Thomas Pickford and the Toronto Apartments in Dupont Circle

The Toronto, at 2000 P Street NW just to the west of Dupont Circle, is one of many imposing late Victorian apartment buildings scattered around the District that serve as emblems of Washington's golden era of apartment living. But the Dupont Circle building also hides a scandalous incident deep in its past. In June 1908 the building partially collapsed while under construction, killing two construction workers. President Theodore Roosevelt urged the D.C. commissioners to investigate, leading to indictment of developer Thomas Henry Pickford (1862-1939) and temporary suspension of the municipal building inspector, noted architect Snowden Ashford (1866-1927). The accident ultimately sparked new D.C. building safety regulations.

Photo by the author.

Pickford was a native of Canada who spent time in Michigan as a young adult before moving to Washington, D.C., in the mid 1890s. He started out building inexpensive two-story houses in southeast D.C. and also put up small apartment houses, such as the two-story building at 11th and R Streets NW. Then in 1908 he purchased the lot on the southwest corner of 20th and P Streets NW for $28,800. He proposed his biggest project to date for that site, an eight-story building that was to contain 40 elegant suites of six or seven rooms each. Named after his hometown, Toronto, it would be one of the city's largest apartment buildings and would feature an "abundance of light afforded by the unusual number of windows," as The Washington Times observed.

Apartment living had been scorned by well-to-do Washingtonians through most of the 19th century, but by 1900 that attitude had changed dramatically. The idea of elegant and sophisticated apartment living had become fashionable, and developers responded with a proliferation of luxury apartment structures. Over 360 apartment buildings were constructed in the District in the first decade of the twentieth century. Pickford's elegant building just west of Dupont Circle promised to be a popular and highly profitable addition to that inventory.

Albert H. Beers (1859-1911), one of the city's foremost architects, designed the Toronto. Beers moved to Washington in about 1903 after many successful years in Bridgeport, Connecticut. While working here from 1905 to 1911 (when he died suddenly from pneumonia), Beers designed more Washington apartment buildings than any other architect. Forty-seven of them were for famed D.C. developer Harry Wardman (1872-1938), including the luxurious Dresden and Brighton apartment houses in Kalorama, as well as the distinguished and well-preserved Northumberland on New Hampshire Avenue, which we previously profiled.

Architect's drawing of the planned six-story Toronto, as it appeared in the April 12, 1908 edition of The Washington Times. 
While primarily a Wardman architect, Beers also undertook several projects for other developers. The Toronto was the only one he designed for Thomas Pickford. Laura L. Harris has called it one of Beers' "largest and most impressive structures." The seven-story building (one story less than originally proposed) features rich architectural detailing, including nine projecting metal bays and a heavy, dentilled cornice that caps the structure emphatically. Like the Northumberland, the Toronto originally had a frilly ornamental crest surmounting this cornice.

Construction of the gray-brick, stone, and steel-frame building began in April 1908 and progressed rapidly—perhaps too rapidly. In less than two months the building's steel frame was up and the first four concrete floors had been laid in. On June 9th, workmen were busy pouring concrete into wooden forms on the fifth floor and tamping them down to form 15-foot-square floor panels. Then, at about 10:30 in the morning, "With a mighty crash like the discharge of a big cannon and in a suffocating cloud of dust and debris," heavy beams and chunks of building material suddenly plummeted to the ground, as reported in the Evening Star. One of the floor panels on the northeast corner of the building had given way as it was being tamped down and had fallen through all four floors beneath it, pulling large hunks of concrete into a heap in the basement.

Two workers were instantly killed: Lemuel King, a steam pipe fitter, and Richard West, a laborer. Another five were seriously wounded. Still others barely escaped injury, clinging to girders and broken ledges as the floors of the building gave way around them. The brick walls at the building's corner were left cracked and bulging, threatening an even greater catastrophe as workers and firemen worked frantically to extricate those trapped in the wreckage. "The nerves of the workers were at a high tension, and occasionally when a piece of material tumbled down with a banging noise the rescuers would straighten up and involuntarily look for the great walls to crash upon them. Some of the workers would rush from the pit, only to return when their fears were allayed," the Star observed.

In a horrid scene, the face of Lemuel King could be seen poking out from where his lifeless body was trapped beneath a pile of debris. King had been working in the building with his two brothers, Edward and Ellsworth, all of them expert steamfitters under Edward's direction. Edward and Ellsworth searched in vain for Lemuel immediately after the crash and quickly feared the worst. They were the ones who identified him as he lay in the wreckage. His body was soon removed.

A coroner's inquest was hurriedly called. Subcontractors, mechanics, and laborers testified alongside D.C. officials. Everyone seemed to agree that the building had been put up too quickly, that the concrete on the lower floors was still "green," not having had time to cure sufficiently. Also at issue was how often the structure had been inspected. The building department was stretched too thin, the government officials complained, and an inspector had come by only a couple times a week instead of every day. Another point of contention was an informal deal supposedly worked out between Ashford, the chief D.C. inspector, and architect Beers. While Beers had submitted and received approval for a five-story building, he had subsequently reached an agreement with Ashford on what he would have to do structurally to add a sixth floor. (As mentioned, the building would ultimately have seven floors). Witnesses testified that the agreed-upon adjustments—some extra iron pilasters—were inadequate.

From The Evening Star, June 11, 1908.
The next day the front page of The Evening Star carried a bold headline: "Blame Must Be Fixed For Wreck Of Building." Below was the text of a message from President Theodore Roosevelt urging that a full investigation take place. The D.C. commissioners began intimating that they needed to reorganize Snowden Ashford's building department, while Ashford himself hurried home to Washington from Berkley Springs, West Virginia, where he had been on vacation. The next day the coroner's verdict came out, casting blame all around. At the top of their list was Ashford, who they found partially to blame for having approved the building plans. He was immediately suspended from his job until a grand jury could determine whether to indict him. Also fingered were Harry Blake, for improper construction of the iron work; brick contractor John Frank Bayne, for hasty construction and use of poor material; and developer Thomas Pickford, for negligence in not exercising effective oversight of his various contractors. Ashford immediately issued a statement grousing that the coroner's jury had accused "every one they possibly could in order that they might not miss the right person" and insisting that "I consider myself in no way to blame." In particular, Ashford denied having reached any private agreement with Beers (who oddly was not charged) about altering the building plans to accommodate the additional story.

From The Evening Star, June 12, 1908.

Thomas Pickford, on the other hand, was concerned chiefly about getting his building project back on schedule. He secured the services of Amos B. Barnes, a Philadelphia structural engineer, to design extra iron supports for the Toronto, and the acting building inspector quickly approved the revised plans. On June 20th, just eleven days after the accident, the collapsed part of the structure had been cleared away and work restarted. The Toronto, reinforced with additional interior steel supports, resumed its rapid trajectory to completion. Meanwhile, a grand jury was formed, and in late July it essentially agreed with Ashford that the collapse was not his fault (he was immediately reinstated as building inspector) and instead indicted Pickford alone, charging him with manslaughter. Pickford naturally also insisted on his innocence. He had always instructed his contractors to use only the best materials and methods, he told the press, and he believed that his plans to live on the top floor of the building were proof enough that he would not intentionally build an unsafe structure.

"This was purely a catastrophe which human foresight could not prevent, and which has happened under the most careful supervision of builders of the greatest reputation," Pickford told The Washington Post. "All I desire is simple justice. I hope the public will take into consideration the accidents of like character which have happened to other builders of unquestioned reputation, and for which no criminal responsibility was imputed..."

A circa 1920 view of the Toronto (source: Library of Congress).
Almost two years later, in March 1910, the court cleared Pickford of all charges, ruling he wasn't responsible for any poor work his contractors might have performed. Around this time the city's building code was amended to require the licensing of building contractors, a fundamental element of modern construction practice. Meanwhile the Toronto had been completed to seven stories, and Pickford was happily living, as he said he would, with his family on the top floor.

He didn't remain long in the Toronto, however. Soon he set his sights on a new marquee project. In 1915 he traded the Toronto to developer Charles Henry Butler in exchange for a lot on the southeast corner of 16th and I Streets NW, where he planned a new "family" hotel. Both the Star and the Post ran articles about the deal in their boosterish real estate sections, and neither one mentioned the accident that had occurred just seven years earlier.

Pickford's new hotel on 16th Street NW was to feature well-appointed apartment suites but would oddly not be equipped with kitchens. Instead there was to be a large, restaurant-style dining room on the ground floor.

The Lafayette, from a postcard in the author's collection.
The new building was called the Lafayette. Frank White, another Wardman designer, was its architect. Completed in 1916, the residential hotel was strikingly similar to the Toronto in its overall appearance and had a long and successful life. It finally closed and was torn down in 1971, when the site was acquired by the AFL-CIO for its new headquarters building.

Pickford moved his family into the Lafayette and stayed there for the rest of his life. In 1933, in the depths of the great Depression, Pickford bought back the insolvent Toronto, which had been put up for auction. With the Toronto, another hotel called the Carroll Arms, and the Lafayette all in his portfolio, he settled into a comfortable retirement. He died in May 1939 in Coronado, California, while visiting relatives.

Author's collection.
In 1954, 15 years after Pickford's death, well-known real estate developer and banker Leo M. Bernstein (1915-2008) purchased the Toronto. Bernstein's company thoroughly gutted and reconstructed the interior of the building, removing all the old apartments and reconfiguring the space for offices. The once elegant lobby was obliterated. Thankfully, the grande dame's exterior was left largely intact. After painting it an electric blue, the Bernstein Company reopened it as the Headquarters Building and marketed it as "the Capital's Newest, Largest and Finest Blue Office Building." Official dedication ceremonies for the repurposed structure took place in October 1955.

The entrance to the Toronto as it appears today (photo by the author).
A drugstore called Drug Plaza filled much of the first floor in the space now occupied by Second Story Books. D.C. Commissioner Samuel Spencer was on hand for the store's grand opening in July 1955. One of the building's early office tenants was popular radio station WOL. Other tenants have included the Opera Society of Washington, the Soundwaves recording studio, Public Citizen's Health Research Group, and the Women's Legal Defense Fund. The building has continued to house offices for sixty years, making its history as an office building slightly longer than its original apartment function. It is now managed by RB Properties.

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Sources for this article included James M. Goode, Best Addresses (1988); Stephen A. Hansen, A History of Dupont Circle (2014); Laura L. Harris, The Apartment Buildings of Albert H. Beers 1905-1911 (1988); and numerous newspaper articles.

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  1. A small correction, and I'm sure John DeFerrari already knows this: the present Churchill hotel on Connecticut Avenue began its life as the Highlands apartment house. The Brighton, now a condominium I believe, is around the corner on California Street, across from the Westmoreland.

    1. Thank you for the correction! I definitely had the two confused. Text has been corrected.

  2. I never knew this building had such a fascinating history, nice that Second Story Books, an equally fascinating store, has had such a long history there.


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