Last summer I decided to research the history of my house in downtown Washington, D.C. The house is located on the 900 block of Q Street Northwest in the historic neighborhood of Shaw. My block is located within the limits of Pierre L’Enfant’s original street plan for the city which ended around present-day U Street. The D.C. government’s online tax assessment database listed the year built as 1890.
My house is several blocks from Howard University and surrounded historic places and buildings. Around the corner from my house is the the Carter G. Woodson house, where the African American historian lived and worked for most of his life. Across the street is the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, the nation’s first black YWCA. Down the street is the location of the Nation of Islam’s Temple #4, founded in the early 1940s. (In fact, the group Cultural Tourism DC has a “heritage trail” in the neighborhood with these and other landmarks, available on their website as a list or on a map with Frappr.) At the least, I hoped to discover a window into the history of Washington and my neighborhood through the house research.
Armed with little more than my address and a rough idea of the building date (1890) I visited the Washington D.C. public library’s Washingtoniana Division.
This collection holds historical atlases of the city and a microfilm copy of the original District of Columbia building permits held by the National Archives. After some searching I was able to locate and print out a copy of the original building permit for the structure. The permit was issued in 1885 – five years earlier than the tax database information. Using the permit number I located the original building plan submitted to city officials in the National Archives. I found more information about Col. Boyd in Proquest’s Historical Newspapers index of the Washington Post, available for free to the public at the Library of Congress, and detailed census data, available for free at the National Archives.
The permits listed “Robert Boyd” as the builder. A Colonel during the Civil War, Robert Boyd was a Washington personality of modest importance. After the war he moved briefly to Nebraska, but return to Washington where he opened a hardware and supply store at 416 9th Street NW. He also built and owned a number of rental properties, my house included. An active Mason and civic leader, he served on the inaugural committee for President Benjamin Harrison in 1888-1889. (“In Very Capable Hands,” Washington Post, 12/9/1888, pg. 9) The Newspaper published a short article when his daughter Florence Boyd married George W. Evans, a clerk for the Interior Department, in 1886. Noting the couple “are great favorites,” the paper reported the bride “looked charming in a dark green traveling dress, and she carried a bouquet of beautiful yellow roses,” and that the couple planned a tour of “Watkin’s Glen, Niagara Falls, the White Mountains, and Boston.” (“Evans-Boyd Wedding,” Washington Post, 10/6/1886, pg. 2) When Col. Boyd died in 1903 the Washington Post ran a lengthy obituary describing him as a “prominent and well known citizen of Washington,” a “stanch and unflinching Republican,” and describing his role in organizing a military company for the Union Army from the District of Columbia. (“Col. Robt. Boyd Dead,” Washington Post, 2/13/1903, pg. 11)
My research revealed my house has been rented almost continuously since 1885, except for a period during the 1970s and 80s when it was vacant. From at least 1910 until after 1920 the house was occupied by James Shepperson, occupation listed as grainer and decorator in city directories. The 1910 census lists the occupants of the house as James Shepperson, his wife Blanch, daughter Vivian, and brother in law Walter Donaldson. I’m less confident about the 1930 census due to the quality of the electronic scan available at the National Archives, however if I’m reading it correctly the house was occupied by a Julie and Lawer Mosley, a cousin Emma, and a roomer, Susan Fraiser. All four were recorded as African American (“Neg”) from South Carolina, and all worked as porters or cooks:
In 1933, the “All-State Transfer Co.” listed my house as their address. In an ad published in the newspaper the company’s slogan was “anything moved anywhere.” In 1942 the occupant was John Ball, an employee of the Federal Works Agency, a predecessor of the modern General Services Administration. The 1969 city directory lists the address as the location of “Carl’s Barber Shop,” in addition as the residence of two individuals — Reta Cessna and R.S. Stanley. The city directory ceased publication in 1974.
According to the Washington Board of Reality records held by the Washingtoniana Collection, the house had a succession of owners after the Robert Boyd estate sold the property in 1903. A Rev. William V. Clark purchased the property in 1964 and owned it until 1988, when he sold it to my present landlord for $55,000. (“Houses: District,” Washington Post, 9/17/1988, pg. E16) The neighbors told me the house was vacant when they moved in next door in the early 1980s, and after the house was renovated and re-occupied around 1990 their heating and cooling bills decreased significantly. (The homes share a common wall.) The city has assessed the land and structure at $413,490 for 2007.
In many ways my house tells a very typical story for Washington. It was built by a hometown businessman as an investment in a city where real estate has always been a major industry. The building’s tenants generally worked either for the Federal Government, or the service economy it supported. During the 1930s it housed a black family who moved north from South Carolina as part of the Great Migration. Like many of the homes in my neighborhood it fell into disrepair and neglect after the 1968 riot caused extensive damage along nearby 7th and 9th Streets, only to see new life when yet another real estate speculator purchased the home in the 1980s to rent to young professionals once more. Although the exterior bricks need repointing, the structure seems to be in surprisingly good shape after 121 years. Col. Boyd would be proud to see how richly his investment has paid off for the city he loved.
Before conducting this research I attended a very helpful seminar conducted Matthew Gilmore, formerly of the Washingtoniana Division of the D.C. Public Library and now the editor of the H-DC email list. His next seminar about researching house histories is scheduled for October 11th.