Friday, June 11, 2010

An Introduction to Petworth

Petworth is a residential neighborhood in the Northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C. It is bounded by Georgia Avenue to the West, North Capitol Street to the East, Rock Creek Church to the South, and Kennedy Street NW to the north (see map). The neighborhood is primarily residential, with a mix of townhouses and single-family homes. Petworth is part of Ward 4, which is represented in the D.C. Council by Muriel Bowser. According to Muriel Browser’s website, residents describe Petworth as a charming and historical neighborhood with great neighborhood attractions, such as the Petworth Library and the Petworth Recreation Center. One resident describes the neighborhood as a “a typical Ward 4 community that is slowly developing into a diverse neighborhood. Young families are frequently spotted strolling through the neighborhood visiting each other or eating dinner at a local restaurant.”Another resident explains, “In downtown Petworth, [visitors] will find a neighborhood under construction and revitalization, making lots of changes for the better, making things look cleaner and newer. In Petworth north of the Metro, they will find a very friendly neighborhood, increasingly diverse, where residents are proud.” This secure and stable community is quickly becoming one of the most popular in the Ward thanks to its combination of urban access and neighborhood feel. Over $380 million is being invested in new development around the metro station over the next several years, including more than 1,000 residential units and nearly 80,000 square feet of new retail opportunities.[1]

Petworth has undergone many transformations. John White, who lived from 1715 to 1801, once owned the land that is today Petworth. In 1755 John White married and settled in the White Homestead, a log cabin located on what is now the southern half of the block between Georgia Avenue and 13th Street, on Longfellow Street. In 1772 James White received a direct grant of an additional 536 acres, where the Soldiers’ Home is located today. After having lived in the area for a time, James White built a new home that incorporated his original log cabin. When repairs were done on the house in the twentieth century the carpenter found large wooden pegs that were part of the original log cabin. At the time of the Civil War the house was used as a headquarters for the Massachusetts Regiment during the Battle of Fort Stevens. Unfortunately the home no longer stands.[2]

The White family sold their large property holdings to Captain Balch. When Captain Balch died in 1803 he sold his property to Colonial John Tayloe of Mount Avery, Virginia. During Tayloe’s life the estate extended from Rock Creek Cemetery to Piney Branch Road. Col. Tayloe erected a rail fence of made of cedar along Rock Creek Church Road that was three-fourths of a mile, unfortunately done by slave labor. Col. Tayloe loved horse racing. He kept a stable of thoroughbreds, and laid out a track on his farm. He named the farm Petworth after the English Sussex town and estate.[3]

The construction of what is now known as Georgia Avenue was the first step towards the urbanization of Petworth. In 1808 the construction of a turnpike was authorized, and the Columbia Turnpike Company was chosen as the contractor. However, the company delayed the work, so it was taken up by the Rockville Turnpike Company. The road was dirt, so it must have been very muddy when wet, and dusty when dry. The situation was slightly improved when planks, trees split in half and laid with their rounded sides down, were added to the road in 1853.[4]

In 1852 Tayloe sold a portion of his land to a group of families to settle. This group of families was led by Benjamin Summy, who brought twelve families with him from Buffalo, New York. The group bought 137 acres. Each family got a site for their house and four acres of woodland. The first home was in this new settlement was built by Summy in 1853. The first concrete house built in Washington D.C., known as the Octagon house, was built soon after. In 1887 Tayloe’s heirs sold the 250 remaining acres of Petworth to a syndicate represented by B.H. Warner and Myron M. Parker for $1,000 an acre. In 1892 Horace C. Cummings bought 205 acres for $2,500/acre. The land was graded, a plumbing system installed, and tree lined streets were laid out.[5]

Petworth really began to develop when the streetcar was extended into the neighborhood in 1890, making it a “streetcar suburb”. Grant circle was constructed at the center of Petworth, a 1.8 acre park lined with fifty year old trees, hedges, and benches and with a statue of Ulysses S. Grant in the center. Two story brick row houses were built from 1910 to 1920, which provided affordable housing for working people, families, and senior citizens. Many of the homes are built in the functional, simple Arts and Crafts style, a movement that flourished from 1900 to WWII.[6]

Petworth was certainly a vibrant community in the early 20th century. A 1940 Washington Post article describes the active Citizen’s Association. As of that year the Association had over 1,350 paid members. Their successful projects included the construction of McFarland Junior High School, Iowa Avenue, Upshur Street Northwest, Roosevelt High School, and the branch library at Upshur and Georgia Avenue. The Association held an annual banquet.[7]

Margaret M. MacGill grew up in Petworth in the ‘20s. She describes her house as having “two stories and [a] basement with a front and back porch and many steps down to a long back yard. A good-sized wooden, picket fence ran the length of the yards separating the neighbors from one another with a wooden gate to the alley…we…had an alley running between the yards of the houses located on the next street where they backed up to one another. Up this alley came the trash man, garbage man, ash man, ice man, umbrella and knife sharpener man, rag man and the beggars.”[8] MacGill describes Petworth as being a close community. She describes how, “all the families on the same block seemed to know each other- those who lived across the street and those who lived in back of us and even some of those on 5th Street and New Hampshire Avenue. All the children played together and we would have our arguments, but it always got straightened out, either by the kids or their parents.”[9] MacGill relates how, “in those days we were still able to raise chickens in our back yards- in fact, I even had a pet grey “Plymouth Rock” hen which we used to bring in and put in her box under the kitchen table to lay eggs.”[10] The residents of Petworth came together to celebrate holidays. MacGill explains, “The 4th of July was a big day on which we celebrated our independence of the original 13 Colonies from Great Britain. When I was small we used to have a parade in Petworth where we marched up New Hampshire Avenue, N.W. starting at about Randolph Street and ending at Grant Circle. As most of us were small we couldn’t walk too far. I have a picture of me wheeling my doll buggy which my mother had decorated using red, white and blue crepe paper, with her walking beside me. On this day we also had the big Police and Firemen’s Parade and baseball game. The parade came down Pennsylvania Avenue with the fire engines drawn by horses and a Dalmatian Dog sitting on the seat with the driver.”[11] Below is a photo of the 4th of July Parade from 1922:

While Petworth began as a largely white neighborhood, African Americans also began to move to the area. In a 1990 Post article Lucille Winn, then 83, described how she was a “block buster”. She explained how, “I was the first colored person to move here, I think it was 1924.”[12] The 1930, 40, and 50 censuses show that the neighborhood was mostly white. However, by 1960 3/4s of Petworth was African American.

Unfortunately Petworth experienced a period of decline beginning in the sixties. Like the rest of Washington D.C., the neighborhood suffered when many families chose to move to the suburbs. The influx of drugs further compounded the problem. For example, Grant circle, with its lack of lighting, provided cover for drug dealers. Parked cars were routinely broken into.[13] Valerie Taylor, who still lives in her childhood home on Taylor Avenue and is now in her fifties moved with her family to Petworth in the mid 1960s. In a 2008 Post article she explained that by the late 1960’s things had really gone downhill for the neighborhood. She described it saying, “It was terrible. A lot of shootings out in the open.”[14] Petworth struggled against the drug problem throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties. In a 1988 Post article Lt Chris Dinisio, of the 4th District police station described that the drug problem as being fairly serious. He explained that “It’s mostly street sales on corners. The residents have been active. They are very interested in correcting the problem.”[15]

The neighborhood was again vastly changed with the opening of the Georgia Avenue/Petworth metro station, on the green line. The addition of the metro station to the neighborhood was greatly controversial. Many residents of Petworth were opposed to the construction of the stop. They were worried that Metro would use eminent domain to take away their homes and businesses in order to construct the station. They were also concerned about the noise, dirt, and interrupted traffic that would result from five years of construction.[16] On March 16th, 1992, protestors marched in front of the Metro transit agency headquarters to protest the stop. Many threatened to sue, which would greatly slow down overall completion of the green line. Metro managed to avoid demolishing any homes and businesses. However, one casualty of construction was the Petworth Fire Station, which had to be torn down in order to construct a turnaround behind the station. Some residents reacted angrily against the demolition, arguing that the fire station was a vital landmark of the community. However, metro offered to build a brand new fire station for the community, which the firefighters argued they desperately needed. As a result, the plan was approved by the Commission for the Fine Arts and the old fire station demolished.[17]

The metro stop had a transformative affect on the neighborhood, resulting in a wave of gentrification.[18] Gentrification is a phenomenon where people with high incomes buy housing property in less prosperous communities, changing the socio-economic make-up of the area. As a result rents, housing prices, and property taxes all increase, which can make the area unaffordable to the previous residents. Gentrification in Petworth is most obvious on Georgia Avenue. Since the metro stop was constructed new condos, restaurants, and shops have all been opened.

The low cost of housing, combined with Petworth’s proximity to downtown, has attracted a new group of residents. For example, Dan Silverman moved to Petworth in 2003, when he bought a bungalow for $220,000. He renovated the home, increasing its value. Silverman started a widely read blog, called the “Prince of Petworth” about his experiences of living in the neighborhood. Silverman explained that he writes the blog to “Share with people what Petworth is. When you live in Petworth, you become part of that community.” [19] Another new resident is Marianne Bakia, 38. Bakia invested $150,000 in her home, greatly increasing the value. She explains, “When I first moved here, I heard gunshots all the time.”[20] Her corner experienced a triple homicide in 2004. However, now she almost never hears gun shots. She asserts that “over the last two years, it’s just been better and better.”[21]

Despite the influx of new occupants to Petworth, there is still a large population of long time home owners. Many of the residents have lived in Petworth for over thirty years. For example, Mary Walker bought her rowhouse on Varnum Avenue in 1972 for $22,500, or $110,000 in today’s dollars. She worked in human resources while her husband was a mechanic, and the couple raised two children there.[22] Joan Thomas moved to Petworth over forty years ago. She was drawn to convenience offered by the area, as it provided easy shopping and major transportation thoroughfares. She explained, “I had two children at the time. I was looking for a place that was convenient to everything. The school and the store were right at Georgia Avenue and Longfellow. There was a department store you could go in and get anything you needed, from stockings to thread, or you could pick up a wedding gift. Anything you needed you could get it up there at Ida’s.”[23] The long time residents have a close bond. Sandra Butler-Truesdale, who grew up in the neighborhood, loves the closeness of Petworth. She describes how, “The neighbors, they know each other. They are friendly. In a time of need or trouble, they came forward to help you out, but they don’t meddle.[24]

Petworth has seen vast changes, transforming from a farm into a densely populated neighborhood. Gentrification is the latest trend in the long history of Petworth. Hopefully it will serve to improve the neighborhood, and not drive out long time residents.
Special Attractions

Petworth has several historic attractions. One such interesting site is the Rockcreek Cemetery, which was established in 1719. It is 86 acres, and is meant to be both a cemetery and a public park. The most famous gravestone is the Adams Memorial. It was commissioned by Henry Adams to mark the grave of his wife Clover, who had committed suicide. It is pictured below. Erected in 1891, it was designed by Augustus St.-Gaudens. The official name of the memorial is The Mystery of the Hereafter and The Peace of God that Passeth Understanding, but it is also known as Grief.

Another historical site in Petworth is President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldier’s Home. The Soldier’s Home was built in 1842-3. It was intended to serve as the home of George Washington Riggs, who established the Riggs National Bank in Washington, D.C. The land was purchased by the Federal Government through the Soldier’s Home Trust Fund in 1851 to establish a home for the invalid and disabled soldiers of the U.S. army. This was the first such attempt to provide for members of the army. Four pre-Civil War structures formed the core of the early Soldier's Home. Abraham Lincoln used the oldest, Anderson Cottage, or "Corn Riggs," as a summer White House. Lincoln and his family retreated here in the summer to escape the heat and political pressures of DC every summer from 1862 to 1864. Lincoln wrote the second draft of the Emancipation Proclamation at the cottage in September of 1862. His second floor bedroom and much of the rest of the house are configured as they were when he was in residence, and original mantels, woodwork, and windows are retained. A copper beech tree under which he read and relaxed is still growing at the site.[25] One day when Lincoln was riding his horse to the Soldier’s Home, an attempt was made on his life. However, when Lincoln described the event, he gave it a humorous tone. He said,
"Last night about eleven o'clock, I went to the Soldiers' Home alone, riding Old Abe, as you call him (a horse he delighted in riding), and when I arrived at the foot of the hill on the road leading to the entrance to the Home grounds, I was jogging along at a slow gait, immersed in deep thought, contemplating what was next to happen in the unsettled state of affairs, when suddenly I was aroused–I may say the arousement lifted me out of my saddle as well as out of my wits–by the report of a rifle, and seemingly the gunner was not fifty yards from where my contemplations ended and my accelerated transit began. My erratic namesake, with little warning, gave proof of decided dissatisfaction at the racket, and with one reckless bound he unceremoniously separated me from my eight-dollar plug hat, with which I parted company without any assent, express or implied, upon my part. At a break-neck speed we soon arrived in a haven of safety. Meanwhile I was left in doubt whether death was more desirable from being thrown from a runaway federal horse, or as the tragic result of a rifle-ball fired by a disloyal bushwhacker in the middle of the night."[26]

Revitilization Efforts
Muriel Bowser and the D.C. Council have undertaken multiple revitalization projects. Two of the projects focus on Georgia Avenue. The Upper Georgia Avenue Plan is part of the Great Streets Initiative, which is a collaboration among the Office of Planning, the District Department of Transportation, and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development. The purpose of the Great Streets program is to leverage public and private investment to spur economic development along seven major corridors in the District, while making critical transportation and public realm investments that facilitate multiple modes of transportation. The Upper Georgia Avenue plan seeks to re-establish Georgia Avenue as a prominent neighborhood-serving retail corridor by: 1) concentrating development at key intersections; 2) linking development with active, safe, pedestrian-friendly streets; and 3) improving the overall quality of the existing urban fabric through infill development, storefront renovation, and re-use of vacant property. The plan identifies development opportunities and implementation strategies at intersections within 5 development zones along Upper Georgia Avenue: Eastern Avenue Gateway (Zone 1); Walter Reed Army Medical Center (Zone 2); Piney Branch Road (Zone 3); Missouri Avenue (Zone 4); and Arkansas Avenue and Kennedy Street (Zone 5). This plan includes a total new development program of up to 1,000 new or rehabilitated mixed income housing units; up to 150,000 of reconfigured or new retail space, and up to 35,000 square feet of office space. The plan also includes strategies to enhance the streetscape and public realm, and to provide sufficient off-street parking to support the retail uses while protecting the adjacent residential neighborhoods.[28] Another revitalization effort, The Georgia Avenue Storefront Improvement Program, works to assists local business owners enhance their commercial and retail properties and promote the Avenue as a shopping destination.[29] The Kennedy Street Plan targets the Kennedy Street corridor between Georgia Avenue and North Capitol Street NW in Ward 4. The development strategy for Kennedy Street is to improve the economic vitality and overall image of the corridor as an attractive destination for residents, business owners and visitors, by: restoring Kennedy Street as a Main Street mixed-use corridor that maintains the existing neighborhood scale; reconnecting Kennedy Street to the neighborhood by providing opportunities to safely live, work shop and play; revitalizing the existing urban fabric, and focusing new development at the key intersections of Georgia Avenue, 5th Street, and North Capitol Street.[30]
Another great example of revitalization is the Petworth Recreation Center. It was recently renovated and re-opened in August 2009. Work on the recreation center included resurfacing the heavily-used outdoor basketball courts, renovating the roof and interior of the recreation center, and installing a new water fountain. The basketball courts were also given new backboards and hoops. A spray park was added outside, for children to play in when the weather is hot.[31]

[2] John Clagett Proctor. “City Growth as Reflected in Petworth Development.” The Sunday Star. Washington D.C.: April 16th, 1944.
[3] Proctor, “City Growth.”
[4] John Clagett Proctor. “Early Georgia Avenue.” The Sunday Star. Washington, D.C.: April 7th, 1946.
[5] Proctor. “City Growth.”
[6] Stephen C. Fehr. “Grant Circle Warily Eyes Going Green.” Washington Post: Saturday, May 7th, 1992.
[7] “Petworth Citizen’s Association, 2nd Largest in District, Lists Many Successes.” Washington Post: November 10, 1940.
[8] Margaret M. MacGill. Growing up in Petworth in Washington D.C. 1919-50s and beyond. (Martin Lurther King Memorial Library: Washingtoniana), 5.
[9] MacGill, 7.
[10] MacGill, 11-12.
[11] MacGill, 34.
[12] Jonetta Rose Barras. “Petworth Strives to Reclaim its Old Serenity.” Washington Post: May 14, 1990.
[13] Fehr. “Grant Circle”.
[14] Mara Lee. “Preserving Petworth’s Porch Culture”. Washington Post: September 20, 2008.
[15] Jonetta Rose Barras. “Petworth Strives to Reclaim its Old Serenity.”
[16] Fehr. “Grant Circle.”
[17] Stepehen C. Fehr. “Some NW Residents Vow to Stop the Green Line.” Washington Post: March 17th, 1992.
[18] Mara Lee. “Preserving Petworth’s Porch Culture.” Washington Post: September 20, 2000.
[19] Mara Lee. “Preserving Petworth’s Porch Culture.” Washington Post: September 20, 2008.
[20] Mara Lee. “Preserving Petworth’s Porch Culture.”
[21] Mara Lee. “Preserving Petworth’s Porch Culture.”
[22] Mara Lee. “Preserving Petworth’s Porch Culture.”
[23] Mara Lee. “Preserving Petworth’s Porch Culture
[24] DeNeen L. Brown. “Petworth, Where Friendship Has Aged Well.” Washington Post: March 23, 1996.
[25] HABS Report-
[26] - Ward Hill Lamon. Recollections of Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln, Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press, 1994): 267.
[27]President Clinton’s Proclamation-

[28] Taken from D.C. Council Report-
[29] Taken from D.C. Council Report-
[30] Taken from D.C. Council Report-

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