Harry Wardman, a name synonymous with residential real-estate development in Washington, had a dramatic impact on the constituent city during the first three decades of the twentieth century, a time of severe housing shortages. During that time, Wardman was responsible for constructing approximately 3,000 residential buildings, the vast majority of which were row houses.
The city’s first serious housing shortage began during the Civil War when soldiers and those working in support services for the war effort flocked to the nation’s capital. Single-family houses were subdivided into rooming houses. Hotels were crowded. And yet little residential construction occurred as material and manpower were directed toward the war.
A dramatic expansion in the federal government after the war, and the influx of people to the nation’s capital seeking jobs in the new programs, served to exacerbate the housing shortage. In response, the streets of the L’Enfant-planned city quickly filled with rows of attached red brick houses. By the end of the nineteenth century, little vacant land remained in the original city. In order to construct much-needed government buildings, residential buildings in the downtown core were demolished. New housing construction was pushed to the city’s periphery, primarily north of Florida Avenue (then Boundary Street), where large estates were sub-divided into housing tracts.
Extension of the trolley-car lines outside the old city prompted this movement. In many instances, developers either owned the trolley companies or were successful in influencing the location of routes. Bloomingdale, Columbia Heights, and Brightwood are just three of many neighborhoods that developed along trolley-car lines to accommodate the growing ranks of middle-income government workers.
With the onset of the First World War, Washington experienced yet another influx of population and another housing crisis. This time, however, housing construction occurred not along streetcar lines but primarily along automobile routes. Wardman’s Fort Stevens Ridgewas among the first of the city’s suburbs to have houses for the middle-income speculative market that included garages.
Today, in the twenty-first century, Washington is again experiencing a housing shortage as people recognize the desirability of urban living. Houses in Bloomingdale, Columbia Heights, and Brightwood/Fort Stevens Ridge are being bought, renovated, and occupied at a rapid pace, a process that bodes well for their preservation for another 100 years.
~The exhibit was co-curated with Caroline Mesrobian Hickman with the aid for a grant from the Humanities Council of Washington DC.