Capitol Hill’s Long Tradition of Community Activism

Posted on January 13th, 2015 by Elizabeth Nelson

By Lucinda Prout Janke

Capitol Hill residents have a long history of activism. From its earliest days as a fledgling neighborhood, more than one actually, in the federal capital established in 1790, its inhabitants have proven activist and even a bit feisty. Settlements began to develop around the Capitol, begun in 1793, the Navy Yard, approved in 1799, and the Marine Square established in 1801, over time growing and merging into the neighborhood now known as Capitol Hill.

Two of the largest property owners, each with acres of adjacent properties, Daniel Carroll and William Prout, along with others in the growing community, contributed much to develop the area and the new city, helping to establish businesses, churches, a volunteer fire company, a bridge by the Navy Yard, a cemetery and a market. They served in various civic capacities including government and numerous other institutions (before the term nonprofit was ever invented).

After the British invasion in 1814 the damaged capital was threatened with relocation. Citizens banded together prevent this – and protect their considerable investments. They financed and erected a temporary capitol for Congress at the site of today’s Supreme Court – and helped keep the national capital in Washington City.

By the mid- 19th century the need for schools throughout the city was pressing. Adolf Cluss, who worked at the Navy Yard, had become the predominant municipal architect of the City, including schools. He developed a prototype with multiple classrooms, in contrast to the one- and two-room schoolhouses then common in the city. The first school he built, named for Mayor Richard Wallach, on D Street SE between 7th and 8th Streets, facing Pennsylvania Avenue (later the site of Hine Junior High), opened in 1864. This area was chosen because “the citizens of eastern Washington then, as now, were noted for a vigorous assertion of their rights.”

About the same time, the first purpose-built police station in the city was erected facing Marion Park. Attributed to Cluss, it was demolished and replaced by the current building at 500 E Street SE. It, too, was threatened with closure and demolition but was saved by citizen action.

A decade later, Cluss designed Eastern Market, moving from its original Navy Yard location to accommodate the growth of the neighborhood to the north. Nearly out of business in the mid-20th   century, the market persevered. After a second threat, its devastating 2009 fire, the community sprang into action to support its vendors and get the market reopened.

In 1889, resident Albert Carry helped establish the National Capital Bank, as the eastern side of the city needed financial services. Banks then were all located downtown or in Georgetown, but this neighborhood had grown rapidly after the Civil War. His descendants have been involved with NCB ever since, now the District’s oldest bank and a supporter of many local efforts.

Perhaps the preeminent 19th century activist was Hill resident Michael Weller, whose home still stands at 408 Seward Square. Born in London, he married into a Hill family and settled here for decades. His business was real estate, specializing in properties east of the Capitol, but he was also very active in civic affairs. He served as president of the East Washington Savings Bank, on the committee celebrating the 1893 centennial of the Capitol, and in 1894 was the only Hill founder of the Columbia Historical Society. He was a respected advocate for the Hill on the official Hill. (Remember that Congress completely ran the District then.)

In 1890 the East Washington Citizens Association, headed by Weller, helped secure and dedicate a new Pennsylvania Avenue bridge. Since replaced, it is named for arguably the Hill’s most famous native son, bandleader John Philip Sousa, whose family members were longtime residents of the Hill. They were not alone; throughout this period many other older families, both black and white, lived here, and there was a strong sense of community.

After World War II, several factors contributed to the decline of urban neighborhoods, including the increasing prevalence of the automobile and subsequent growth of suburbs, as well as the 1954 desegregation of schools. By then some of the houses in this neighborhood had begun to be “restored.”  Supreme Court Justice William Douglas purchased a house here in 1949. Early efforts led to some “federalization” of the mostly brick homes, but appreciation of their primarily Victorian features gradually grew.

According to its 1960 publication, the Capitol Hill Southeast Citizens Association celebrated the 50th anniversary of its 1906 founding in 1956, although it appears there was a period of inactivity. Other neighborhood associations were organized around the parks. The pamphlet mentions a newer organization, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society, described as getting off to a slow start but now “very active” and attracting a larger membership. Its house tour, begun a few years earlier, was given credit for generating interest and enthusiasm for the neighborhood – and attracting new residents.

Established years before significant preservation legislation existed in the city, CHRS has since tackled many issues affecting the character of the neighborhood, from fighting freeways through the core of Capitol Hill to preventing demolition and drastic alteration of historic structures. Members’ research led to the creation of its Historic District. These efforts were all led by volunteers, continuing the long tradition of community activism.

Of recent note is the 12/5/14 obituary in The Washington Post for Steve Cymrot, with “activist” in the headline, with a long list of community contributions. Recently, the District held a funeral for former Mayor Marion Barry, another activist who lived in at least two places on the Hill. He served half of the years when DC had mayors in the 20th century. Buried in Congressional Cemetery, Barry joins many of DC’s mayors, activists all.

Capitol Hill is the story of a neighborhood, buildings and people. Future articles will feature individuals involved with the 60 years of CHRS, established in January 1955 – by activists.

CHRS