In the late eighteenth century, on the eve of the founding of a new capital city for the recently independent American republic, the site that would become DC's Square 58 was open land on the immediate outskirts of Georgetown. It formed the high ridge of "Mexico," a country seat at the confluence of the Potomac River and Rock Creek, belonging to none other than Robert Peter. [SEE FIG. 1] A Scottish-born merchant, Peter rose to wealth on the tobacco and slave trade that underpinned Georgetown's colonial prosperity, and even became the town's first mayor. As such a powerful figure by the 1790s (in political, financial, and property terms), Peter was a key stakeholder with whom President George Washington had to negotiate in order to realize his ambition to build a grand capital on the Potomac, as envisioned along European baroque lines by French planner P. Charles L'Enfant. Once satisfactory terms were reached with Peter and other area landholders, Mexico and all the other pre-existing tracts were expropriated and subdivided into the irregular blocks envisioned in L'Enfant's plan, including the triangular "square" that was to be bounded by Virginia Avenue, 23rd and F Street NW.
That parcel would mirror the course of Washington's grand vision for his eponymous city, beginning with a disappointingly slow start during the first half of the nineteenth century. A cadastral map of Washington on the eve of the Civil War (produced by Albert Boschke in 1857) depicts Square 58 in a kind of no-man's-land of undeveloped real estate lying between the industrial waterfront activities along the city canal and Potomac River to the southwest, and a dense residential neighborhood that had built up along the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor to the northeast. [SEE FIG. 3] Two decades later, in booming Gilded Age Washington, the area still constituted a ragged edge of the city, though Square 58 was by then home to a large red brick church, St. John's Episcopal Chapel, facing the corner of Virginia Avenue and F Street NW (as depicted in a bird's-eye perspective sketched by Adolph Sachse around 1883). [SEE FIG. 4]
The building that dominates the site to this day was constructed between 1898-1903 as the Llewellyn apartments. Surrounded by recently-completed middle class row houses, at the time it was one of the biggest residential buildings in the area, according to real estate atlases from the period. [SEE FIGS. 5, 6] While only about one tenth the size of the District's largest apartment buildings at the time (e.g. the Cairo) and half as large as many in other neighborhoods, the Llewellyn's sixteen apartments--four per floor, each featuring three to five rooms and a bath--enjoyed full occupancy in its early years; Samuel S. Dalton sold the Llewellyn building to William H. Bell for $60,000 in 1921, subsequent owners included Benjamin Greenberg and David Baer (Post, 10/29/1905 p.14; 7/24/1921, p.38; 6/5/1927 p.R2)
Early notices for the building depicted "very desirable furnished front room for 1 or 2 gentlemen," or advertised "a lady in office can rent a nicely furnished parlor bedroom with privilege of kitchen in flat with widow"--though gaslights ominously caused two minor fires in such apartments during 1902 (Post, 31 Aug. 1907, p.13; 21 Nov. 1901, p.12; 5/2/1902 p.10; 11/23/1902 p.2)
The apartments initially hosted Washingtonians of some local note: Emma Stewart Ellis, who listed her Llewelyn address as an organizing site for the National Council of Women annual conference; a daughter of Lt. Col. Edward Allen, assistant quartermaster during the Civil War; Talbot Pulizzi "well known in Washington for several years in amateur theatrical and dramatic circles." Catherine T. Graves, niece of a prominent (and pro-lynching) editor for Hearst newspapers, made news when she eloped to Rockville from her parents' home in the Llewelyn to marry Austrian Rudolf Wulfberg; and a 19-year-old confidence man robbed several residents including the sister-in-law of Maryland governor Edwin Warfield (Post, 2/9/1902 p.6; 9/23/1925 p.5; 2/23/1903 p.5; 4/26/1910 p.5; 1/9/1913, p.9).
Already by the later teens the building was showing vacancies, and hosted a Penny Lane cross-section of more lower middle class Washingtonians (chef, clerk, foreman, horseshoer, electrician, barber) and a number of low level government employees (White House, Agriculture, and War departments represented), as listed in a 1916 city directory. [SEE FIG. 7] A generation later, this pattern still held, as confirmed by the 1940 census. [SEE FIG. 8] But even though the area around Square 58 was completely built-out by that time, it still occupied a border zone in one sense: race. The south side of F Street--including the Llewellyn apartment building--was almost entirely white, the north side completely African American. Similarly the contrast from 22nd to 23rd Streets respectively. Over the first half of the twentieth century, western Foggy Bottom came to be a predominantly poor black enclave, as reflected in the conversion of St. John's Episcopal Chapel to Gethsemane Baptist Church [SEE FIGS. 5, 6], as well as in mounting calls for clearing the area's nineteenth century housing, which officials increasingly characterized as decaying slums.
Postwar growth of the 'meds & eds' sector--medical and higher education activities connected with George Washington University paced the nationwide expansion of college campuses in the age of the GI Bill--combined with the expansion of government jobs in Foggy Bottom, bringing many new white-collar employees to the neighborhood. Some began to acquire and rehabilitate the black working class housing previously decried as blighted. The Llewellyn apartment building underwent renovations in the 1940s and relaunched as the Allen Lee Hotel, offering 86 rooms with some private baths ($17.50 per week) "near new State Department. and GW University" (Post, 4/14/1942 p. 25; 1/24/1943 p. R1, 12/26/1947 p. B10; the "Red Book" of the American Hotel & Motel Association listed nightly rates at "$3 and up" in 1948 (http://books.google.com/books?id=Z5pYAAAAMAAJ) Correspondingly, 1950s hotel occupants included a state department linguist, a hospital technician, medical, undergraduate and graduate students from GW, many of them young women (11/11/1950, pB7; 6/10/1950 pM15; 10/24/1946 p.2; 11/1/1954 p.18)
Over the next few decades the hotel's deterioration was perceptible: Clientele included two different men who were arrested there for holding up local stores at gunpoint (12/22/1955 p.43; 9/25/1960 p. A15). By the 1970s, Nazi hunter James Gray was described pathetically as "living alone in Washington in the rather seedy Allen Lee Hotel. When he had no money, the management let him stay without paying for his room. He sometimes told a turn at the switchboard during the night shift." (Rochelle G. Saidel, The Outraged Conscience: Seekers of Justice for Nazi War Criminals in America, SUNY Press, 1984 p. 177) Even the Let's Go student travel guides went from 1970s enthusiasm ("excellent weekly rates from $22.50 per week, communal bath. From $6 a night"), to mocking ("large, rickety, blue hallways. Rooms vary widely in size, furnishings, and state of repair.") and warning by the 1990s ("aging...look at several before accepting [a room]") See: http://books.google.com/books?id=H3Up4q-tsFQC; http://books.google.com/books?id=DKsIAQAAMAAJ; http://books.google.com/books?id=8IY7AAAAMAAJ
In the midst of the hotel's decline, the area surrounding that turn of the century structure transformed dramatically. Square 58 stood near the epicenter of urban renewal in Foggy Bottom, a neighborhood which, alongside Southwest DC, was one of the most extensively redeveloped areas in Washington during the early postwar decades. Major projects over the 1950s and 1960s came from the public sector (notably roadway modernization like the Virginia Avenue underpass and West Leg of the Inner Loop Freeway, or the massive Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts) as well as private developers (including the Watergate Complex or the Columbia Apartments directly across 23rd St.), and large non-profit institutions (with GW's Smith Center arena and World Health Organization building directly to the north and south). Through this intense combination of projects, nearly every structure from Square 58 to the Potomac river--approximately 100 acres (roughly 30 blocks)--would be razed in this period. [SEE FIG. 2] Having begun the twentieth century with some of the newest and largest private structures in Foggy Bottom, in the early twenty first Square 58 anomalously preserves an older and smaller scale on the edge of large-scale forces, yet again occupying an urban border zone.
Research, interpretation, and text by Christopher Klemek and Sylvia Augusteijn
Gillette, Howard Jr. Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995.
Anderson, G. and B. "Foggy Bottom" in Kathryn Schneider Smith, ed., Washington at Home: An Illustrated History of Neighborhoods in the Nation's Capital. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2. ed., 2010.
Sherwood, Suzanne Berry. Foggy Bottom: A Study in the Uses of an Urban Neighborhood. Washington, DC: George Washington University, 1978.