Washington, my birthplace, has always been a magical city to me – full of enchanting places, intriguing buildings, and mystical experiences. Sadly, some of the most fascinating people and places of my childhood are gone: the man who walked around the F Street shopping district dressed as Mr. Peanut; the horse trough that remained in front of the Willard Hotel until the 1950s; the caryatids at the entrance to the drugstore on the corner of Fifteenth and U Streets, N.W., (originally the entrance to Portner Flats, demolished 1974) where my father, a pharmacist, occasionally took me on his visits, causing me to ponder the relationship between naked ladies and pharmacies; driving through the fjords in Rock Creek Park; and the ducks in Rock Creek Park, whose parade across the street stopped traffic (minimal though it was).
Happily, some of the magical moments remain: when the peak of the Washington Monument first appears while driving south on Sixteenth Street; one glorious week each April when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom and residents from all quadrants of the city come peacefully together to fete the spring; fireworks over the National Mall; and walking along the tree-lined streets of row houses.
Among my early memories is the name of Harry Wardman, whom I knew as one of the city’s magicians. I didn’t know precisely what he had conjured up; that, in fact, he was largely responsible for the tree-lined streets of row houses that I found so enticing. He was probably introduced to me by my mother, who also regarded him as a mystical figure. In her childhood, she had danced for World War I veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, and at DAR Hall, but her most memorable recital took place in 1934 at the Wardman Park Hotel. Little did she realize then that Wardman played a role in another of her childhood memories of upper Connecticut Avenue. As a child from Southwest Washington, traveling on the bus to summer camp, she noticed that the “rich kids” got on at the Cathedral Mansions Apartments (3000 Connecticut Avenue, NW; Wardman, developer; Mesrobian, architect, 1921-1923).
In 1980, when I moved into my current home, a row house in the Sheridan-Kalorama Historic District, I wondered if it had been built by Wardman. Although my husband and I, and several others, researched the house, the building permit was not to be found, which only served to pique my curiosity. So, needing a topic for my graduate school thesis, I put Wardman on the list.
Unfortunately, there are none of Wardman’s office records remain. It‘s rumored that Mrs. Wardman destroyed them in 1931 when her husband was being investigated by Congress. But, thanks to architectural historian Brian Kraft, there is now a database of the city’s building permits since their inception in 1877. From that database, Brian supplied me with a list of those buildings for which Wardman was the developer. They total 3,000 – the sum of the next two busiest developers during Wardman’s time. But that list does not include every Wardman building because he operated under several company names; some yet unknown. And there are numerous buildings that were built by the Wardman Construction Company but were developed by others.
Eventually, I developed the ability to recognize Wardman’s row houses. Or so I thought until I learned that Albert H Beers, Wardman’s most prolific architect (1905-1911), sold the same plans to other developers that he provided to Wardman, creating the impression that there are far more Wardman row houses than actually exist.
Many people, in addition to Brian Kraft, have been generous in helping me to research Wardman. When I expressed my interest in Wardman, James Goode immediately offered me his copious Wardman file containing almost every article about Wardman that appeared in the Evening Star, saving me innumerable hours reading microfilm and providing much-needed encouragement. Howard Berger helped me measure each type of row house in order to draw the plans.
The staff at Traceries, Inc. not only made their library and files available to me, but supplied me with a steady stream of new Wardman material that they uncovered while researching other subjects. Especially helpful were Katherine Grandine, who had researched the effect of the 1920 zoning legislation on the form of the row house; and Laura Harris, who, in the course of researching the apartment buildings of Albert H. Beers, copied and provided me every article relevant to Wardman that she found in the Evening Star’s “Real Estate Gossip” column for the years 1905-1911.
Washington developer Robert Silverman (1912—2012) who, as a young law school graduate during the Depression, collected the rents on Wardman properties, contributed valuable information drawn from a memory that is much to be envied. Special thanks go to T. C. Harris, chauffeur to the Wardman family for four years, who welcomed me and Larry Baume, then curator at the Columbia Historical Society, into his home to tape an interview with him. He had an impressive recall of events and their exact dates.
Thanks also to Rebecca Miller, executive director of the DC Preservation League, which sponsored the application to the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, resulting in funding in 2003 for the row-house exhibit and in 2014 for this website. Without the help of Amanda MacDonald, assistant executive director of DCPL, this website would not exist. Her advanced computer and graphic skills put Wardman on line.
The greatest thanks go to my thesis advisor, Professor Richard Longstreth for his guidance and his choice of a developer when I presented him with seven possible thesis topics (“The Richest Crop: the Row Houses of Developer Harry Wardman (1871-1938)” The George Washington University, 1989.) ; Caroline Mesrobian Hickman, whose grandfather Mihran Mesrobian was Wardman’s mosts talented architect, and who co-curated an exhibit with me, A Century of Wardman Row-house Neighborhoods, and co-authored a chapter in Housing Washington: Two Centuries of Residential Development and Planning on the National Capital Area, Richard Longstreth, ed., Center for American Places, 2010; and my husband Sandy Berk, who has photographed hundreds of Wardman buildings and can now spot them as well as I can.
I now know that Wardman didn’t build the row house in which I’ve lived for many decades but he was responsible for a dozen houses – both attached and detached – and a landmark apartment building in my historic district. What more than compensates for the fact that Wardman didn’t build my current abode is the pleasant surprise that the house at 613 Somerset Street, N.W. in Fort Stevens Ridge, the 1923 house that my great-grandmother bought in 1942, and where I lived aged five and six, was built by Wardman. So it seems that, barely out of toddlerhood, I was destined to record Wardman’s history.