The Development of “Massachusetts Avenue Extended”

General view showing British Embassy and Mt. St. Albans Cathedral in upper right  (Airscapes, by Capt. A.W. Stevens July 1931; National Archives)

General view showing British Embassy, Naval Observatory, the curve of Massachusetts Avenue, and Mt. St. Albans (National) Cathedral in upper right (Airscapes, by Capt. A.W. Stevens July 1931; National Archives)

Robert Barnard’s original property, the site of the British Embassy, remained intact for almost eighty years; its breakup began with rapidly rising land values and the expansion of the United States Government’s domain in the post-Civil War era. The story is simply told in a series of maps, surveys and real estate plat books. The city expanded outward past the natural border of the ravine of Rock Creek into the area now known as Massachusetts Avenue Heights. A Washington Post report of February 1887 noted that the Normanstone property had changed hands twice recently. The following month the paper declared that this “syndicate of capitalists” did not intend to place Normanstone “on the market in the near future, the new owners proposing to thoroughly improve the property within the next two years, making it the most desirable villa location in the suburbs. By that time, when it is all divided into residence lots and laid out in broad avenues, the investors are confident of realizing handsomely on the speculation.”

County Book 8, p. 86 (1891) showing proposed extension of Mass. Ave. (DC Office of the Surveyor)

County Book 8, p. 86 (1891) showing proposed extension of Mass. Ave. (DC Office of the Surveyor)

Trying to maintain the household, the Barnard unmarried daughters took in boarders to support themselves at Normanstone after a changing roster of investors had come to own the property in trust. Family letters from 1904 to 1905 discuss the dispersal of the Normanstone silver, suggesting the breakup of the homestead. In five separate publications of the series of Baist’s Real estate atlas of surveys of Washington, from 1903 to 1921, the progression of the development of the land is starkly illustrated. Normanstone makes a last appearance in the volume published in 1911, finally succumbing to the pressures of land speculation, the Naval Observatory Circle cutting into its tract, and the completion of the Massachusetts Avenue bridge and its westward reach.

There were serious proposals for a railway laid-down and for the filling in the valley of Rock Creek to the level of Massachusetts Avenue but thoughtful urban planning lead to the creation of Rock Creek Park by an Act of Congress in 1890, one of the early federal parks in the country. At that time, the Barnard heirs sold to the government five acres from the homestead for inclusion in Rock Creek, today one of the largest forested urban parks in America. In 1888, there was a crossing of an iron bridge financed by developers, impatient with the Government’s inaction, linking to a single road that passed between William Morton’s farmhouse and Normanstone, about two hundred yards upstream from the current bridge. In August 1894, public money was appropriated “for the building of a new bridge over Rock Creek on the line of Massachusetts avenue extended,” which was completed in 1901.

Baist’s Real estate atlas of surveys of Washington, District of Columbia. Philadelphia: G.W. Baist, 1903, pl. 18, v. 3 (Map Division, Library of Congress)

Baist’s Real estate atlas of surveys of Washington, District of Columbia. Philadelphia: G.W. Baist, 1903, pl. 18, v. 3 (Map Division, Library of Congress)

This northwest corner of Washington was becoming so fashionable, growing as older parts of the city became more built up and with the Federal Government’s expansion as new official building pushed residential neighborhoods out of downtown. Speculation was rampant enough that the Department of the Navy became alarmed for their investment of newly acquired property for the Observatory. In order to form a buffer for the protection of scientific instruments from “heated air and also from vibrations caused by traffic in the neighborhood and for other important reasons” at the Naval Observatory, a Navy board “condemned” (or forced purchase by the government) tracts of land “within a circle of 1,000 feet radius from the clockroom of the new Naval Observatory.” Now marked in part by the curve of Massachusetts Avenue north of the British Embassy, the Observatory land had been purchased in 1881, and building began in 1889. The new observatory was designed by the prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt to relocate this scientific agency (one of the oldest in the country) from downtown, 23rd and E Streets NW.

In the 1894 Real Estate Plat-book Washington (vol. 3), the area southeast of the Observatory to Rock Creek identifies the large, irregular properties. The 1919 Plat-book shows ten separate lots along the stretch of Massachusetts backing onto what remains of Normanstone. From the Circle to the intersection with W (now Whitehaven) Street, where there are fourteen lots, is a section nearer what is today Dumbarton Oaks Park, identified as belonging to Robert Barnard. By 1925, when the plans for the new embassy began to get underway, the laying of the plots remained much as it was in 1919, the change being that the former trust property, the core remnant of Normanstone, now belonged to Robert G. Van Vranken, who had started in the real estate and construction business with Harry Wardman in 1914. Wardman would play the critical role in the location and construction of the British Embassy.

Baist's Real estate atlas of surveys of Washington, District of Columbia. Philadelphia: G.W. Baist, 1919-1921, pl. 25, v. 3 (Map Division, Library of Congress) Baist’s Real estate atlas of surveys of Washington, District of Columbia. Philadelphia: G.W. Baist, 1919-1921, pl. 25, v. 3 (Map Division, Library of Congress)

Baist’s Real estate atlas of surveys of Washington, District of Columbia. Philadelphia: G.W. Baist, 1919-1921, pl. 25, v. 3 (Map Division, Library of Congress)
Baist’s Real estate atlas of surveys of Washington, District of Columbia. Philadelphia: G.W. Baist, 1919-1921, pl. 25, v. 3 (Map Division, Library of Congress)

Wardman, an extremely ambitious operator who played his heritage to his advantage but was also devoted to his homeland of England, saw that Massachusetts Avenue Heights was and would likely remain the most desirable of Washington neighborhoods. He was determined that the new British Embassy should be located here. With federal protections of the lands of the Naval Observatory and Rock Creek, further guarded by the McMillan Commission Plan of 1902 (that exempted this area from the law mandating the grid plan) and the National Capital Park Commission in 1924, the Embassy location here would avoid the commercialization and dense residential development around the Gilded Age mansions of Dupont Circle, in the “Old City” of Washington—the fate of the former Embassy on Connecticut Avenue and N Street. A legation there since 1874 (its status raised to Embassy in 1893), the important Second Empire mansion was erected in what was at the time considered a remote location. Within a few years the neighborhood was deemed the most exclusive in the city; less so by the turn of the century, due to increasing noise and traffic. Meanwhile, urban villas in eclectic styles of architecture began to spring up in the rolling topography along and near the now-lengthened Massachusetts Avenue, a short drive from the center of the city yet in a sylvan setting.

Connecticut Avenue street scene showing the British Legation, between 1882 and 1900 (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Connecticut Avenue street scene showing the British Legation, between 1882 and 1900 (Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Wardman, already in possession of some of the plots surrounding his favored location for the Embassy, would not have shied away from carving up such an odd shape in the Massachusetts Avenue Heights area. He took the old Legation off the hands of the British Government, planning to immediately raze it for a new building, but he let the British stay rent-free when construction of the new Embassy was delayed.

Notes & Sources
Cleere, Gail S. The house on Observatory Hill: home of the vice president of the United States. Washington, D.C.: Oceanographer of the Navy, Dept. of the Navy, [1989].
Fletcher, Carlton. Glover Park history: historical sketches of Glover Park, Upper Georgetown, and Georgetown Heights. http://gloverparkhistory.com/
Holden, Edward S. “The United States Naval Observatory, Washington” Science: a weekly journal of scientific progress. 3 July 1880, vol. 1, no. 1, p. 1-3.
Hickman, Caroline Mesrobian and Sally Lichtenstein Berk. “Harry Wardman’s row house development in early twentieth-century Washington,” in Housing Washington: two centuries of residential development and planning in the National Capital area. Edited by Richard Longstreth. Chicago: Center for American Places at Columbia College, 2010.
McNeil, Priscilla. “Pretty Prospects: the history of a land grant.” Washington History. Fall/Winter 2002, v. 14, no. 2, p. 7-25. A map reproduced here, from the 1887 Hopkins Real Estate Atlas, shows the future length of Massachusetts Avenue, detailing ‘Normanstone’ in the location of the British Embassy (prepared by Matthew Gilmore).
Scott, Pamela. Residential architecture of Washington, D.C., and its suburbs. Online finding aid, Prints & Photographs Reading Room. Library of Congress www.loc.gov/rr/print/adecenter/essays/Scott.html
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