A Closer Look: F Street, heart of the old downtown, in the 19th century

F Street NW, between 7th and 15th Streets NW, would become Washington's commercial hub in the early 1900s. Large companies, like Woodward and Lothrop, began migrating from flood-prone Pennsylvania Avenue up to F Street, which was on higher ground, in the late 1880s. By the 1900s, stores lined both sides of the street for many blocks. But today's image steps us back to the time just before all of that activity. Our first view of F Street is from 1869. We are gazing west from an upper story of a building on the corner at 7th Street; there is nary a tall building in sight from here to the Treasury Department at the end of the street.

F Street, facing west from 7th Street, circa 1869 (author's collection - click to enlarge)
On the far left, darkened by shadow, stands the old General Post Office building, constructed in sections beginning in 1839, which we previously profiled in depth. One of the city's oldest federal office buildings, the structure was originally designed by Robert Mills (1781-1855), architect of the Treasury Department and the Washington Monument. It was completed by his arch-rival Thomas Ustick Walter (1804-1887), designer of the dome of the U.S. Capitol. This was the original home of the Post Office Department before it moved down to Pennsylvania Avenue. The Hotel Monaco is in the building now.

On the right stands the Patent Office Building, now home to the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum. This building is even a little older than the General Post Office, having been begun in 1836. It's not surprising that one of the city's oldest federal buildings was constructed for the Patent Office. Then as now, patents were vitally important to promote technological innovation and spur economic growth. Across F Street, at the corner of 8th and F, stands the office of patent attorney J. Franklin Reigart, marked with a large "Patent Agency" sign. Attorneys would set up offices all around the Patent Office for decades to come—one of the largest of which, The Victor J. Evans Building, still stands on 9th Street.

A a young, well-connected architect by the name of William Parker Elliot (1807-1854) created early designs for the Patent Office, but Robert Mills was the supervising architect who oversaw the first phases of its construction. The imposing Doric columns seen here presiding over F Street appear to be made of pure white marble, but they are actually sandstone that has been painted white, at Mills' insistence. Our article on the early history of this building can be found here.

The building's grand staircase spills out on to the F Street sidewalk. Note that the block where it was constructed is a special outsized square, a feature that was part of L'Enfant's original plan. F Street dips to the south to go around the Patent Office block (and still does). The streetcar tracks on F Street—among the city's earliest—can be seen to jog to the south at 9th Street. Note also the sloping of F Street as it ramps down to the 900 block to the west. This incline in the street was leveled in the mid 1870s as part of the massive public works projects of Governor Alexander Shepherd (1835-1902).

A view of the Patent Office, circa 1875 (author's collection).
Since we're talking about the street itself, note that there are at least four marked crosswalks in this view (three across F Street and one across 8th Street on the left). Each crosswalk is defined by three long white parallel lines painted in the cobblestones. One person, blurred because they are moving, crosses using the nearest walk. It is sometimes claimed that crosswalks did not appear until the advent of automobiles, but this is not the case. Automobiles, however, were ultimately responsible for the mutilation of the south side of the Patent Office, which no longer has its grand staircase. The jog in F Street never caused any problems in the horse-drawn era, but when automobiles arrived, drivers apparently had endless trouble with it. By 1910, road engineers proposed lopping off the majestic south staircase of the Patent Office so that F Street could be widened and automobile traffic problems avoided. It took another 25 years before the D.C. commissioners were willing to commit to such a desecration, but in 1936 the deed was finally done. The Smithsonian has pledged to restore the staircase, but there is no indication it will happen anytime soon.

The Old Patent Office as it appears today, shorn of its gracious grand staircase (photo by the author).

Just past the Patent Office on the right-hand side of F Street stands the Masonic Temple, which is under construction and would be completed in 1870. The unfinished building is our key to dating this photograph. Its cornerstone was laid in 1868 with President Andrew Johnson, a Master Mason, in attendance. The French Renaissance-style structure was originally supposed to have a mansard roof, as was fashionable at the time, but it was left out for lack of funds. The masons were nevertheless able to construct 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 rose on the main floor above it, and two floors for use by the masons sat on top. You can read our history of the building here.

The completed Masonic Temple, from a stereoview in the author's collection.

Beyond the Masonic Temple, the rest of the block on F Street looks fairly empty on the right side. These are the grounds of St. Patrick's Catholic Church and school. The church would very shortly sell off the street lots along F Street for commercial development. Further in the distance along this side of the street, past the intersection with 10th Street, range several blocks of houses. F Street had been one of the city's first residential streets in the early 19th century. John Quincy Adams, among other prominent residents, lived here. But commercial development was just around the corner when this photo was taken. Over the next few decades, virtually all of these houses would be replaced by larger retail storefronts and office buildings.

In the very center of our view—perched on the southwest corner of 9th and F Streets—stands a large and stately Federal-style brick hotel, partially obscured by shadow. This is the Herndon House, one of many boarding houses established in the federal city before the Civil War, in the days when most senators and congressmen came to Washington only when Congress was in session and lived in boarding houses like this. When Patrick Jones Murray took over the Herndon House in 1858, he advertised that his hotel:
 ...offers to guests, both permanent and transient, all the comforts and conveniences of a regular hotel, with the additional quiet of a private residence. The spacious halls, elegant parlor and bedrooms are lighted with gas, under the management and immediate supervision of the experienced and gentlemanly proprietor. Strangers and citizens may reasonably anticipate the comforts and enjoyments of home.
Strategically located as it was, the Herndon House did a brisk business, both as a hotel and as a restaurant—a public dining room was located on the ground floor, on the F Street side. In 1862, proprietor Murray was fined 20 dollars for serving liquor to soldiers, who undoubtedly were frequent guests at the time. In April 1865, ex-Confederate soldier Lewis Powell checked in at the Herndon House for two weeks. John Wilkes Booth and George Atzerodt met him there, probably in the ground floor dining room, to plot the assassination of Lincoln and other top officials. Powell was assigned to assassinate Secretary of State William Seward, whom he attacked at his home with a knife but did not kill. Powell was subsequently hanged with other Lincoln conspirators at the Washington Arsenal.

Engraving of the St. Cloud Hotel from a hotel receipt dated 1872 (author's collection).
In 1869 a Mrs. Pollard took over management of the Herndon House and rechristened it the St. Cloud Hotel. The St. Cloud closed in the early 1870s, and in 1876 it was extensively remodeled into the St. Cloud office building. An additional floor, in ornate Victorian decor, was added to the top, and all the windows were adorned with heavy Victorian hood moldings. For 14 year, the St. Cloud Building was the headquarters of many important lawyers and businessmen, until the building was acquired by the Washington Loan and Trust Company, which tore it down in April 1890.

This circa 1888 photo of F Street from the Patent Office steps shows the remodeled St. Cloud Building on the left and the Masonic Temple on the right (author's collection - click to enlarge).
In the circa 1888 photo above, it is clear that much development has occurred on F Street over the previous two decades. In addition to the renovated and expanded St. Cloud building, other taller buildings have been constructed on the south side of the street. The tall building in the distance is the W.B. Moses and Sons furniture store, constructed in 1884 on the southwest corner of 11th and F Streets. On the right (north) side of the street, a row of commercial storefronts have sprung up, sporting huge awnings that stretch all the way across the sidewalk to provide 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 a few shopkeepers have put up awnings.

This postcard view, from approximately 1908, shows the jog in F Street at 9th (author's collection).
In the circa 1908 postcard above, the biggest change is immediately on our left, where a great, gray granite building looms up, mostly unseen except for its very solid and imposing corner. The Washington Loan and 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 and Trust Company, circa 1907 (Source: Library of Congress).
The architect of this nine-story structure was James G. Hill (1841-1913), a prominent architect who also designed the Atlantic Building further west on the same block. This bold, Richardson Romanesque structure 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 dentilled 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 block. It now houses a Marriott Hotel, with a restaurant located on the first floor in the large, former banking room, designed in 1912.

The Washington Loan and Trust Company building today (photo by the author).
Now let's look more deeply into the 900 block of F Street, past the Washington Loan and Trust Company building:

F Street looking west from 9th Street, circa 1914 (courtesy of Old Time DC).
This colorized photo, from around 1914, shows the commercialization of F Street continuing. The tall buildings on the left side are noted architect Glenn Brown's National Union Building (1890) and James G. Hill's Atlantic Building (1887—the gray building), both modern office buildings with retail on the ground floor. The Moses Furniture Company building is still visible in the distance—the brown building with round windows on its top floor. On the other side of the street, the large beige and white building at the end of the block is the new addition to the Woodward and Lothrop department store, designed by Frederick Pyle (1867-1934) and completed in 1913. Our article on the history of Woodies can be found here. Another recent addition to the streetscape is the white neoclassical bank building two doors down from the Masonic Temple on the right. It's the Equitable Co-Operative Building Association, constructed in 1912, now home to the Succotash restaurant.

9th and F Streets NW today (photo by the author).
Jumping a full century ahead, here is a contemporary photo of the block. The Washington Loan and Trust Company and the Masonic Temple, on the left and right sides of F Street, still remain from the 1914 view. It's less easy to see, but many of the smaller scale buildings in the middle of the block are also still there, although newer office and residential buildings have been added, some looming over their historic neighbors. The street has a more orderly look nowadays (and no summer awnings), but there is as much hustle and bustle here as ever.

* * * * *

Special thanks to Old Time DC for sharing their beautifully colored circa 1914 lantern slide of F Street. An early version of this article appeared in Streets of Washington in 2010. Additional sources included: Henry E. Davis, "Ninth and F Streets and Thereabout" in Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. 5 (1902); Ernest Ingersoll, Handy Guide to Washington and the District of Columbia (1897); Sara Amy Leach, ed., Capital IA: Industrial Archeology of Washington, D.C. (2001); Charles Moore, Washington Past and Present (1929); Charles F. Robertson, Temple of Invention: History of a National Landmark (2006); Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee, Buildings of the District of Columbia (1993); and numerous newspaper articles.

* * * * *

To receive Streets of Washington by emailclick on this link and choose "Get Streets of Washington delivered by email" from the Subscribe Now! box on the upper right hand side of the page.


  1. Great post! I used to work at the Portrait Gallery (in the early 80's) and often went to the 9:30 Club. Previously I remember (1960's) being taken to see Woodies Christmas windows. More recently, I have been moved by F Street's mix of old and modern DC, and taken "phone photos" to post on Facebook. TMI on my life with F Street NW, I know. Thanks Again!

  2. i too used to go downtown at christmas to see the windows, but more often went to the movies downtown on the streetcar. in those days kids could ride the streetcar all alone without a worry. we used to go down there on washingtons birthday to shop also. and once met some friends down there and one of them ( a future lawyer ) showed us how to shop lift ! only happened that once though. he purchased a shopping bag and then had each of us put one item in it and he walked out of the store. how clever was that...harry


Post a Comment

Popular Posts