An F Street Stroll, circa 1909

F Street NW, between 7th and 15th Streets, was Washington's bustling commercial hub in the early 1900s. Large companies, like Woodward & Lothrop, began the migration from flood-prone Pennsylvania Avenue to F Street in the late 1880s. By the 1900s, stores lined both sides of the street for many blocks. We started our survey of this F Street strip at its western end, 15th Street, with a view facing back east. We also took a look from 14th Street. Now we're walking all the way down to 9th Street and are turning completely around to face west. You can just make out the many-columned Treasury Building in the distance, where we started.


It's about 1909, and we're on the northeast corner of the intersection with a sea of activity in front of us. The streetcar just ahead will be obliged to swerve off to our left in a moment because the commanding, neoclassical Patent Office Building (unseen to our right), encroaches on what would have been the F Street right-of-way, forcing it a little to the south for one block. This gives us the opportunity to look down F Street as if we were standing in the middle of the street. On the right, a long row of shops and restaurants have huge awnings deployed, stretching all the way across the sidewalk, thus providing a sort of open-air arcade for pedestrians, shading them from the intensity of the hot Washington summer sun while they shop for shoes or dresses or cigars or whatever. In contrast, on the naturally-shady south side of the street, only one shopkeeper seems to have put up an awning.

If you'd like to study the details more closely, here is a copy of the original photograph that was the source for this postcard, from the Library of Congress:


Another similar view, from 1900, is available from the D.C. Public Library, here.

Immediately on our left, a great, gray granite building looms up, mostly unseen except for its very solid and imposing, Richardson-Romanesque corner. The Washington Loan & Trust Company, the oldest and largest trust company in Washington at the time, built this monumental edifice in 1891, and it has dominated this corner ever since.

Washington Loan & Trust Company, c. 1907 (Source: Library of Congress)

The nine-story structure was designed by James G. Hill, who also did two other Romanesque Revival buildings in the same block, the Atlantic Building and the National Union Building. This one is notable for the richness of its exterior finishes—bold arched windows on the first floor; arcaded window bays above the second floor with delicate colonnettes at their piers; sturdier double-columned piers between the windows on the top floor; and finally a very pronounced, dentated cornice at the top. The building was originally rather narrow along F Street and was more than doubled in width in 1927, after the bank acquired the adjacent properties. In retrospect, its boxy shape gives it the look of a prototypical Washington office cube. It now houses a Marriott Hotel, with a restaurant on the first floor in the large, former banking room, designed in 1912. You can see more of the building in this recent shot taken from roughly the same spot but with a wider lens and during an obviously different season:


On the other side of F Street, on our right, is the old Masonic Temple building, completed in 1870. Its cornerstone was laid in 1868 with President Andrew Johnson, a Master Mason, in attendance. The French Renaissance-style building was originally supposed to have a mansard roof, as was fashionable at the time, but it was dropped for lack of funds. The masons were nevertheless able to afford an exquisitely decorated hall, with an exterior facing of contrasting Connecticut brownstone and green Nova Scotia freestone. The building was designed by partners Adolf Cluss and Joseph Wildrich von Kammerhueber as a multi-use structure: the ground floor was for retail space, a double-height great hall was on the main floor above it, and two floors for use by the masons were on top. The great hall, with a capacity of 1,000, was said to be the largest public gathering space in the city at the time, and it was very popular, "the scene of some of the most brilliant balls and State sociables given at the capital," according to an 1876 account. Among the more notable events was a banquet given by the British Minister for the Prince of Wales.

After the masons built a new temple at 13th Street and New York Avenue, NW, in 1908, they rented out the old building for awhile to the Strayer's Business College, now Strayer University. Strayer's left in 1921 because it needed more space.

This postcard view, circa 1910, faces north along 9th Street from approximately the same spot as the previous card, which has a view facing west on F Street. The Masonic Temple is the large building on the left.

Julius Lansburgh Furniture Company moved in in that same year. Lansburgh's, which eventually bought the building, extensively remodeled it for exclusive retail use, dividing up the over-sized main floor into two levels, reconfiguring all the interior walls, and removing almost all interior decorations. The furniture store stayed in the building until it went out of business in 1970. Then, in 1979, developer Dominic F. Antonelli, Jr., filed a petition to tear the thing down, pleading "economic hardship." He had arranged a complicated real estate deal with the YWCA that was to put a new headquarters for the organization at this site. Fortunately for posterity, Antonelli's petition was denied under provisions of the then-newly-enacted landmark preservation law, and the courts upheld the D.C. government's ruling on the case, declaring that the mere fact that a new office building would be more profitable was not justification for demolishing the historic structure. While the case was precedent-setting for historic preservation in the District, the empty building languished and decayed for more than a decade after that, no one wanting to deal with the risks of restoring it and finding a profitable use for it.

Then, in 1994, through the benefits of a credit system whereby unused development rights are sold to  developers to use at other sites, funds were obtained to restore the building to its former glory, including installation of fiberglass reproductions of the long-lost exterior cast-iron ornaments, made from original molds that had been saved by the Smithsonian. Finally, in 2001, the firm of Martinez & Johnson designed a new office building for the Gallup Organization adjacent to and connected with the old building, completing its restoration.

Here is a great shot of people standing outside the Masonic Temple next to a crumpled sheet of roofing that had been ripped off of the building during a ferocious summer storm that whipped through Washington on July 30, 1913. The storm is also responsible for ripping the steeple off of the Calvary Baptist Church nearby.

Source: Library of Congress

—Back to us standing on the corner in 1909. Let's walk around the wrought iron fence seen in the first postcard view and head up one block towards the right. Once we get to the end of that block, we'll turn back around and face south to take a look at where we've been. This is the view facing south from 9th and G Streets:

We now have a view of the historic Patent Office building (begun in 1836) on our left, home of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. We can also clearly see both the Washington Loan and Trust Company building and the Masonic Temple at the far corner. On the opposite side, behind the Patent Office, is the red Warder Building, which also still stands and has been incorporated into the International Spy Museum.

As can be seen in this contemporary shot, all the other small commercial buildings in the 1900s view are now gone.


Comments

  1. The old Masonic Temple was one of the most aggravating sights of disuse and decay in all of downtown, of which she had plenty and to spare. Having seen other pictures of the old shops in the 600 block of 9th Street stretching north behind the old pile that had been made into a parking lot, I was mystified by both their destruction and how it was that the back of the Temple had been painted black! Such a needless eyesore for so long, no thanks to that salami hustler Antonelli whining about "hardship" as nothing more than a sorry capitalist ploy to put up who-knows-what in the Temple's place, but most assuredly would have all the visual charm of K Street between 16th Street and Washington Circle. NONE, that is. And the fact that every "mayor" since the Royal Crackhead has bent over forwards AND backwards to accommodate the every destructive whim and tax break for soulless capitalists at the expense of the city's infrastructure and extension of services to underserved areas is an unconscionable outrage. Thankfully there is such a thing as historic preservation, else James Goode would be kept hopping like a warren full of bunny rabbits documenting a city transformed into a treeless hellscape of megablock monsters.

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