over to form the colony of Maryland.
Now, over time, other people got land along the west bank of the Anacostia River, but starting with the original land grants, from the mouth of the Anacostia River, all the way up to what we now know as, certainly, the Roseville area or Isherwood area of Capitol Hill up by Benning Road, it was dominantly under the control of the Carroll's or the Young's, and they were cousins and intermarried and all that kind of good stuff.
Franzén: So it was a plantation?
Overbeck: All of the land was listed in its granting as plantations. Whether we would think of them as plantations or not is altogether a different matter. There was nothing like a Tara that stood on Capitol Hill. Zero.
The person who owned the biggest chunk of land east of Daniel Carroll was a man named Walter Houp [pronounced "Howp"] – that funny "o-w" diphthong that they say in Maryland for German "o-u." And you'll find his name on the street maps, and it's new too. It's Walter Houp Place, or Walter Houp Court, and it's just north of East Capitol Street between 11th and 12th. And one of the things I did was get to name the street, because you cannot have mail delivered to an unnamed address in the District of Columbia. A property was grandfathered in as having been in such constant use that it was going to be allowed to be an alley dwelling, even though alley dwellings had been a problem for years and years and years.
The client who owned the house said: "Ruth Ann, can you come over and fix this thing? We've got to have a name." Well, it took me going back to the 17th Century to find a name that would be acceptable to all of the people who had to rule on it, which began with the ANC Commission, the ANC 6A, which is dominantly African-American. So, [we could pick] none of the people who had slaves, virtually no one who was white-white, in Jim Crow days, none of the big speculators who had come in and bought some of the property that belonged to some of the African-Americans, certainly no one from the pre-Civil War era. On and on and on.
Walter Houp was the one person that I could find about whom there was no record of slave ownership. That does not mean he did not own slaves, and I explained this to the ANC Commission. But it does mean that he neither abused them – nothing came up in the court records about them, which means if he had family groups he kept them intact, because he didn't sell them, et cetera.
So they decided they would accept Walter Houp Court. So that's another new name.
Franzén: Now, you mention slavery. All of these land owners on what is now Capitol Hill were slave owners?
Overbeck: I don't know about Walter Houp. I am talking about people who lived here. The first group of land owners on Capitol Hill – patentees, the ones who got the grants – for the most part did not live here. They used the land for maybe the first 10 to 15 years for barter.
We have a record of Mr. Gerard [sp?] trading one piece of property for 40 hogsheads of tobacco. Other people traded for different commodities – [but] primarily tobacco, because tobacco was the major product of the Chesapeake region, and we do fall in that Chesapeake region. As far as I can tell nobody really took residence here until about the 1680s.
Franzén: It would have been wooded land up to that time?
Overbeck: Probably, part and part [not]. You have this long history of the Nactcatanke Indians.
Franzén: Nactcatanke. Spell that.
Overbeck: Oh gosh. That again is like Duddington, the spelling. The simplest version of it is N-a-c-t-c-a-t-a-n-k-e. Now, there was a glottal stop at the beginning that the Jesuits combine with an "A" to get it to be able to be pronounced – because the Jesuits were the ones who made the first effort of making sure that the language became known, and so on.
The Nactcatanke Indians lived primarily on the east side of the Anacostia River, as far down as Bolling Air Force Base. Right at the end of what we now know as the East Capitol Street bridge was a major settlement of them.
They moved. They did slash and burn, which means as they wore out fields they would move, let those fields lie fallow, do the next field, and go on.
Franzén: They were farmers.
Overbeck: They were farmers, but primarily they were diversified. They were settled. They were fisher persons. They had wonderful ways of seining the Anacostia River and catching the herring runs or shad runs that would come up.
Franzén: With nets.
Overbeck: Yes. In addition to this, they were very, very active in trading, and they tended to be, from all that we are going to find out about them, the anchor group that enabled products of Indians from as far – this is pre-point of contact, which means pre-settlement by whites or even pre-contact by whites – that enabled Indian products from as far away as places like the Great Lakes, such as copper, to get all the way down, not only to the Washington area, but all the way on down to the coast.
The residual culture of this is wonderful. It is contained for the most part at the Smithsonian, and they are very proud of the collection.
Additional digs were done up and down the river. There was a major discovery just found down around the K Street freeway on the west side of the Anacostia, where no one was expecting it to be, and it probably more than doubled the amount of artifacts that we already had from the Native Americans.
Franzén: Are there place names now here in the area from them? The Potomac, for example, that's an Indian name.
Overbeck: That's an Indian name, but not from the Nactcatanke. The one from the Nactcatanke is the Anacostia. And the Anacostia River used to be called the Eastern Branch of the Potomac. Old maps show it as that. It was St. Isadore's Bay at one point. It was St. James Cove at one point. There were a whole bunch of changes right early on. Then it became the Eastern Branch of the Anacostin [sic].
However, even with that, I have found about three of the original or secondary levels of title transfers that say the Anacostin River.
Overbeck: Yes. They were calling it the Anacostia, or the Anacostin River – ending with a "t-i-n" – as far back as the late 1600s. So it's had a very checkered history with its names and it's very difficult to follow. You have to know the chronology if you're working on things like bridges and so forth, to know when they really occurred.
Finally, "Anacostia River" was, I believe, adopted in the 1920s as the final name of the river.
Franzén: That's very late.
Overbeck: Very late.
Franzén: Let's get back to this mythology issue. You said a lot of people's assumptions about the early history of Capitol Hill, in terms of who owned what and where, are mistaken.
Overbeck: Basically they thought Daniel Carroll was God – he owned everything, he did everything. He did an awful lot, but in terms of the Federal city, he was not necessarily as pro-Federal city as we have all been led to believe. First of all, he was a curmudgeon.
Franzén: Can I interrupt for just a moment? I want to get this straight. The Daniel Carroll we're talking about now – when did he live?
Overbeck: I think it is the 1770s to 1834. He died a very bitter man. There were people who accused him no end of being parsimonious about his land, that he wanted too much money for it, and therefore people wouldn't move there; that he wouldn't play all the games – although he played a lot of the games because he furnished the land for and helped to build or pay for the building of the Capitol that was in use after the Brits burned the original capitol.
He built a beautiful row of six houses that stood facing the Capitol and would be along the line of just about across A Street where the Library of Congress now stands, the main library, and so on.
Franzén: So, he was the owner at the time that the city was basically laid out and planned as the Federal city. Now, what exactly did he own?
Overbeck: He owned a lot of Southwest, which people ignore. He owned a lot of Buzzard Point, over to about 2nd and a Half, 3rd Street, 4th Street, and gerrymandered up into the north, all the way up into Northeast.
It was a nice little narrow strip. These lands were laid out, in many ways, the way old European lands were. You fought very hard to get water frontage.
Franzén: So, his land followed the Anacostia River.
Overbeck: Yes. And he had made an aborted effort at forming something called "Carrollsburg" back in the late 1880s, to form a town.
Franzén: 1880s or 1780s?
Overbeck: 1780s, of course.
He made a very aborted effort of forming this little town, hoping people would come and buy, and so forth. Very few people did. Even fewer people decided to live there. So that sort of bellied up. But he made whatever money he was going to make. A very tiny thing, maybe six blocks long by four to six blocks deep from the river, which is what we consider a very small town.
He ended up land poor. And in the 1820s he lost a lot of his land to taxes, or had to sell it very low for that. His obituary lets you know that he is not one of the most popular people in town, but that rather he had a heart of gold and he was a good man and so forth.
One of the things that plays into this, and none of us have really sorted it out how much, is that he was one of the remaining Catholic families, and once the colony of Maryland declared Catholicism as a religion persona non grata.
Franzén: Which was when?
Overbeck: In the 1700s. Then it became Episcopalian. Christ Church on Capitol Hill is the oldest church chartered in the Federal city of Washington. Remember, we're not talking about Georgetown, and we're not talking about anything above Florida Avenue or east of the Anacostia River. It came as close to being a state church as we would ever have had in the United States. There were pews for the President. They were expected to attend every so often. It was the official church of the Marine band and the Marines. They marched down there every Sunday morning and they went to the balcony – their preserve, as it were.
Phil Ogilvie has done some studies and we'll cite his monograph because he's done a study on Masonry, Episcopalianism and Catholicism, and how the different people held office, what kinds of control they had.
Now, Daniel Carroll built himself the house that he thought was going to be "the" premier house in Washington – certainly over in this end of town – as an estate. This is jumping ahead. I will jump back. Because to understand the business of how these people with acres and acres and acres of land that stretched from the Anacostia all the way up into Northeast suddenly ended up with 800 lots of land that were not necessarily contiguous, you've got to know how the city got itself divided.
Overbeck: Divided. George Washington, once he determined where he was going to have the city – because it was left up to him by Congress to do this – and once he decided where he was going to do this, he then sent some emissaries out to buy land as if they were buying it for themselves.
Franzén: To pretend they were buying it for themselves?
Overbeck: Yes, but to, in fact, be buying it for the government.
That didn't wash very well. Too many people in town knew too much. And a man named William Prout came down from Baltimore who had recently arrived there from England, and Prout had the land that had been originally Walter Houp's and two or three other people's. They combined them over time, they had been combined. He bought the whole schmere.
Prout had a different idea about his land, in that several years earlier he had tried to find land in England that would be income-producing property – an estate that would have a village, that would have industry, et cetera, similar – far-flung, but similar, though certainly not on the scale of one of the villages or estates that Prince Charles owns. It's self-contained.
He understood that kind of use of property. I don't think Daniel Carroll ever understood that kind of use of property. This Mr. Prout's ideas about land use were much more realistic than virtually any of the other proprietors in the Federal city in that he knew what it took. Because he had gone through years of this in England, watching how small communities built up, how estates built up, how they functioned, what kinds of things it takes to make them run.
Anyway, when Pierre L'Enfant was tapped by George Washington to look at the city, he told him to start down along the Anacostia at the east end. Again, this was one of George Washington's ploys. Just as he told his buddies to go out and buy the land for the city and to do it on the east end, L'Enfant was to start on the east end to make people think that was where things would really happen. L'Enfant was an engineer and he had looked at the city and he came up ...
Franzén: By "east end," you mean where?
Overbeck: Capitol Hill.
The only thing that was included in the Federal City was, using your fist, if you have it pointing towards you and the knuckle below your thumb is Fort McNair and you follow the line along Hains Point and the Potomac River, up to where Rock Creek really comes underneath one of the bridges and keeps on going up to P street, then there is a little lump. If you look at the map, there is a little lump there at the top that goes sort of over from P Street down to Florida Avenue. Then follow your knuckles down to the third knuckle along Florida Avenue, then the little pinky usually drops down enough, and that is where Benjamin Stoddert owned some land.
He didn't want to be in the Federal city. And his good buddy George Washington gerrymandered the line so he didn't have to be. And that's how we got that funny little lump over there by the Anacostia that drops down and goes over down to C Street Northeast on Capitol Hill. Then right down there you take a turn down in the outside of your fist and you're along the Anacostia River and the stadium, and get back to this lump that is the base of your pinky and you are sort of by that point close to the Navy Yard. Go on across and follow that and get on back down here to the original bump under your thumb, and that's where Fort McNair is.
That's all that was ever intended to be the Federal city.
Franzén: All the area in Northwest ...
Overbeck: That was Washington County. And so was Washington County over on the east side of the Anacostia. The incorporated city of Georgetown was part of the District of Columbia, and the incorporated city of Alexandria was part of the District of Columbia, and Arlington County was part of the District of Columbia.
Franzén: But this perfect diamond shape ...
Overbeck: That's it, the District of Columbia. The ten [four?] points contained all these other things, but Georgetown operated autonomously, Alexandria certainly operated autonomously. The county had its own justices of the peace.
Franzén: Washington County?
Overbeck: Washington County and Arlington County. And here we were, this little thing in the middle, and we are the city. Now, all of these other areas were supposed to be the buffer zones. They were supposed to be the support system. We could lean on the infrastructure that was already in place in Alexandria and Georgetown, until we got our own banks, our own libraries, our own whatever started well enough to be involved.
Franzén: This was George Washington's concept.
Overbeck: Yes, but not by himself. Madison played a role in this; Jefferson played a role in this. Some of the leading lights of the world played a role in this, as it were.
At any rate, the city was only supposed to be in this little knot. And in that little knot, according to George Washington's public professions, the east end of it was for Capitol Hill. From the Capitol on east would have been the biggy.
Franzén: The biggy?
Overbeck: The biggy. It would have been the city.
Now, this suited L'Enfant beautifully. L'Enfant was an engineer. He was excellent at it, a very good designer. Temperamental as heck. He came across the ferry at about the end of 14th Street Southeast and he came across what he called essentially this "plain," and he rhapsodized about what a wonderful place it would be for – and started listing all of the city things that should be [located] there.
Franzén: This "plain."
Overbeck: Yes, it was almost like a plain. It was lumpy, but it was not mountainous. It was not a valley. It was not deeply gorged. We had a creek going across Pennsylvania Avenue – or where Pennsylvania Avenue was going to be. There was a creek going down to the Anacostia. You can deal with creeks.
Franzén: He was referring to Capitol Hill as a plain?
Overbeck: Yes. The interesting part of it is, when people say, Where is Capitol Hill, the cab drivers will tell you: to 2nd Street, or the [edge of the] Federal enclave, or maybe, if they're generous, to 6th Street. Now maybe they will say out to Lincoln Park, if they want a good tip. Past Lincoln Park is still sort of verboten.
But L'Enfant looked at it as a whole. Eighth Street would be the commercial center. It would be the seat of the Central Exchange.
People who travel and go to England and so on would know that there is something called the Royal Exchange. What happens at the Royal Exchange is stock brokering, same thing as the New York Stock Exchange. However, in those days of sailing ships, the way that took place was by the water, where people could see the ships coming in, get the latest news of the ships, see whose ship had gone down, whose ship had made it, whose ship had taken on an extra load, what a commodity was selling for in Barbados or Portugal or wherever, and then they would do their speculating on that basis, on that information. Very fresh information.
This is why water was so important. This is one of the reasons why this city ended up being located here. One of the reasons the Anacostia River was so very important was because of the water. There would have been no reason to have an international capital that could not be reached by anything other than land because there was no good land transportation.
Franzén: And this is about as far up as you could navigate with a large ship on the river, yes?
Overbeck: Certainly on the other side, because on the Potomac you could not get past the Three Sisters and the rocks up there, and on the Anacostia you were beginning no longer to be able to take big ships up to Bladensburg. By "big" ships we are really talking tiny ships. We think of them as big ships from a historic point of view, but they are not. They are really tiny.
Anyway, a perfect place – 8th Street from Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast to the river was going to be the seat of the Central Exchange, with the exchange being the public reservation that was right there on the water, or at the water, at the foot of where we now have most of the Navy Yard. The Navy Yard now consumes more than that, but much of the Navy Yard was there.
Among other things, he had planned – L'Enfant planned to have the local government sited where Garfield Park is. It was going to be where the legislature, the mayoral offices, all of those things were going to be. There were going to be all sorts – the public market was going to be down by where the Marines are now. Where the Arthur Capper housing projects are – that was going to be the site of the public market. The public market was crucial. In those days of non-refrigeration, things we take for granted were luxuries, and the market was critical.
There was going to be a canal that connected from just east of 2nd Street, I believe, Southeast, all the way up to Canal Street now, which is up the diagonal street that goes below the Rayburn building that goes over to Independence. The canal was going to continue there. The canal was going to go on up and go across the foot of the Capitol and then turn to the west and go straight along what is now Constitution Avenue, out to the Potomac.
Franzén: That canal was built?
Overbeck: Part of it was built, a lot of it wasn't. And there was going to be another leg that went down Delaware Avenue, down to Ft. McNair, but that's a whole different story and it doesn't get in here. It didn't happen, either, until much later.
Anyway, with all of these plans and things that were going to go on, it turned out that virtually everything except the Capitol and the congressional buildings – which weren't planned for because they didn't think they would need them – and part of the Navy Yard had been platted on Mr. Prout's land and not Mr. Carroll's land. So the real city of Capitol Hill, our real hometown, was not Daniel Carroll's of Duddington; our real city was Mr. Prout's city.
Franzén: Maybe I'm getting ahead of us here but I have a question about names. Jenkins Hill – what is the significance of that name? I remember when I first moved to Washington I was told this was originally Jenkins Hill and this was a sheep pasture, a farm, or some such thing. What's the basis of that story?
Overbeck: There supposedly is a lease to a man, a farmer named Jenkins, on that hill. I have never really bothered with it. One of the reasons I have never really bothered with it is that right across the Anacostia, in a direct line with [Capitol] Hill, out Alabama Avenue, there is a Jenkins Hill. That is Jenkins Hill. It belonged to the Jenkins family for years.
So if no one knows anything more about the Jenkins Hill name than I just told you... There is supposedly a lease running around with a farmer's name on it – "Jenkins" – for the Capitol [Hill] for a short period of time.
Franzén: But it cannot be documented?
Overbeck: It is supposedly on a lease. I've not seen the lease.
Franzén: But he was not an owner of the land.
Overbeck: No. In terms of any of the names of anything that we need to name things, we have a lot of heroes and a lot of scofflaws and so forth that we would do better naming things for than Mr. Jenkins.
Franzén: So, it was Prout, more than anyone else, who owned the land that is now Capitol Hill.
Overbeck: Almost every school, almost every public school is on Prout land, what was Prout land, including the natatorium, the market, the new Eastern Market, going right on up.
Franzén: You said the "new" Eastern Market. Why do you call it the new Eastern Market?
Overbeck: Because the original market was built down on two reservations that are between K and L and 7th and 6th Southeast.
Franzén: That was a market somewhat similar to what Eastern Market has become? An open-air gathering place – or partly enclosed, partly open air?
Overbeck: There are no written descriptions of the market in its original state that we have been able to find. We have looked and looked and looked. That doesn't mean they won't turn up tomorrow.
In their plan, Washington, Jefferson and Madison all set down parameters of what they thought was crucial. Jefferson is the one agrarian who thought that public markets were absolutely crucial to survival of the city. So he planned for there to be one in the eastern section of the city, the central section of the city, the western section of the city, and the northern section of the city.
Central Market is the one that was built first and it was down on the [National] Archives site.
Franzén: On the canal?
Overbeck: Back on the canal. It made great sense. Mr. Prout lobbied throughout the 1790s to the city commissioners to build a market in the eastern section. There is a wonderful petition from people who lives and worked east of the Capitol in 1798, I believe, and for the most part it lists their occupation, their country of origin. There are even women on it – I thought, great! – and they wanted a "flesh and fowl market." Remember, this is that 10-hour workday, six days a week, and if they're going to go shopping – there is no refrigeration, it's hot in Washington, and if everybody and their family are trying to pull their weight working, then they are off down to Central Market. That is a long way to walk up and down that bloody hill and come all the way back down to the river area.
So finally, in 1804 or 1805, Mr. Prout and a couple of his buddies down by the river send a letter to President Jefferson and he okays it. They start building the market immediately.
Now, whether or not it was anything more than a covered shed arrangement initially – we do not know because we do not know yet which floor we found. It is a beautiful brick floor. We don't know if we found the 1823 addition floor or if we found the original floor.
Franzén: The floor of the old market that was found during construction of the Marine ...
Overbeck: Not even demolition yet or construction. It is during the presentation for what is called "mitigating the land" for the expenditure of Federal money on a Federal project.
It is so exciting to see that floor come up. They called me and said, Ruth Ann, get over here. I said, great. It was really great. We don't know yet. We will find out.
People are asking, What will we find there? What kind of things should we find? Well, hoops from barrels; nails, obviously. Probably virtually no cans at all, because America was laggardly in getting cans into production. They probably wouldn't have gotten their cans into production and useful enough to be taken to a diversified market until after the Civil War, which is when this market ceased to be used. Certainly any kind of jugs that would have held oil or olives. Any kind of glassware that would have been used to import things. The land in Washington is very acidic, so to expect basketry to have survived is a little bit out of line.
Anyway, we are all excited about that. Our knowledge of the market expanded by a thousand-fold when we found that.
Franzén: When was that found, exactly?
Franzén: Just this past year, 1999?
Overbeck: Yes, 1999.
Franzén: And that [site]will be thoroughly excavated before the construction of the Marine facilities goes forward, is that right?
Overbeck: It's supposed to be, if everything falls into train, yes. And we are hoping even if everything doesn't fall into train, someone will have the insight – and I have talked to the Council member about this – that somebody will have the insight to know how important this is to Capitol Hill, because we have nothing on Capitol Hill that is an artifact trove like that would be. So we are excited about it.
That market – and then all of a sudden the Central Exchange didn't happen.
[End of Tape #1]
Tape #2 – Continuing 2/27/00 Session
Franzén: We are beginning tape two. I'm John Franzén. I'm interviewing Ruth Ann Overbeck, talking about the history of Capitol Hill.
Ruth Ann, you were talking about William Prout who owned the land that at the foot of what is now 8th Street on the Anacostia River. When that land was designated as the place that was going to become the commercial center for the new Federal city, did he make a lot of money from the subdivision of that property, and the lots and so forth? Was that a windfall for him? What happened?
Overbeck: I think he anticipated doing that, but it's not exactly what happened, and certainly not up front. Prout speculated in the land. He protested to his family back in England that he had had no idea that his land was going to be so valuable.
On the other hand, with all the rumors that were going around here and in Baltimore, and with the people that he knew, even though he was a newcomer to the United States, there was almost no way that he didn't know pretty well what was going to happen. Maybe not that the Central Exchange would be there, but that this would be very valuable land.
Now, what happened is that L'Enfant loves [Prout's] land and thinks that it is absolutely great land, planned for the Central Exchange, for a market and the commercial corridor, et cetera. The way in which the city land became divided into lots and squares, which is still our standard dimension for land parcels, is that the commissioners had each piece of land surveyed – of each proprietor – and then they offered back to the proprietors a deal that George Washington had talked them into taking, which he said was a deal they couldn't refuse, which was really a deal they probably should have refused.
Out of each piece of land, divided into lots and squares, half of the lots were to be given back to the proprietors for them to keep or sell as they wished. They got no recompense for streets, alleys, sidewalks, public reservations.
You think about the fact that out of Prout's land had to come the reservation for the market, the reservation for the Central Exchange – a pretty big chunk of land – and they had the onus of marketing their land in direct competition to the lots in the same locations where the government was marketing theirs.
Franzén: So the government itself owned some of the land and they became land speculators, too, in a sense.
Overbeck: Absolutely. That was how they were going to pay for constructing the Capitol and White House, et cetera.
Franzén: And Prout and the others who owned the land could only make money off the land that was going to be lots. In other words, the government didn't pay them anything for the public space.
Overbeck: That's right. Anything the public was going to use, kiss it goodbye.
Now, we have one person in the city who had sense enough to say that George Washington was a you-know-what, and that was little Davy Burns [sp?], whose land is down where the White House is, and the Van Ness mansion, which is now where the DAR et cetera is located.
And Davy Burns politely told Mr. Washington that he had no business messing with their land. After all, the only way he [Washington] had gotten land was to marry the rich widow Custis.
Anyway, Davy had a pretty good idea about what was going to happen.
Mr. Prout, on the other hand, unlike George Walker, who was a man who owned the land east of Prout – if you think of the Anacostia going from west to east of South Capitol Street, you would say Daniel Carroll is on there until about 4th Street, and at 4th Street Mr. Prout picks up for about seven squares and goes over to almost 11th street. Then there is George Walker, a Scotsman, and so on. These are speculators who have bought in. These are not people who – with the exception of Daniel Carroll – who had owned the land and farmed it and knew the land. People like George Walker didn't make the money they thought they were going to make and got tired and went home. They just cut out.
Prout had a better sense of how to do things. First of all, and how much this has to do with anything we are not exactly sure, but it probably had a lot to do with his mortgage. He ended up marrying one of the daughters of the man from whom he had bought his land, and the man from whom he bought the land was Jonathan Slater. So he got an extension on the time he had to pay. It was not a formal extension, you can just tell it happened.
Then Prout maintained his mercantile store in Baltimore, giving himself a firm foundation in finance. He opened a mercantile store in Georgetown shortly after 1790, giving himself another pretty firm foundation, and also making some pretty good friends of people like Samuel Davidson, and so forth, who had inside information because they were good buddies of George Washington.
He then decides it is about time for him to move to Washington. In the meantime, he has been trying to get the commissioners who have oversight over all this land, its use and disposal and so on, to do several things, one of which is to get busy faster in terms of promoting the land. And he also has a deal going wherein he is offering up lots not only for sale but for lease.
Now, their income is a very big problem with Mr. Prout. Mr. Prout is used to the British system of metes and bounds in terms of measuring land – metes and bounds, which means feet and inches, chains and so forth, this whole series of different ways you can do metes and bounds. The standard city lots of Washington were laid out in rectangles that were feet and inches, and that was that. All of a sudden we come to a deed from Mr. Prout and it will say 90 feet from Virginia Avenue due north X number of feet, due east X number of feet, et cetera, et cetera.
It made following his land transaction a real pain, but he was able to get his land leased and he leased a surprising portion of it, actually. He didn't sell as much of it as he had hoped to sell, but he moved to Washington, into the enclave that had been the Slater homestead, or home place.
When you talk about a "home place," in this particular time, you are talking about the place in which the family actually dwelt. It may not be the house. It could be the house, but it may just simply be the location. The Slater's had lived between 7th and 8th and M and Virginia Avenue. The family graveyard was there at the corner of M and 8th Street, right above the gate of the Navy Yard. So they left the houses and barns standing. And in one of his letters back to England, Prout says that he has more buildings on his property than there are in all of the rest of the city combined.
Well, we don't think so, because we know there were not that many buildings on Slater land, and Carroll had a substantial number of buildings. Certainly people like Nutley down in Southwest had a substantial number of buildings, but he did have a good coterie from which to select.
There is one intriguing ad from about 1793 that says that the Eastern Branch Tavern is opening in the former home of Mr. Slater. If that is true – and there is no way to disprove it or really to prove it unless something else comes to light – if that is true, that is the earliest commercial tavern/hotel established in the city of Washington. And it would be down there to serve the people along the wharf – a wharf was being built. They
already had wharves at the foot of South Capitol Street to take stone and timber up to the Capitol because that was the easiest way to bring it here – by water, then sled it up.
They already had wharves there for boat owners, ship owners. And the reason they had those was because, again, if you are going to have something like a Central Exchange you have to have ways for people to exchange information. So you are trying to entice the boats to come, unload there, hopefully first, and they can give as much information as possible to those people who want to do the speculation and so on.
Franzén: Did you say what the year was for the tavern?
Overbeck: I think it was 1793. We probably better check it, but I think it was 1793.
Prout also talked about the fact that he has warehouses in Washington. Well, the only property he actually owned in Washington is the Slater property, so we're assuming that he had warehouses where he was going to be storing additional merchandise for his enterprise – either in Georgetown or in Baltimore, or both – temporarily, until he could be storing it in some of these barns. But we don't know that for sure.
Now, he marries and doesn't move here for a couple of years. And there is a question in some of our minds about why he didn't move here immediately. Part of it has to do, I think, with the comfort of his wife. She was expecting, and they'd lost their first child. And part of it has to do with there just wasn't enough here yet to do and he could make more money in Baltimore as a merchant until he could get down here and get his group together to buy from him.
But he set his nephew up in business over in Georgetown, and that seemed to work for a while. But the nephew was a scofflaw and that wasn't truly successful.
Then in 1794 or 95, it becomes very clear he is getting ready to move. One of the biggest indicators is he buys a piano forte – because you don't move one of those around very much. There is a house that is built. We have no description of it. We know the approximate size of it from a map. We know the approximate placement of it from a map. There is absolutely no written description of it. And it is in the square that is bound by 7th and 8th and M and L Southeast. And he built it almost in the center of the square, as if it was going to be a town estate rather than being a house that's out on the street edge. And there are other houses there as well, other buildings there as well. One of these he built is probably the store for his nephew.
Franzén: That house no longer stands?
Overbeck: That house no longer stands.
When we tried to figure out what to do about the Navy Yard and the Navy Yard area, we tried to find out what the given date was that the Navy Yard became an operative place. Where was it, what can we talk about at this point in time that existed in the Navy Yard neighborhood, et cetera.
Franzén: I would have assumed the Navy Yard was there first.
Overbeck: No, no. That was one of the last things that George Washington selected was the site of the Navy Yard before he died. Right now it is celebrating either the third or fourth "anniversary" because of the different levels of Congressional resolutions that had to be signed, and the Navy Yard has had a wonderful series of anniversary parties.
Franzén: So when did the Navy Yard come in?
Overbeck: Oh, 1798, '99. And the Prout's are already there. I was looking to find something that could show anybody that was there when the Navy Yard got there – Prout's house, Tunnicliff's Tavern, which was a tavern that was of fairly good repute up at Pennsylvania Avenue, 8th, 9th and E.
Franzén: Tunnicliff's, as in the current-day Tunnicliff's.
Overbeck: No, that one is named for it.
Franzén: I understand that, but that's where the name came from.
Overbeck: That's where the name came from.
Franzén: So the Navy Yard comes along and basically screws up the whole plan for that area being the commercial area?
Overbeck: Absolutely. And at first the two people who have to cede land in order for this to be big enough to work are Daniel Carroll and William Prout.
You remember a few minutes ago I said something about Benjamin Stoddert negotiating with George Washington so that his little part of the Hill wouldn't be in the city? Well, the reason for that was that there was a spring on it, and he was Secretary of the Navy – he wanted to have the Navy Yard built next to his land. But it was unsuitable. And if he had checked it out early enough he would have known that, because the mud over there slips and slides – it's a disaster, it's not stable.
So the next nearest place along the Anacostia River was the square for the [Central] Exchange.
Franzén: The Navy Yard was established for defense ...
Overbeck: It was.
Franzén: I would have thought that was the first thing they'd think about.
Overbeck: It was one of the first things George Washington talked about in defending why he was going to put the city where he did, and that was that anywhere along the Anacostia River would render a safe harbor from which American Navy vessels could sally forth and head down the Potomac to take care of anybody who was trying to invade.
Of course, that is not quite the way it worked, but that's the theory – a good theory. He felt that the Potomac River was not adequate. And it wasn't. It was too shoaled and the channels were bad, and all kinds of reasons, but he wanted them to be able to come out for the element of surprise. But nobody got around to putting the Navy Yard there. There wasn't that much here. We had one tiny little gun at the foot of Ft. McNair defending the whole city; a little tiny thing.
Anyway, Daniel Carroll backs out, gets mad. He doesn't like the idea that he is going to lose the Central Exchange, and so he delays the process considerably. By this time, I think that William Prout probably just simply wanted to be able to get on with the show, and it didn't make that much difference if it was sailors or if it was businessmen in frock coats. He figured they would come.
Well, the next thing you know is they start having the Navy Yard built, and people begin coming there. I have gone through a whole series of efforts trying to find out what is the oldest building we have left that is outside the Yard gates. We know what the buildings are inside the Yard gates. Those are well documented. But outside the Yard gates, what have we got?
There is an enumeration of habitable buildings for May 1800, and it goes on up to November 1800 and then into 1801. And we have been able to identify each of the buildings that were on that habitable list and where they were along the Navy Yard. And not one of them from 1800 is still standing. Not one. And there are a number of reasons for that, but it has to do with economics, it has to do with probably the character of the buildings themselves, and so on.
Franzén: What can we assume about the character of the buildings? What were they made of – stone, brick, wood?
Overbeck: The city law required that all buildings facing primary streets sit parallel to the street they faced, be a minimum of two stories high, and be of brick or stone – in other words, fireproof.
But this was a very poor city. People went bankrupt like crazy. People defaulted on loans. People picked up and left their tools. One woman went running out to Benjamin Latrobe in about 1810, grabbed at him and said: "Please buy my fowling piece. My husband has died, my children are sick. This is the only thing I have left of value, and I need money."
That is a graphic description of how poor it is. There are tales that are legion of workmen going in the middle of the night and taking down doors and so forth from other houses to resize to use for the houses they are working on, because they can't get supplies.
Franzén: Stealing doors?
Overbeck: Stealing doors, windows, pieces.
It's really pathetic when you read what happened to this magnificent dream, and what was allowed to happen because there was not a sufficient backup of funds. It's incredible. It's a wonder we ever got anywhere.
Franzén: Lack of wealth ...
Overbeck: One of the major investors in this city was Robert Morris, who was the financier of the Revolution. He spent time in debtors' prison because of over-speculation. He did nothing except in a grand way.
John Nicholson, same thing. He was Morris's colleague from Philadelphia. To keep your shirt from being burned off, you either had to have money or you had to stay out of Washington, in terms of expecting to make money here.
This is one of the reasons why William Prout is such an interesting character, because he came here, stayed here, and did make money. He didn't make a huge amount, but he made good money.
Franzén: Getting back to the houses. So, many of these houses were not made of brick or stone, but were made of wood.
Overbeck: Made of wood.
Franzén: And of a pretty low-standard quality.
Overbeck: Made of a low-standard quality. They were one or two rooms wide on the first floor, maybe a max of four; same thing upstairs – if they had an upstairs. They were supposed to have an upstairs, by law, but didn't necessarily.
Franzén: Were they actually abutting each other as we have our town houses today, or was there space between them? Or do we know?
Overbeck: Some were, some weren't. Row houses were tried down on South Capitol Street and down in Southwest, up on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, and New Jersey Avenue Southeast. And they were rather unsuccessful because there were not enough takers.
So people began building, instead of six houses at a time on spec – in which the economy of scale gets lost very quickly [?] – they would build one or two at a time. They did not have to be on the lot line, the side lot line. But if they were built on the side lot line, they had to be prepared to share the party wall with their neighbor. They could be as far back from the front lot line as they wanted or as close up to the front lot line as they wanted.
And that was a Thomas Jefferson thing, and is absolutely traceable. He said nothing bored him more than Philadelphia, with all those straight lines of buildings and no "surprises of the oblique." And he wanted the surprise of the oblique.
That situation lasted clear up until the 1870s, when we got new laws that standardized where buildings had to be relative to the front lot line, because of pipelines.
Franzén: Pipelines. You're talking about sewer lines ...
Overbeck: Yes. Gas lines, the first gas lines, were laid in the 1850s, and they were okay because not that many people could afford them. But by the time we got to sewer and water and standardized gas for everybody, then everybody had to line up. You can walk around Capitol Hill, and we'll show you some pictures ...
Franzén: Should we see a house that's set back from the line of the other houses, we can assume it was built before 1870?
Overbeck: About 1878, yes. And there are also tons of houses over there, hiding behind facades, which you'd never know were there. We found one building on 8th Street that looked for all the world like an 1880s building, and was. And as we began the rehab for it, we found three additional houses in it, including the original one, which was a good 40 feet back from the front lot line.
Franzén: Three houses within it. So, what you're saying is the front of the house kept moving forward.
Overbeck: They kept accreting.
Franzén: Adding to the front of the house.
Overbeck: Yes. We have all of these wonderful things going on that make it look interesting and tremendous. What we did, finally, to determine where the Navy Yard actually was – because there has been some question, there have been questions about where is the Navy Yard, the end and beginning, or the Capitol neighborhood end and beginning. The earliest city directory lists buildings by location, close to a particular place, because most of the houses did not have numbers. So, it would say: M Street, near the Navy Yard. Or 4th 1/2 Street, Navy Yard, between L and M. Something like that.
So I calculated all of those and platted them so we would know where the Navy Yard was. The Navy Yard's western boundary is right down the alley between 3rd and 4th. It goes straight up to Pennsylvania Avenue, comes right back down, and goes all the way over to 14th street. Now, that doesn't mean that was completely filled in the 1820s, because believe me it was very sparse. But those people who were associated with the Navy Yard either as worker bees or furnishing supplies for them or whatever, were given that kind of an address.
Franzén: It went to what is now Pennsylvania Avenue. So it was much larger then.
Overbeck: Much larger than what we think of the Navy Yard as being – because the Navy Yard is one of the most important things that ever happened to Capitol Hill.
[End of 2/27/00 Session]
Tape #2 (cont.) – Now March 1, 2000
Franzén: Okay, we've had to take a break. It is now a couple of days later, three days later. It's Wednesday, March 1st, 2000. We're back at Sibley hospital.
Ruth Ann, when we broke off on Sunday we were starting to talk about the Navy Yard. But let's take a step back before we continue with that. Let's take a step back to what Capitol Hill looked like back before that time. Let's go back into the 1700s, and take us step by step from the raw land to the layout of the city as it is starting to come into being, around 1800.
Overbeck: One of the best examples to consider is that if you were standing at today's point of 8th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast and you were standing on the land that then existed at the time of the point of contact of the Native Americans and settlers or the explorer-pioneers, whatever we wish to call them from Europe, you would find you were standing at least eight feet higher in the air. The land was not terribly [inaudible], not to be construed as mountainous or whatever. It was, for land, fairly level, but it did have an enormously rich ecology. And part of that ecology included six streams that crossed Pennsylvania Avenue going generally from northeast to southeast down toward the Anacostia River.
Franzén: Right across Capitol Hill. And you say it was eight feet higher?
Overbeck: At that point it was eight feet higher.
Franzén: So that got landscaped as the city was developed.
Overbeck: Yes. Also, some of that landscape had already been changed to adaptive use for plantation farming over time.
Franzén: Woods had been cleared?
Overbeck: Some of the woods had been cleared – not all of them.
Early on, you would have seen white-tailed deer, all sorts of animals, heard wonderful birds, lots of flush snipe – for whatever good it would do you if you didn't have the proper armament to get food on your table.
But it was really an area – 1600-1619 – when the first point of contact of the Americans-to-be, the settlers, came up the river, they would have heard the guttural language of the Nactcatanke we talked about before and they would have seen this enormously beautiful land. Now, some of the land had been burned over for fields, for the Indians to plant their corn. Some of the land was still standing with large, large trees. The trees were so tall that they absolutely and totally amazed the Europeans. They were taller than anything they had seen in England. You could build a whole mast for a ship out of one tree – which by that time in England was almost impossible, because the tall trees had been cut back so much.
So if we were standing there at 8th and Pennsylvania and we were just listening, by 1720 we would have heard very little of the guttural language of the Nactcatanke because for the most part they were long since gone.
Franzén: Gone where? What happened?
Overbeck: Many of them died from diseases of foreign countries. Some of them were sent off or moved off to go with other tribes. The Colony of Maryland actually established the first Indian reservation in what became the United States. It was down in southern Maryland. Some of the Nactcatanke may have gone down with them. There is a group of descendents who believe they are probably Nactcatanke descendents that are down on the reservation now.
So, they would have more or less disappeared except for trading parties that were not Nactcatanke that would come down out of the western mountains and trade with the settlers. They were still using the old patterns of trade to get what they thought they needed and to get things they had never seen before or heard of heard of before – European goods.
By the 1720s you also would have heard not only the English language spoken regularly, but you would have heard the very soft language of people speaking African, African dialects, and learning to speak English – a polyglot kind of English, because that's how they picked up their language.
For the most part, the land itself wouldn't have changed that much. Certainly the streams would still be there. You would still hear the rushing water, there would still be snipe. The deer would have learned to be more frightened and they would be at the margins of the forest because of the guns, which the Indians, of course, had not had. Other animals, also, would be lurking more toward the edges of the forest rather than into the heart of the land, and coming on to the stream to water early morning, late at night.
The land would have begun to be plowed – very primitively plowed, as far as we're concerned – but it would have taken shape in the form primarily of tobacco crops, because that was the main focus of finance.
As we get nearer to the 1790s, this would simply have all intensified somewhat, because more settlers would have come into the area to stay. Basically, we feel there's about a 1719-1725 cut-off between pioneers and settlers, because of the people who were really pushing the frontier. We begin to have much more organization within parishes, within voting precincts. By that time, the sheriff, all of those people, were beginning to be in place.
So, that takes us up to a defined agricultural land in 1790. Then there is this map that is, in general, laid out, when Washington decides, yes, we are going to use this particular area which is from Rock Creek to the Herb Branch, back up to about Florida Avenue, which is part of the general boundary earlier, and that would become city. So that was the part that was being platted.
Now, the first survey for all for this had nothing to do within Capitol Hill itself. That survey was out along the ten-mile line. They had to establish that and fix that at the Federal district before they could fix the Federal city.
Franzén: The 10-mile square.
Overbeck: The famous 10-mile square that is not a 10-mile square anymore.
Anyway, the move from the 10-mile square inward was slower. Now, there was massive speculation going on and people wanted to buy thousands of lots. George Washington did not want anyone buying an excess number of lots because he – rightly so – felt this would ultimately lead to a collapse in the economy and it would be detrimental to the city to have landscape dominated by any one group of people or any "combine," as it were, merchants, whatever. That didn't stop the speculation from going rampant. Some speculated with one lot, some speculated with thousands.
I've talked about the big financiers, Morris and Nicholson, and we will discuss in a few minutes people named Thomas Law and William Mayn Duncanson.
In the meantime, what we had to do was get the squares and the lots laid out.
Franzén: Was L'Enfant involved at this point?
Overbeck: No, L'Enfant is already out.
Overbeck: L'Enfant never laid out the lots and squares because he'd been fired.
Franzén: When was that?
Overbeck: I don't remember the date. He had made enough people angry, including, in particular, Daniel Carroll, because Daniel Carroll had cited his new home down on G Street Southeast where he thought it ought to be, and it hung out into the road, into the street line. And L'Enfant had the foundation pulled down in the middle of the night. Didn't endear the man. He had the ego of an artist. And he was a wonderful character – tremendous drive and energy. No tact whatever.
He felt that Washington probably was a God and could protect him from all else. Washington by this time was well weary of all of these people fussing, and had made sure that he gave as much of the power – to transfer the power, at least the blatant overpower – to the commissioners as possible, which is a group of three men who were responsible for the Federal city, the commissioners of the Federal city.
Franzén: So L'Enfant was out of the picture by some time in the 1790s?
Franzén: And stayed out?
Overbeck: Well, he was this forlorn, haggard figure that was seen walking around from time to time with his dog, looking sort of raggedy, petitioning Congress to pay him what it owed him. What else is new in Washington?
Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that a square is a square – whether it is a circle, a triangular base, polygon or a square – in Washington. Still the large unit that contains lots is called the square.
Franzén: What we normally think of as a block.
Overbeck: A block, yes. Those were begun to be laid out, on demand, over by Rock Creek and near Pennsylvania Avenue. Obviously we're still playing out this game ... by this time, which is about 1791 or 1792, most people really have given up on the idea that the game is that Capitol Hill is going to be the city. There are still people who have hopes and think they can swing it, but for the most part they have realized that if you really look carefully at what's going on, the city is going to be dominated by Rock Creek, west of the Capitol and not east.
Franzén: So, that reality had begun to dawn on people by the early 1790s.
Overbeck: By the early 1790s. They weren't happy with it, and some of them didn't believe it and felt it would still change. But if you look at it carefully it was a very uninspired person who couldn't figure out what was going on. The square numbers were assigned sequentially, one on up, and they were well into the 600s by the time they got to Capitol Hill.
Franzén: Did that pattern continue all the way through?
Overbeck: All the way through the part we have already talked about as being the Federal city. It was later extended outside the bounds of the Federal city but in a much more – I'm not going to say "unorganized" or "disorganized" pattern, but it is much more confusing once you get out into the county. And it is certainly confusing when you have the overlays of the square numbers over in Georgetown, over the ones that had been part of the original city.
Franzén: But otherwise, early on, we can more or less assume that the squares were numbered in the order in which they were laid out?
Overbeck: Pretty much they were laid out. They were certainly gridded out on paper in that order and then they were to be laid out on the land in that order. The laying out of a square took a surveyor and four small marble squares or cubes.
Franzén: At each corner.
Overbeck: One at each corner.
In order to establish street lines, if trees stood in the street they simply were cut down, but they were cut down at about knee height. So here you would go on your horse, or you and your own shanks mare – you would not take a carriage, there were very few places you could take a carriage if you had a carriage – and you would thread yourself carefully through stumps. And there were no street markers.
Franzén: No signs.
Overbeck: No signs, nothing of that nature. And the National Intelligencer and its predecessors – which were an assortment of various newspapers – are marvelous reading, if for no other reason than [to read]: "We are going to meet at Mr. So-and-so for So-and-so's event. We are going to meet there and it is the place near ..." and they will say Tunnicliff's Tavern or the place near Rhodes Tavern, it is the place near the boarding house, et cetera. A lot of confusion and a lot of wasted time went on for people trying to find their way to and from one part of the city to another.
Franzén: The little marble markers at the corners of the squares, can they still be found?
Overbeck: I've never seen one, I don't know. But no one has ever proudly shown me one. They are certainly not at any of the corners that I have walked on Capitol Hill, but whether or not one has been saved and put aside, or whatever, I don't know.
Franzén: Would they have been markers above ground level or under ground level, or where?
Overbeck: If they were typical, they would have been little markers, just slightly above the grade.
Anyway, then came dealing with turning the squares into lots. And there were certain dimensions that were felt to be appropriate. Anything probably ranging from about 30 to 50 feet was an appropriate frontal lot [dimension].
Franzén: That's quite wide.
Overbeck: It was. The wider the street, the larger the building, or the taller the building it was assumed would be built on it. If you look at the ideas behind some of these dimensions, it gives you an impression of some of the thought that went into it by Washington and Jefferson and so on.
Franzén: And L'Enfant?
Overbeck: L'Enfant did not have as much to do with the house business. He was the idea man of space, large use of space, and how the large spaces would work.
Franzén: But the look of the streets, and the setback from the streets, and the width of the lots – that was Washington and Jefferson?
Overbeck: In large part, yes. They were never out of correspondence with L'Enfant. And they are the ones who actually did the first building codes that were appended as a matter of implication to every deed, for every piece of land sold in the Federal city. That had to do with the setback we talked about the other day, it had to do with width, it had to do with how wide the streets would be.
East Capitol Street was as wide then as it is now. I don't know how many people on Capitol Hill know this, but East Capitol Street, like most every other street on the Hill and in the Federal city itself, goes from the face of the building to the face of the building across the street. You do not own your own front yard. You don't even own the yard on which your bay window sits, if that's what you have.
That's an enormous wonderful space there – a vista – plenty of room for troops to move if you need to move troops in a hurry in time of war. It is ceremonial. Remember, L'Enfant felt East Capitol would be a wonderful ceremonial street. So here you have this awe-inspiring vista, and to think of the fact they were doing this in 1790.
Franzén: It was unique in that respect among American cities, wasn't it.
Overbeck: Yes. Really, the first truly planned American city of that magnitude. A planned city usually was perhaps a 6-block by 12-block entity that ran along a waterfront. It was gridded off plainly, and maybe a town square position was marked off and maybe not. That was about the best you got for urban planning.
Franzén: Having driven in downtown Philadelphia, there is quite a difference. Amazing.
So continue, please, with the laying out of the lots.
Overbeck: Laying out of the lots was done so that the lots could be divided between the commissioners of the public and the original proprietors. We spoke the other day about that and the fact that the original proprietors were in no way given back all of the land they had had. This is part of the deal. So those proprietors who had lots on squares that were in the area of interest for purchase were the ones, for the most part, who got their lots laid out first, who knew there were going to be X number of lots. You did not necessarily have them all gridded out for you, nor the alley cut shown, on the land. You had it on a piece of paper. You can do a whole lot on a piece of paper, but you cannot necessarily sell it, so you have to have the other things done as well.
There are all sorts of instances in which Mr. So-and-so wrote the commissioner that he needed to have his lot line laid out because somebody was ready to build. That was an exciting day because the one thing they needed were buildings. The one thing they were not getting with any degree of plenitude were buildings.
People were not that interested in coming to the city to live on a permanent basis. Many of the workers at the Capitol lived in dormitories that were built right on the Capitol grounds. Many people were building "tempos," and far less, for the most part ...
Overbeck: Temporaries. Far [more] temporary than the ones that used to stand down on the Mall from World War I and World War II that the military built. These were almost shanties that people were living in. The houses on the front of the street – I think we have covered this – the primary houses were supposed to be fireproof, brick or stone, and only back buildings, i.e. toilets ...
Overbeck: Outdoor summer kitchens, could be framed. There was not enough money to go around. There were not enough tools, equipment, enough supplies, enough of anything. Everything needed to put the city together was lacking.
So, we have a lot of temporary building early on, and we have people clustered around nodes of work. You have people not necessarily needing their lots laid out. When they did, great excitement occurred. The lines got laid and the deed got recorded, and off we went to build a house.
The buildings could be built as close to the lot line as you wanted, side to side, front or back, and there was no such thing as a public utility, period. You were out there on your own. You may as well have been living in the country, except for the fact you had the city of Washington as a post office.
You had to furnish your own outhouse. You had either a summer kitchen, or whatever kind of kitchen you wanted. Many people found Washington so hot that rather than building kitchens in their basements they built outdoor kitchens. Some people built them in their basements, initially, and then he first time they went through a summer, they put a summer kitchen out back for use during the hot weather.
The houses, for the most part, were cube-like. We have very special houses in Washington – a couple of them are actually on Capitol Hill – but right now what I'm talking about are John Doe/Jane Doe houses. They would measure anywhere from one room that was 11 feet wide, maybe even as little as 10 feet wide, to two rooms, with maybe a central hall, that would be as much as 30 feet wide. The larger the house, the more it was the exception. For the most part, the houses were between 10 and 20 feet wide. One room, if they were less than approximately 15 feet wide; [if more,] two rooms across the front and maybe another two rooms across the back, and maybe not. Then they would grow like monopoly houses, to the second story or to the third story.
Some of the houses are grander. One of those is the house of William Mayn Duncanson that still stands on Capitol Hill.
Overbeck: Yes, Mayn with a "y." He was an Englishman. He came with Thomas Law to the United States. They were illustrious in their careers in India with the East India Trade Company. They made an enormous amount of money, brought that enormous amount of money with them to Washington and established their homes. The Duncanson house stands in the 600 block of South Carolina Avenue.
Franzén: Still there?
Overbeck: Yes, on the north side of the street. It faces in a more or less southerly direction. It is one of the few houses in the city that does not parallel the street it faces. It parallels in back, on D Street. We are not exactly sure why this happened, whether there was an error in alignment or whatever.
Duncanson was the only man in the city whose slaves or whose servants wore full livery. And they took a real ribbing for this. Duncanson built his house in 1795, 1796. It took about two years to get it finished. It is the epitome of what would be the Georgian townhouse. He designed it to be a townhouse to entertain. And indeed, it is a place where both Washington and Jefferson dined. He had gilt ballroom chairs. He had wonderful mirrors, beautiful silver, lovely, lovely furnishings. He had a wine seller that was rumored to rival that of Thomas Jefferson.
And he was one of the men who got caught belly up in the financial crash when all the mortgages started coming down, because he had not pulled his paper, his deeds away, or his mortgages away, from the combine of Robert Morris and John Nicholson.
His partner in coming to the United States, in coming to Washington, Thomas Law, on the other hand, had separated his paper out and did not go bankrupt.
Franzén: The Duncanson house is still a residence?
Overbeck: It is what is now Friendship House.
Franzén: Oh, yes ...
Overbeck: It was a residence until the 1930s, and an anonymous angel bought it in the 1930s, about 1935, to give as a gift to Friendship House. Friendship House was a very early settlement house. Friendship House was started down by the Navy Yard in the early 1900s, in the Hull House manner, to serve the community of primarily immigrants who had come to that neighborhood, to teach a second language, teach people how to become American citizens, take in the battered, the abused. It was a live-in social service agency. Like Hull House.
[End of Tape #2]
Tape #3 – Continuing 3/1/00 Session
Franzén: This is tape number three. I'm talking with Ruth Ann Overbeck. It's still Wednesday, March 1st, 2000.
Let's continue. You were talking about Friendship House, which is what became of the Duncanson mansion.
Overbeck: Friendship House has a very checkered history. Its real history in place with Duncanson's house belongs in the 20th Century. We'll put it there. In the meantime [inaudible].
Duncanson, as far as we know, did not marry. He had a sister who came with him, a beautiful woman. She was well courted by lots of important people. An example of the circles in which Duncanson moved: his sister was a very close friend of the wife of the man who was the legate to the United States from England in the 1790s, and he was stationed in Philadelphia. So Miss Duncanson wrote to her friend, Mrs. Liston, to please come; she was starving for this good company. And she began talking about how the women in Washington behaved. And it's one of the most wonderful things – it's not very flattering, but it is wonderful – the men all went in one corner, the women all go in the other and they "simper."
Overbeck: Simper and "google." That gives us some sort of an idea of social life, as it was, in Washington in 1794.
Franzén: You said Duncanson went belly-up. When was that?
Overbeck: He goes belly-up by 1800.
In the meantime, his sister has died, and Duncanson had a true friend in Thomas Jefferson. Duncanson moved to a smaller house that he owned down in Southwest and tried to make the best he could of this scrambled mess that was going on in court. His estate was tied up in court until 1814 or 1815. The court, of course, would have been the court in Maryland, because we still didn't have a court here in Washington, DC, at that point, when it all started.
Anyway, throughout it all – Duncanson was still alive at the time Jefferson became President, and by that time Thomas Jefferson proposed Duncanson be the first librarian of the Library of Congress. He said that he has remained the one true republican. This I find fascinating – a man who had a sedan chair and liveried servants and as good a wine cellar as the President at one point.
Franzén: Did he become the librarian?
Overbeck: It got buried somewhere, probably in the Congress. He never did become that. There was an apocryphal tale that he was carried to his grave in Potters Field [?] on a cart. Very Mozart-ian. The real record doesn't show, but they weren't keeping good single records at that point.
At any rate, there are all sorts of legends about this house. This house is a center-hall house and it has a fan light over the door, appropriately. It has a lunette up in the pediment, which is the triangular part that faces the street at the roof line, and its basic configuration remains exactly as it was in 1794 or 95. It was designed by, we believe, Mr. William Lovering, who designed a lot of other houses on the Hill.
Now, the staircase is still in its original place. Much of the house's interior has been changed pretty dramatically over time. But one of the things that we were able to do in a couple of projects that had to do with preservation, related to Friendship House or the Maples or Mr. Duncanson's house, as it is variously called, was to pull one of the nails from the attic. It was analyzed at Yale as having been made [under] a patent that had been issued in England in the 1780s, and evidently the keg of nails for this particular house had been shipped over from England because the nail would not have been available on the local economy.
Franzén: Patented nails?
Franzén: A unique shape?
Overbeck: They have almost a rosette head, but not quite. By "rosette" I don't mean the kind of decorative rosette that designers put on furniture and so on. They are very well made, very sophisticated. That part of the house's history is now a matter of record, even as far away as Yale.
Franzén: So we have a pretty good idea what the Duncanson house looked like. But all these other houses, these far more modest houses that you described, do we have building plans for those houses? How do we know what they looked like?
Overbeck: For the most part, you didn't need a building plan. If you were a master builder, you knew what to do. If you and your owner walked the land and said, I want it to face here, I want the corner here, I want the doorway here – and they might negotiate on it. If the master builder said the doorway will look dumb there or it will not be structurally sound, then the master builder would know what to do and contract out for what work he couldn't do.
A true master builder would be a brick mason, probably, and would simply hire the carpenter. He'd have his own apprentices. Apprentice papers abound of children as young as six and seven having been "bound out" in Washington for learning a trade.
Franzén: As young as six or seven?
Overbeck: They didn't have to go to school. They could go to school, depending on their parents. But they could be bound to learn the domestic trades – the printing trade, et cetera. And then the master, whether it be a printer or a builder, as we're talking about in this case, was responsible for providing X number of clothes, and providing maybe for teaching the child to read and write – or to do sums, more particularly. Sums were more important, the math being the ruling thing of the day in terms of how you figure, how you calculate your work. You can do that without having to write down a word.
Franzén: Getting back to my question, on what basis do we know what [the houses] looked like?
Overbeck: Well, we have a few remnants. We know we have some that pre-date the British coming through. And those are the ones that are basically the models.
Now, fortunately, at least two of them are brick. And one is on 8th Street, a small, two-story building. It's across from the Marine barracks, painted red. Not painted red anymore. Pat will have to go find out what color it is. It has been changed, as any building that has had mercantile use has been altered to suit the merchandise being sold from its first floor.
Typically, at this point, people who could not afford to do anything else but still could afford to own a piece of property used their first floor or at least part of their first floor as their place of work, their business, and then used the rest of the house as a residence. That was the step up to the American dream. Once you could get past that, then you could move on to your own full house and rent that part, and there you went.
Franzén: So there was nothing remotely like zoning commercial or zoning residential.
Overbeck: Oh heavens, no. There would have been a whole lot of people who would like to fuss, who would not have had anything to fuss about. Oh, they might fuss, but it wouldn't have done any good. Those houses are going to look very similar to Mr. Duncanson's houses, they're simply going to be very small. They probably will have a gable roof with the ridge pole of the roof running parallel to the street, rather than having the fanciness of a pediment facing them.
If they are two stories, then the likelihood is that the windows line up over each other, one to a room in the front, because they wouldn't have had the money to have more than one window to a room in the front. And then there would be one window above the front door.
We are talking very simple.
Franzén: Essentially symmetrical.
Overbeck: Not necessarily. Could be asymmetrical because you wouldn't have had [all] center-hall houses. If it was one room or two rooms, you don't necessarily need a center hall.
Franzén: Would they have been deep, the same idea as we have now with our town houses that are narrow but go way back?
Overbeck: No. For the most part, they would be no more than one or two rooms deep. In the first place, they were built like a box. The idea of the dumbbell coming in, allowing more light in there on the side, is not true – this is for houses built side by side that have no space between them.
A very interesting thing elsewhere in the city I have not found on Capitol Hill yet – I would not be surprised to find it – where there are light easements, so that no matter who builds next to you, even if they build their house right there, they have to provide you with the easement for the light if you have built your house right on the side [of the lot].
For the most part, you didn't put windows on the sides of your houses. Remember, windows were very expensive, glass was very expensive. For the most part, it had to be imported.
There is a famous story of George Washington's Delaware Avenue houses, up north of the Capital, technically on Capitol Hill ...
Franzén: Owned by Washington?
Overbeck: Yes, the only houses he owned in the city. He was having them built, and he sent off to Boston for the proper size and proper number of panes of glass. They got shipped to Baltimore and he got shipped the wrong size. That sort of thing happened more frequently than not. And glass was an expensive commodity. If you planned to have your 15-foot house on your 30 foot lot added onto, whenever you got enough money to purchase or to build, you certainly wouldn't put windows in the side where you were going to add your rental property. That would make no sense.
So you generally had a shaft of light coming through the house from front to back, back to front, and that was pretty much it.
Most of the houses, they had brick chimneys. Depending on what the ...
Franzén: The chimney would have been at the center, the side, the back? Where?
Overbeck: Depending on the sophistication of the design and to some extent the money that was available, and their taste, it could have been within wall or without. "Within wall" meaning it was totally encased within the wall, which actually gave the owner more lot to use because you could use the part of the wall that was behind the chimney and in front of the chimney as extra width.
It was also very popular to have, if you were building more than one house at a time, shared chimneys. You can see a good example of that over in the block of Sixth Street between E and D Southeast facing east.
Franzén: Two entirely separate houses – two properties, two different owners – sharing the same chimney?
In the case of the Duncanson house, there are wishbone chimneys.
Overbeck: Meaning that, since his house was only four [?] rooms deep .... He had only one chimney, but below the roof we have this lovely curved wishbone that came down with a pair of chimneys for each floor. A pair of chimneys for each floor, one chimney per room on each floor.
Franzén: For a fireplace in each room.
Overbeck: For a fireplace in each room, and those were on the outside walls.
Franzén: Those would have been wood-burning fireplaces.
Franzén: No coal.
Overbeck: No coal. We don't get coal for quite a while. We also have a lot of trouble during the 1790s with people not being able to afford a cord of wood or a bundle of wood to heat their house. Times were really desperate.
We have a dichotomy of this beautiful house that Duncanson is building, and he builds it facing the Anacostia River so that he can see down the river, down the Potomac. He was going to be a speculator.
He and Thomas Law, at one point, intended to have their version of the East India Company here in Washington. So that comes to fruition, the Central Exchange, 8th Street. Duncanson built on Sixth. He is a block and a half off 8th Street, a perfect position, to be right where he needed to be to go to the coffee houses, to the gossip centers of the day, to get the information he needed to be able to make his fortune. He is probably the one man who truly bought into the concept of the Central Exchange to the point that he invested so much of himself into it.
Franzén: The Central Exchange. Are we at a point where we should start talking about the Central Exchange and what happened or failed to happen? I know we covered it a little bit, talking about how it was going to be located at the foot of 8th Street, where 8th Street meets the Anacostia River. The original idea was that that was going to be the center of commerce for the Federal city.
Franzén: How did that go off the track?
Overbeck: It went off the track very early. And to be perfectly honest, as far as I can figure out, it was the idea of one other man and Pierre L'Enfant, and the other man was George Walker, who was the Scotsman that we talked about earlier, who invested heavily in the city before.
There is a wonderful anonymous tract that has been traced to George Walker that appeared in a Baltimore paper about a year and a half before the Federal city actually got funded and formed and identified by George Washington. And if you read George Walker's description of what the Federal City should be like carefully, it's almost a blueprint for L'Enfant.
And George Walker is also the person who in the early 1790s published, under his own name in England, a tract saying what was going to happen. That also talked about the Central Exchange and 8th Street. There is a short article about him in one of the historical quarterlies. So, the genius of taking those words from that tract, by L'Enfant – now, whether L'Enfant had seen the tract – he must have seen the tract; he had to have seen it. Because his idea, when he saw the "plain" as he came across the ferry, and saw what he thought was the plain, and of course terminating with the "pedestal awaiting a monument" that became the site of the Capitol, he must have had this somewhat in his head.
As I told you, everything I can figure out points to the fact that cronyism – whatever "ism" you want to accuse him of having – George Washington used when it came to this city.
I think he had absolutely and totally no intention whatever of allowing anything spectacular to happen east of the Capitol.
Franzén: But he went along with that story, right?
Overbeck: He is the one who sent the people over here. He told L'Enfant to start doing the surveying so people would think such and such. He's the one who told Stoddert and his buddies to come over here and invest the public money, to get them invested over here. Now, part of this could have been to try to get more of a balance, because he knew he had investors in the Georgetown area. Those people weren't going to turn their back on something that could be so lucrative that was so close to them.
Franzén: Georgetown was already there ...
Overbeck: Georgetown was already there, there was a bank ...
Franzén: Something to build onto.
Overbeck: There were amenities, et cetera. But in terms of George Washington's attitude about Capitol Hill, I take it with a great deal of salt.
Now, it became pretty clear that the wharves along the Anacostia River were going to be used. That had to happen because of the amount of equipment that had to be brought in, the amount of supplies and so forth that had to be brought in, to [build] the Capitol.
Franzén: And that was a good harbor?
Overbeck: That was a good harbor. The public harbor was basically at the foot of South Capitol Street, which made a lot of sense because that is the closest straight line to haul it up that hill.
From there up, there were assorted wharves. One was owned by the Barry family. They were friends of Thomas Law and William Duncanson, and they did rather well. They had some fairly substantial houses that have more or less been well described by descendents, but there is no corroboration anywhere, so I pretty much let those things rest.
All the way on up the river, if you look, it is sort of snaggle-toothed and jagged. The wharves were supposed to be serviced by something called Water Street, which would be the street that would run behind all the wharves and connect them. You could take your horse, carriage, or whatever you needed, and take your material and supplies. Those things didn't really happen.
If you look at that particular section of the Anacostia, it would have been very difficult for it to happen because it is so jagged.
There were boat builders along with Anacostia, boat repairers. The easiest way, for years, to get to Alexandria from Washington, and even for a long time to get to Georgetown from Capitol Hill, was by boat. So there were little packets and ferry boats that would leave on the third hour of the tenth month, whatever, and they would post their departure times and their costs and so on in the newspapers. Some of those were in Southwest and on Mr. Caroll's original property, and some of them were over on the east side of South Capitol Street and off Mr. Carroll's land. More of those tended to be on Carroll land than not. Whether that was for ease in ship landing or whatever, we really don't know.
When you get back up by the seat of the Central Exchange, we have a titillating ad that says that the Central Exchange is opening on such and such a date. It has to do with William Prout. We have no description of whether or not there was a real Central Exchange building. We don't know whether or not these people met in Prout's mercantile office. We have absolutely no idea. It's almost like an ephemeral piece of smoke. It says it's there, and that is almost the last we know of it, the last we hear of it. Within three years the land is being acquired for the Navy. Clearly, it didn't happen. The Central Exchange didn't happen anywhere else in this town, either.
Franzén: There was an ad. Roughly what was the date of that?
Overbeck: 1795, '96.
Franzén: Somewhere in there. Saying the Central Exchange was about to open?
Overbeck: Yes. It was actually going to be a fact. That is absolutely fascinating. It is titillating and one of those things that is – who put the scotch on it? None of the journals that we've seen, none of the collections of letters we've seen – nothing.
Franzén: So there is very little record of commercial activity actually happening at the Central Exchange.
Overbeck: Absolutely. Probably no more than maybe one hundred words, max.
Franzén: Can we assume that the merchants of Georgetown, which was also a river port, would have seen the Central Exchange as competition that they wanted to get rid of?
Overbeck: Yes, you can assume the merchants in Georgetown wanted to get rid of any merchants anywhere else. They didn't want to be undercut, undersold, bought out, et cetera.
The interesting part is we had the tavern down along the river that was in the old Slater house. We have Tunnicliff's Tavern that was at 8th and Pennsylvania Avenue. We have Mr. Prout's warehouse, and we have his mercantile house he built for his nephew and later took over himself. By 1800, certainly, he was running that himself. We have all sorts of people.
The leading commodity of the day in the Federal city was alcohol.
Overbeck: People wanted that more than anything else.
Franzén: And that was strictly an import? They weren't making their own.
Overbeck: No, they weren't making their own. At the very least, they would have had to import the rum, the sugar from the islands, and there was no place to make it. There was going to be a sugar factory down along the river, and there is a wonderful painting from the 1830s that shows the stack still standing there. Mr. Duncanson was involved in that with Mr. Piercy. That also went belly-up. But there was virtually no manufacturing going on. Everything was done by hand or brought in.
People have no idea how hardscrabble – that's an old fashioned term – people have no idea how hardscrabble the first decades of Washington's history is.
Franzén: It was whiskey, primarily, coming in – from where?
Overbeck: The islands. There was a big trade with the islands. There was the coastal trade. Which means that everybody from Boston or Charleston, whatever, was manufacturing whiskey or rum. Rum was the preferred thing, not really whiskey, but rum. They would have brought that in. It could have come in from England. Could have come in from the Netherlands. Whoever happened to have a ship that had it in it. That's what they wanted.
One tavern owner on Capitol Hill in about 1796 – which was really an awful year for Capitol Hill – said that he did well to clear a dollar a week on his sale of alcohol, even though that was the single most wanted commodity. People simply didn't have the money.
Franzén: Were there commodities being shipped out from those wharves as well? Tobacco? Anything else?
Overbeck: By that time, there would have been some tobacco shipped out. Timber, maybe. But we didn't have any kind of mercantile, we didn't have any manufacturing stimulus going on like Baltimore did. We were losing out very fast in that respect to Baltimore. We expected to be able to compete appropriately, but Baltimore by then was making chocolate. And you could have found people who would have made chocolates for desserts for someone's dinner here locally but not anyone who would have manufactured chocolates in the magnitude that they could have been sent out.
The only thing that could have been sent out for trade would have been such commodities as slaves, maybe some tobacco from east of the river, east of the Anacostia River up in Washington County. This would have been very agricultural in scope rather than what we would think of as mercantile. We had no weavers, no spinners, no manufacturers of anything.
Franzén: You mention slaves. There's something I forgot to ask you. I want to skip back for a moment. For the building of these houses, this first wave of houses in the Federal city, we can assume that a significant portion of the laborers on the building of those houses were slaves?
Overbeck: I've never made a statistical assumption I can't prove. I will say that certainly some were, but I know that there were so many underemployed Irish, Scots, southern, northern, whatever, white immigrants here, who were so desperate for money that they would have been involved as well. They would have been competing for those jobs.
Franzén: And would be first in line?
Overbeck: It depends on the skill, probably, and how low they were willing to sell themselves for. For the most part, the slaves that were in the city appeared to be under contract to the Capitol and the White House buildings and, indeed, were, if they could, allowed to live on the economy, because that meant they didn't have to be provided for by the person who had hired them from their owner. And it was one of the ways in which, very early on, Washington acquired a rather substantial free African-American population – because they moonlighted in the typical government way. Some of them simply worked for themselves, in terms of building their own house out of scrap and pieces of lumber. And there is some unsavory correspondence about a couple of the builders down in Southwest that had to post guards at the doors at night to keep materials from being stolen by some of the blacks and slaves. But that same thing was going on by people who were not of color as well.
Franzén: I think at some point down the line we will want to talk in greater detail about African-Americans in the Federal city, but let's continue and go back to where we were.
[Ruth Ann asks to end the session.]
Tape #3 (cont.) – Now March 7, 2000
Franzén: It is some days later. It's now March 7th, and we're on Capitol Hill, in the home of Ruth Ann Overbeck. We're out of the hospital, thankfully, and we are going to continue. We are still on tape three.
We're going to continue with our conversation about what happened at the foot of 8th Street, back in the 1790s, the establishment of the Navy Yard and what that meant, ultimately, for the neighborhood around it.
Ruth Ann, we had the Central Exchange that was going to be in that area, and along came the decision to establish the Navy Yard.
Overbeck: The United States had no Navy Yard until a series of properties were acquired, including that one, and that one essentially was considered the first of the Navy yards for the U.S. Navy. It was a ship-building Navy Yard ... [Pause for recorder adjustment]
The U.S. Navy had no property until it acquired several pieces up and down the eastern coast, and Washington's Navy yard is considered to be the oldest of the Navy yard properties. And therefore, it is the queen of the Navy yards.
The land was purchased, acquired, as were the other lands, to be ship-building Navy yards. As such, the Anacostia was suitable. Its draft was still deep enough for whatever kinds of ships the Navy was going to need. We did not produce large ships at the Washington Navy Yard, but certainly the lighter ones with fewer sails and masts and so on that could dart out, do damage, and get back to home port.
Guns were also made there, but they were a secondary item. The primary item was the ships.
Franzén: Can I ask you a question? You say there was no other Navy yard in the country prior to this time, but there was a Navy ...
Franzén: Sailing ships, in need of ships. Where did they come from?
Overbeck: Where did the ships come from?
Overbeck: Usually private arrangement. Some of them had been confiscated during the Revolutionary War. Some of them were "privateers" in that they sailed under a letter of mark for the private owner to be able to participate as a military operation.
Then the Navy did have uniforms, it did have servicemen, and it had acquitted itself very well during the Revolution, and so it was logical to extend it and continue it. Certainly at that time – and it is something that is very, very difficult for us to comprehend – a Navy truly was the only way that a nation could defend itself from foreign invaders along anything other than a common land line such as between the United States and Canada. There were no planes, no ballistic missiles, and you have to erase everything we know about modern war technology to put yourself in the frame of mind to understand how important the Washington Navy Yard and other Navy yards up and down the coast became.
Now, the Navy was under the stewardship of the first Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert. He lived in Georgetown. His house is still standing over there. He was a major speculator. You may recall he was one of the people whom George Washington sent to the eastern end of what was going to be the Federal City, to put up the blind, by buying properties and making people think that is where the city was going to be. So he was in cahoots with the big guys.
The Navy has just celebrated either its third or fourth 100th [200th] anniversary. The congressional actions that came through and the funding levels that came through are such that it gave it a whole series of birthdays. And the tall ships that came in June of 1999 celebrated the last of those [200th] anniversaries. So, it has been there  years and it doesn't show any signs of leaving. Its mission has changed dramatically over time, however. It's importance to the neighborhood ...
Franzén: Its 200th birthday.
Overbeck: Yes, I'm sorry, 200th birthday.
Its importance to the neighborhood never changed materially, however, until after World War II. It had basically the same function from 1798 until the late 1950s, and that was as a major source of employment of people with high technical skills to work with their hands – whether it be sail makers, caulkers, wood planers, gun manufacturers, whatever.
As a commercial entity, shall we say, it was the most reliable, the most stable employer in the District of Columbia for well over a hundred years, far more dependable than Congress in terms of getting the Capitol built, because sometimes the Congress just ran out of money, and it wouldn't appropriate more. And that was probably quite rightly done, because we were still going through, if you remember, whether or not we were going to have another war with England, whether or not we were going to be invaded by France, a whole series of things that were happening certainly up to the 1820s in terms of needing a Navy, and we needed a Navy more than we needed to house the Congressman.
After all, there were so few of them, if they really wanted to, they could do what they did when it was just too cold and they couldn't get the [Capitol] warm enough. They adjourned over to one of the taverns.
Franzén: Did they ever meet at Tunnicliff's?
Overbeck: Probably not the Tunnicliff's on 8th Street, but once Mr. Tunnicliff left 8th Street and sold it to someone else, there was a different Tunnicliff's tavern across 1st Street from the Capitol.
Franzén: Right across from the Capitol.
Overbeck: Right. And they would meet in those taverns up there, so I have a feeling they were at Tunnicliff's.
Now, in the process of all of this hiring and construction work, you had a very mixed group of people who were available with their skills. Many of them were people who were immigrants to this country, as was true of much of Washington – primarily the British Isles. You had people from the coastal states who came to work here. There was a man from Norfolk, for example, who offered to bring 20 workers to work at the Navy Yard if he was sure he could get employment for them. There were slave blacks and there were free blacks who worked at the Navy Yard.
The Navy itself has taken an awful rap – and probably rightly so – for some of its discrimination policies in the 20th Century and the late 19th Century, but certainly in its early days down at the Navy Yard that was not true, because some of the highly skilled craftsmen in the shipbuilding industry along the Atlantic seaboard were blacks. Men like Moses Liverpool, who received his freedom in about 1804 from his previous master, who died down in Virginia, and he headed for Washington. He basically was an extremely skilled house carpenter, but he had enough working knowledge of caulking that he became a major caulker at the Navy Yard. And that enabled him to earn enough money to buy property on Capitol Hill. He became part of our very early nucleus of mixed-neighborhood owners, and helped set the base for a different kind of lifestyle than one might have expected in the Federal city.
Now, other people were here, too. Benjamin King was from England. And Benjamin King was a rough, tough old guy, but he was Chief of Works, a civilian Chief of Works, down at the Navy Yard. And although he had a temper and moodiness, he commanded the utmost respect for his skill from Benjamin Latrobe, who was one of the very best architects in this country, one of our first American-trained architects. So we ran the gamut of where people were from, what they did, and what talent they brought.
A man named John Davis came over from Delaware, where he had worked on ships. And at that point in time, to distinguish people from each other with the same name, you would frequently get something else added onto the end of your name. This particular John Davis was called John Davis of Abel.
Franzén: Of "Abel"?
Overbeck: Of Abel, which was a family first name. Sort of like the Russian names. You carry "the son of." Or [like] the Scandinavian, where you carry "the daughter of." And so on. So there was some of that going on here, as well. It was quite an interesting polyglot.
John Davis of Abel became a master plumber. It's he who ultimately took over the running of the first of the steam pumps that Benjamin Latrobe brought to the Navy Yard, and that pump came in 1810.
As all of these things began coming and focusing and forming, the Yard increased incrementally, and for the most part, steadily and upwardly, certainly until after the War of 1812.
Franzén: You say the first steam pump came in 1810?
Franzén: That was a steam-powered pump for what purpose?
Overbeck: A steam-powered pump, believe it or not, not for ships, but for manufacturing of the guns and the various and sundry – running the lathes and so on and so forth, to build the ships.
Now, the War of 1812 – for Washington basically it was the War of August 1814. By that time there was a fairly substantial nucleus of buildings and shops and so forth down around the Navy Yard. To set the tone, we need to know that there was a bridge across the Anacostia River ...
Franzén: At that point ...
Overbeck: At that point. It was a low bridge. Nobody was doing high bridges very much. It was a low bridge.
There was a public market that William Prout had lobbied for from the 1790s. It took him, with a couple of his friends, until 1804 or 1805 to convince Thomas Jefferson to give the go ahead for the market to be constructed. And they did.
Franzén: This would have been the forerunner to Eastern Market?
Overbeck: Yes, the forerunner of the Eastern Market, but it was down by the Navy Yard because that is where the concentration of the population was, if we can call it a concentration. There were notion stores. There was a tobacconist along over by the Marine barracks, because the Marine barracks had been put in place by this time.
Franzén: In the place where it is today.
Overbeck: Yes. Not looking quite like it does, but that land had been
Mr. Prout had owned half of the lots in the division, half the square in the division of lots, and the government had owned the other half. So Mr. Prout sold out his half to the government so they could have an entire square for the Marines.
So you had this military complex operating, and small businesses, very small businesses. Mr. Prout's wholesale and mercantile firm, taverns, wonderful taverns, fascinating names – Captain Bully's Porter Cellar, David Dobbins's Tavern, et cetera. Plenty of places to wet your whistle if you had the money so to do. And as the Navy Yard work picked up, you did.
You asked the other day about whiskey. Whiskey was not the popular drink of the day. It was rum. So there had been an aborted effort to build a sugar house, so cane from the islands could be brought there and sugar could be manufactured and processed down on the Anacostia. That got caught up in part of the economic fallout of the over-speculation. So it never really did manufacture anything. It just stood there for years. The tall smokestack, you can still see it in some of the paintings and drawings.
But also along the Navy Yard area you had tailors. What else does an officer need but a tailor? There are cobblers. You had people who were giving that kind of support and making their living doing that kind of work to service the population.
Now, the records from outside the Navy Yard for the invasion by the British are very scatty indeed. They almost don't exist. We have no comments.
Franzén: The records of how they invaded?
Overbeck: Yes. We know how they invaded the Yard. We know the route they came. We know the people who were scouting on behalf of James Madison and the rest of the people who were in power, to give reports as to when things like the yard would be torched. And it was, by our own American commander, Captain Tingey ...
Franzén: It was torched to prevent ...
Overbeck: To prevent the new ships from falling in the hands of the British. There was one little ship left that didn't get torched, and even the next morning when the British were there, they didn't torch it. Why, we don't know.
But bridges were burned. The things that needed to be torched to keep them out of the British hands in terms of armaments and so forth were close to the water and did not have an impact on M Street along that area. However, partly, some say, because the locals were so angry at Tingey for what he had done to torch the Yard, even though that was at the order of the President of the United States, they looted his house. They went into his yard and helped themselves to a whole bunch of stuff – furniture and all sorts of other wonderful things. Not just from Tingey, but other people. So you have that kind of information.
We know that the British came from Bladensburg, down almost exactly the course of Bladensburg Road, as we know it now. They came to 15th Street Northeast to the toll road, and they spilled over on either side of the toll road onto Mrs. Casnovi's [sp?] farm. The scouts that had been sent out by Tingey and others could see them coming. They took the long loop and came up Maryland Avenue, came back down around, alerting people up there, and came down, probably down around pretty close to M Street and went into the Yard that way.
Franzén: The city was fortified on the water but not back on the other side?
Overbeck: Right. The only fortifications we had were the little tiny cannons that were down at what we know as Ft. McNair and the Navy.
The reason the city got burned is sort of incidental to the story, except that it burned our Capitol and this is Capitol Hill. And that is, we didn't know how to play the game of war. There wasn't a scratch on Alexandria once the British left, and they occupied it for a number of days. The citizens of the town made a purse, went out and met the invaders, offered them the money.
Franzén: The citizens of Alexandria?
Overbeck: Yes, offered them money. They took it. That was the spoils. So they didn't need to do any looting or anything like that. They were so angry and so mystified and so perturbed at the citizens of Washington, who didn't come to the toll bridge to meet them, they didn't come to Maryland Avenue to meet them, they didn't stop them before they got on to the Capitol grounds. They just let them have free reign. They didn't offer them a thing.
Franzén: So we could have paid them off?
Overbeck: Of course. That is what gentlemen did. Gentlemen led the wars, and if you really wanted to do it, you bought each other off.
So we basically lost our Capitol. Our Capitol was very tiny at that point. We had the little square, or cube, that holds the original Senate wing that has a little round drum on the top of it; and we had the original House cube with a little round drum. It wasn't quite – it wasn't finished. The Senate probably wasn't quite finished, either, but it certainly was habitable. Most everybody met there, and they were connected by a wooden catwalk. That is what there was as a Capitol.
Franzén: So it was still in two pieces, still under construction.
Overbeck: Still under construction. There was a library in there. It was a very popular library. It was one of the few things to do in the city. People went into the library. There were Sunday afternoon reading hours. You went to the library and you met your friends and you read your books and you looked at your maps and your pictures and socialized.
Franzén: That was right in the Capitol.
Overbeck: That was right in the Capitol.
Franzén: So the Capitol was burned, and a lot of the Navy Yard was burned, and the ships at the Navy Yard were burned – actually in that case, burned by the people who were there, by the Americans. What about the rest of Capitol Hill around the Navy Yard, the homes and so forth? Were they sent up in smoke?
Overbeck: As far as we know, they were not touched. And the Marines boast they are the only government installation in this city never to flee its property, meaning they didn't leave during the War of 1812, during August of 1814. I don't know how many of them were there. I don't know on what they base that, but that is their boast. And, of course, they are only about three blocks away from the Navy yard.
It is quite possible they left a contingent there and that they were not really considered to have anything that the Brits wanted anyway. They wanted ships. They wanted money. They wanted arms. They wanted ammunition. And the Marines, as a subset of the Navy, would be presumed to have had a lot of that at the Navy Yard. So they may have just gotten to stay right there in place`.
They went out and fought a good fight, and if it hadn't been for the Marines, we would have had no success in the war whatever. But the Marines were the land force of the Navy. The Navy was there to defend us against water invasion. Ft. McNair was there to defend the Executive Office area from invasion. And the Marines were there to be the land force to protect the Capitol.
It didn't quite happen. But they had already routed a number of people in Bladensburg. They had acquitted themselves very well in Bladensburg and were probably fairly worn out by the time that little fracas occurred.
[End of Tape #3]
Tape #4 – Recorded March 7, 2000
Franzén: This is the beginning of tape 4. We are today at the home of Ruth Ann Overbeck on Capitol Hill, home from the hospital now, and we're continuing our conversation about the Navy Yard. Where we left off was in the midst of a discussion about what happened here during the War of 1812, which in this case is 1814.
Overbeck: The written records are not the official written records, and even they are scatty, but among the written records that we do have is the report by Mordecai Booth, who was one of the men who was assigned to the Yard as a civilian and who was sent out to do reconnoitering to see where the Brits were and what was going on. Even his record is filled with both the joy and the sadness, the excitement, of what he was doing and the sadness of what he was doing, and the bewilderment of what kinds of instructions were being given and where people were fleeing and which people were doing various and sundry things on behalf of the federal government.
We have not found anything comparable by any of the people who lived near the Yard or, as far as that's concerned, almost anybody else in town. There are a few diary entries by some of the elite who lived in Georgetown and in Northwest near the President's house, but not in the general run-of-the-mill populace.
One of the reasons this may be true, in part, is that so many of these people actually were born in the British Isles. Most of them by this time had American citizenship but they may have had mixed feelings as well, and they may not have known what the long-term outcome would be, and not want to have things on paper that could be traced to them. So we simply do not have good information about it.
There is a myth that runs around – and I call it a myth because I have not seen anything to substantiate it – that a number of the British soldiers recuperated at the former home of William Mayn Duncanson, which we now know as Friendship House. But we have no real information to that effect.
We do know that many of the neighbors closer to the Capitol took in people who had been hurt, dressed their wounds, et cetera. So it is not even unlikely or unheard of that that happened down by the Navy Yard. We just simply don't know it.
Now, with the closing of the chapter of the war with England, the country had to come to grips with the fact that it had lost most of its fleet, or certainly most of its fleet that was in progress of being built, and it did it pretty much with alacrity and got busy and started building things again, and rebuilt the boat houses, rebuilt the slips, began rebuilding ships.
Franzén: The buildings down here at the Navy Yard were mostly wood?
Franzén: So they were burned.
Overbeck: Yes. These were the working buildings, for the most part. The ones that are up along M Street that back up close to that wall that date from this period were brick. They were residences, and for the most part they were two-story and rather simple – similar to the ones that we had talked about elsewhere in the Navy Yard area.
The most striking thing about the Navy Yard at that particular time – there were two things. One was the Latrobe gate, which Benjamin Latrobe had designed to be the entry portal, and there are still pieces standing. It has been encapsulated and expanded, but if you look hard enough and know what you're looking for you can still see part of the original Benjamin Latrobe gate at the corner of 8th and M.
Something that is not there now is the first public statue that was ever erected in the City of Washington.
Franzén: At that gate?
Overbeck: At that date. Earlier than that, as a matter of fact, because it was the memorial statue to the men who lost their lives in Tripoli. It was a beautiful marble statue, and the statue "wandered."
Overbeck: It was at the Navy Yard first, and rightly so, because officers had paid out of their own pockets the entire cost of having the marble statue created. It was damaged by the British – a finger broken off here and something else there. It moved from one place to another in the Capitol, on the grounds, including a very small circular pond that made it look like this very lovely monument arising out of a duck pond.
Once the Naval Academy was built, it was decided the appropriate home for the Tripoli monument was over in Annapolis.
And that is where the monument still is today. But it is basically our monument. They think it is theirs. They can have it for right now – maybe in perpetuity – but it was the first public statue ever erected in the city, and it was right down there at the Navy Yard. It is a lovely thing, still gets damaged, but they still work on it.
At any rate, those were the two main things that we would have noticed as being different along M Street. Because the wall was put up. And it's not that high a wall – it's a nice little brick wall, it's probably about eight feet high – and you can see the backs of houses. And that is exactly what you would have seen. That part of it hasn't changed that much. The scale and mass and material of the larger buildings beyond that wall are the things that are different at this point from what they were at the beginning of the Yard.
Now, as we go through trying to sort out the Navy Yard and its impact on the Washington area, certainly on Capitol Hill, it becomes both more difficult and less difficult. In the first place, the city began to get its city directories published – in, I believe, 1822. At about the same time, flawed though it is, there is an 1819 tax book and a more appropriately less flawed 1824 tax book, both of which show improvements on property and property values – and owners.
So by taking the city directory, incomplete as its addresses are – say, "such and such, L and 15th by the Navy Yard," or whatever – and coordinating that with the information in the tax book, we can pretty much flesh out a definable Navy Yard community by 1822, so that we know that that community essentially began between 3rd and 4th Street Southeast, went up as far as Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast, and went as far east as 14th Street Southeast. Now that is not to say it's filled in completely, because it certainly is not. It's still higgledy-piggledy, scatty, buildings of various and sundry magnitudes, scales, materials and so on, strewn across a landscape, some having absolutely no relationship to the others, and some being nice little row houses of two or three in a group and having similar ornamentation.
But it does give us a much better understanding of who the people were, the mixed nature of the community, the fact that the Marine band, when Thomas Jefferson called over the Italians to play in it, actually was integrated with a different type of foreigner, that we had free blacks who owned land, free blacks who rented land, that we had women who owned their own property, that we had men, families, and we had a neighborhood.
We know that as of – between 1804 and 1810 we had a new building for Christ Church, which is the oldest chartered church in the Federal city of the District of Columbia; not older than a couple of churches in Georgetown or out in Rock Creek parish, but in the Federal city, the defined area that we are talking about, Christ Church Episcopal is the oldest chartered church, and it was chartered in 1790. But it met in a tobacco barn, owned by Catholic Mr. Carroll, for years.
Mr. Prout gave them land, gave them a lot, and said: Okay, if you will build a church on this lot within two years, it is your lot for free.
Interestingly enough, what William Prout did was to draw the community closer to 8th Street, because Daniel Carroll's tobacco barn had been down close to G and 3rd, and the Christ Church property that Prout gave was in the 600 block of G Street, two blocks away from 8th.
You got people coming into that neighborhood, bringing them more into a focus on the Navy Yard community, rather than the community at the end of South Capitol Street, running down the hill from the Capitol.
He then made an offer in 1810 to the Methodists and they moved from the tobacco barn that they had been occupying, since when the Episcopalians left, to a site on 5th Street between E and G – again, a move closer to 8th. You had the Market between 6th and 7th and K and L. That had been set aside as a reservation very early on but was intended to be a support for that particular neighborhood. But it was built.
Then you had Mr. Prout very busily selling or leasing as many of his lots as he could in that central core. The connector street that went across and more or less made an easy way to get from closer to the Capitol to the Navy Yard at that point was Virginia Avenue. Along Virginia Avenue, Mr. Smallwood, who was a ship builder in the private sector, a lumber merchant, and one of the wealthiest men in that end of town, lived there.
Dr. Frederick May, who was an MD, lived along Virginia Avenue. Dr. Frederick May was crucial to the neighborhood, not only for his ministration to the rest of the population, but it was he who could sign the birth certificates and certify that a child of color had been born free. Freedom was a condition that came with the mother. It didn't make any difference what your father was. If your mother was a slave, you were a slave. So, Dr. May had numerous documents in the deed books saying that he certified that this child was born of such and such a mother whom he knew to be free on such and such a date of the birth. He was also very involved with the library.
There was a volunteer fire brigade that was located at approximately 8th Street and L on the far side. So you had that. You had the Masonic Order, which had established itself about 1805, and it had established itself on 7th Street Southeast, first.
So, as you can see, what is happening as we get more and more into time, we get this concentration of population. And the streets and the neighborhood, even though we don't see that much of it now because so much demolition has gone on down there to accommodate things like the Arthur Capper public housing and the new Marine barracks that were built in the 1960s, the concentration of those houses and shops were in that neighborhood.
Franzén: A lot of it was wiped out by the freeway, I suppose.
Overbeck: And then you take the freeway, which took out most of Virginia Avenue.
Franzén: Can we go back to something that you just mentioned that tickled my interest. You said that Thomas Jefferson imported Italians to play in the Marine band?
Overbeck: Oh, yes. Thomas Jefferson loved music. He was thoroughly disgusted with the fact that he could not, as President, have the kind of music he wanted in Washington. So he sent off to Italy and offered to hire [musicians to] put into uniform, into this prestigious, august "President's Own" – and the President's Own has been called the President's Own ever since Thomas Jefferson. Because it was his band. It played what he wanted it to play, it played when he wanted it to play. It moved to the White House to do its function there. It's really a great story.
Now, we do know that the initial set of Italians had a lot of problems. There are some records down at the National Archives that indicate that the American band members got so ticked at them that they kicked them out and wouldn't let them live in the barracks. So these poor Italians were trying their best – speaking very little English, probably – to find housing and so on. And there are some pathetic words to the affect that the only place they had been able to find to sleep was between the kitchen floor and the basement of some of the neighbors that were around the barracks.
Franzén: Between the kitchen floor ...
Overbeck: And the basement. So that would have been in the crawl space.
Franzén: Between the kitchen floor and the dirt?
Franzén: That's where they slept?
Overbeck: That's where they slept. They had no housing. They had been kicked out by the American Marines!
Franzén: Were they inducted into the Marine Corps? Did they wear uniforms and so forth?
Overbeck: They had their uniforms and they were paid as band members. How much more than that, I really don't know. We can probably look that up before we go to finished product, but I don't know. There is a whole series of wonderful cryptic notes about these poor men who were having to survive this way.
However, these people have direct descendents that persist on the 8th Street corridor and the Navy Yard community properties for at least the next 150 years, until well after World War II. There were still Prosperi's, there were the Rapetti's. There were still all these wonderful people. Many of them left the Marine band and went on to teach music or set up shoe cobbling shops or do other things. Because obviously there are only so many people who can be in the Marine band. They believed in having families. And they had wonderful bakeries. It is really rather phenomenal. They were the largest of the most unusual groups of immigrants we have.
Prior to that on Capitol Hill – and not necessarily part of the Navy Yard story, but something we will want to pick up later – is the fact that we had two young men brought to Capitol Hill, whose mothers had been Indians, as in subcontinent Indian, and their fathers were English. They came and they were our most notable "differents" in terms of our population. They lived up near the Capitol. We'll talk about them later.
We have never been "all one" anything. As much as some people have said, well, it's been an all-white community, it's been an all-black community, it's been an all-this community, all-that community – hang it up! It never really happened. Certainly in 1804 or 1805 we had the Italians. And before that we had everybody else from the British Isles and all the people of color, shades of color, from every color of the rainbow, practically. And then by the 1840s we began getting this raft of Germans and Irishmen. They took up residence along the Navy Yard corridor and established their bakeries, their saloons and their shops, and went right on doing their thing. There was a Taltaville down there ...
Franzén: A what?
Now, as we watch the out-migration pattern of some of the population – there are only so many jobs available down there, there is only so much money there. When you have that kind of situation, the people move out. The next generation, the kids, go somewhere else to make their money.
One of the Taltaville's went downtown and ended up in a saloon downtown, helping to run the saloon, and was there when John Wilkes Booth came in and did his dastardly drinking to go kill President Lincoln.
So, from the beginning of the Navy Yard you see what an enormous impact that population had as it spread, going different places and doing different weird and wonderful things.
Now along in here, as well, you had your civilians and you had your military officers and you had your military men, who actually were not the people who were building the ships and building the guns.
One of these was the Spieden family. He was a purser, and he had a young wife. She had a mother and father. They had children. And her stories from the 1830s reveal some of how difficult it must have been, even with this clutch of people nearby. She rented a house as he was going off on one of his cruises, one of his assignments, and she talks about what she had to do to shop for a new rug, and how the rug was put together in pieces because that was the cheapest way to buy it – pieces of rugs, and you sewed them together to fit the room. That was a pretty standard operation. She borrowed a piano, from someone who didn't need it anymore, for their children, because she had children who wanted to learn to play the piano. Officers didn't make much money. She didn't live on the post or the base. And she was really eking out, with all of this extended family, a way of life.
Now, what I found to be extraordinarily interesting, in this era of pre-public transportation and of eking out, was the fact that people who went downtown from the Navy Yard to visit friends in the heart of the city generally spent the night. They did not come back. There are several reasons for that. It was under-populated along the way. Gas lights were not universal, by any means, because we didn't even really have gas lights back then. We had just regular street lights, like the "old lamp lighter" lights, and ...
Franzén: There was no gas system.
Overbeck: Yes. So it would have been dark. You would have been subject to whatever the vagaries were of the street. If you were a woman coming back by yourself, or even a small group of people, you could be set upon, I suppose. You could lose your way, because not all the streets were cut all the way through, by any means.
Now, this may explain the "10 a.m. hop," and I think we talked about this in the last session.
Franzén: We talked about it but we did not have the recorder going. So let's talk about the hop.
Overbeck: All right. People familiar with the military life know that rather informal dances are called hops. And the first time I read an ad in the National Intelligencer for a 10 a.m. Monday hop at the Marine barracks, I was very surprised. I assumed that "hops" were Saturday evening, less than formal events.
But if you think about Mrs. Spieden and her concerns about her friends and so on, who went downtown and stayed overnight just for a visit, didn't come back until the next day or so, and you think about the fact that you would have had on not just fancier clothes, but you would have had nice clothes on in the evening, and you would have been way out here at 8th and G at the Marine barracks at a hop or down at the Navy Yard, but particularly at the Marine barracks, as a matter of fact, for a hop, and the hop might have shut down at 11 or 12 o'clock or later in the night after plenty of festive board and lots of good, we assume, rum and punch, and you think about getting back down to the center of the city or all the way to Georgetown, it takes on a different perspective.
So as best as I can figure out, your social activities took place in the daytime at a point in time when you had either the time and the leisure to get to the event the night before and sleep over or you had time to get there in the middle of the day, say, two o'clock lunch or two o'clock dinner, and leave when it was still daylight, and go on home.
But the 10 o'clock hops remain popular for at least 20 years. So that hopping around, doing the wonderful reels and all of the energetic dances of that day, occurred not on a day that we would have been accustomed to having as a festive day at all. It wouldn't have been on Saturday. And of course in that time, for the most part, Sunday was still church.
Now, there is another factor that – as I said, Saturday came into mind. And that is we are still talking about the six-day work week. So if you work a full day Saturday and you come over to the Hill on Sunday afternoon, maybe you get the half day off on Monday, or three quarters of a day off on Monday, to do your frivolity.
At any rate, that was the kind of schedule that you had for these entertainments. Other entertainments tended to be going to church at the Capitol or at one of the local churches.
Franzén: Did you say at the Capitol?
Overbeck: They had church services at the Capitol on Sunday mornings, in the Capitol building, different denominations, and they would announce them in the newspaper.
Franzén: Simply because there were not enough existing church structures to accommodate them?
Overbeck: I'm not sure that's it.
You had Christ Church – which is a sizable church. And the Methodist church. By the 1820s Daniel Carroll had gotten around to building the first St. Peter's. You had a Presbyterian church here on the Hill, and a Baptist church here on the Hill. And you certainly had plenty of churches downtown. I think it was rather that this may have been a situation where preachers of substantial merit or of political clout were invited to come and give their oration [in] the Capitol. People would go to that.
Another entertainment form for those who didn't have to work was to go and listen to the Capitol in session itself, but that was a very short session. For the most part, it began after fall harvest and ended before spring planting, because we were an agrarian country. These men went home to be with the people they knew needed to see them during the crop time and harvest time. And many of them themselves had their own farms.
Now, we have some very checkered histories of behavior on Capitol Hill. Probably the most bizarre was the cashiering of the only commandant of the Marine Corps ever to be drummed out of the service.
Franzén: Let's hear about that.
Overbeck: It was 1819, and there had been marital trouble in the commandant's house for several years.
Franzén: This is Commandant who?
Overbeck: I think it's Gage. I'll have to get his name. I think it's Gage.
The commandant's wife evidently had left town. Now, there are reputed houses of ill-repute all over Capitol Hill. One of the first things a cab driver will tell you when you come to the Hill – or used to tell you – was who used to go visit which madam where. They thought this was something we all wanted to hear. Certainly in the 60s and 70s they thought this was something we all wanted to hear. In the meantime, we find out enough on our own, particularly with some of our congressmen's behavior.
Anyway, this particular commandant was supposedly spied in his night shirt and his night cap, with his lantern in hand, banging on the door of the local doxy, wanting in at two or three o'clock in the morning, with her retort to him to go home. It was late, she was tired, and she didn't want anything to do with him.
Interestingly enough, this was reported by a man who lived on G Street, almost to 11th. If you think about G Street between 8th and 9th, which is where the commandant's house is, and this is almost to 11th Street, the person who alleged having seen them – and remember this is 1819, and very little street light, et cetera – it calls to wonder just what he was really seeing and if he was really seeing this.
Now, what you have to know is that the only way to advance was for the person ahead of you to be kicked out, or to leave, or to die. And there were a number of men who tried one thing and another to get the better of their predecessor, their immediate predecessor, or the person in line ahead of them. It hasn't really changed much.
In that new book on Eisenhower, there's this wonderful anecdote about one of the men who was in Ike's class who kept his ledger of the class. Each time he got one of those men out of his way, he red-lined them out of the book. So this is still a tradition that goes on, but it was already going on on the Hill in 1819.
Anyway, a full court-martial was held. And I think people were just simply tired of this man, because they did court-martial him on the basis of conduct unbecoming to a gentleman and an officer, and got rid of him.
As a historian, one of the things I find to be the most interesting at this point in time is that the Marines have been collecting images of every single commandant, and they have all but one. And the man whom they don't have is that one. One of our dear generals said: "Fine. Find a descendant, paint the descendant, and put the man in the line!" Which, as a historian, makes my toes curl. But, at any rate, we had that kind of behavior.
On the other hand, the Marines had to attend church every Sunday morning. They marched formally from the barracks down G Street to Christ Church, went up to the mezzanine, the gallery, got themselves in and stayed there and behaved and went to church. It was probably – that little church was the closest thing we had to a national church. Until very recently it had, and may still, a pew reserved for the President every Sunday morning. It was the official church of the Marines and it was just, really, a very traditional British type of attitude toward a church.
Now, some of the other rabble rousing that we had that went on was much more in the nature of a street brawl, whether it was the Irish or the Germans or people who had too much liquor and so on. We had our share of people to make sure that those things didn't happen too often.
We even had branding very early on, on Capitol Hill.
Overbeck: One man who was caught stealing had the hand that had done the stealing branded. Punishment sort of fit the crime, but [it was] a little bit distasteful I think for some of us.
The strangest thing of all was the debtors' prison. If you were in debt you were put in prison. You could be visited and you could do negotiations and you could do this, that and the other, but how in the world they expected you to work your way out and get money, other than just trading off pieces of paper with the people who came to visit you, is beyond my comprehension. So the debtors' prison tended to be – it waxed and waned, somewhat full and somewhat empty.
Franzén: Was that prison separate from the prison where you'd put a thief?
Franzén: A prison unto itself.
Franzén: And where was that?
Overbeck: It was out here close to the Congressional Cemetery.
Franzén: At this point in the city's history, who was enforcing the law? Was it enforced by Federal police? Was there a District of Columbia police force? Was it the Marines? Who was it?
Overbeck: By 1804 we had virtually everything in place we needed ourselves for the city to operate as a city, including the courts. Up until about 1804, all of our court proceedings stemmed from Maryland, because we really didn't have an organized court system locally.
We had aldermen, we had commissioners, we had overseers of the poor. We had weights and measures officers who went around to the public market to be sure you didn't have your thumb on the scale and that your scale actually was a correct weighing scale. We had street sweepers.
So we had all of these things in place by about 1804. So, on paper, it looked pretty good. It is just what got done and what didn't get done and how much got done and who was here to get it done and who all the people were to do it – that was not always consistent. And that held true for every ward of the city. For the most part, the 6th Ward is the ward that contained the Navy Yard.
We had elections. We had, of course, no women involved at all in any of these capacities. But Dr. Frederick May was an official physician for the city ...
Franzén: "Official" physician?
Overbeck: Yes, he would go out as a physician to the poor, if need be. And perhaps – my hunch is he also was one of the persons who certified who was dead, because there was not an official mortician ...
Franzén: A coroner.
Overbeck: Or a coroner at that point, right.
There is, fortunately for us, a whole series of the annual reports of the workings of the city government. So we do know what action they took or failed to take that they felt significant enough to be recorded. That doesn't mean that all of them got recorded. It just means that those were the ones that they felt were significant enough to be recorded. So, we actually operated as a city.
Now, as time goes on, this little crescent that goes from 3rd, between 3rd and 4th and Pennsylvania Avenue up to 14th, begins to fill up more, and in its filling up it begins to move northward. There are still plenty of blank spaces, but there was only so much room down by the Navy Yard itself, and only so much room right there at the Marines itself.
So, by the 1840s you began to have construction in a fairly serious way up in the blocks between G and E and then on up into E and D. Those had been much less intensely developed early on, except close to the Navy Yard.
Franzén: And during this time, 8th Street itself was the main commercial corridor?
Overbeck: It was still the main commercial corridor. You have to give consideration, however, to the fact that the Market was over between 6th and 7th and K and L. There was a strip of commercially used properties on the east side of 7th that probably pertained mostly to the kinds of activities that were going on in the Market. But we do know that they were being used commercially.
Franzén: And can we assume that market looked something like Eastern Market?
Franzén: What did it look like?
Overbeck: We're not sure. You ask the darnedest questions.
The market floor plan is basically U-shaped with one leg of the U being longer than the other. We know there was a rehabilitation and extension of the extension of the market in 1823. We do not know ...
Franzén: It was first established when?
Overbeck: In 1805.
Franzén: And then extended in 1823.
Overbeck: We do not know if this initial effort at the market was exactly the same as the initial effort at the Center Market downtown, which was simply a covered shed where people could drive up and trade under a shed or near a shed. We simply don't know that. More will be forthcoming in the archeology digs that are associated with it at this point. We do know, to our utter amazement, that there was a beautiful brick floor under one of the U legs of the market, because we found it the other day; we found it in December of 1999. Beautiful brick, handsomely laid, extensive, not too wide. Probably no more than, perhaps, 10 or 12 feet wide. Certainly as long as, maybe, 30 feet. And it was built at grade.
Franzén: Not very big.
Overbeck: No, no, wouldn't need to be. You didn't have that many people. It followed the grade, it was not built up on any kind of platform. It simply sloped as the land sloped down on the Marine [?] terrace, which is what it was built on – the first of the Marine terraces that comes back out of the Anacostia River above water. It simply sloped right on down toward the bottom [?]. We know that market was active until at least the middle of the Civil War and probably afterward. We know that people who had stalls there reflected the same mixed population of the Navy Yard community. And the reason we know that is that there's a tax book, and we even have records of some of the African-Americans having stalls in the market sufficient that they paid taxes.
So you have a very diverse, long, continuous history of this mixed population. Butchers – lots of them. People must have eaten an enormous amount of meat. Bakers – not many. Dry goods merchants would have had things like lentils, peas, wheat and corn, dried corn, that sort of thing. Now, by that point, the United States had not yet begun to use canned goods. So we would have not found anything in the nature of cash and carry, where you dash in and pick up one can of peas to finish out dinner. You would be doing serious marketing.
One of the things that we do know is that there were several contests, as it were, political action efforts in the newspapers, to try to differentiate between market days for different markets. Because it was felt that by having the same market day for Center Market – because the markets were not open every day, they were only open maybe three days a week or five days a week, depending – having the same market days for Center Market, for the market that was up on East Capitol Street right in front of the Capitol, and for the market down at the Navy Yard, was counterproductive because people didn't go from market to market. In a way that makes no sense at all because people weren't going to walk from the Navy Yard to Center Market to go shopping.
Now, if what they were talking about was who was coming to supply, who the vendors were, that is a different issue. But that is really never the main issue in any of the articles. The main issue is: Who is there shopping on what days?
Franzén: So that market would have been open how many days a week?
Overbeck: Usually it seems, just in general, judging from different sources, that they were open at least three to five days a week, and probably more in the three-days-a-week range.
In the first place, you had to depend on your vendor to come in from the country, and that usually meant coming, fairly arduously, from across the river. We know that people drove their herds down what is now Martin Luther King Avenue from as far away as Oxon Hill, to drive them across that little low bridge and bring them over.
How many – maybe five sheep, I don't know. It depended on what they thought were going to be the number of people who would buy, or who had ordered, perhaps, meat for a given day.
Franzén: They would have been slaughtered at the market, in that area?
Overbeck: They could have been. We're not really sure about that. We know that there were some slaughter butchers just across the bridge. They would not have been within the confines of Union Town that we talked about, but they could have been fresh killed, fresh dressed, and then brought on over. It was a lot easier to get them to walk there than it was to have enough carts to bring carcasses.
Now, the Navy Yard persisted as a working Navy Yard, and it changed functions over time very gradually. As ship building became more sophisticated, as steam ships came in, as drafts required for boats became deeper, the Anacostia became less and less suited. And so the function of the Navy Yard began to change.
Franzén: When is this?
Overbeck: This starts in the 1840s, because you have steam ships coming up and down the Anacostia River. The sparks out of one of whose smokestacks even quite literally set fire to one of the bridges and burned it down. For about the next hundred years there were snags of it still in the water to the point where it was labeled on the navigation maps as "The Old Burnt Bridge."
So life begins to change. And as life begins to change, the skills that are needed at the Navy Yard also begin to change. They are more machinist in orientation. And we also get a wonderful man named Dalgren [Dahlgren?] who was a champion designer of armaments, particularly of ones that were little mines and really sophisticated bottleneck-types of cannon that could be moved around and rolled around on ship deck. Dalgren began to make big waves there.
This is before the Civil War, and not long before the Civil War. So, the function by the Civil War was already changing to one of armaments and mines, little floating mines, rather than focusing so much on ships. With this, you have a different kind of people working. You have people who can read draftsman's drawings. You have people who can make draftsman's drawing. Very precise, machinery-oriented, detailed technology. This is not something that your average African-American who was undereducated was going to be able to follow or to use. So their mobility becomes very limited in terms of being able to move up in the job and so forth.
At the same time we get some people from the north down here. A man named Van Hook, among others. They had been in Baltimore. They had been further north than that.
Now, segregation by space is not a Southern tradition, particularly. In the north, however, segregation by space had been in place since at least the 1820s, where there were very specific areas into which blacks could move.
Franzén: And places where they could not.
Now, to appeal to these people who were involved in the newly emerging technology of the Navy Yard, the refocusing of the Navy Yard on the more technical aspects of armaments, Van Hook and his buddies decided to set up a suburb. It was the first of the suburbs of the District of Columbia, and it was by restricted covenant.
Van Hook and his buddies decided they would construct the first suburb for the District of Columbia, and that it would be positioned to appeal to those people whom they felt would be most likely to purchase, and that would be the emerging elite draftsmen, craftsmen, machinists at the Navy Yard.
Franzén: Van Hook's first name?
Overbeck: I forget that.
Anyway, this is the 1850s. And the land they chose is right across the long bridge on the other side of the Anacostia River from the Navy Yard, so it would simply be a walk across the bridge.
Franzén: This bridge [reached] this side of the river at what street?
Now, this was a suburb controlled by restrictive covenant. The restrictive covenant said, among other things, that there would be no land purchased or lived in by a person of color, there would be no land lived in or purchased by a person of Irish descent, that one could not make soap ...
Overbeck: Noxious. Think abut how you made soap.
And there were a few other things. But lumped in with soap and people of color and Irish was your main focus about the fact this was going to be a controlled, orderly, all white, all middle-class community. And they assumed that they would sell out very quickly because of the population at the Navy Yard.
Well, they got fooled. They didn't. We know that property now as the historic district of Anacostia. Its name, when it was platted, and its name that persisted for years was Union Town.
And with that, we set a tone for the beginning of the end of the antebellum era on Capitol Hill, and the Navy Yard in particular, and the beginning for the Civil War to start in 1860.
Overbeck: Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the whole concept of Union Town is the fact that, following the Civil War, even with the hostilities and the acrimony and the emancipation, there still were not enough people of middle-class white background, non-Irish, who wanted to buy in Union Town. And the biggest house in Union Town, the one that Van Hook had designed for himself, ended up being bought by an ex-slave, famous orator, our first African-American appointee to a foreign post, Frederick Douglass. It is now a national landmark as Frederick Douglass's last home.
Franzén: And explain just a little more about why they weren't able to fill it. Was it that there just wasn't enough demand for that many workers, with those skills, coming in from the North?
Overbeck: I'm not really sure. We haven't done a demographic survey of the 1850 and 1860 censuses to see what the ratio was of nativity or state of origin for the people who were working at the Navy Yard and who were in positions that earned them sufficient money to buy over there. There certainly would have been – first, with no one else close enough to want to make the commute – a captive audience for that particular enclave. It would have been what would be considered the Navy Yard community.
Overbeck: Because the only bridge over there was the low bridge at that point.
The population source was very widely defined [?]. It was still basically a non-public transportation community, or even a non-public transportation city. That meant either you had to have your own horse, your own carriage, or your own shanks mare – be willing to walk across the bridge in bad weather. If it was drawn for a ship to go through, you had to wait.
Franzén: It was a drawbridge?
Overbeck: Yes, it did have a way to get through for ships that were going on up to Bladensburg. So my hunch is that they simply didn't do a good job of scouting their market.
Franzén: Did Van Hook lose his shirt on this deal?
Overbeck: Yes. Hallelujah.
Franzén: That's a good note on which to end, and we'll pick up next time with the Civil War.
[End of Tape #4]
Tape #5 – Recorded March 12, 2000
Franzén: This is the beginning of tape 5. It's Sunday, March 12th, 2000. We're back at the home of Ruth Ann Overbeck, talking about the history of Capitol Hill.
When we left off last time, we said we were going to talk about the Civil War, but we've decided instead to first talk about the early history of African Americans on Capitol Hill, leading up to the emancipation, which occurred here before the emancipation for the rest of the country.
Overbeck: Right. It occurred one year before, and it occurred during the Civil War, so it does have an effect, a cause and effect.
We discussed very early on the fact that the Congress was willing to have the city in this location if, in fact, it adopted the Maryland slave laws, because they were the least offensive of all slave laws.
Franzén: This was a compromise between North and South involved in getting Washington established as the capital.
Overbeck: Yes. This is one of the many compromises.
Now we go from a place and time in which the plantation owners all owned slaves. By 1800, the city of Washington had an increasing volume of slaves in it, to the point there were ... 623 slaves and there were 123 free colored people.
Franzén: This is when?
Overbeck: By 1800. This is the date when the Congress moved to the Capitol.
Franzén: Those are both very low numbers.
Overbeck: Both very low numbers, and free [blacks] proportionately rather high.
Franzén: Now, the number of whites at that time?
Overbeck: The total population of the District of Columbia was probably 3,210.
Now, as you and I both know – we have talked about who owns in Washington, who owns in Georgetown, who lives in Georgetown but owns elsewhere, so this may be the whole county count. Even at that, that is still a very small number of African-Americans, and a small number of people, period.
Now, we talked about the way in which slaves became free – manumission, free born, meaning born of a free mother no matter what the status of the father was, and earning their freedom.
And one of the reasons why it comes up in the Navy Yard context is because the Navy Yard was one of those places where they could be most assured of earning the money for their freedom. Several of the men who were working at the Navy Yard also established their own businesses. There were two "rope walks" which literally were businesses wherein you took twine and, by walking it back and forth, made it into rope. That was then sold to the Navy.
Franzén: The Navy needed rope, of course.
Overbeck: Most of the women were domestics. Many of them hired out.
There is a wonderful anecdote [showing] how small Washington was. When a person greeted another person: "Oh, how did you like your candied oranges for dessert last night?" Well, the two people had not been at the same dinner, but it turned out that the confectioner, who had furnished the candied oranges for one of the dinners, had been seen by someone else on the street, who had passed it on to their domestic, who had passed it on. So it was a very small town, with lots of knowledge of who was out and who was where.
We also talked about the tin cases in which to carry passes. Passes had to be issued officially by the city government.
Franzén: Now, we talked about the tin cases on the day we did not record. So tell me about the tin cases.
Overbeck: As far as we know, virtually every free black carried with them a water-proof, airtight container that contained a pass that said they were permitted to go freely about the community because they were free. They had freedom papers. Those were some of the most valuable things – that was probably the most valuable thing.
The city guaranteed that you were free under several conditions. There had to be white witnesses. One of the favorite white witnesses was a man down on Virginia Avenue, close to the Navy Yard, named Dr. Frederick May. Dr. Frederick May officiated over the birth of many of the children – both black and white. And of the black children, if their mother were born a free person of color or was manumitted in any way, then he knew this child had been born free.
Franzén: Can you define "manumitted"?
Overbeck: Manumitted or manumission is the process by which a person who is in bonds, or in enslaved condition, is allowed to move into a free state.
Now, the most popular way of that, or the most frequent way it happened, was through death. You remember, George Washington manumitted his servants at his death, which means he gave them all their freedom.
Other ways to get yourself manumitted were to strike a bargain with your owner and say: I will work a second job for hire and you may have all of that money until it reaches a certain amount, and then I have paid for myself and I am free.
But that was a little dicier because sometimes money had a way of disappearing, money had a way of taking longer to produce than [the life of] the person with whom the agreement had been made, and the second and third generations weren't about to let go of something so valuable as a slave.
Franzén: How valuable? What was the price of a slave in 1800?
Overbeck: The most expensive slave ranged up to around $600 for a man of a skilled craft. A baby could be $15.
Franzén: Fifteen dollars.
Overbeck: Yes. You didn't know if the baby was going to live. You didn't know if the baby would be able to physically work.
Franzén: And they'd cost you money before they could produce.
Overbeck: Yes, absolutely.
Franzén: And $600 was a lot of money.
Overbeck: Well, yes. You could buy a two-story house for $600. This is one of the reasons why there was such trouble financially at the Civil War, because people literally lost their shirts. Now by that time, fortunately, there were very few slaves by comparison, but you did lose a substantial amount of money.
And slaves, like tobacco, were used in trade. You had no say-so if you were a slave. You had no say-so [as to whether] you were sent by yourself; you had no say so [whether] you were sent with three members of your family and not two others.
The very most problematic thing that a slave could imagine was to be "Carolina-ed," because the Carolinas had the most rigorous slave laws, or the harshest. They felt if they were "Carolina-ed" they might as well have been consigned to the Devil.
Franzén: "Carolina-ed" means you were sent to Carolina.
Overbeck: Yes, meaning you were sold to Carolina.
Franzén: So in Washington, DC, there were an unusually high number of free blacks ...
Franzén: Compared to, say, the Carolinas. There were some in the Carolinas ...
Overbeck: Very few. Most states, by the 1840s, had decreed it illegal to have a free person of color in the state, because they were considered to be rabble rousers, they were considered to be people who were going to cause problems.
There is a wonderful story about Petersburg, Virginia, where probably the best iron monger in the entire state lived. And at the time they were going to kick him out, all sorts of people signed a petition to keep him there because they didn't know what they were going to do with the iron foundry, the iron mongery, if they didn't have him there.
So he did get to stay, but it was a case-by-case basis. He certainly was the exception.
Franzén: And I would think that blacks in other states south of here who did manage to get their freedom would be likely to come here?
Overbeck: If they could get away they would come here. Now, the interesting part is that the newspapers are filled with little ads that have a tiny little figure in the corner that shows an African-American with a knapsack on his back, and that's a slave running. It means a slave has escaped. Sometimes they would be able to say: We think this man has gone to, or his son has delivered his father down to Peter Miller's bakery. If anybody sees him, this is the reward.
They would hold him in jail until the owner came. And there were times when, I think, a few, a very few owners got so disgusted with the whole process they simply let them go. But that was certainly more rare than not.
There is a Capitol Hill family that I guess we should talk about, George Beall, pronounced "bell." He and his wife lived out along the District border. They were not technically married in the way that Anglos could marry because they could not marry in the church, but they "jumped the broom" and did the appropriate ritual within their culture.
He was a very, very skilled carpenter. She was a very good farmer. Now, what I have found over the course of time to be absolutely amazing is the comparative amount of freedom that some of the slaves had. Mrs. Beall had the opportunity to use a truck garden – a little patch of land she had been assigned out by her cabin – to grow anything she wanted. She evidently was wonderful. It was down by Oxon Cove. The easiest way to get from the District of Columbia to Alexandria at that point was by ferry from Oxon Cove over to Alexandria. And she entrusted the money that was the surplus money, every market day, to the Methodist minister over there, and he held it until there was enough money to buy George. She bought her husband.
They'd had five boys. All five of those boys died running. They were fleeing. We don't know how they died, but the statement is that the five of them died running. They also had a daughter, who was very precocious.
After they married and came into the city when George's freedom was obtained, they came to Capitol Hill. And they ended up owning about five or six lots, several houses, some of which they lived in, some of which they rented out.
They were very strong Methodists. They started out in the Methodist church that is the forerunner of the one that sits at 5th and Pennsylvania Avenue right now. The daughter fell in love with a man named Scipio Bean ...
Overbeck: Scipio, [as in] the African general. Remember that the people who had the status to own even a fair hand of slaves generally were the very well educated people who knew the classics, and the classics set the tone of the day. So, Scipio Bean.
Overbeck: It depends. They spell it several different ways. It is as nonstandard spelling as you want.
Anyway, Scipio came in as a contract laborer to work on the Capitol. He was a also an excellent carpenter. And Scipio became a staunch member of the community.
One of the things that I find the most surprising of all is that in the National Intelligencer of the late 1810s, two years before Scipio is manumitted, in a list of African American men who are founding a school for children of color, free children of color – because they could not do it for children who were not free – Scipio's name is listed. So you had an opportunity to accrue status and to be considered a working part of the community and a viable part of the community without ever necessarily getting that last piece of paper. But I find that remarkable.
At any rate, that family goes on and on and on and on. The last person to move out of a house that Scipio built on land he bought from Daniel Carroll, in a tax default, moved out in the early 1990s. She was an old maid. She was the last of the [family] who lived there.
Everybody else said: What do you mean, live on Capitol Hill? We're in New York, we're in Chicago, we're in the city. We're not living up on Capitol Hill. There is a general disdain about Capitol Hill from many of the old families – not all, but many of the old families.
And the house is still standing. It's in the 200 or 300 block of B Street, or Constitution Avenue, Southeast. It's just amazing.
Franzén: Constitution Avenue?
Overbeck: I'm sorry, Independence Avenue. It's just amazing.
Franzén: Do you recall her name?
Overbeck: Her last name was Cornish, because by that time Harriet Cornish has remarried, married another Methodist minister. Scipio went off to Haiti, and I believe Scipio is the man who married the king and queen of Haiti. I never confirmed that, but that is the lore that goes around.
So you have this family. It is very seldom you find a family on Capitol Hill of any sort, form, shape, creed or whatever, who has been here since at least 1800 and didn't leave before 1990. This is very remarkable. But there are at least three of those families that have stuck around the Hill.
One of the earliest schools founded on Capitol Hill was quickly shut down or stopped because there wasn't enough money to pay for the teacher. That was about 1804. That was down by the Navy Yard. There was another school ...
Franzén: A school for free blacks?
Overbeck: Yes, formed by blacks. Public education didn't come in for years. In fact, it comes in in the Civil War, and that's for whites, primarily.
There is another school that was taught by a Miss Cook, up close to the Capitol. She and her family, as things from the Capitol area moved over toward Georgetown toward Northwest, they moved with it. So they got the status bug and moved accordingly.
Franzén: Let me ask a question about living patterns. At that time, in the early 19th Century, did free blacks on Capitol Hill tend to live in a particular sub-neighborhood or were they pretty well scattered among everyone else?
Overbeck: Initially they were scattered among everyone else. By the time of the Civil War, there was still a great deal of scattering. There was a pocket along 5th Street Southeast, between Independence and C. There were more of them down along 4th Street Southeast between D and Marion Park. And there were more of them down D Street between Marion Park and G. All three of those neighborhoods were still pretty well mixed.
Once you take off down Virginia Avenue, you still have a lot of mix, but it is a different kind of mix because there you have some of the wealthier people who were living on Capitol Hill: Mr. Smallwood, who later became a mayor, Dr. Frederick May, et cetera.
So you would have a shanty next to brick next to shanty, next to frame, next to two-story, three-story, what have you.
The real clustering began probably about 1900, and it went downhill from there. It was nearly all below Virginia Avenue.
Franzén: You mean south of?
Overbeck: "Below" being south of, between Virginia Avenue and the river.
The next clustering that happened – and there was a pocket up here, I always forget, a wonderful little pocket up here on South Carolina between 11th and 12th – once you have the Freedmen's Bureau come in with the Civil War, and that will be a whole other story.
Franzén: Freedmen's Bureau?
Overbeck: Yes, and they settled people in congestion, as it were. They put them in groups and left them there. Then you had a pocket of African-Americans out here, far out on East Capitol, pretty much where the front porch houses are.
Then you had a pocket over on about G and 13th, G and 15th, where the CME church is. A lovely little boxy red church is over there.
You didn't have that much clustering in Northeast. I tend to think that had to do with work opportunities.
Capitol Hill did have alley dwellings but it had spatially the least number of alley dwellings by category of all parts of the city. Now, alley dwellings are often confused, because most people believe the houses were for blacks and blacks only. Most alley dwellings actually started out being built for whites.
Now, there are two things. One of those things is that an alley dwelling's door does not face the door of the main house that is behind it, on the primary street. Where a house has its doorway facing the back door of the main house, you are likely to have a servant-master relationship, whether it be white or black. Because you had – it was like the response box [?], the widows walk up on top of [the house of] the commandant of the Marine Corps so he could see what was going on down at the Navy Yard, and signals could be sent back and forth. You had to have a way of being able to lean out the back door and call out Molly and get Molly inside the house.
Franzén: But many of those servants were white.
Franzén: But most of the alley dwellings we have on the Hill now are conversions of former stables and carriage houses, correct?
Overbeck: Oh, no. Next block down, in the 200 block between 11th and 12th, is Tiger Alley. It's now called Gessford Court [?] because Tiger Alley was not quite tony enough. It was built for living.
Library Court, in the 300 block between A and East Capitol Northeast, started out as alley dwellings, and they were built because of the deep lots. They could afford the density.
Franzén: But were they part of the lot that fronted the street or were they separate little lots behind the main lot?
Overbeck: As a general rule, they were subdivided as lots. People bought the lot or there was a very definite land lending area, as in you would rent your house based on the amount of space that surrounded it. You had a defined lot that was yours to control if you rented the house.
So if you look at the plats you will see they are all nicely platted out, and sometimes they have letter figures instead of the numerics, sometimes they have a combination.
Now, let's get back into – we drifted a long way. We drifted, but not completely drifted.
Now, there was a lot of brouhaha about what we were going to do with all these free blacks and slaves. People were concerned about the amount of people of color who were coming into Washington, and they were particularly concerned about the number of people who were becoming free.
We do not have a population for 1810 – you will hear me say that over and over again – because it was burned by the Brits.
Franzén: The census figures.
Overbeck: The census figures went up in a puff of smoke.
But in 1820 slaves numbered 1,945, but the free colored population numbered 1,826. Look what's happening. We're getting a balance of power between slaves and free blacks. That was enough to scare the wits out of a slave owner. In 1840 there were 1,713 slaves and – hold on to your hat – 4,808 free colored population, out of a [total] population of 23,000. That is a lot of people, far more than troubled [trebled?] the town in 1800. The percentage of colored in 1800 was 23; in 1820, 28; and again in 1840 it was 28.
So the balance by 1820 to 1840 – as [white] people began to like the idea of living in the District and coming to the District to [stay] longer, rather than go home after the fall harvest and come back by spring planting, then there was getting to be more of a balance. But that was still an enormous imbalance because you had this population out there and not everybody knew how to get along.
Now, there was a society to send African-Americans back to Africa. Some of the most prestigious men in Congress belonged to it. Some of the most prestigious men and women in Washington, DC belonged to it. And the Colonization Society didn't get its building built until right at the Civil War. It never was truly effective. They tried but they never did really get everybody there and get them back. What they wanted to do was to establish a nation of free blacks that knew how to live in a democracy and knew how to democratize, I guess, the whole of Africa.
Franzén: This was called the Colonization Society?
Overbeck: Yes, aimed primarily at Liberia. People would raise money and send petitions. A few ships went back. If you go there today, what is really interesting is you can still see the vestiges of manor houses – the Tara's, as it were – that look like the upper-class [American] whites.
Franzén: In Liberia?
Overbeck: In Liberia. For anybody that wants to read about it, there is a wonderful article in the Smithsonian about it, with pictures. Just fascinating.
They came here as transplants, accepted that part of our culture that they wanted, and took that back as transplants.
Franzén: Now, the Colonization Society was a white society?
Overbeck: It was. Free blacks could belong for a minimal amount of money. And some did.
Franzén: And by what means were free blacks persuaded to go back?
Overbeck: Well, some of them weren't just real thrilled with the way things were going here. This was not – no matter what we say about the growth, and no matter what we say about passes and so on, they were in a sub-set, a sub-society. Therefore, they had to adapt, accommodate. Over time, as you get closer and closer to the Civil War, the jobs they could hold began to be frozen.
Franzén: Was that by District law or just by custom?
Overbeck: No, by District law.
They began to say, well, we really don't want them to do this, and we don't want them to do that. And certainly the Navy Yard, just simply by attrition and the fact that they could not read those drawings, lost a lot of them and moved them down from what had been very, very – for them – high-paying jobs, down to rather mundane pay.
Franzén: This was as the Navy Yard got into the manufacturing of munitions.
Overbeck: Yes, as it got more and more sophisticated and got out of the shipbuilding business. That wave came in the 1840s, 1850s. With that, then you had no real way of saying, well, I can work caulking the ships, because they weren't doing caulking on ships. They were phasing ships out, first of all, in terms of the number of ships they were building. And the ships they were building were of a much more sophisticated material, with metal, bolts, riveting, all of those things.
So they got left behind, and it had to do with education. And it's not that they were the only ones getting left behind. Quite frankly, white children were getting left behind, too. Their doors of opportunity for apprenticeships and so on were being closed somewhat, because they didn't have school either. There was no public school in this city until the Civil War.
We will get into education, the transition from education into Civil War, in another session, what happened during the Civil War. Because it's quite fascinating, with the kids running around having very little to do, and even during the Civil War having very little to do.
Now, Virginia had gone back to Virginia – the Virginia portion of the District of Columbia ...
Franzén: That was in the 1840s?
Overbeck: Yes. They decided they didn't want any part of this. In the first place, the law had been written such that they could have no Federal building on that side of the Potomac.
Franzén: Are you saying that was a local decision within that piece of the District to go back to Virginia?
Overbeck: Yeah. Virginia pled with the Congress, pled with the District of Columbia, pled with the Commonwealth of Virginia, to take it back. And they did.
Now, at that point, that is when the real explosion came that led us to having the same percentage of the population in 1820 and 1840 in terms of [free versus enslaved] African-Americans. They weren't about to stay over there.
One of the things that was creating a problem in Virginia was the radical difference in slave laws: who could do what and who couldn't; who was married to whom, and who was part of whose family; who could sneak across the bridge, who could go across the bridge easily with pass in hand. So that and the fact that, as far as Virginia was concerned, they were getting nothing out of this. They were getting no Federal money put into it. They had a Federal judge, and that sort of thing, but most states had those anyhow.
So that went right on up and down the pike, and they decided that it was time to go back, and they did.
Franzén: This is what is now Arlington.
Overbeck: Arlington and Alexandria, remember, because George Washington very quietly gerrymandered the property so that his Alexandria rental houses would be included. He is fascinating, but he is not one of my most favorite people at the moment.
Now, we really only had one serious slave problem in the District of Columbia that was anything like a riot. We had a lot of things that were – runaways were hiding out with people, and they would be caught and everybody would be fined and the runaway would be sent back to wherever. But that happened; that happened almost any place that you were.
The Abolition Society obviously took its time trying to go through the wheels and trying to grind itself away and make some difference, and that was more or less okay. But there came to be something called – well, first of all, Georgetown was a separate corporation, as you know. Henry Lloyd Garrison was one of the most active of the Brahmin abolitionists, and he produced a newspaper about abolition and kept sending it to Washington.
Franzén: He was in Boston?
Overbeck: Yes, printed in Boston, and he sent it all over, and he sent it here because we had congressmen and people of influence.
Well, Georgetown, in its own inimitable way, banned the paper and said it could not be for sale, it could not be on the street, it could not be seen, it could not be read – which is in direct violation of the First Amendment, but nobody seemed to get really upset. They ultimately started having it in there again, so somebody must have said, hey you're going to get sued, or whatever, if you don't put this out here.
We talked about Van Hook, and I'm not sure we talked about Van Hook on tape, but we talked about Union Town.
Franzén: We did.
Overbeck: And I told you at that point that Van Hook was appealing to the people at the Navy Yard that he felt would be very much in favor of living in an all-white community.
Now, in 1835, which was about a decade and a half before Union Town, something happened in Washington that was very nasty, very nasty. And just how nasty we don't know because the records aren't complete. No one has been able to find the entire set of records. We don't know if they were even kept. The community had never had anything like this happen in it before. Now, whether this was because we had so many people coming down from immigrant countries, whether we had so many Yankees coming in, whatever, because things like this happened in the South, so I'm not blaming any one group. But it is very strange that it happened in Washington. There was a trial eight months later.
Now, there was a police force in Georgetown that consisted entirely of three men. That's all they needed. And in Georgetown a rumor began that Rubin Crandall had come to Washington for the explicit reason to distribute incendiary material among the blacks. Crandall was from New York.
Franzén: He was black?
Overbeck: He was white. He had a degree in medicine. He taught botany. He ultimately would be the person who bought the land on which the new Eastern Market stands. He got a real sweetheart deal from the District of Columbia.
At any rate, he had lots of books and papers as a man of learning would have had. But among them were anti-slavery papers. Someone who happened to be visiting his lodging – by "lodging" it could have been, we don't know if he was renting rooms; we don't know if he was renting a room in a hotel; so we just say "his lodging," that suffices – the person decided that this was to be spread around and the news was to be out not to trust Rubin Crandall.
He had appeared before the Justice of the Peace before the crowd gathered. The situation seemed so threatening that the policeman from Georgetown who didn't have a very big jail whisked him off to Washington to be safe.
Franzén: There was a crowd, a threatening crowd, that gathered around Rubin Crandall?
Overbeck: Around Rubin Crandall himself. He had already seen the justice of the peace who had visited him. There was this threatening crowd. As they assembled, the police saw what was happening and knew they couldn't control the crowd, so they "posse-ed" him off to Washington, DC, and put him there for safekeeping.
The story continued to spread and a mob appeared at the jail. It is likely that the botanist, even with his botany samples wrapped up in anti-slavery papers, would not really have been able to raise much dust, because not much dust was going on about slavery issues at that time. This is 1835. Everybody seemed to be getting along pretty well.
However, the previous week one of the social elites in town had an attempt made on her life by her "colored man," and that was Mrs. William Thorton. And Mrs. William Thorton carried a lot of weight; and Mr. William Thorton carried even more weight.
So here were two incidents within seven days and the town was just deciding to go ballistic. And so off they did. What other citizens were going to come, what other visitor was going to come, what other nightmare was going to occur in the day or the night?
Well, the crowd stood out in front of the city jail. It was an August night. And recall that Beverly Snow – and note the name Beverly, because that is a good Southern male name, of the landed gentry. So here is a slave named Beverly – former slave. Here is Beverly Snow. And Beverly Snow was a free mulatto who had a reputation that was virtually spotless. He owned the best oyster house in town. And oyster houses were something that was just absolutely the thing to do, particularly for the gentlemen. Retire after the end of the whatever – the day – and instead of going to the bar you go to the oyster house, get your beer, or whatever goes with it, get your oysters, and then off they go. He had been proprietor, sole owner, of a restaurant north of – the northwest corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 6th Street Northwest. It was prime property. This man really had it together.
He was much frequented by the elite, like the Thorntons, and like certainly Crandall would have been as a doctor, who would have been accepted in there if he was any good as a doctor. All sorts of other fine folk. The heads of the Masons, the preacher, whatever.
He had spoken in disrespectful terms of some of the wives and daughters of some of the mechanics.
Overbeck: Guess who employed the most mechanics in town?
The Navy Yard.
Well, if they couldn't get Crandall, they were going to go get Snow. So off the mob went down the street.
Franzén: This is a story that spread at that time ...
Franzén: That this man, Snow, had said something disrespectful.
Overbeck: Yes. Evidently people knew that he had, and they were probably telling pretty much the truth, that they were not minding their manners, so to speak. They weren't behaving politely – meaning the women and daughters of the mechanics. If you think about the mechanics, the lower-end you get in the class of mechanics, the less likely good manners are to prevail; and by "good manners" we can also sort of substitute the word good morals.
So off they went in an effort to find Snow. They couldn't find him. They all went home.
The next day they assembled again trying to find Snow.
Franzén: At his oyster house?
Overbeck: Yes. So somebody must have been tipping Snow off who knew Snow was relatively harmless.
They wrecked the restaurant. They burned the houses of free people of color, and broke the windows in one of the colored churches. Now, nowhere have we been able to find where these are. I happen to know from tax books that there are several frame houses that disappeared that year from the tax records, and they're up on Capitol Hill.
So did they come to Capitol Hill and burn the houses of the blacks in retaliation for Snow?
Now, the militia – we had had a militia, more or less. The militia did such a poor job during the War of 1814, the militia sort of dissipated after that and came back a little bit and then it dissipated.
So the only thing the District of Columbia and Georgetown or the Federal City and Georgetown had to defend itself at all were the little tiny police forces, three [men] in Georgetown and not many more than that in the District of Columbia.
So, at any rate, an attachment of Marines came to guard Dr. Crandall. That was the closest thing they had for someone who was qualified to make sure that nothing happened to this prisoner. It sounds like something straight out of the old West.
Franzén: They gathered around the jail. Where was the jail?
Overbeck: I believe the jail was at something like 4th and E. It wasn't on the main street, it was up toward the ridge a little bit. I'll find that out.
Franzén: In Northwest.
Overbeck: Yes, oh yes, in Northwest. Precious little was on the Hill.
Anyway, there was a major general commanding the militia district and his name was Walter Jones. He didn't get very much play by anybody except that, bless his heart, he stood there until there was no longer a group of people standing out in front of the jail. He issued a call to citizens who had arms to assemble at the City Hall, and on the third night he had a small force at his disposal. The Marines had gone back home. It wasn't their duty to do this. This was a city duty.
In some places, the District of Columbia had never paid a bit of attention to city property and District programs, and others they pay a lot of attention to. At this point they are paying a lot of attention. So the Marines go home and this poor general is trying to find his troops. So he puts out this thing and there is a small group of people. Well, two military companies from Alexandria arrive – because remember, this is before the 1840s. They took it upon themselves to be helpful to their county, their city, their lode star. They tendered their services, and people from Georgetown who wanted to be in the militia decided they would come over and help. So we had all of this group gathered about.
For a while they were drawn up near the City Hall, which is two blocks to the south on Pennsylvania Avenue, but it actually is up on Indiana. This was blank space in there. Everybody was trying to do what they could do. The public exposure kept on going. It went relatively without a hitch, except that it never left the city the same again.
Franzén: These citizens who came out to help were there to defend Crandall? Defend the jail?
Overbeck: Basically they were like the western posses that would defend the law. They were to keep the law moving and make the law work.
Can you imagine what it would have been like in the newspapers all over the United States? Here we had one man in jail and nobody could keep him there and keep him safe and keep him from getting burned or torched? This is well before the lynch mob era, so it was just not going to work.
So, on the last Saturday of June of that year, Pennsylvania Avenue was the scene of a ridiculous and motley parade and travesty of a military procession, because they decided they would use the article of ridicule to take care of this situation. If they ridiculed it enough, it would turn into something that wasn't worth thinking about.
Franzén: Who is "they"?
Overbeck: The people who came for all of these little mob militias – Alexandria, Georgetown, and Washington, DC, militias.
Franzén: And they had a parade?
Overbeck: They had a parade. They adopted at a public meeting a resolution that the members of the various companies in Washington County that sold literature would neither buy nor sell nor in any other way countenance or hold communication with any person holding a commission of warrant or in any other manner command in the militia of the District of Columbia.
Now why in God's green earth they just didn't say they wouldn't do that with somebody who was distributing hostile literature or black literature is beyond my comprehension. But it is really a strange interlude.
Franzén: I'm not sure I followed that.
Overbeck: Okay, let's go through it again.
The public company, the meeting of all these little militia people who were really just barely now militia people, came over to help. They pled that the members of the various companies in the Washington County – of militia, loosely organized they were, and would fall apart the minute they got home – would neither sell, buy, or in any other way whatever countenance or hold communication with any person holding a commission or a warrant, or, in any other manner, command, in the militia of the District.
The militia of the District didn't do any good. It dispersed. The people we have here on this day are the ones who just came over to volunteer to help. They are not militia. They are not sworn in. They were just there trying to keep Crandall safe and keep the law safe. Now, they've decided to do away with that.
Now, the use of the weapon of ridicule was also decided upon. It sounds to me like a whole bunch of preachers got in here but none of them are listed. The ridicule took the form of the parade. It was ridiculous. It was motley. It was a travesty of a military procession, as you can imagine.
Franzén: Deliberately so.
Overbeck: Yes, that was their deal: Let's ridicule them, let them know what we think of them.
Franzén: Ridicule ...
Overbeck: The militia. The militia failed us.
Franzén: The Washington, DC, militia?
Overbeck: Yes, the three little cops in Georgetown, whatever militia in Georgetown, had failed us. Whatever militia in Alexandria had failed us. Let's just let them know what we think of them: Ha-ha, clowns, go home.
At any rate, even the pretense of maintaining the militia system was abandoned in a burst of laughter. Everybody evidently took it in good spirit and laughed. Now, that was probably very fortunate because we had a town that was ready just about to blow up. You have a Yankee coming down to distribute seditious literature. You have a black man they can't find. They have ruined his establishment, wrecked his store, wrecked his house, burned other people's houses, broken the windows in some of the churches.
When you have a pretty well matched group of blacks and whites, that is not a cool situation. So they turned it into a laugh, which I think is absolutely hilarious.
At any rate, a year later, they did form some militia troops that were working and did work and did practice and did do their thing, but with the exception of something that happened over in Northwest, the Pearl affair ...
Franzén: Before we go on to that, what happened to Crandall and Snow?
Overbeck: Snow came back. Snow came back to the District. Snow put his life back together pretty much. As I said, Crandall is a Republican. Crandall gets all sorts of favoritism and cronyism from Boss Shepherd, but that's after the Civil War. Neither one of them get physically harmed, but they certainly were in danger of being so.
Franzén: Okay. On that note, we will stop the tape.
[End of Tape #5]
Tape #6 – Tuesday, March 14, 2000
Franzén: Okay, we're beginning tape 6. This is Tuesday, March 14th. We're again at the home of Ruth Ann Overbeck to talk about Capitol Hill history.
Ruth Ann, when we stopped last time, we were talking about the march toward emancipation here in the District. Tell me about Mr. Shiner, somebody you mentioned when we met a few days ago when we were not recording.
Overbeck: Mr. Shiner.
Franzén: Yes, tell me his story.
Overbeck: Okay. Michael Shiner was a free man of color, and he worked down at the Navy Yard. He was a good Methodist. He had a very small house on a lot that he leased between D and E, [and] 8th and 9th Southeast.
He came home from work one day to find his wife and children gone. They had been confiscated by two slave sellers from Alexandria. Of course, we could not have slave auctions or slave auctioneers in the District of Columbia by that period of time, but they were still permitted in Alexandria.
Franzén: When would this have been?
Overbeck: This was, I believe, in the early 1840s.
Franzén: There were auctions here prior to that, but that had been outlawed?
Overbeck: Yes, yes. You could no longer auction slaves at all in the District of Columbia by long before that date. You could sell them between each other as individuals and you could advertise them in the paper, but in terms of having a slave block auction, that was verboten.
Well, Michael Shiner wore himself out for the next two or three days going across the long bridge between Washington and Alexandria trying to get his wife and his children back. He says it was by the help of the good Lord that he was able to get them back.
Now, we know that, as a Methodist, one of Michael Shiner's heroes was a man named Yelberton Page, who did not believe in slavery. He also happened to be one of the masters of the Naval Lodge.
Franzén: Was he a minister?
Overbeck: He was a minister and a master Mason.
The assumption is that whatever money, plate or artifacts Michael could round up, he entrusted to Mr. Page, and Mr. Page then turned them into whatever the auctioneers were going to demand to get his wife back – plus, we hope, a very heaping dose of gentle persuasion.
There is another story that we need to tell that talks about a house that is not necessarily so connected with the Navy Yard, except that it is in a strange sort of way.
Franzén: Before we do that, could I ask you a couple of questions about Michael Shiner. How common was that experience that he described? You have a document ...
Overbeck: The experience was very common. The fact that Michael Shiner was well enough educated to write a journal and keep details of it was rare. And that is what makes him so very special to us, that he had gotten himself well enough educated to be able to write legibly enough that we can read what he had to say and follow his course of action. That, really, is the super part.
Franzén: Where is that journal? You have a copy of it?
Overbeck: No, I do not have a copy of it. Parts of the journal have been published in various publications, including the Washington, D.C. History Journal. But I believe the journal itself is at ... the Howard University campus.
Overbeck: Now, the house I want to talk to you next about is one that involves George Beall. We talked about him very early on, bout how he had five sons who were killed while running.
First of all, one of those sons died in the Navy. So he went down with the ship. The other four, I don't know what happened. The daughter that they had, the oldest daughter, Harriet, was sent to school to be educated in Baltimore at a Methodist school for girls. She came back and married Scipio Bean, and that didn't work out just really spectacularly. Then she married a man named Andrew Cornish. Mr. Cornish was also a Methodist. Mr. Cornish had a house up on Maryland Avenue within three blocks of the Capitol.
The number of times that he had to flee because of his fire-brand preaching, I assume that was why he chose that location for his house, because he would go to Philadelphia for a couple of years or for six months or whatever, lay low, as they say in the old movies, and then would gather himself enough together to come back and face the music once more.
Franzén: He was preaching abolition?
Overbeck: He was preaching hell-fire, damnation and abolition right from the pulpit, take your pick, and trying to encourage people to seek their own freedom, to leave town if necessary, et cetera.
So you had this spread. And you asked me if these people were all concentrated in any one area, they basically were, but if you think of Cornish's house being in the 300 block of Maryland Avenue, and there is sort of a diamond pattern or a wedge pattern that runs between there, at that point, and to some of the other points down at the Navy Yard, so rather than being an east-west contact line, as Africans Americans they seemed to be going north-south.
Emancipation for the District of Columbia happened a year before it did for the rest of the Nation. And in one of the more peculiar acts I think I have ever heard Congress pull, they decided that they would recompense all owners of slaves if the owner could prove that they were loyal to the Union.
Franzén: If the owner was loyal.
Overbeck: Yes. So they paid them tax money, which I find really rather remarkable.
Franzén: This would have been 1862?
Overbeck: Yes. They did not have an auctioneer here in town, didn't have anyone doing the assessment of the value of the slaves. There were papers to fill out, there were affidavits. The papers consisted of several types, one of which was the physical description of the slave. And it would say that the slave was missing, let's say in a really far out case, the slave had a limp, was missing an eye, was ashy, and was 42 years old to the best of their knowledge, and male. Now, "ashy" happens to be a condition of skin that gives a grayness to the African-American skin.
They may say it's a brand new baby, three months old or something like that, and that it is the daughter of Tracy and – obviously, Tracy's daughter had no skills. So Tracy's daughter would be essentially value-less at the time that Tracy was sold. So they would give a token amount of money, maybe as much as anywhere from $2.50 up to $15. Something like that. The better health, the more skillful the African-American, the more money the slave owner got for the African-American.
In addition to the physical description of the appearance and condition of their bodies, there was always appended a letter talking about the services that the slave could render.
Now, throughout this period, no matter how you were going to do it, if you were going to manumit your slaves, you could not do it if they were over a certain age because they would then be a nuisance on society. It was assumed that old people could not take care of themselves. They would have no place to live, no way to earn a living. So that was still part of this. So again, just as the babies were of very low value, the elder slaves were of very low value.
In order to do the assessment and have some kind of parity, they called down a slave assessor from Baltimore. And this, again, is one of those very strange things. Baltimore was part of the Union but Baltimore was still in a slave-holding state.
And the same provision was not made for Maryland at that time.
Down they come and they set up their little office and they go through all of these little drills and they write down who is worth what. And then it appears that some scrambling has been done.
Overbeck: That certain people don't belong to certain people, that there are people claiming slaves as being their property, residents within the District of Columbia, when these people don't live in the District of Columbia. Maybe one of their relatives does.
Franzén: They showed up to get the money.
Overbeck: Yes. This doesn't happen often but it happens enough that it gives a tickle every so often.
Then there is this wonderful slave story out in far Northeast, just about the corner of where the bridge crosses the Anacostia River. This man moved his slave cottages, everything that pertained to his slaves, into Maryland, because his farm straddled the line. He left his household and his own family on the Washington, DC, side of the line. He continued to work the slaves, told them what to do, when to report, and [yet] tried to collect money on them. That didn't work.
Franzén: He tried to get the money and still keep them?
Overbeck: Yes, because he was going to leave them living in Maryland. It didn't work. It was one of those funnier aspects of a very sad situation.
The higher up the echelon in terms of skills, the more you were worth. The more perfect your body, the more you were worth. There was one man who topped out everybody and even though he never lived on Capitol Hill, and even though he never worked on Capitol Hill per se, every single day those of us at the Navy Yard, anywhere on Capitol Hill, see his work. He was the premiere iron founder, or iron monger. When he was about 14 years old, he had been discovered by one of Washington's foremost architects, Arthur Mills.
Franzén: Arthur Mills?
Overbeck: Yes. And he found him down in Carolina. The young man, I believe, was about 14 then. [Mills] paid an outrageous sum for this guy because of the amount of work he could do as a founder.
He did not design her, but it was he who molded Freedom, and it was he who, because of a worker strike at the Capitol when she was ready to be placed on top, was the person who arranged all the scaffolding and hoisted it to the top of the Capitol.
And virtually nobody else knows that story either.
Franzén: Do we know his name?
Overbeck: Yes, his name was Phillip Reid.
So when people complain to me that there is not enough black history to talk about, when you are talking about history or walking down the street, there is not enough of it to talk about, co-mingled with all this other stuff that we have laden here in our city – there is. You just have to know where it is. And if that's not everybody's history, I don't know what is.
Now, he brought $6,000.
Franzén: Six thousand dollars?
Overbeck: I believe they had paid $14,000 for him, many years earlier, but the economy had changed and it was a whole different setup. And of course he had gotten years and years of use out of the man. So he got – they paid I believe $6,000.
Franzén: What was a typical price at that time for a more average, healthy skilled male – say, a carpenter?
Overbeck: Three hundred and fifty dollars to maybe $1,200.
Franzén: A lot of money. You could buy a house for that.
Overbeck: More than that. You could buy two houses.
Franzén: So that was a lot of money to be passed around to the residents of the District, compared to other people, other slave owners, elsewhere in the country.
Overbeck: That's right.
Franzén: Nobody else got this deal?
Overbeck: Nobody else got this deal.
After the war, enough people in Maryland complained that they went back and tried to soothe their feelings a little bit, but it was not nearly as successful.
And in the meantime, a whole bunch of the Maryland slaves had run into the District of Columbia and, with the promise of freedom, had joined the USCT, the United States Colored Troop, and therefore they were no longer slaves.
So the owners were – too bad, they were out of luck.
Franzén: So, once they were in the USCT, they could not be returned?
Franzén: They needed the soldiers.
Overbeck: Yes, needed the soldiers.
Franzén: Interesting. Now, why was emancipation in the District a year ahead of the general emancipation? What was the logic behind that?
Overbeck: Lincoln. Lincoln did a lot that was symbolic. And you know the Capitol expansion was begun in the 1850s by General Montgomery Miggs [sp?], and it is what added what we now know as the House wing and the Senate wing, the big commanding porticos and steps. And it is also what added the big dome on which [the statue of] Freedom stands.
People fussed at Lincoln like crazy because he was leaving that work in progress and helping it continue during the Civil War. They said, no, no, no, this is guns and bullet money. And he said no, the Union will heal some day, and it will need its Capitol intact.
Well, basically, he felt that way about a lot of things – that there were symbols that simply had enough intrinsic value within them that they should happen, and emancipation in the District of Columbia, the seat of the government, was one of them.
I mentioned USCT a minute ago. The United States Colored Troop's most famous regiment is the one from Boston, the one where we have all the phenomenal murals, panels, paintings and stories, a group of educated people. They had a white officer, who took a lot of heat for being a white officer for an all-black group, but the honor of being the USCT Number One went to the one based in Washington, because this was the capital.
The records that we can get from the USCT are even more thorough than the records we can get from the rank-and-file soldiers because, again, so much emphasis is placed on physical description. Also frequently they will have in the ledger books where the person lived and the name of the person to contact in case of an emergency. So we have done some wonderful demographic stuff on those. There are some charts and things that certainly should go in here in terms of where they came from.
The phenomenal part of it is that the elite blacks of Washington didn't go to war.
Overbeck: They stayed here and made money. So did the rest of elite Washington. Unless you just really had a hankering to be a soldier, you didn't go any place. You stayed right here and did your service and got your good tips and ran and fetched and so forth. It didn't make any difference who you were. You stayed here in Washington and tended to business, because Washington was booming.
We have no idea – we have the barest concept of what Washington must have looked like to people who came here who were not Southern. This goes way, way back. This starts with the beginning of this time of this city. One of the most hilarious comments about it was Henry Adams, of the Adams family, describing mammies and their white turbans, their starched aprons, their baskets on their arms, the kids running around with very little clothing on, and the pigs in the street. It somehow seemed to infuse him with a whole – a unified concept of Southern-ness.
Now, one of the things that I remember most about one of my summers in London, at St. Olav's Church there, was a very, very nice, little, elderly man who said: "I bet I know something about Washington that you don't." And I said: "Oh, yes?" And he said: "Yes, there was a President married here." And I said: "Oh, yes."
I told him which one of the Adams it was.
I then said: "I bet I know something that you don't know about him. He was a slave owner – because he married a white woman who was a slave owner and all of her property became his as a matter of right."
Overbeck: John Quincy Adams.
Franzén: The great abolitionist.
Overbeck: That's right, you got it. So don't tell me we don't have a very diverse history in this city.
Franzén: Wow. And they kept the slaves? Did they free them? What did they do?
Overbeck: Up to a point they kept them. They kept them for a while. Well, the President's wife couldn't get dressed by herself. Heavenly days, she never had to do anything except stick her arms out and have her dress put on her. How is she going to do that at age whatever?
I am being a little facetious, but not a whole bunch. If you have lived in a household all your life where there are slaves or you have hired help – below stairs, whatever you want to call it – and you are used to that treatment, it's going to take an awful lot to get you to a point where you are capable of managing yourself.
Franzén: Well, let's talk about the Civil War. You say the city was booming. This was really a backwater for a long, long time. You described how sparsely populated it was all the way up into the 1840s and beyond, and then the Civil War comes along. Tell us about that.
Overbeck: Well, since we are talking primarily about Capitol Hill, even though I've managed to wander over just about half the map of Washington, let's talk about what the boundaries were of Capitol Hill at the time the war began.
Of course, there were the routine given western boundaries: New Jersey Avenue, South Capitol Street, North Capitol Street, Delaware Avenue. Those were the western. The northern boundaries sort of petered out around Massachusetts Avenue because that got into Swamp Poodle.
Franzén: Swamp ...
Overbeck: Swamp Poodle. It was an unsavory part of town. Every town I've ever been in has an unsavory part of town. That was an unsavory part of town.
There is a wonderful story that goes with it. It's a Capitol Hill story because it ultimately gets brought into it. The men came looking for the draftees, because you had to be drafted unless you had the money to buy yourself out of service.
Overbeck: So here she is, seeing these soldiers come, and she is this little Irish peasant lady, and she rips open her blouse to her bare skin and says, "Take anything you will, take anything I have, just don't take my Bobby," kneeling in the middle of the street in disarray.
And that was sort of common behavior around Swamp Poodle.
Franzén: Swamp Poodle was where exactly?
Overbeck: It is ill-defined. If you look at the maps of 1850 and 1860 just north of Maryland Avenue and just west of 4th Street, all the way over to about 2nd Street, you will see really rugged terrain.
Franzén: Rugged in what sense?
Overbeck: Very difficult to build on. It had not been flattened out in any way. Ravines tumbling after each other. It was part of the way in which Tiber Creek was coming down from the mountains. In Canada, they called them slashes. It's just land that is torn up – torn up by itself, not land people tore up.
Franzén: Whereas the Capitol [grounds] and over on this side had basically been graded and leveled and smoothed out.
Overbeck: Exactly. So then you go up North Capitol Street [?] to about 8th Street and then you are up on the ridge where things begin to tumble down from the ridge. And the ridge is pretty smooth and had a pretty sophisticated group of houses. In fact, it has been given credit for having had the first house in the District of Columbia that had a bay window on it.
Franzén: This is East Capitol?
Overbeck: No, H and about 6th or 7th, I think. A wonderful orchard. The house was taken over by a Union general for his headquarters. That was just fine because the man who owned the house was pretty much a hot shot with the Republicans in Congress.
Franzén: This is H and 6 or 7th ...
Overbeck: Northeast. If you take that as the form of the crescent and you draw that around and leave out Swamp Poodle, and then you come on down and you get to Massachusetts and about 3rd Street, then you can begin swinging inward gently, like rickrack, around to 6th Street. By the time you get to Pennsylvania Avenue and 6th Street Southeast, you have a pretty well-defined population base. You follow 6th Street down to Pennsylvania Avenue, you curve along and go to about 14th Street out Kentucky, out across the little bridge. That is the end of Capitol Hill. That's it. There is no more.
Franzén: You left out the Capitol, the immediate environs of the Capitol ...
Overbeck: No. The first thing I said was North Capitol, South Capitol, New Jersey, and Delaware.
Overbeck: So right down the middle of it.
I am very reluctant to go into Southwest for Capitol Hill. I just figure those run through, and the next street down is the bottom of the playground that we all use, as it were, and therefore, that is pretty much the confines. This is very easily illustrated so we will be able to show this on the map.
That is basically how Capitol Hill looked. And the part we have left out ...
Franzén: Just prior to the Civil War.
Overbeck: Just prior to the Civil War.
The part we left out prior to the Civil War in terms of my talking about the Navy Yard has been part in Northeast and from the middle of a block between 4th and 3rd over to South Capitol Street. There is a very narrow strip.
We will talk about that at some point in time when we talk about the Capitol environs and the war and things like that.
That is basically what it looks like. There's lots of open room for tent houses, for tents. There's lots of open room for troop practice, and Lord knows the draftees needed practice, because they were coming down here not knowing diddly squat about being in the military. And acting like it.
Franzén: So there were empty lots that could be used for that – open space.
Overbeck: Lots of often space, yes. Lots of open space.
In point of fact, early on, because no matter the fact that the Congress had been suspicious there would be war, they were not that sure war was going to occur, so they really had not prepared for it. Bread for the soldiers was baked in the ovens at the Capitol.
Franzén: At the Capitol building itself?
Overbeck: Yes. Caspari's was the hotel – a three-story, brick hotel. Caspari's Hotel. One of the Italian descendents of our mix. Caspari's Hotel was very popular. Caspari's stood on the south side of A Street between 1st and South Capitol. That street doesn't exist anymore. So you have to imagine it.
Franzén: That's on the Capitol grounds.
Overbeck: But it wasn't when the Capitol grounds were original. There was an A street on either side of the Capitol.
Franzén: So we lost a whole block on both sides?
Overbeck: Yes. And blocks in front and back. That had to be, because the scale of the bigger building required more land.
So Caspari's was commandeered as a hospital.
Ebenezer Church over on D Street – and there is some confusion as to whether it was the little Ebenezer, which is the black church, or big Ebenezer, which is the white church. They are both Methodist churches. The Civil War books don't help much. The ones from the surgeon general don't help much. There is confusion as to which is which. But anyway, one of them got used as a hospital.
When I first came to Capitol Hill there were very, very old people here who said that they remembered that they could hear the rumbling of the carts all night long, pulling the carts from the river, coming up to Bloody Hill. Now, I've never found any reference to Bloody Hill. I've never found any reference to a tent hospital city on Bloody Hill. But the context and everything else matched.
So I'm assuming in that a very, very short period after the battle of Manassas or First Bull Run, as people would like to call it, there were wounded soldiers taken to what I knew as the Providence Hospital site, which is now no longer known as that. It is known as the soccer field between D and E, I guess, and 3rd Street and 4th Street.
Franzén: Third and 2nd.
Overbeck: Second and 3rd, yes.
Franzén: This was known as Bloody Hill because of the number of wounded soldiers?
Overbeck: That particular place.
Franzén: Providence Hospital?
Overbeck: Yes, because Providence had not yet been built. That particular land was known as Bloody Hill.
Now, it is not on any map. It is apocryphal, perhaps, but that little child, long since grown up, had vivid memories of the carts and the screams.
Franzén: Screams of the soldiers.
Overbeck: Screams of the soldiers and squeals of the cart wheels. So there were a number of hospitals all over this city and they probably – besides the fact that the city was just very, very lively and there was money flowing everywhere – they were the things that made the biggest difference on the landscape.
Franzén: The hospitals.
Overbeck: Yes. The largest hospital built was Lincoln Hospital. Lincoln Hospital took care of 2,500 patients. It was built at the northeast corner of Lincoln Park. Lincoln Park was a designated park as far back as L'Enfant. It just never had been turned into one.
There is a marvelous description of the land falling away, the plain undulating down toward the Potomac, or down toward the Eastern Branch. Evidently the pavilions and hospitals were laid out in a "V" and there were connecting kitchens, and connecting supply units, and all sorts of other things. And they were connected by little railroad tracks that were two feet apart on which cars ran to deliver the supplies and to deliver hot fresh food to the people who were in the hospital.
Franzén: And this hospital, Lincoln Hospital, stood on the land that is now Lincoln Park?
Overbeck: Yes. Not the total land that is now Lincoln Park, but it jutted into it from the northeast corner.
There is another set of buildings that must have been for the medical services that stands north and east, but in a good configuration with this, that was known as Lincoln Barracks. And it was over and again a sizable set of buildings.
And there were other hospitals on Capitol Hill.
Franzén: Before we go on from there, is there a map showing that hospital?
Overbeck: There is a painting showing the hospital.
Franzén: Lincoln Hospital.
Overbeck: And there are profiles of the buildings, the scale of the buildings.
And ever since I have come here I have wondered about the little frame buildings over on Park Row, because I have been to I don't know how many military installations around the world and that is – I swear those things look like barracks. Whether they were able to be acquired in toto, left on site and cut up, I have no idea, but there is no record that I have been able to find that says that Park Row descended from the Lincoln Park hospital, and yet it's there in a timely manner.
It was not there before the Civil War and it is there by the mid-1870s, at a time when you would have assumed they would have been dispensing things and taking things down. So that is still something that is one of our mysteries and is something I want to know. I will have mysteries about Capitol Hill no matter how much I've read and how much I've done, there will be mysteries about Capitol Hill that go with me out of this world, I'm sure. That's one of them. That is certainly one of them right now.
Now, way back when L'Enfant was planning the city, down along the shore line of the Anacostia River where you now have RFK stadium – the DC jail is gone of course, the old DC jail; that is the one I call the D.C. jail – the Children's Hospital, D.C. General hospital. The Children's Hospital not to be confused with the big one uptown, but a children's rehabilitation clinic hospital. D.C. general, some psychiatric outpatient units, the jail, and Congressional Cemetery. That is pretty much the range along the river.
Well, there was a hospital built down there called Emery. It was one of the mid-sized hospitals. We do, again, have some pieces, fragments of drawings of it. There was the use of the Odd Fellows building over on 8th Street Southeast.
Franzén: Where on 8th Street would that have been?
Overbeck: The grand dame, center of the block, rises above everything else.
Franzén: The building that is now owned by the Shakespeare Theater.
Overbeck: Yes, that was one.
The Marines had a small hospital down by them that was built exclusively for the field engineers, because that was one of the major services they provided during the war. The most curious hospital of all is the Navy Hospital.
In 1976 I was doing a project. One of my tasks was to include information about the Navy Hospital, so I called the historian of the Navy:
"Ma'am, you're confused; you must be thinking about the one over by the Observatory."
"No, I'm not. I certainly am not. I am thinking about the one designed by Adolph Cluss that is right here between 9th and 10th and Pennsylvania.
And he said, "But ma'am, we don't have any kind of hospital like that."
And I said, "Well, you did." I said, "Would you please see if you can find anything in your records that you had it, because it is really a fine hospital. It's made of brick. It's got really wonderful techniques in it in terms of ward heating and fresh air ..."
This was not the historian of the Navy; this was a functionary.
About ten days later I got a call from the historian of the Navy. Great big apology. "We don't know how it ever got away from us."
I said, "You know about it now."
He said, "No, tell me about it."
The wards had circular radiators. The beds were arranged in a circle in the center of the room so that the beds could be pulled up as close as they needed to be to give heat to the feet, or wherever, and then shoved back. And Cluss is a master at passive solar air conditioning. He has the most wonderful cap [cant?] to the window sills, and then a straight drop down, and panels of grillwork that allow the air to flow, the excess air to flow down into those panels and go on down the building and come back up. The halls are wide.
It is everything that an 1860s hospital should be.
Franzén: That was built for the Civil War?
Overbeck: It was built for the Civil War. However, if you know your Civil War history, you know it didn't get used for the Civil War, because it wasn't completed until October of 1865.
So it became a Civil War veterans hospital. Ultimately, it was not just for veteran sailors but it was for soldiers, as well, and for those who were wounded in the Spanish-American War, and the hangers on. You had drummer boys who were nine years old who were entitled, and they lived a long time.
There are people still on Capitol Hill who remember seeing the old guys out in the yard in their wooden wheelchairs with their afghans on their laps.
The best building that we had left when I came to Capitol Hill that pertained to hospitals was the ambulance and horse stalls for that building. And it had been absolutely scarified [?], because the preservation office didn't keep their eye on it and had approved plans that are not sympathetic with the original design of the building. They could have had plans over there that would made it look almost identical to what it had been but still let it be functional.
Franzén: So what has been torn out?
Overbeck: What has been torn out? The beautiful gates that shut the ambulances in at night, several of the horse stall windows. There has been a puncture made in one end for a "people door" that could have been made as a portion of the ambulance door where you – in barns where you have a big barn door and then you have a walk-through people door – there are all sorts of imaginative, creative way to have treated it. That little building is probably our most important non-Capitol ancillary building that we have that was visible from the street. It had such a story with it and it would have been so easy to interpret the story.
Franzén: So, that little building on that block, next to the hospital, was like a carriage house for the ambulances, the horse-drawn ambulances.
Overbeck: Yes. And it had stalls, I believe, for three horses in the back.
Now, as far as what else happened during the Civil War, nothing of major import happened on Capitol Hill in terms of a battle or a skirmish. What did happen, however, was the Navy Yard. As always, we go back to our buddies.
Franzén: The Navy Yard.
Overbeck: Yes. The USS Monitor [embarked] from there to go south and fight and win. It is absolutely a wonderful story. We have a complete diary that was left us by one of the crew members who was very erudite, and he talked about what he could see from the decks of the ship, going down, what he could see, what he could not see. His name is William Keeler. He was from Illinois. And like most of the people who were in the military in Washington during this time, he had never been here and probably never been too far from home, anyway.
He was married, and he kept up this wonderful, wonderful correspondence with his wife, Anna. I didn't mark the place but I am looking for his report of coming back up the Potomac River. It is absolutely wonderful.
Franzén: Was the Monitor built here?
Overbeck: I'm not sure. I have to look that up.
Now, the "Monitor" was a little steamship. [Long pause]
[Reading] "Dear Anna ..."
Franzén: How did Keeler spell his name?
Franzén: So you're reading from what?
Overbeck: I am reading from William Keeler's diary, aboard the USS Monitor, 1862. This is a letter to his wife, Anna. It's dated Potomac River, October 1, 1862:
"The weather had been beautiful, the water smooth, and a cool delicious breeze, smooth as it was in the Chesapeake last night. It would manage to wash up on our decks occasionally, making it necessary to close our deck lights which turned us all out below about midnight. The air was so close and stifling.
"We came to anchor at dark, the pilot not thinking it safe to run through the night. Of course, we are all impatient to get to Washington and do not like the delay, but the safety of the vessel is the first thing to be considered.
"Thursday, October 2:
"Our anchor was up and we were away as soon as it was light enough to see this morning. The river, the full part of the day, presented very much the same appearance it did yesterday. In the afternoon, it grew narrower, and its banks were more plainly to be seen. They were, for the most part, a succession of smooth, undulating knolls, looking as if they had been covered with crops.
"The northern shore was by far the most promising in appearance. But though the banks have the appearance of being more generally cultivated, they lacked the fine buildings and the tasty lawns that had adorned the banks of the James River. Although the most beautiful and romantic sites abandoned, few or none of them are improved. The buildings, all that could be seen, were miserable. Tumble-down shanties and numerous large fishing houses or sheds for curing fish. The aristocratic mansions, if any there were, were placed back from the river and were not visible.
"About the middle of the afternoon, we passed Cockpit point, Akwiya [sp?] Creek, and several places whose names were so familiar about a year ago. Now the batteries are destroyed and deserted but few people are to be seen in our slow progress upstream. The houses, for the most part, appear to be deserted and everything had a dreary, desolate look.
"Just at sunset we passed the place of all others, Mount Vernon. I, however, was disappointed in its appearance. From what I had heard, I expected to find a smooth, fine, grassy lawn sloping down to the water's edge, crowned at the top by the old mansion. Such, however, is not the case, or at least such is not the view you get of it from the river. As you approach Mount Vernon, you see a chimney or two and a few passages of white through the thick forest, like trees with which the rough projecting point of land on which it stands is covered. You get opposite and you see a little more of the building and now and then a small portion of the sloping lawn in which it stands. Still, not enough of the view to give you any idea of its general form or appearance. The best view is just as you've passed it, you can then see through an opening in the trees, a portion of the piazza and lawn and front. The trees are as about as thick, as it gives its appearance of being in the midst of a dense, rough, forest and is not at all pleasing. Should I have an opportunity, I mean to make a visit there.
"We are now at anchor 10 o'clock at night, about ten miles below the city, which we hope to see in good season tomorrow morning.
"Til you are differently directed, send my letters to Washington Navy Yard. My next letter will be from the city and I hope to tell you I am coming home.
"Friday morning, 9 o'clock:
"We are just drawing up to the Navy Yard dock. Everything is confusion and excitement. The Capitol, White House, Treasury, Patent Office, monuments, Arlington Heights, et cetera, are all in sight. The hilltops in all directions are crowded with fortifications and their sloping sides covered with canvas city forests of our soldiers.
"You shall hear from me again soon. Just now there is a call for the paymaster. So goodbye for the present.
"October 6th, 1862:
"The last time I wrote you I thought I should be the bearer of the next letter myself, but so far I have been disappointed from the vexatious delays in getting funds from the department to pay our officers and men. So I cannot leave until that has been done. I have made out an application for four weeks' leave of absence which I have every reason to think will be granted, but it takes a long time to get anything through the red tape of the department.
"Captain Bankhead has left on three weeks' leave. Before he went he made arrangements with the department as though he could procure for me leave for what is considered a very unusual length of time. I think you may look for me in about a week after you get this. I shall stop in New York.
"We have all been sent from the Monitor to the US steamer King Phillip which is anchored in the river just off the Navy Yard. She is like the North River steamer – fine accommodations, large cabins, one of which was used for a ward room, others for talking, reading, writing, lounging, et cetera. The staterooms are large, comfortable, airy and habitable. But the change from our cramped quarters on the Monitor is most agreeable. Everything has tumbled out of the Monitor in the greatest haste. No time to pack anything. I shoveled my effects into one or two flour barrels and dumped them onto my State room floor on this boat. A huge pile.
"If I get my leave granted there will not be much sorting. I shall just put a shirt and a collar in my carpet bag and leave, locking my state room door to await my return.
"The Monitor and her officers are the lions of the day. We got here Friday morning and the news soon spread, drawing crowds all that could pass the guards at the entrance. On Saturday, the Yard was thrown open and they rushed in by thousands and thousands and thousands. Whole regiments of soldiers were marched from their tents by their officers to see the sights. Our decks were covered and our wardroom filled with ladies.
"On going into my state room I found a party of the dear, delightful creatures making their toilet before my glass using my combs and brushes. We couldn't go in any part of the vessel without coming in contact with petticoats. There appeared to be a general turnout of the sex of the city. There were women with children, and women without children, and women expecting, and extensive display of lower extremities was made going up and down our steep ladders. The docks were lined with carriages, and it was in fact a perfect jam. No caravan or circus ever collected such a crowd, not only in numbers but respectability.
"I made a large number of what would no doubt be very pleasant acquaintances if I had the time and disposition to follow them up. As all were shown around the vessel, they gave me their address with an invitation or a card. It was the intention to give us a public reception. But we came upon them unawares and left them no time to spare. About dinner time the crowd was so great we were obliged to station a guard of Marines on the dock to keep people off 'til the boys could set the table and we could eat.
"Yesterday the vessel was turned over to the mechanics of the Yard, so now we had nothing to do with her. You will probably expect me to give you some little description of Washington and will no doubt be surprised to hear that I have not been outside the Yard gates. Such is a fact. I am straining every nerve and using all my time to get through my business here so as to start for home. When I return, I intend to do the city."
Part of that can be cut, but there is so much about the petticoats and the petticoats that I just love. And the whole town evidently did this. Every time anything important happened, this was – the war was entertainment.
Franzén: I remember reading about, I guess it was the battle of Manassas, where people got in their carriages, the women with their parasols and their picnic lunches, and they went out to watch the battle.
Overbeck: Yes, it was the greatest sport going.
Franzén: That one was a little disappointing.
Overbeck: They got a little sick and came home real fast.
There are pretty good quotes on that, but I don't know anyone from Capitol Hill who actually did that. If I find anybody in any of the lists from Capitol Hill ... I will say this, the idea that the poor man never gets out of the Yard because of all the petticoats and all the other people running around, I think things like this have great humor in them.
[End of Tape #6]
Tape #7 – Continuing 3/14/00 Session
Franzén: Okay, this is the beginning of tape 7, it is still March 14th. Ruth Ann, let's continue with a little bit of discussion about the hospitals on Capitol Hill and their significance for the community – the Civil War hospitals that were built.
Overbeck: The ironic thing about them is the total ignorance that has been paid to them since the Civil War ended and the fact that the one up in Northwest at Mount Pleasant, particularly, gets all the attention. That is the one where Abraham Lincoln went to visit, call on soldiers. Walt Whitman also did some of his work there, as did Clara Barton.
And since we had certainly the largest in Lincoln Hospital at the park, we [Capitol Hill residents] probably, if you look at it, had the potential to have put in more person hours with those veterans and the wounded soldiers than any other group in the city. They needed everything. They needed comfort. They needed quiet conversation. They needed someone to sit and play dominos with them. They needed someone to read to them if they could not see or if they could not hold a book. They certainly needed someone to write their letters home. And those were the responsibilities, primarily, of the women in the community.
Some of the lodges, like the Naval Lodge and the Odd Fellows, sent contingents over on a regular basis to give their aid and support to these people. There are records that show that there were marriages that resulted between some of the people who got very close over the long convalescence, because convalescence was not an easy thing to do then. Being ill was not an easy thing to do then, to say the least. And there were very fast friendships that formed that lasted for the rest of people's lives.
The interesting part of it, for Capitol Hill, is that the inner crescent ... of Capitol Hill, that part of Capitol Hill that had houses and so forth, was over at 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, it curved along there. So you really had to take your time and be prepared to go through mud and dust and dirt and grime to walk over unpaved land to get over here, to Lincoln Hospital.
The same thing would also have been true of Emery, down by the cemetery, with the exception of the fact there was a fairly decent road that led to Congressional Cemetery, so that was not quite as much of a problem.
The hospital needed things for the soldiers, such as scarves and muffs. They needed bandages. So probably there was a Red Cross-like element to some of the service that was provided.
One of the things that has come through loud and clear, and is as fallacious as it can be, is the history of Philadelphia Row.
Franzén: Philadelphia Row, which is on 11th Street.
Overbeck: It is in what would have been the unit block of 11th Street, but they renumbered that street in the 1870s, to keep it from being split. They decided it was too short to be split and that this block [i.e. Ruth Ann's block of 12th Street S.E.] was too short to be split. So basically Philadelphia Row would have been in the 100 block, but it stands between East Capitol and Independence.
I was sitting an on airplane going to Dallas at Christmastime, and this man old enough to be my father was chatting me up and telling me what his son was doing and how wonderful it was and he was publishing this book called "The Greatest Gifts Ever Given." It had to do with Elizabeth Taylor's diamonds and I don't know what all. Then he said, "And Philadelphia Row in Washington, DC." Well I had on my seatbelt and it was a good thing that I did, because about two months before I had just finished the history of Philadelphia Row.
I said, "Well, why don't you tell me about why it was this great gift." He said, "Because this Congressman's wife was homesick. She wanted something she could see out her front door that made her think of Philadelphia. So he built this whole row of houses. He didn't care if they sold or not ...." He went on, he elaborated, he embroidered. He just put the most wonderful details in this story.
I said, "Has this book gone to press, yet?" And he says, "Oh, yes."
Well, here is another myth that has to be fought, because Philadelphia Row was built in 1862 for a man who owned a steam tugboat manufacturing company. He had no intention of giving it away to anybody. Unfortunately, he built it so far into the middle of the crescent that it took from 1862 to something like 1897 to get the last one of them sold.
Franzén: They were standing empty that long?
Overbeck: Not necessarily empty. They were rented. It's very interesting, because I have a liquor bottle from the basement store of one of them, from the 1880s.
Franzén: Basement store?
Overbeck: Yes, a mom and pop store in the basement, a little liquor store. It's got the label and everything on it.
They were absolutely charming buildings. They are different from virtually anything that had yet been built on Capitol Hill. First of all, they had marble steps, and Capitol Hill is not a marble steps place.
Franzén: Right. But they are built in the Philadelphia style.
Overbeck: They are built in the Philadelphia style. He sent down his favorite contractor.
Franzén: He was from Philadelphia?
Overbeck: He was from Philadelphia. He sent down his favorite contractor to build these houses.
Franzén: So he built them on spec.
Overbeck: Yes. Every one of them was on spec.
Franzén: What about the story about the wife who was homesick and so forth? Is there nothing to that?
Overbeck: No, nothing. Zero. Minus. Negative.
Franzén: Where did that story come from?
Overbeck: Well, there are about five different buildings on Capitol Hill, each of which have their own apocrypha, and need their own dictionary and need their own explanation. One of them is that [set of] house[s], one of them is the Waterson [sp?] house up on 2nd Street, and then there is the entire assortment of John Philip Sousa houses, because he lived in something like seven of them. And each person claims they are the authentic one. And so you have to decide which one is authentic, et cetera.
There are a number of these wonderful little jewels running around.
Franzén: Does the William F. Cody house fall into that category?
Overbeck: A little bit. We're going to leave him alone.
Anyway, [Philadelphia Row] was really wonderful, because the houses themselves are quite lovely. The window style is new to Capitol Hill.
Franzén: They were large for that era, weren't they – for 1862?
Overbeck: Not for an affluent group of houses, they weren't. What makes them seem larger than they really are is their perspective. Each floor gets shorter as you go up. You get this Thomas Jefferson perspective of length [height?], making it seem taller than it really is.
Franzén: By making the upper-floor windows smaller?
Overbeck: Shorter, and the walls themselves shorter, but keeping the upper story windows pretty sizeable. They also were some of the first houses on Capitol Hill to have the almost corkscrew staircase, instead of one landing or two, and were very elaborate in terms of their trim. The trim was millwork trim. It was still pretty pricey to do, the millwork trim. The cornice line is very different.
The dining room paper – I had a frantic call one day from [one of] the owner[s]. He had just pulled a cabinet in the corner. It was the original corner cabinet that had been put in, and behind it was blood red fleur-de-lis [wallpaper]. God awful. Anybody who was going to eat in this dining room was going to have trouble doing that, and it was the dining room wallpaper of the day.
They were handsomely done. We do know that every room in the house was papered. And that was unusual at that point, because most of the people papered the principal rooms and plastered the secondary rooms, because of money. They had deep back lots ...
Franzén: So, the owner built these houses on spec, expecting that the boom that was going on in Washington, because of the Civil War, would quickly sell those houses.
Overbeck: I think he was astute enough to think that the city was simply going to march, that everything would start being done right. Instead of Henry Adams' [view of] little pigs in the streets, there would be paved streets. We'd just gotten the Washington Gas Light Company ten years before, and had very few gas lights in the city, so everything was ready.
Franzén: So gas lines had started to be laid.
Overbeck: They had started to be laid for individuals, but not for units, for large rows, like Philadelphia Row. But he [the builder] had gas lights put in his houses. So, he was making a very modern statement: state of the art, this is what Washington could and should look like, I believe in the Federal city, I'm willing to invest here.
Overbeck: And my curiosity is, who was he visiting in the hospital? There's no other reason for him to have come out here.
Franzén: So you're suggesting he had a family member or a friend who was in the hospital ...
Overbeck: I would have to assume so. There would be no other reason in this world for him to come east of 6th Street.
Franzén: Now, he did live here?
Overbeck: No, no, he moved his contractor here.
Franzén: But he never moved here himself?
Overbeck: Never moved here himself, no.
Franzén: What was his name?
Overbeck: I forget it.
Franzén: We'll look it up. So, getting back to the hospitals, you have a theory that the hospital may have been why Philadelphia Row got built where it got built.
Franzén: You mentioned all of the volunteer work that was done at the hospitals.
Franzén: But obviously they were major employers as well.
Overbeck: Yes. Probably the most major [employment] was for the nurses. The indication is that the medical staff was all either regular Army or volunteer Army, and many of the "worker bees" were as well. Now, whether or not they went so far down into the ranks as to utilize local cooks as day laborers rather than military cooks, I don't know.
But if you remember, the Civil War, the GAR, Grand Army of the Republic, was an enormous operation and very complex and very well staffed. So I'm not sure what the ratio would have been of off-site hire.
Franzén: But there was money to be made, certainly, in real estate.
Overbeck: There was money to be made in real estate, but there was very little real estate done during the Civil War. Very, very little.
Franzén: Explain that.
Overbeck: This had been a Southern town. At the beginning of the Civil War, some of the Southerners had their land confiscated, literally, quite literally.
At the beginning of the Civil War, some of the Southerners sent part of their property – that is, their slaves – back home, to Virginia, Kentucky, wherever. At the beginning of the Civil War, some of the men sent their wives and children back home.
Franzén: You mean people in the District who were from the South sent their families back home.
Overbeck: Right. They felt very strongly about the cause, terming it mostly as states rights. They were very much of an opinion that this was something the government didn't have any business doing.
The most prominent person I know who did this kind of thing was William Corcoran – if you know the Corcoran Gallery at the corner, opposite the White House and the President's office. He picked up and moved to Paris for the duration. He said, I don't care if you use my building. Use my building for whatever you want. So that beautiful art gallery was turned into everything from a horse stable to – I think it finally ended up being the quarter master general's office.
His home – everything he had in the city – he simply walked away from. This was an extraordinarily wealthy man. He was willing to risk it because he wasn't going to stay here and take the heat.
Franzén: The heat from what?
Overbeck: He was a Southern sympathizer.
Franzén: So he simply got out of town.
Franzén: And a lot of people did that?
Overbeck: Quite a number, to one degree or another.
Franzén: It was an extraordinary situation to have the capital of the Union literally in the enemy territory.
Overbeck: Absolutely. And we were, if you remember, we were for years the southern-most city of any size to the fighting lines. When people left Washington going south, they knew they were going to war.
Franzén: So you had building going on ...
Franzén: At least for the hospitals, fortifications.
Overbeck: Well, yes, the hospitals. We had very few fortifications around Washington. They did that for about a year and then they gave up on it. They said nobody was going to come and raid. There was a good network that let them know, they were going to have plenty of warning. Of course some of the people who were letting them know were the slaves who were rowing supplies across the Potomac River to feed the Confederacy at night.
Franzén: Well, I'm still a little puzzled about what you said, that there was very little in terms of building and real estate that went on here during the Civil War. How could that be, since there was a huge infusion of additional people into the city, correct?
Overbeck: Yes. But think how temporary they were.
Overbeck: Most of them were people who were going off to the war or, like the medical professionals [at the] hospitals, had places to stay there. A lot of people doubled up in the hotels.
Also, you lost somewhere between a third and a half of the Congress and their staff.
Franzén: Of course. Because of the secession.
Overbeck: Yes. So you've got fine empty buildings, you've got fine empty messes, meaning where everyone congregates around the table for their meals.
And I just can't picture all these Yankee women coming down here – particularly after they hear about all these little piggies. There's dirt, and mud, and Hooker's Division, and all that kind of stuff. You know where the word "hooker" comes from?
Franzén: General Hooker.
Overbeck: Joe Hooker, yes. There was a whole contingent of ladies of the evening that took up residence down by Joe Hooker's troops – here in town, off Pennsylvania Avenue. They called them Hooker's Division.
Franzén: There were a lot of men passing through.
Overbeck: That is what they were doing, passing through.
They didn't stay here that long.
I know of one set of [six] buildings on Capitol Hill, two stories tall, probably 12 feet wide, that was built over on 7th Street, between E and G – D and E. They were build as spec houses.
I also know one set in the 100 block of C Street Southeast may have been built during the Civil War. If it wasn't it just barely missed it.
But I do know that because of the enormous amount of building that had gone on to accommodate all the workers who were coming in to build the Capitol in the 1850s, many of those people left either to fight or go home, or back to their native land, or go back south. People doubled up, and so forth. It just wasn't that big a deal.
Franzén: But you did say that the city was booming during the Civil War, and by that you mean commercial establishments – all the soldiers needed bars to drink in, and ...
Overbeck: Tailors, officer's clothes ...
Franzén: So, retail. A boom in retail.
Overbeck: Yes. Silk-Stocking Row,7th Street Northwest, never looked so good. Seventh Street Northwest was zooming along. I know of at least two tailors down there who built their houses strictly from the profits they made during the Civil War.
There were confectioners, there were all sorts of weird and wonderful things that were being sold – souvenirs, maps, whole little books of maps were put out. There were no street addresses, so you put out your map that told you how to find the houses going from west to east and north to south. All of those things were available.
Another thing that would have been available, that would have been something on which one would spend money, would have been transportation. Part of it would have been hiring hacks, and part of it would have been riding the new little streetcars, because there were mule-drawn streetcars that started during the Civil War to connect the Navy Yard, the Capitol, the Treasury Building and the White House.
Franzén: Mule-drawn streetcars. They were on tracks?
Overbeck: I'm not sure. The streets were so muddy you can't tell. I have to look that up.
I always get tickled, because whenever I look at [the pictures] I just go: "Oh, please. This is not the way to run a railroad." But they were running on a regular basis between the different points of vitality, as it were.
Franzén: A lot of money could be made in hacking?
Overbeck: A lot of money could be made in hacking. Of course.
But if you look at the map from 1861 and if you plat out a map for the same part of Capitol Hill in about 1871, you will see that there is very little change in that crescent. The boom begins between 1871 and 1878.
Franzén: Well, we're getting ahead of ourselves, but I still have to ask: What did make it boom, when it boomed, in the 70s?
Overbeck: It became a territory. We had our great experiment in being a territory, headed toward a state. And that was a fiasco you wouldn't believe – including on Capitol Hill.
Franzén: We are getting ahead of ourselves. I will contain my curiosity for now, but I am really looking forward to an explanation how everything got filled in here. It happened rather suddenly, yes? Well, "suddenly" – a 30-year-period. By the end of the 19th Century, Capitol Hill was pretty well built out, was it not?
Overbeck: It depends on your definition of Capitol Hill. L'Enfant wrote ... there is a map that showed the L of "La Capitol" up by the Capitol, and Capitol Hill, and the L of "Hill" down by the river.
Franzén: Okay. Well, continuing with the Civil War, the impact of the Civil War on Capitol Hill. What else stands out in your mind?
Overbeck: The thing that stands out in my mind more than anything else was the enormous role the Navy played, and the Navy Yard played, and especially in terms of the mines and the water bombs and things.
Franzén: Manufactured ...
Overbeck: Manufactured at the Navy Yard, experimented with at the Navy Yard. Tested there. At one point, which alarmed me no end when I found out what it meant, they had something like maybe an eight to nine feet tall "swing gun" there that they were testing.
Franzén: Swing gun?
Overbeck: Yes. Think of a ride at the circus that pivots in the middle and it has a chair on one end and a chair on the other and it catapults. Well, that is what this was, except it had arms in it.
After the war, there were a couple of accidents and enough fear – and patriotism was no longer really necessary – so the neighborhood persuaded the Navy to move it down around on the Potomac, and that is what gave us our start for the Navy Resource Lab. It originated out of the experimentation that was going on at the Navy Yard.
One of the things we were very blessed in, if you wish to talk about the Yankee side of the war, we were extremely blessed in the number of academically well-trained engineers from Germany.
Adolph Cluss, I mentioned. C-l-u-s-s.
Franzén: Spelled with a C. Are you sure he was German?
Overbeck: Just you wait.
Franzén: Okay, go on.
Overbeck: Anyway, for the first 10 or 15 years he was here, that is the kind of work he was doing, at the Navy Yard. He ultimately decided he was going to do buildings, because that is what he wanted. He was a close personal friend of Karl Marx, and he and Karl Marx kept up a life-long correspondence. The reason we have things like light and air and wide front doors and easy steps and so on at the Navy Hospital, even at the new Eastern Market, was because of Cluss.
He was the designer. He also designed the Arts and Industries building downtown for the Smithsonian, and he designed the first real public school here in the District of Columbia.
Franzén: He designed Eastern Market?
Franzén: As it is today.
Overbeck: Yes. The school he designed was Wallach School. Do you know where Hine Junior High is?
Overbeck: If you move around such that you are paralleling D Street precisely – and not that leg that goes up to Pennsylvania Avenue – that is where the school was built that Cluss designed. Now the reason he designed it was the Yankee Congressmen.
They came down and they thought it was horrendous that we did not have required education for children – white children. So they mandated that all children would be educated three months a year from grades 1 through 8. That was to constitute a formal education.
And for whatever reason on God's green earth, and I have not figured out yet who sold or traded the land or gave them the land or said this is that little piece of land right there, that was the first move north of the crescent.
Franzén: For the school.
Overbeck: For the school. Now, what is wonderful about it, is what it was designed to do.
Franzén: It was on the site of what is now Hine Junior High?
Overbeck: Yes. It had a girls' entrance. Girls came and went separately. It had a boys' entrance, because they came and went separately. And the teacher load per classroom was between 40 and 60 students. It knocks the wind out of a whole bunch of people's sails when I say I don't think 23 kids is particularly very much, because you had that many kids going there.
Franzén: So that was the first public school?
Overbeck: That was the first public school. There had been private schools, as you know, before. The blacks established a private school, the Masons established a private school, and different teachers had their own little academies, and so on. But that was the first public school in the District of Columbia. It was built in 1862, it was wartime, after the election that was held that gave Lincoln the power to get him down here and get him inaugurated. The first thing they tended to was the education issue.
Franzén: There were public schools farther north.
Overbeck: Oh, yes. Heavens, yes. Just not in Washington. We had piggies.
Franzén: So again the Navy Yard plays a very big role in the life of the Hill.
Overbeck: Right. There is something now called the David Taylor model basin, which is where you experiment with model ships to see how they respond to wave and air action. The original building for that still stands on the Navy Yard. It was done down there.
We have all these things that were going on that were just, as you saw in the pictures, you saw the different types of cannons, you saw the different types of trestles or carts that moved them across the ship decks. And by the Civil War, that was their forte. Rather than building ships, that was what they did.
Of course, they repaired ships when they came up, and they hosted things like the Monitor and the petticoats. [Laughs.]
Franzén: Okay. Anything else on the Civil War?
Overbeck: There probably will be, but I am debating in my head. I think the best way to handle things like the number of wounded, this and that and the other from the area, and some of the stuff about the people from Washington who actually fought, part of it may be in charts. Because a long string of numbers [here] it is not effective.
Overbeck: Certainly with the USCT, on the chart in terms of color gradation, everything from blue eyes and ashy skin to brown-brown. Those that we know that are from Capitol Hill – I am surprised how few actually came from the city but came in from outlying areas. That is true, basically, of the whole city. Because people just simply went out and bought their substitute.
Franzén: So relatively few men in this neighborhood actually went off to fight.
Overbeck: Yes, except for those that were literally already in the regular Army or regular Navy.
Franzén: Or didn't have the money to pay their way out.
Franzén: What is that called? Scutage? Is that the word?
Overbeck: I think so, yes.
[End of 3/14/00 session]
Tape #7 (cont.) – Now March 21, 2000
Franzén: Let me get us started with a slate, since we are starting on a new day. We have skipped forward in time. It's now Tuesday, March 21st. We are going to change the subject.
We left off talking about the Civil War, but we are going to go forward in time, skip forward in time, to the mid-20th Century. Ruth Ann, what do you want to talk about today?
Overbeck: I want to talk about what I have been told and what I have seen that relates to the development of Capitol Hill, because they are two different things.
First of all, when I came up here, all I heard was that this was a real estate development. I may even have said that, in the first tape we did when I was talking about the realtors.
Franzén: This was 1968.
Overbeck: 1968. Now I'm going to take us back to 1949.
Everyone knew that the lovable William Douglas was a curmudgeon ...
Franzén: William O. Douglas.
Overbeck: Justice of the [Supreme Court]. He got tired of commuting. He said there is absolutely no reason not to live close enough to walk. Well, people had a fit that the Douglas's might even consider moving near the Capitol.
Franzén: Explain that. What was the condition of things here at that time?
Overbeck: Part of it was status. A lot of it was status. It was certainly a down step for the Douglas's from that point of view. Part of it was the mixed neighborhood, and part of it ...
Franzén: Mixed racially?
Overbeck: Mixed racially – just name it. Mixed. It wasn't as mixed as it had been, and it wasn't as mixed as it has become, but it was mixed.
At any rate, the Douglas's chose a house on the south side of the Capitol where the Cannon building now stands. So I can't even give you an address for it.
Franzén: You don't mean the Cannon building, you mean Rayburn?
Overbeck: No, I'm sorry, I mean the Madison building.
Franzén: The Madison, of the Library of Congress.
Overbeck: Madison, Library of Congress.
Franzén: Across from Cannon.
Overbeck: Yes. Well, all those wonderful houses. The block was filled with beautiful early houses, many of them small and Victorian.
Franzén: Was that whole block, that whole square, all residential?
Overbeck: Well, on the front side on Pennsylvania Avenue, there was some commercial use of first floors, but it was primarily residential use. But the rest of the block was pretty much, perhaps a milliner or seamstress that sewed out of her house, or something like that, but that is what it was. When you look back at the houses and you look back at the era – this is 1949. This is pre-Eisenhower school decision, to integrate.
So why in the world would anybody not think that it was reasonable to buy a house within one block, two blocks, of the Capitol, the Library of Congress, et cetera.
Franzén: And the Supreme Court.
Overbeck: Yes. Well, after Douglas moved there it wasn't very long until the block began filling up with different people. Now, the block remained the same in many ways, racially and so on, but ...
Franzén: As you say, this was a residential block primarily.
Franzén: There were people living there. Who were those people? Give me a general idea of the makeup of that block and Capitol Hill generally, at that point, in terms of the demographics.
Overbeck: The demographics changed block by half block. In terms of that block, it may have been as much as a third African-American.
What happened is, here was Douglas. That gave them some status. And here were the paint jobs on the outside of the houses, here were the flowers, the tree care. Well, you try to – most people try to live up to their neighbors' minimum standards. And all of a sudden this place was just shining.
Franzén: They set a new standard for the houses.
Overbeck: Yes. Another thing I find interesting is that probably the best of those houses – and I don't know, again, which one – this is what was told me by Arline, quite frankly.
Overbeck: Arline Roback.
Franzén: Long-time local resident?
Overbeck: Yes. She did not live on the Hill at that time. She had not retired, and not become a realtor. But she had a sharp, sharp memory. And until about two years ago we had been doing a lot of taping with her.
Franzén: There must have been some members of Congress living on the Hill.
Overbeck: At that time, there was nobody living on the Hill. I mean nobody with status was living on the Hill until the Douglas's moved here. Period. End of report. That's it. You didn't come east of the Capitol.
Franzén: How far back do we have to go – obviously in the 1890s, when some of these wonderful old Victorian houses were built, there was some status attached to it – or at least it was not a negative to be living on the Hill.
Overbeck: There was one person out of all the persons listed in the Elite List, which was that current day's version of the Green Book.
Overbeck: One, and that was not a Congressman.
Franzén: So it was never really a swank place to live?
Overbeck: Well, that is not necessarily true either, because there had been times when there'd have been lots of congressmen living here. They'd have been living in taverns and boarding houses and so on. But that was a long, long time ago. Probably the latest was the 1820s.
What happened is congressional committees and congressional – mostly committees – formed "messes," since they all ate at the same place. It may have been a boarding house, it may have been a tavern, or whatever.
Franzén: This is early 19th Century.
Overbeck: Early 19th Century.
At some point or other, they outgrew those and they also found that they were getting deals to move down to the newly built hotels downtown. You come and you eat with us and you sleep with us and you get a deal. You get a cut rate.
Franzén: Because they're in Congress.
Overbeck: Of course. And because the hotels needed people coming to stay, because, quite frankly, the tourist business wasn't as big as they expected. This was not the Gilded Age of Mark Twain, where lobbying really took over. That was a mid-to-late Civil War phenomenon.
So, the only people who came to town were jobbers who were selling things to the merchants, the occasional person who had no one to visit but was just here as a tourist, and then the people who came to visit family. There really wasn't much to see. There wasn't much to do.
So for the first 59 years – certainly until the Civil War – there just weren't that many people in town.
Now, you move from this to the fact that the shinier and brighter the house looked, the more likely it was to be saleable and get top dollar. So that is when the African-Americans began to move out.
Franzén: When are you talking about now?
Overbeck: This is within about the first five years after '54. And they certainly moved out ...
Overbeck: Yes. And they certainly began to move out after the Little Rock decision, because there was a lot of pressure, I think. I feel that there was – from what I have heard – there was a lot of pressure for them to move out.
Franzén: They were pressured by what forces, exactly?
Overbeck: They were pressured because of their schools being not up to par in the neighborhoods. And the neighborhoods had been neglected a long time.
Franzén: They were segregated schools.
Overbeck: Segregated schools. So you had segregated schools that were not really matching the school that the children next door would be going to.
There were persons from the real estate industry, a man here still alive on Capitol Hill, who told me that he went to every – now, he was not talking about this neighborhood; he was talking about a different neighborhood, but an equally old neighborhood, close to the Navy Yard. And this is a direct quote to me, from him – he said that he went through every rundown, shabby-looking house he could find in the neighborhood and asked to buy their house. And for the most part, they let him buy their house. He is charming, he's debonair, and he's what we'd call a bigot. And it lasted all the way through his profession, and he is still there today.
Those were the kinds of people who initially gave the Hill such a bad name for "gentrification." I hate that term, but nonetheless, in that instance it certainly applies.
Franzén: So he was offering what these folks saw as a good price for their house?
Overbeck: No, he offered them the lowest he could get away with.
Franzén: Okay. And they were motivated to sell to move where? What was the motivation to sell?
Overbeck: Let's put this in context.
Franzén: If it was a poor price, what was their motivation?
Overbeck: Put it in context. In the 1950s, after World War II, the first time cars were available to anybody, almost, since before World War II, with that and places like Greenbelt – and there were Greenbelts for black people as well as for white people. It was neither ballyhooed nor large, but there were suburbs that were advertising specifically for blacks after the civil rights decision, for school desegregation.
Franzén: In so many words, they were advertised ...
Overbeck: "For colored." "Built for colored." "Built for colored middle-class."
Franzén: But they were motivated to move to the suburbs for much the same reason the whites were moving to the suburbs.
Overbeck: Sure. This is what's so tangled up in this story. It's one of the reasons it needs to get out.
Another thing is that they were tearing down Southwest,
which was also a mixed community.
Overbeck: Mixed. Jewish families in Southwest mostly just headed for the hills, and bought up on Meridian Hill.
Franzén: Meridian Hill.
Overbeck: There were synagogues up there and there were things that suited their lifestyle. There were kosher restaurants already up there, there were a few. But this was the first time they had ever been able to buy any of the big front porch houses or the domed-door [?] houses, and so on.
Franzén: Because they were prevented before that ...
Overbeck: They were restricted. Redlined. Covenants for blacks. And I think we had dropped the Irish, but we now had added the Jewish people.
What was happening was, the government made a promise and frequently made the promise to men who were really well trusted in the community, and they passed it on, every administrator for the government, that when Carrollsburg Square and all of Southwest was redeveloped, you would be able to come back to your house, the spot where your house was. It will be a new house, but it will be the spot where your house was. And so your neighborhood will not be torn up. It will not be destroyed.
I've never heard such nonsense in my life, because none of the above happened. First of all, they told them it would take about a year and a half, and Lord knows it took longer than that.
At one point, they even promised to put the original front doors back on the houses.
Franzén: This was going on over in Southwest.
Overbeck: Let me correct that: All the door knobs – [they promised] you'd get to have your [old] door knob. That part of the community ...
Franzén: What was that you referred to again?
Overbeck: Carrollsburg, Carrollsburg Square, Harbor Square, all of those.
Franzén: In Southwest.
Overbeck: Yes. It is one of the worst schemes of design you can possibly imagine. There is no room for middle-class down there, and a lot of the people who were moved out were middle-class. Librarians, people who had – both the wife and the husband had a paying job. Mike Michaelson had grown up there. They personally knew Al Jolson when he was growing up there. All this sort of thing.
Franzén: Al Jolson?
Overbeck: Yes, he was born there.
Franzén: Al Jolson, the "Jazz Singer."
Overbeck: Yes, his father was a cantor. The movie is almost to the letter biographical.
Franzén: That whole development that occurred down there, what was it – in the 1950s or 1960s ...
Franzén: Who did that? Was that a government ...
Overbeck: That was a Federal government project.
Franzén: "Urban renewal."
Overbeck: Urban renewal. I didn't like it a bit. I went one time ...
Franzén: What was down there? It was houses? What did it look like?
Overbeck: It was houses. It was mostly one step down, but not all, from Capitol Hill. It had a lovely shopping center. You could get almost everything you could get on Orchard and Delancy Street in New York, as well as some other stuff that you would want.
It had taverns. It had local things. It had a cohesive overall community, whether or not you're talking about race. You knew people who were there and you spoke to them. That is a community. Even if you only know to ask, "How is Mrs. Dobbs' chicken?" Or, "Has her daughter had her baby yet?"
At least you know enough about your neighbors to know your neighbors. This is probably the one thing the African-Americans missed most, was their ability to know that Johnny's teacher, Johnny's preacher, barber, et cetera, was likely to see Johnny and go out and take him by the ear.
Franzén: If he got out of line.
Overbeck: And it's gotten totally and completely out of hand.
Franzén: The logic for doing that project when it was done was what, exactly? They were rebuilding a "blighted neighborhood?" What was the logic? Was it connected with the building of the freeway there?
Overbeck: Not necessarily the freeway, it was the "blighted" concept. "We don't want blight, we want a city beautiful."
So, Capitol Hill, part of Capitol Hill, escaped it by a smidge.
Anyway, the way in which it all fell out was that, okay, we need a temporary place to stay. Some of these places up on Capitol Hill are empty. They are either being rented or they're being sold or they're doing whatever. And some of these people down here have a chunk of money. The last ones to go got a chunk of money.
Franzén: The last ones in Southwest.
Overbeck: Yes, the last ones in Southwest got a chunk of money. I remember being told by the wife of one of the men who worked as a librarian at the Library of Congress – no, by that time he was working at the Archives. She said, "Oh, Jimmy and I got $14,000 for our house."
Now, let me tell you, $14,000 for a house in a neighborhood that was going to go nowhere. She said, "If you think we were going to sign an agreement to move back in there, you're crazy." They headed out and they lived in Brookland in a beautiful house. Large lawn, beautiful brick house.
Anyway, that's how that happened. By that happening and by people continuing to double up, Capitol Hill got a reputation as being where all the rowdies – it already had somewhat of this, but certainly it had become rundown, ratty and tough.
Franzén: And the notion was, that was from people moving from Southwest to Capitol Hill ...
Franzén: During the renovation or the urban renewal in Southwest.
Overbeck: The perception is that.
The perception is also – and a valid one – that the black immigrants from the South, who didn't know how to use toilets and so on, moved up here. Because they came to live with friends and families, and so on.
Those two factors are always talked about. Never, never do they talk about cars and suburbs. And never do people talk about the idea – it began to happen right after school segregation and overlapped it. Very few people talk about that as a factor at all. And yet you have these dynamic ideas going on and being translated by the Federal government for the most part, so that you had these – I don't see how the city survived the pressure, quite frankly.
Franzén: The racial pressure?
Overbeck: No, the pressure of all of these things.
I watched the flight from Columbia Heights when the school segregation started going, and I watched the Jewish follow. They didn't care. They were from Southwest and they had been with black kids and they mostly had Jewish schools, anyway. So it mattered not to them.
Over time, I have watched – I have charted or watched every single ...
[Tape runs out]
Tape #8 – Continuing 3/21/00 Session
Franzén: Okay, we ran out of tape. This is tape 8, same day, March 21st, and we're continuing our discussion about demographic changes on Capitol Hill and hereabouts in the middle part of the 20th Century.
Could we go back to this gentrification process, as you described it. You talked about William O. Douglas taking this radical step, as everybody else saw it, of moving to Capitol Hill, because he wanted to be close to work. Give me a sense of what things looked like up here at that time in terms of the housing.
One of the reasons I ask, is: My house over in the 900 block of Massachusetts Avenue, which was quite a grand Victorian house when it was built around  – that house, and I think a lot of the houses around it, went into considerable decline somewhere well into the 20th Century. I know when I bought the house in 1987 there were still deadbolt locks on the doors of the bedrooms. The previous owner did not rent out rooms, but those locks were still there from a time when individual rooms obviously were rented out. Would that have been during World War II, typically? Give me a sense of the trajectory of the rise and decline and rise again in the quality of the housing and the care that people have taken with the housing on Capitol Hill.
Overbeck: Well, in terms of preservation, the best preservation is neglect. If you don't have the money or the interest, you are going to leave the original wallpaper, which is in my hallway. The lights in the front hall are original. And the light in the dining room. There were some lights that even I, the preservationist, could not tolerate.
Franzén: This is original wallpaper?
Overbeck: Yes, from 1910.
As the crescent that we talked about filled up, styles changed. First of all it had to do with bathrooms. I think I'm in correct in saying in 1960 there was one outdoor toilet left on Capitol Hill. There certainly had been a number of them before that.
Franzén: But indoor plumbing was fairly typical by the 1890s.
Overbeck: Indoor plumbing became middle-class by 1890. Now, you find from ads for houses here on Capitol Hill showing that indoor plumbing was earlier than that. But generally, what they did – do you know people who have perpetual plumbing problems?
Overbeck: There's a line on the outside of the house?
Franzén: Probably for some of them.
Overbeck: Yes, that's it, because they would put the bathroom in the back corner or build onto the standard plan because the builders were not going to modify those plans if they didn't have to. They built onto the standard plan this little box thing.
And the funniest of all I have ever seen was a bathroom over on East Capitol Street. It is two stories up on a three-story house. It's the only bathroom in there. It has a regular claw-footed tub and it has a regular toilet of the period. It also has a door leading out the back and down the stairs to where there is a little door cut under the staircase with a moon on it. You go in and there is a potty, but it is a non-working potty.
Now, that place, that house is built in 1872. Whether or not this was built originally with the house we have no way of knowing because we don't have plans for that house. It is painted and [laughing] I threatened one time to chip off the pain so I could see where the brick changed.
So you have this gradual thing. As you move closer and closer inside the circle – and Philadelphia Row, I think, had some form of indoor plumbing. What form it was, I don't know.
Franzén: That was 1862.
Overbeck: 1862. As you move closer and closer to Lincoln Park you've got the full range, usually only one wall facing the outside instead of the corner wall with the plumbing pipe running down.
Franzén: So when people added indoor facilities they often ran the pipes down the outside of the house, and they would freeze and so forth.
Overbeck: Yes. So, anyway, this area became known as Lincoln Park. It attracted admirals and judges, et cetera. It was begun in the 1890s and was probably completed by – this row in 1910.
Franzén: This row here on 12th Street [Southeast].
Franzén: We're in the 100 block of 12th Street.
Overbeck: Now, the houses across the corner that look like they're contemporary, they are. [They] replaced what was the Didden family residence.
Franzén: The bankers' family.
Overbeck: Yes. The big blue house – which had been blue for I don't know how long; I guess it is the same blue because the tenants, the owners have now moved out because they are on assignment to Portugal. Pardon me, the Didden's house belonged to the Carry dairy family, not the Didden's. The Carry's had the dairy ...
Overbeck: Yes. The people up the street were [owners of] the Campbell Hardware Company in Anacostia right across the bridge, but they didn't want to live across the bridge, which gives you a little indication of some status. In between the 1870s and the 1890s, there were pockets of houses that were built for clerks, members of the clerical profession. You have to remember, at that point all you had to do to be an accountant was to pass 8th grade. So it did not imply that we're talking, really, a lot of status here. I guess a clerk is still a clerk, in terms of a profession. If you are doing the audits and the bookkeeping and all this, you are doing pretty well. So there were a whole series of houses built for them.
Some of our only "court" houses were built then – behind A and B and 6th and C. The ones on the north side, I think, are the original ones, and the ones on the south side got grandfathered in because people had begun living in there before the grandfather law. Library Court was probably about the same time.
Franzén: You say they were built for clerks. You're not talking about some kind of official program.
Franzén: The market.
Overbeck: The market. The people were very sharp about the market. They would go under the [assumption] that this particular floor plan, this particular type of trim – and it proved true over and over again – would appeal to particular types of people. And we had some very sharp developers up here. They built on spec. So they got the money.
Franzén: That was pretty typical, to build on spec?
Franzén: Now, we have a lot of houses up here, a lot of these row houses, that were obviously built as a set. I noticed ...
Overbeck: Mine is.
Franzén: You're in a set of ten, which was extreme.
Franzén: But sets of three, four, five, were quite common. They're all linked together. There's no seam between the houses, the brick is continuous, and there's a continuous style in terms of the trim and so on. So, obviously those were built on spec. A builder bought the lots and built, and sold the houses one by one to whoever came along.
Overbeck: I'm glad you brought that up. One of the ones I find the most peculiar and the most – well, the guy just wanted to make money. Charles Herrell was a local bookmaker. Right down the middle of the 900 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, you know all those houses that look alike, starting with the corner, turning and going about seven, eight houses, they all look continuous. But you can tell there are seam lines.
Now, what he did, was develop the land, clear the land, use the clay from the land for the bricks, sold the bricks to the city, and contracted with the city to build the street.
Now, if that's not entrepreneurism, I don't know what is. I get so tickled because every time I go down there I think, okay, fine, did you just not get enough brick fired? You know, they didn't get enough turned out for the diggers because you can literally see – they look like they are entirely of a piece, you can see that. There has to be an explanation. In my head, he either had other contracts he had to fulfill or he didn't get enough bricks fired in time.
Franzén: Now, this is in the 900 block of Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast, on the north side.
Franzén: A set of several houses there.
Overbeck: Yes, about seven houses. That was really a surprise to find that they were separately built. I had seen the seam line and that didn't make sense.
Franzén: Because they were so much alike.
Franzén: But they were built one at a time.
Okay, I'm going back to my question that I raised a moment ago, and that is, give us a sense of the rise and fall and rise, or maybe there are more dips and rises than that, on Capitol Hill in terms of the housing stock in the 20th Century.
Franzén: Can you describe about how long, around Lincoln Park and other areas, there was some status attached to living here? Certainly some of the grander houses which still stand attest to that. But we went through a period when a lot of this housing stock fell on hard times.
Franzén: No? Okay, explain it to me.
Overbeck: World War I.
Franzén: World War I.
Overbeck: The town was under-prepared with housing.
Franzén: For the influx of people?
Overbeck: For the influx of people to administer the war. Do you know what a 2-G is?
Franzén: A 2-G?
Overbeck: The number 2 and the initial G. It's what they called the government girls.
Franzén: I know about government girls. I didn't know them as 2-G's. Government girls, yes.
Overbeck: When the men left the city – and remember, men held all the clerical positions. It was still very unfashionable for a woman to work, other than perhaps behind the milliner counter at the store. If her father owned a restaurant, she could work there. If she was a specialist in candy, she could have her own little candy store. But don't ask her to be part of the general workforce. That is not exclusively true but it is almost exclusively true.
And if you did work in the regular government workforce then you generally worked in a separate department, a girl's department.
Franzén: A secretarial pool or something like that.
Overbeck: Oh, brother.
Franzén: And World War I changed that?
Overbeck: In World War I, the United States government did just as it did when it was trying to fill up the city of Washington. It placed ads in papers all – not this time in Europe and England, Scotland and so on – but all over this country.
I know a bunch of them, and the best description of some of the ones I know is the good old country girl. A family needed money, they lived in Appalachia, this would be ideal. She got on a bus, she came here, a man offered to help her down with her luggage, they are married to this good day. So you have stories of quick divorces, quick marriages, everything ranging from here to there to yonder.
Generally, if you had a third floor you made the third floor into a real living unit with a kitchen.
Franzén: That you could rent out?
Overbeck: Yes, legality went out the window. Besides that, we didn't have zoning then.
The third floor, if at all possible, would be the walk-up flat. But the reason the walk-up flat would be so enticing was because you had the kitchen. Then, on the second floor you rented out every room you had. Many families moved to the basement.
Franzén: This is in World War I.
Overbeck: World War I.
They maintained a boarding house. They cooked. You had to sign up, be registered for your meals so they know how many to cook for. You had your kitchen. You had your parlor – I gather everybody had the common use of the parlor. It was quite a scene.
Now, after World War II – I am having trouble with numbers today. After World War I ended, the yeomanettes went home, the 2-G's went home, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Franzén: During the 1920s, things thinned out again.
Overbeck: Things thinned out a bit but people had made an enormous amount of money at the Navy Yard. Many of the people who doubled up, tripled up, whatever, quadrupled up, in this area, did it at the Navy Yard. They would get groups together and they would live together.
Franzén: The Navy Yard, obviously, was very busy during the war.
Overbeck: Yes. By 1892, it was the largest manufacturer of naval machines in the world, naval guns.
Overbeck: Yes, munitions. It gave it incentive. New buildings, new people, et cetera.
Franzén: So, into the 1920s, what happened?
Overbeck: In the 1920s, then you had this period of prosperity and a number of people decided to move – Chevy Chase, if they could afford it. Wherever. And they used these places as tenement houses.
Franzén: Up here.
Overbeck: Up here.
Franzén: So they kept the old house and rented it out?
Overbeck: Yes, because they had made enough money to do so. And they hit the Depression and about 1932 to 1933, somewhere in there, it seems that a lot of the houses became black occupied, or by lower status people.
Franzén: In the 1930s.
Overbeck: In the 1930s. Maids, cooks, the chauffeur for Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Franzén: But very many of them were rooming houses, that were rented out, room by room.
Overbeck: Right. Now, some of them reopened some of the doors [?].
Now, if you go down a street with a taxicab driver – an old cabby from the District – one of his favorite things to do is to point out all of the houses of ill-repute on Capitol Hill.
Franzén: The former houses of ill-repute.
Overbeck: Yes, "This was a house of ill-repute, that was a house of ill-repute." There couldn't possibly have been that many. I don't know what he was basing it on, but I do know that there were some, and that was the use.
Well, now, by the 1930s, a man I know from Pennsylvania had come to Washington to work at the Navy Yard. He moved into one of these situations where he shared, because he was saving money to get married. He got so upset he left after one week. He got upset with – I never did understand this, but I think it had something to do with something that happened on a bus that involved a "colored" man. This man was as bigoted as they come. As far as I'm concerned, he had no business ever coming to Washington, much less Capitol Hill. He should have stayed in his nice little hometown in Pennsylvania.
But he was very candid. "I lived in that real pretty house, X number of doors to the corner." Or something or other. There he went. He was the kind of person that, no matter what the cause of the anger or whatever, he would attach it to racism. So that shows you the kind of people who were coming.
You have the woman from Appalachia who came and had a wonderful time and a wonderful life, and the guy from Pennsylvania, and so on.
Now, things were pretty bad in Washington. Some say we're depression-proof, but we're not. And there's one article that I read years and years ago in Life Magazine that said that a flat, a cold-water flat, on East Capitol Street rented for $100 a month.
Franzén: This was when?
Overbeck: About 1938.
Overbeck: Now, all up and down East Capitol Street and lots of other places on Capitol Hill, you would find hanging signs on the front of the buildings, in neon, or not neon necessarily but lit signs: "Tourists."
Franzén: Rooms for rent.
Overbeck: Rooms for rent. Boarding. And those things were there when I came.
Franzén: In 1968.
Overbeck: In 1968 they were still there. I think we all sighed relief and all regretted the day the last sign went down. I don't remember when that was, but it seemed like the end of an era.
Franzén: So throughout the middle part of the century – I assume for World War II, as well – a great many of the houses on Capitol Hill were divided up as individual rented rooms or floor-by-floor apartments, right? During World War II, obviously, again we had a big, big influx of people.
Overbeck: Yes, they were hot-bunking it.
Franzén: We had the government girls all over again, right?
Overbeck: Yes. And not just government girls; we had guys who were 4A's or who had particular skills that the military needed, that were so crucial that they needed them here in Washington close to the Pentagon.
Franzén: But again there was great pressure on the housing market at that time, I would think.
Overbeck: Right, there was. But somehow it worked. And interestingly enough, on the 200 block or 300 block of C – no, that is wrong, it's the other way, the 200 block – I will get it right.
Anyway, the cryptographer who broke the Japanese code lived on the Hill. So it shows you who were the kinds of people we had. Every so often you go down and see ... There is a house over here on 9th street. Its family had grown up there and maintained the house. It ended up with one of its sons being a general. And it also ended up with a contract for the house. We don't know whether or not the contract – for him to do with as he saw fit. We assume that the contract was for the general to live there, and his family, because it was better than trying to find him other quarters. The house had room enough for everybody, and so on. So that happened.
We go through this whole period, and the housing stock, some of it, stays stable. And some of the ones that stayed most stable were the ones that had been in the hands of free black families before the Civil War.
Franzén: And they just stayed in the family.
Overbeck: They stayed in the family and the family stayed in the houses. Some of them had accumulated more. They sold it, lived in another house, and the big house, the biggest house that stands on the square now encompassed three of their little houses, so that you have a very mixed – when I talk about demographics and so on, that house, that square, is at 5th and D.
Franzén: Fifth and D Southeast?
Overbeck: Yes, 5th and D Southeast.
So you go on and on from that kind of environment. The family – in the Depression, the family could not get the money. Even though the husband was an attorney, they could not get a loan to build a single-family house. They wanted a nice single-family house. The bank said no, they were only lending money for apartment buildings right now.
Franzén: On Capitol Hill.
Overbeck: Yes. Now, we have no idea – Judge Atkinson and I talked many hours about this, as to what was his gut feeling. He just said, okay, fine. And he says, I have this much money, I'll build me an apartment building, and I'll live in one unit.
Franzén: So, the notion that the banks had at that point – and this is when?
Overbeck: This is middle 1930s.
Franzén: The assumption at that point by the banks was that the only economically viable housing that you could build on Capitol Hill would be apartments, not single-family houses?
Overbeck: Right. Now, whether that is because of the neighborhood, whether it's because of it being all black housing units – because redlining was still in, you still couldn't have a mixed residence.
Franzén: So a given apartment building would be either all white or all black.
Overbeck: Yes. So maybe they would [inaudible] four more black families or three more black families. It is really weird.
I said: "Judge, how did you come down on this?"
He was absolutely wonderful. He was one of the first black judges appointed in this city.
Franzén: Judge Atkinson.
Overbeck: Judge Atkinson, a long-time member of Kiwanis, all the things that you do if you're a good guy. In terms of – and certainly breaking into those circles, he may even have been the first black Kiwanian that the Capitol Hill Kiwanis club took in. He is a real source of information for lots of what I know about the black community and about what was going on around him.
Franzén: Is he alive?
Overbeck: No. Nor his son. Unfortunately, his son – mama deceased, daddy deceased, and son deceased, all within a very compressed time period.
I don't know whether they still have it or not, but we did interview him on tape, sitting in Marion Park, [for] the National Trust. I don't know if they're any good about loaning anything or what that would cost, but you can get Judge Atkinson in action.
Franzén: Okay, so we come kind of full circle here. We are now back to the late middle part of the 20th Century. We've gotten past World War II now and I want to get back for just a moment, at least, to this gentrification issue.
We had the flight to the suburbs that occurred – white and black – in the 1950s, with the [proliferation of] automobiles and the ability to commute out there to where you can have your quarter acre, half acre, a little bit of yard and so forth. And there were people in the real estate business, in the development business, who came in and started buying up properties on Capitol Hill with intentions of fixing them up and turning them over, yes?
Overbeck: Have you ever heard of "flipping"?
Overbeck: All right. There were a lot of people who flipped. It had nothing to do with fixing it up.
Franzén: Okay. Describe flipping, please.
Overbeck: Flipping is when a person buys something and that name has to be listed on the deed because the person is the deed owner in fact. That person's date of ownership may be at 10:45, and the next deed for the house is recorded the same day at 2:30.
Overbeck: So that they held it maybe eight hours and made $800, $1,000. In those days, the houses were really not very high priced. I bought this house the year after the riots, or the year of the riots, actually ...
Overbeck: ... 1968, and I overpaid as it turned out. I paid $27,000, and I should have paid somewhere closer to $21,000.
Franzén: Based on the market.
Overbeck: Based on the market and getting a garage. I know what appealed to me. Among other things, the pocket doors, the light fixtures. I thought the dining room light fixture was the most hideous thing I had ever seen. I didn't know if I was going to live with it or if I was going to take it out, but the woman who sold it to me showed me the house with the light undraped. Her boyfriend was standing there and opened his mouth and said it had been appraised by so and so as being a so on and so on. I don't know if he said Tiffany, but anyway it is a name known, and it had been appraised at a thousand dollars.
I went back and I told the realtor I was dealing with – because he had not come with me for it – I said, "You tell that woman if she wants that house sold to me she will include that light fixture. She showed it to me, bragged about it, and, therefore, it's mine!"
So, there was basically the young "pioneer" group. Because in that year, two doors up sold. That was because of a death in the family. Two doors down sold. That was because of a college professor's transfer. So you get a lot of – the house on the corner had a life lease on it to an African-American man and his progeny, which kept occurring. The first time I ever saw a Catholic girl in a maternity outfit. It about blew my mind. Then the second or third house from the corner of the block sold. But it was reasonable selling.
This was not a spec block, for whatever reason. It may have started out as a spec block, but by the time I got here it was certainly not a spec block.
Franzén: But there were a lot of blocks where people would simply go in, buy, wait a short time, and turn it over for a profit, doing nothing to improve the property.
Overbeck: Yes, or doing something to improve the property that was wrong. And we will talk about that next time or whenever we pick back up on houses.
Franzén: Okay. There was a lot of butchering going on, I know.
Overbeck: Oh, a lot. Tremendous butchering done.
Georgetown was overburdened and Georgetown was another reason for the influx to Capitol Hill. A realtor got a listing down on 8th Street across from the Marine barracks. And it was a new realtor and he didn't really, didn't know that wasn't the kind of property that Georgetown's Millicent Chatell company handled. They went over and looked at it. "Look where it is!" Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. She was the first to burst out of – people give Capitol Hill real estate a bum rap on that one because – and they give – basically they give Chatell a wrap. Chatell didn't come hunting this thing. This was just something that happened. It was one of those sequences of events from which many other things grow.
Franzén: So, an agent from Millicent Chatell represented this property that was sort of outside of the normal bounds?
Overbeck: Oh, yes. Millicent Chatell didn't represent anybody who wasn't "ta ta Georgetown."
Franzén: So this sort of broke the mold somehow?
Overbeck: It did.
Franzén: I don't see the significance of this.
Overbeck: The significance of this is they all began to look around Capitol Hill.
Overbeck: The realtors from Millicent Chatell. Finally, she put a sub-office up here.
Franzén: So she started out in Georgetown and then moved here?
Overbeck: And she kept both offices and did very well, thank you very much.
But what it did ...
Franzén: This was in the 1960s?
Overbeck: This was in – I will get a date for you on that, because it is an important date. I have it in there somewhere on tape, I think. And if I can't, the person is still alive who has the information. But let me get that because that is a very important piece of the – of how people have been doing things for the Justice, and so on and so forth, and that immediate area, et cetera.
Franzén: So you see that move of the Millicent Chatell agency into Capitol Hill as one of those defining moments, like the arrival of William O. Douglas.
Franzén: And other agencies followed quickly on her heels? What happened?
Overbeck: They followed, but not necessarily quickly. I think they were waiting to see what Millicent was going to do.
Franzén: But she really was the first?
Overbeck: Yes. And there has been some contention over that, too. There were old-time people from way back who never left, but they certainly never did spur the change.
Franzén: The gentrification.
Franzén: Obviously, there had to be real estate agents working up here because there were houses up here and sales being made for many, many years.
Franzén: Okay. Shall we call it quits for today?
Overbeck: I think so, please.
[End of Tape #8]
Tape #9 – Recorded March 30, 2000
Franzén: Okay, we're beginning tape 9. This is Thursday, March 31st, 2000. We have jumped forward in time and we are back in the hospital, Sibley Hospital again, with Ruth Ann Overbeck.
Ruth Ann, when we left off talking last time, we were talking about, for lack of a better word, gentrification on Capitol Hill. I know you hate that word, but it is sort of the common term for what was going on in the '60s and '70s and beyond. Let's pick up where we left off.
Overbeck: Okay. We left off with Peter Powers, who was someone I met at my first Capitol Hill Restoration Society [meeting].
Franzén: Peter Powers.
Overbeck: Yes, Peter Galludet [sp?] Powers. He had recently moved to Capitol Hill, and he had not been on Capitol Hill very long. When he came to the Restoration Society he brought with him a name that stuck with the – how would you describe it, Peter?
Franzén: Peter is here with us today.
Powers: This person?
Powers: Ruth Ann said she was interested in what I knew about the president of the Restoration Society, before myself. I said I didn't remember very much. There was a man called Ed Gries [sp?]. I never met him. My immediate predecessor was a man named Larry Monoco [sp?], I think, for several years. I didn't know the others.
I suddenly remembered someone who was still on the board and continued for several years, at least, a man called Curly Boswell. He owned a house on D street Southeast and had lived on the Hill forever. He was still on the board. I remember him coming to meetings in my living room. He was very conservative. He thought Capitol Hill stopped at 11th Street, which we didn't agree with entirely.
But I couldn't remember, I didn't know the other people, and I couldn't remember exactly much about Curly, except he was one of the founders, I believe. He may have been the first president. I think he was.
Franzén: Do we know how long the Society has been in existence?
Powers: Was it created in the '50s?
Overbeck: The Restoration Society was involved as a restoration group no later than the '40s.
Powers: In the '40s.
Yes, in the '40s. Remember, Justice William O. Douglas started the Restoration Society in 1949.
Franzén: Justice Douglas and somebody else?
Franzén: William O. Douglas.
Overbeck: William O. Douglas.
Powers: I didn't know that. I didn't know that.
Overbeck: I met her once, in one of her flouncy dresses.
Overbeck: Maya [sp?].
Franzén: Was that Mrs. Douglas?
Overbeck: Yes. And they were going to actually begin – the people who founded the Restoration Society. They came up to the Hill and said that was the place they wanted to be.
Franzén: You told me about their arrival on the Hill being kind of a watershed moment in terms of the view that people had of Capitol Hill, in terms of its desirability as a place to live.
Franzén: Suddenly it became chic, or less un-chic, to live on Capitol Hill.
Powers: Less un-chic. It's never been considered chic. But people could see its advantages and there are wonderful houses there, and they began what you were talking about – what was called gentrification, which is a nasty word for people fixing up old houses, which needed it.
That was well underway when I moved here in 1968. That had been going on for some time.
They're having this year – what – the 43rd house tour of Capitol Hill?
Powers: So that has been going on since the '50s, I think.
Powers: That was the main fundraiser and it was one of the ways to popularize Capitol Hill, get people to come in and look at the houses.
Franzén: I assume the real estate people were a major player in that at that time as well? They had an economic interest in getting people to pay attention to Capitol Hill.
Powers: Well, some people in the real estate business were great supporters of the Restoration Society. One lady who just died, Arline Roback, she worked for Barbara Held, who was also very supportive. They didn't try and pressure the society or anything. They were just genuinely interested in people fixing up their houses and doing it right.
Is that right, Ruth Ann?
Overbeck: That's right, for that generation. For the next generation, it was not right. The next generation had a whole group of people who really didn't give a hoot.
Franzén: About historical authenticity?
Franzén: So, by the second generation you mean the people who were doing the fixing up, say, in the late '60s and '70s?
Powers: Yes. One of the reasons I think that Ruth Ann and others of us worked to get the declaration of a Historic District – something that Nancy knows about – indeed, the lady who helped us there, Susanne Gansnicks [sp?], is still there. One of the reasons for that was to protect, further, the Hill. The zoning was a little vague. It wasn't that clear.
Franzén: The city inspectors were not watching very closely.
Powers: No. That is why the Society was formed, in part, to watchdog what was going on.
Powers: Particularly the use of residences for business, and other inappropriate development.
Franzén: Peter, you arrived on that scene in 1968?
Franzén: Describe Capitol Hill then as opposed to now in terms of the housing stock, and how far things had come along by then in terms of renovation and what have you.
Powers: Well, my neighborhood in A Street Southeast, 300, 400 and 500 block, is not that different today than it was then. More houses have been fixed up in a perfectly straightforward way. The development at that time went all the way to 11th Street. There is a man who was on the board at that time, who did over a house on 11th Street, called Dick Wolf. He knew all of these people. He was on the executive committee of the Restoration Society.
But my recollection is that restoration kind of petered out after 11th Street. It wasn't considered economically viable. It would have been even less so if they'd built that throughway under 11th Street, but the Committee of 100 managed to stop that.
Franzén: What was the committee of 100?
Powers: That was a wonderful group funded by people like Fred Delano in the '20s, about 1928, to be a watchdog for the whole city. I was on the board for a while in the '70s, but before that in the '60s they had challenged the highway plans for the District as being completely out of scale, a very bad idea. The one thing they killed, in particular, one of the things they killed, was called the Three Sisters Bridge.
Do you know what the Three Sisters are? The three rocks in the Potomac just west of Key Bridge. There was to be an enormous bridge to go over there, connected to a highway that was going to go under the Lincoln Memorial, and all kinds of stuff like that.
Franzén: Literally under it?
Powers: Yes. And another piece of that plan [inaudible] was a sunken highway along 11th Street on Capitol Hill.
Franzén: Cutting right across Capitol Hill.
Powers: Yes, and that got killed along with the other stuff. But it was the Committee of 100 that really won that, both in the courts and also in the government.
Franzén: That highway would have connected to present-day 295/395?
Powers: Something like that.
Overbeck: Heading north up toward the beltway?
Powers: New York Avenue and that sort of thing. The substitute, in a sense, for that was built with a road that goes under the reflecting pool and does go up to New York Avenue.
Powers: All sorts of people lobbied against it.
Franzén: What year was this?
Powers: It was in the mid-to-late '60s.
Overbeck: Going on and on and on and on.
Powers: There was a lawsuit, lobbying activities, and one thing and another. We got the government to help also.
Overbeck: It was not just people like Lucy Green, who lived there on Capitol Hill.
Franzén: Ruth Green?
Overbeck: Lucy Green.
Overbeck: She was a photographer from Oklahoma. Really good photographer from Oklahoma. She worked her heart and soul out. It was these people that kept going and going and going and going. And there were people all the way up in through Northeast, into Brookland, and they did the same thing.
What happened is that – it was interesting enough, because there is no way that Dick Wolf's house today would be considered a preservation tool because it was done by – how do you describe it – it was certainly not a preservation house at this point.
It was done by that guy in Georgetown, very avant-garde.
Franzén: Developer? Architect? Renovator?
Overbeck: Architect. What was his name? Anyway, a very good architect, but very contemporary architect, an architect that would not be recognized as a "historian" architect.
Franzén: This was the architect on Dick Wolf's house?
Powers: I know, I think. He did part of the Renwick Gallery and a lot of houses in Georgetown?
Powers: He is a friend of mine, even.
Franzén: We can look it up.
One of the things that I recall hearing or reading ...
Powers: Hugh Jacobsen.
Franzén: Hugh Jacobsen.
Overbeck: Yes, Hugh Jacobsen. And he sat on early boards.
Franzén: Early boards?
Overbeck: Early boards. And he did early preservation work – but not preservation. It was very much contemporary work.
Franzén: At least on the inside. On the outside as well? Did he change exteriors?
Powers: A little bit. But he was very good about it. He did a number of Georgetown houses and changed them somewhat, but really in keeping with the whole neighborhood and the style. Brilliant.
Franzén: Okay. I recall hearing about or reading about the demolition of a grand old building on the corner, I think, of 5th and East Capitol.
Powers: Mary's Blue Room.
Franzén: Mary's Blue Room, which apparently was a galvanizing event in terms of getting people more focused on historic preservation.
Powers: Well, some.
Franzén: Do you know that story?
Powers: I know the story very well. It was during my presidency.
Overbeck: It certainly was.
Franzén: Let's hear about it.
Powers: The property was owned by the Baptist church which is still there.
Franzén: They knocked it down for a parking lot?
Powers: That was the original intention. We did everything we could, including demonstrations and marching around the church and all that stuff.
In the end, they didn't put a parking lot there, they put a garden.
Franzén: Can you describe the building that was there?
What did it look like?
Powers: It was a residence, originally. It was a three-story brick residence, not a very distinguished building, but of the period, okay.
Overbeck: There were few things like that that we had on Capitol Hill.
Franzén: One of the few things like that. What do you mean?
Overbeck: Mansard roof, two story.
Franzén: Wasn't it three story?
Powers: Three stories, I think.
Franzén: I remember a picture, it was three stories.
Overbeck: Maybe three. Articulated, very ornamental compared to most of the buildings on the row.
Franzén: That was right on the corner, on the northeast corner of 5th and East Capitol.
Franzén: Do you recall if that was built with commercial at street level, or was that something that was added later into what was entirely residence originally?
Powers: You mean the Blue Room, which was the restaurant?
Powers: It had been a residence.
Franzén: All the way up and down?
Powers: Yes, it probably was on the top two stories when Mary's Blue Room was there, it was just a restaurant. I don't know how old that was, how far back that went.
Franzén: It was a diner? What was it?
Powers: I don't know. I never went inside.
Franzén: But it was originally entirely residence?
Powers: I want to tell you about another fight that had a much more galvanizing effect.
Powers: That was when the Speaker of the House announced – they were building the Madison building. It was under construction. It was about 1972 or 1973.
Franzén: It was starting to be built in 1970 or '71.
Powers: It was going up.
Franzén: That would have been under the Carl Albert regime?
Powers: Exactly. So some people got to him and said the House needs that space. It will not be a library at all. We're going to take that over for house offices, House of Representatives offices, and the library can expand to the east.
Now, the library already had one building now known as the Madison building, I guess.
Franzén: The Madison is the new one. The Jefferson?
Powers: No, the Jefferson is the oldest one. Then it's called the ...
Franzén: The one to the east.
Powers: Right at the end of A street, A and 3rd.
So what did east mean? East meant going down A street. The first thing on A street is St. Mark's church. And on the other side are a whole bunch of houses owned by the Folger, and further down that block was my house.
Anyway, we had a lot of luck and a lot of faith. We organized a tremendous protest, with television coverage, in St. Mark's one afternoon about that time.
Franzén: They were not talking about knocking down St. Mark's?
Powers: Well, they didn't know what they were talking about. They wanted the library to stay where it was or go somewhere else, but not there. The head of St. Mark's and the head of the Folger was there. I was there. A lot of other people. All sorts of people were there. Now, we had one big bit of luck. Right across the street lived a lady journalist who was from Oklahoma. She owned that house right there. She knew Carl Albert very well, and she decided to do what she could.
Then we had another bit of luck. We were campaigning at Eastern Market one day, and along came the legislative assistant, or something like that, of a congressman, not from Oklahoma, but who was in charge of the congressional appropriation – on the committee in charge of that – and he took that news back to his boss, and basically that was the end of it. Because they wouldn't let them spend any money on this stuff.
It was a big fight, and it really galvanized, it put all sorts of people together into it that lived in the neighborhood, right?
Overbeck: Right. It was hilarious.
Powers: It was hilarious when it was over.
Franzén: Now, on the square where the Madison building did get built, that was a residential square.
Powers: I don't know anything about it. That was all underway by the time I came to the Hill.
Franzén: They'd started digging the hole for the Madison Building?
Powers: I don't remember the buildings on that thing.
Franzén: I know I passed through in 1971 or '72 and I think the hole was already there.
Powers: It was in the '60s sometime they took it all and condemned it all. That was really before – when was the Historic Preservation Act passed? 1964?
Franzén: Johnson, Lyndon Johnson.
Powers: That was the beginning of a kind of awareness. Earlier they thought, well, we need that square for the library. Who cares about those old buildings? Nobody.
Franzén: They were busy tearing down Southwest at that point.
Powers: Oh, dear, that is another story.
Overbeck: Basically, all of these buildings were looked at as being an extension of the north-south line and east-west line.
Franzén: All of which buildings?
Overbeck: Off of Pennsylvania Avenue and this core that was about 2nd and 3rd. That was going to give us access north, south, east, west, and let us have all kinds of space between 6th and 7th and 8th and 9th, and let us have that access and go to those buildings, those spaces, that would allow us to do things like have basically north-south and east-west access to various and sundry parts of Capitol Hill so we could spin off before we got to A, to B and to C, and to go around the Capitol.
Is that right?
Powers: Roads or buildings?
Powers: Well, there was another thing, too, that I think we are referring to. The Architect of the Capitol had his own plans, particularly for East Capitol Street. He designated that ...
Franzén: This was back in the '60s?
Powers: Or earlier. I don't remember. They were going to have the states build substantial buildings all the way out to Lincoln Park. It was going to be a place for the states to have their offices.
Franzén: Their "office in Washington."
Powers: Office and stuff like that, with these probably Greek Revival or whatever – some kind of formal architecture.
Franzén: And just knock down the house to do that.
Powers: That never happened, thank God. We have one little state building there ...
Powers: Florida. Which we fought over for years.
Franzén: At least they didn't do radical changes to the house.
Powers: No, they crept in under cover of darkness.
Franzén: When you were president of the Society, what years were those roughly?
Powers: It is like '71 or '72 to '74 or '75. The first part of the '70s.
Franzén: At that time, describe the Society. How large a group was it at that point?
Powers: The society was 800 or 1,000 members even then, because Austin Beale, another great name of that period, had been membership chairman. He did a great deal of work. It varied, I think, between 800 and 1,000 for a while.
Franzén: That's large.
Powers: I don't know what it is now. Not far off that. The Hill is quite a big place. There are 20,000 people living here, if you take it all the way over to the stadium.
Powers: It was already a good size when I came along. It was not tiny. And it had some of these wonderful people like Austin and Larry Monoco and Dick Wolf, who were very dedicated and who worked like hell to keep it going and to spread it.
It was seen by some people as an elite group, interested only in old stuff and sort of "prettifying" the neighborhood, but it became, fairly soon, the most important neighborhood protection group, neighbors group, on Hill. In fact, the only one for a long time. You know, you have the neighborhood associations ...
Franzén: Stanton Park, Lincoln Park ...
Powers: Yes, all those go back to that period. But the most important was the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, which took in the whole area. And its mission is not just to help people fix up their houses, it's to protect them, to follow the zoning and legislation.
We had any number of fights with the Architect. Talking about stuff that he thought he wanted to do. Finally they agreed that if they expanded it all ...
Franzén: The Architect of the Capitol?
Powers: Yes, he's the one in charge of all that. If they were going to expand at all they would go north and south. That's when they need a new court building and they built it over there by Union Station, a lovely building. And there were other plans – I don't think much has happened with them – to go down South Capitol Street. But not to the east.
Overbeck: More serious restoration.
Franzén: "More serious restoration," what do you mean?
Overbeck: Where one Saturday night at a board meeting in Hazel and Bob [inaudible]'s front room, Peter said: "You know, we have to plaque all these houses."
Franzén: Put plaques on them?
Overbeck: Yes. And I got tickled because we just finished having a conversation about "plaquing" and the various words of plaquing.
Peter said, "No, just think how important it would be to Arline to have a plaque like Edie Hogan got last year." Well, Edie Hogan had just gotten her first plaque, maybe her only one, and it had arrived at the hands of Curly Brown.
Robert Hughes: Curly Boswell.
Overbeck: Yes, Curly Boswell. Now, the Boswell family had been one of the longest-term families on Capitol Hill. If you go back to the tax books, you'll see that Curly's family had been here since the year – we will look it up and make sure we know what date it was. But Curly was a Federal-phile.
Franzén: A Federal-phile?
Overbeck: Yes. She had the funds – not only did I find out later, Peter, but he had contacts to find the stuff. A lot of the things that he used came from Georgetown.
Franzén: Let me make sure I understand what you are telling us here. You say there was a move within the Society to have plaques put on houses.
Overbeck: Oh, yes.
Franzén: To make them officially what?
Powers: I don't recall. They were recognized as being historically important or something like that.
Powers: There was another kind of plaquing that went on. I have one on my house.
Franzén: Preservation Trust.
Powers: Yes. And Ruth Ann was very active in that.
Franzén: That was a Federal program?
Powers: Well, no.
Franzén: National Trust for Historic Preservation?
Powers: No, that's not it at all. The Preservation Trust was a private charitable corporation founded for one purpose. It was discovered in the '80s – I think it was the early '80s – that you could donate an easement on your house which would prevent you from changing it without the permission of whoever you gave [the easement] to.
Now, it was necessary to create an entity that would receive the easement and be able to enforce it.
Franzén: They received the easement. They didn't receive the house.
Powers: No, it didn't do anything to the house.
Franzén: It was to protect the historic character of the house?
Powers: That's right. And you were not able to change it without the permission of, in this case, the Preservation Trust, which is what they called it. A number of people did that, and I was one. I got a big tax deduction. I swore I wouldn't do anything that I wasn't going to do anyway. I wasn't going to change the house anyway.
It seemed to me kind of immoral, but anyway I thought it was good for the neighborhood.
Franzén: Is that entity still out there, in existence?
Overbeck: It certainly is.
Franzén: And people can still do that?
Powers: We contributed money, when we got our tax deduction, we contributed money to the Preservation Trust.
Overbeck: The thing of it is, the Preservation Trust offered to give carte blanche, underwrite absolutely free, the Preservation Trust, to any donor organization that would accept it, except two. One was L'Enfant Trust and one was [the Capitol Hill?] Preservation Trust.
Now, neither one of those groups would accept the Preservation Trust as a holding group. And I remember ...
Powers: A similar organization was set up by the National Trust or by their folks to do the same sort of thing. There's one in Georgetown, too; maybe that's the L'Enfant Trust.
Overbeck: One of the saddest things is that the 80-some odd buildings that could have accepted the Preservation Trust would have been able to accept the Preservation Trust and have received all that money, but the Preservation Trust of Capitol Hill, the Capitol Hill Preservation Trust [the Capitol Hill Restoration Society?], would not accept it.
Robert Hughes: Let me rephrase that. The Capitol Hill Restoration Society did not want to accept an easement program of any kind ...
Hughes: Did not want to accept what the Preservation Trust tried to offer. So the Preservation Trust had to exist in order to do this.
The two other organizations that would not accept the easements were the L'Enfant Trust and Deed and the other was the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Those two organizations would not accept the donations from the Preservation Trust to them. And the Restoration Society did not want the program because they didn't want the headache of administering it.
Therefore, the Preservation Trust still exists today.
Franzén: That was Robert Hughes, Ruth Ann's husband, speaking.
Overbeck: It had $120,000 in it. But the person who was offering the money was very angry – the Preservation Trust was very angry at the Preservation Trust because ...
Hughes: The Capitol Hill Restoration Society was very angry with the Preservation Trust. This boiled down to personalities. There were individuals in each organization that were not getting along. The Preservation Trust tried to give an awful lot of money to the Restoration Society, but they would not accept it because they did not want the responsibility that came with it.
Powers: Was Austin Beale involved in this at all?
Franzén: I have a question. As I walk around the neighborhood and I think back on when I first arrived on the Hill – in the early '70s – I see a good deal of renovation that was done back in, I think, mostly the '60s, probably late '60s, people chopping open front bays, not just doing over the interiors of the houses but making significant alterations to the fronts of the houses. Did that kind of thing go on because there were no standards to be enforced by the city? Or was it that the city wasn't enforcing the standards? Were they not paying attention?
Powers: I think they were not enforcing them. I don't know that there were any real standards, until we had the Historic District.
Franzén: It was your house and you could do what you wanted with it?
Powers: Pretty much. Not entirely. You had to get a permit and so forth, but there were a number of houses torn down and modern houses were built. There was an architect who built one up on 10th Street.
So I don't think it was only a question of enforcement. There weren't any real laws around in the zoning to protect it.
Franzén: To protect the historic area.
Powers: You had things in the zoning. You couldn't get a permit to do a business in a residential district.
Overbeck: People were afraid they were going to get locked out, that they were going to get essentially locked out, that they were going to be frozen out of doing what they wanted to do. Frank Gaylor had just done a rather credible job of doing a revised barn or a warehouse, or whatever you want to call what he had done at the Carriage Repository, and he had done a pretty good job of it.
Franzén: Where was this?
Overbeck: This was at 3rd and E Southeast. [Actually on D Street Southeast between 2nd and 3rd.]
Franzén: You say his name was Frank Gaylor?
Hughes: It now houses the Capitol Hill Sports Club. The Washington Squash Club is there now.
Franzén: Washington Sports. It was the Capitol Hill Squash Club.
Hughes: Capitol Hill Squash Club. That building was built as a carriage repository – literally, a multi-story parking garage for carriages. And it had an elevator ...
Franzén: So someone living on Capitol Hill could rent a parking space for their carriage there?
Hughes: Exactly, once upon a time.
Overbeck: [Inaudible] I'm going to need to have you cut that for a minute.
[End of session]
Tape #9 (cont.) – A Final Word, April 2, 2000
Franzén: Well, again we step forward in time. It's Sunday morning, April 2nd. This is John Franzén, at home now, by myself, and this will by our last entry.
Ruth Ann died last night, in the prime of her life, of inoperable pancreatic cancer. She leaves behind her husband Robert Hughes, their adopted son [Andre Taylor], and many, many friends and admirers.
Recording her observations was somewhat strange for me. We got to know each other, became friends really, with both of us knowing from the outset that she was about to die. And yet there was nothing glum or morbid about it. Each session was a joy – except, I confess, for that last one, when she was clearly slipping badly, and I couldn't help but feel that I was contributing to her demise.
We've collected, I think, a little treasure here. At least it's been a revelation to me. But in truth, it's not much compared to what might have been. Ruth Ann had collected, for thirty years, notes and documents and maps and photographs, with intentions of writing the definitive book on the history of this community. She assumed she had
plenty of time.
And so I think I'll just close with that – that reminder. Whoever you may be, hearing or reading these words years from now: Life is short, my friend.
Seize the day.