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  • Tue, June 06, 2017 3:39 PM | Anonymous member

    A bombing in Crestwood

    Many Crestwood homes have interesting back stories. This week's blog focuses on one such house that has seen plenty of history in its 60 years. 1907 Quincy Street was the home of a controversial member of President Eisenhower's cabinet...was the site of a bombing, for which a Croatian nationalist group claimed responsibility...was abandoned as Yugoslavia broke apart...and remains in a state of disrepair, with ownership having passed on to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

    The home began, as a number of Crestwood houses did, as the residence of developer Paul Stone. He would build a home, live in it for a while and then sell it. In this case, Stone sold the house, perhaps reluctantly, to the Bensons. That would be Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, his wife Flora and their six children. They moved in during the summer of 1953, six months after he joined Ike's cabinet.

    In his memoir, Cross Fire: The Eight Years With Eisenhower, Mr. Benson writes: "Paul Stone, the developer of the fashionable Crestwood subdivision between 16th Street and Rock Creek Park, in showing us around the area, made the mistake of including on the tour a house he had built for himself on Quincy Street. He had been living there for about nine months. It was the last house on the street and was right up over the Park, in a quiet neighborhood only 12 to 15 minutes from the Department. It was easy to see that Flora loved it. When we finished the tour, I said, 'The only house we're interested in is the one on Quincy Street.''You mean my house?' 'Yes.'Pretty soon, we found our roles reversed, and I was selling him on letting us buy his place."

    Benson wrote that his family "soon learned to love our Crestwood home." "Best of all," he remarked, "it was practically in Rock Creek Park." Often I would have the chauffeur take me through the Park on my way to work at 7 o'clock in the morning. At other times, we would drive home that way at night, and the Park provided an opportunity for reflection, for reviewing the happenings of the day, and for that communion with my Maker which is so necessary to me. In the evening, to unwind, I would walk around a few blocks in the lovely area where we lived. Sometimes in the morning, I'd walk down several blocks to meet the car."

    The Washington Post, on January 20, 1953, called Benson "the first clergyman of any faith ever to become a Cabinet member." At the time, he was one of the 12 Disciples of the Church of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). He went on to become LDS President in 1985. Eisenhower had never met Benson when he asked him to lead the Agriculture Department. Though he was often the center of controversy, Benson kept his cabinet position through the entire eight years of Ike's presidency. He made the cover of Time magazine twice. The first time was in April 1953, when he spoke out against farm subsidies as unacceptably socialistic. Under his picture was this quote: "No real American wants to be subsidized." Benson also drew criticism for his views beyond agriculture. He supported the John Birch Society, although he was not a member. In a 1966 pamphlet, he warned that the civil rights movement was the unwitting "Tool of Communist Deception." A few of his ultra-right political writings have had a resurgence recently, being quoted by Glenn Beck and various Tea Party groups.

    The Largess family moved into a house across the street from the Bensons, also in 1953. Zoe Largess still lives there. She told me this week that, after the Bensons moved out, the home at 1907 Quincy Street became the residence for a series of Yugoslav diplomats. Ms. Largess said they were good neighbors.

    However, on June 3, 1980, international tensions shattered Crestwood's pre-dawn solitude when a bomb exploded outside 1907 Quincy. At the time, the residents were Yugoslavia's charge d'affaires Vladimir Sindjelic and his wife Leposava. The Washington Post reported that Leposava hadn't been able to sleep and had just "turned off the late-late show" in an upstairs bedroom. Vladimir was asleep in another bedroom on the second floor. A house guest, their son's best friend Slobodan Pesic, was asleep on the ground floor. At about four a.m., the Sindjelics' German Shepherd Astra, who had been restless for the past several nights, started whining and ran into Vladimir's bedroom, waking him up. Suddenly there was the sound of an explosion. A bomb planted outside in a window box off the Sindjelics' downstairs sitting room had gone off, "sending bricks and glass flying, twisting their copper gutter into a pretzel shape, tearing limbs from pine trees in the yard and shattering windows in four nearby homes."

    No one was injured. But Zoe Largess told me the Sindjelics' son would have been killed if he had been home. And, according to the Post, the blast "brought puzzled and badly shaken residents into the streets in bathrobes and drew a crowd of predawn rubberneckers. Several said they had heard the explosion miles away." After calling the police, the Sindjelics and Pesic went across the street in their bedclothes into the Largess' yard. George and Zoe Largess "served the three steaming mugs of instant coffee beneath a towering apple tree as dozens of police and firemen swarmed onto the quiet, dead-end street, roped it off and cut the darkness with blazing searchlights."

    The explosion did approximately $200,000 in damage. A Croatian nationalist group claimed responsibility, but there is no report that the FBI found the bomber. American officials had earlier warned Yugoslav diplomats about possible violence in the aftermath of President Tito's death on May 4, 1980. A State Department official viewed the bombing as an attempt to protest President Carter's upcoming trip to Yugoslavia later in June. After the US Congress voted in 1989 to condemn human rights abuses in Yugoslavia, the country's ambassador to the United States was recalled.

    The home at 1907 Quincy Street was abandoned. As Yugoslavia broke apart, it became unclear what nation had title to the property. After years of uncertainty, the DC real estate database listed Bosnia and Herzegovina as owning the home as of January 2013. Today, however, the lot is overgrown, no utilities are turned on, the garage roof has collapsed, and the home's interior is bare and in need of significant repairs.

    --David Swerdloff, Trumbull Terrace

  • Tue, June 06, 2017 3:38 PM | Anonymous member

    Crestwood's early development

    This week's blog is a birthday greeting to Crestwood itself. Congratulations, you're 75!

    While some of the neighborhood's homes are more than a century old, the housing development that gave Crestwood its name had its groundbreaking 75 years ago next week.

    In a photo in the Washington Post June 5, 1938, under the headline, "Ground Broken for Crestwood Residential Project," a shovel is wielded by William W. Mathewson (a Blagden relative who ended up owning some of the Argyle estate). Beside him is a smiling Paul Stone, the major developer of Crestwood; Stone’s associate, Arthur S. Lord; and builder (and Stone’s brother-in-law) George W. Phifer.

    The article calls the new community "a wooded country in the downtown residential district and only 10 minutes from the White House" - in a neighborhood "surrounded by the perpetually assured forests of Rock Creek Park and Piney Branch Parkway."

    One statement turned out not to be true: "There will be two entrances into the section from these [federal park] reservations, one from Blagden avenue and one from Piney Branch Parkway." For the first few years of the Crestwood development, Stone maintained plans to connect Crestwood with Piney Branch Parkway via the old right-of-way that today is located behind the Crestwood Apartments.

    There also were to be no alleys in the project. Instead, residents would use "a system of cunningly and artistically devised driveways leading from traversing streets to the garages."

    The Post was a sponsor of the first Crestwood exhibit home, which was opened to the public October 2, 1938. A Post story praised this home at 4220 Argyle Terrace as "beauty [and] science combined" with a kitchen so modern it was described as "a laboratory."

    A week later, the Post promoted the home’s "robot kitchen." Worth special mention was a "device whereby electricity saves the housekeeper from chapped hands and unnecessary labor." The subhead hailed this new marvel: "Novel Dishwasher In Exhibit House Delights Visitors." The concept was so new that the story needed four paragraphs to describe how the contraption worked, beginning with this explanation:

    "The dishwasher is a cabinet-like arrangement in which easy-gliding rust-proof metal dish racks are placed at convenient height for the user. When the cabinet door is closed, a perfect water seal is formed to prevent leakage during the washing and rinsing operations…"

    In a display ad from Stone and his partners, 4220 Argyle is "The Home of Tomorrow, Electrified by Westinghouse." The home’s "picturesque setting" is "a virgin forest within the city." And, as for that kitchen: "Planned as a complete wall, this kitchen is the answer to every housewife’s problem."

    The Post touted another electric wonder in the exhibit home. An article declared, "The day of home air conditioning is here." Instead of being found only "in pretentious homes," air conditioning systems "will soon be found in every home that pretends to be modern."

    In these early days of the Crestwood development, Paul Stone began a pattern: he would build a house, live in it, get an offer on it, then move on to a new home he’d built.

    Another exhibit home, at 1800 Shepherd Street, was "furnished by Colony House and draped by Wales Decorating Co." A June 1939 story about this home raved about the neighborhood’s tree cover and convenience: "Retaining its sylvan setting, this locality is, nevertheless, within walking distance of schools, stores, transportation and churches. Rigid regulations under which it was established, however, prevent an invasion of commercial, or less costly residential enterprise, perpetually assuring its rustic and select character."

    Other early display homes between 1938 and 1940 included 4210 Mathewson Drive, 4216 Mathewson Drive, 1761 Shepherd Street, 1824 Randolph Street and 1811 Upshur Street. If you are wondering about price, a 1939 ad for "The Frank S. Phillips Section of Crestwood" offered "houses from $16,850 up." Interested buyers were to visit the exhibit home at 1712 Crestwood Drive "Surrounded by Towering Oaks."

    Some of those oaks are still there, for Crestwood’s Diamond Jubilee. Happy 75th!

    Please let me also wish a happy 95th birthday to an extraordinary neighbor, Julian Dugas.Julian has lived in Crestwood since 1970 - but he's been part of the fabric of DC life for far longer. In the 1950s, just three years after being admitted to the bar, he was working on the case that overturned segregation in DC public schools, Bolling v. Sharpe, which was part of Brown v. Board of Education. He went on to fight for the rights of the city’s poor as director of the Neighborhood Legal Services Project. He was an outspoken member of the DC Board of Education. He took on neglectful landlords as head of the city’s Department of Licensing and Inspections. As director of the DC Department of Economic Development, he gave new opportunities to African Americans as both city employees and contractors. He served DC’s first mayor under home rule, Walter Washington, as his most trusted adviser and the first City Administrator. And, as a professor at the Howard University School of Law, he gave a generation of young idealists the training and inspiration they would need to become leaders in their own right. Happy birthday, Julian!

    --David Swerdloff, Trumbull Terrace

  • Tue, June 06, 2017 3:38 PM | Anonymous member

    How Carter Barron was named

    With the summer season about to begin, this week we remember a production that was designed to be staged each summer within earshot of our neighborhood (much to the chagrin of many Crestwood residents). While the show had a short run, it did give rise to the Carter Barron Amphitheatre.

    In advance of the District of Columbia’s 150th birthday as the Nation's Capital, Congress established the National Capital Sesquicentennial Commission. Lawmakers authorized the Commission to erect some sort of building or buildings to mark the anniversary in 1950. The Commission decided on an outdoor stage where a historic pageant could be shown each year during the summer months. Secretary of the Interior Oscar Chapman presided over the groundbreaking for the Sesquicentennial Amphitheatre in December 1949. The structure was completed in July, 1950 at a cost of more than $560,000.

    Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Paul Green was hired to write a dramatic play for the venue, similar to other pageants he created. In his lifetime, Green authored 16 such "symphonic dramas." The most famous one is The Lost Colony, which continues to be staged each summer in an outdoor pavilion on Roanoke Island, North Carolina. Visitors to Williamsburg, VA could see Green's production "The Common Glory" nearly every summer from 1946 to 1976. For the DC production, the playwright came up with "Faith of Our Fathers," a musical about the life of George Washington. Advertising described the show this way: "It portrays the benevolent, wise and just character of the Father of Our Country. You will be stirred by the author's capture of Washington's contribution to the fibre and strength of our original democratic concepts. You will be thrilled with the Washington story told with all the ingenuity of modern theatre: pantomime, folksong, dreams, music, choreography."

    Local actors and ordinary residents lined up to audition for roles. Professional actor Charles McClelland portrayed George Washington. But the cast member who would go on to the most fame was a veteran of Arena Stage and Olney Theater productions: playing the part of New York Governor George Clinton was Pernell Roberts, who was still nine years away from his signature role as Adam Cartwright in the television series Bonanza.

    On August 4, 1950, President Truman attended the premiere, which the Baltimore Afro-American remarked "had all the glamour and glitter of a major theatrical event." However, the newspaper said there was nothing "to rave about" on opening night "except for the singing of the Sesqui chorus and the acting of John Tate." Tate (who played William Lee, a slave who served as Washington's personal servant) was one of several African Americans in the cast. The review noted that "the period of American history presented by Mr. Green's pageant was a tragic and often horrible one, in which the words "freedom" and "liberty" sound a little ironic to the members of the race."

    The show's run that first summer was brief because of construction delays. A disappointing total of about 46,000 people came to the Sesquicentennial Amphitheatre over eight weeks. Tickets cost 90 cents for general admission; reserved seats went for $1.80 and $2.40.

    The Commission's executive vice chairman, Carter T. Barron, died November 17, 1950. A week later, the venue was renamed in his honor.

    Faith of Our Fathers returned the next summer "drastically redesigned" from the season before, according to Evening Star reviewer Jay Carmody: "New in production, lighting, music, dancing, and radically revised in script, the pageant drama bids everyone to forget the flaws and vicissitudes of last year's abbreviated run." For one thing, a large orchestra (described in various newspapers as comprising anywhere from 19 to 22 pieces) replaced the first summer's simple organ music. Still, Carmody called the production "frankly circusy in flavor, with fireworks, horses and tableaux." Tate returned as William Lee, and the new script made the part of Benjamin Banneker a speaking role. During the last performance in 1951, a disgruntled former cast member waved a pistol backstage just before the opening curtain and was arrested after threatening he was "going to get" three people working on the production.

    Many Crestwood residents signed a petition opposing a third season of Faith of Our Fathers. According to the Evening Star, neighbors complained of "loud amplification, causing sleeplessness until as late as four in the morning; rehearsals after midnight, and loud and excessive noise of patrons leaving the theater at night," plus "dust from parking areas blowing for blocks into the houses, and parking patron's cars in the neighborhood, making it impossible for guests of residents to find parking places." The Crestwood critics won the battle, but not the war. The historic pageant was not renewed. Nevertheless, after the Sesquicentennial Commission was disbanded, federal authorities allowed Carter Barron Amphitheatre to be used in future summers for ballets, musicals, concerts and even the circus.

    --David Swerdloff, Trumbull Terrace

  • Tue, June 06, 2017 3:38 PM | Anonymous member

    If you are planting a vegetable garden, this week’s Crestwood History Blog lets you know you are following a long tradition of agriculture in and around the neighborhood.

    The most patriotic use was during World War II. In 1943, the developers of Crestwood let residents use about three acres of vacant land for "victory gardens." The site was bounded by 18th Street, Shepherd Street, Argyle Terrace and Taylor Street.

    Farming in the Rock Creek valley dates back to the early 18th century. As tobacco farms exhausted the soil, farmers switched over to wheat. To serve them, millers set up shop up and down the creek. The Argyle mills attached to our neighborhood pre-date Peirce Mill, and may have been built before 1800. When Rock Creek Park was established, what was left of the Argyle mills was destroyed during the construction of Beach Drive.

    A farming settlement sprouted at a crossroads just northeast of present-day Crestwood as early as 1730. This village along Milk House Ford Road (not far from where Military Road is today) was called Crystal Spring. The name came from a spring that flowed into Rock Creek down the hill from a site just north of where the Fitzgerald Tennis Stadium is today. By 1825 the settlement would become Brightwood.

    Later in the 19th century, Thomas Blagden did some farming when he owned the Argyle estate that became Crestwood. Figures from the 1860 US Census show that his farm produced 400 bushels of Irish potatoes and ten bushels of sweet potatoes. Blagden also owned six horses, four asses or mules, 20 swine, and three milk cows that produced more than 100 pounds of butter. In addition to the milling complex, 15 buildings are identified on the property including a farmhouse, barn, ice house, gardener’s house and grapery.

    Blagden’s son, also named Thomas, was a self-proclaimed “deer farmer.” He fenced off 20 or 30 acres of the estate and raised deer, a rare creature at the time. His stock of deer grew from a pair he imported from his property in the Adirondacks in 1874. In an 1899 Washington Post interview, he said there was a market for the animals he raised, because “pretty nearly all the millionaires in the country are interested in buying deer” for their own game parks. Washingtonians would ride out to Bladgen’s Deer Park to gawk at the strange animals. In a letter Teddy Roosevelt wrote to his son Archie from the White House in June 1904, the President described how he “climbed into” the Deer Park and frightened a “pretty wee fawn, all spotted.” Teddy drew a picture of the deer to show how it “made great jumps and held its white tail straight in the air.”

    Even in 1900, an ad in the Suburban Citizen newspaper advertised more than a dozen dairies in DC, including three in Brightwood. One of them, owned by Hugh McMahon, retained the village’s early name: Crystal Spring Dairy. Tenant farmers like McMahon were allowed to lease land in Rock Creek Park until 1912 (and a few even thereafter).

    Happy gardening!

    --David Swerdloff, Trumbull Terrace

  • Tue, June 06, 2017 3:37 PM | Anonymous member

    Baseball fans: if you attend a Nationals home game, you will be close to a piece of Crestwood history. At one time, Blagden’s Wharf was located just three blocks away from where the stadium is today. Back in 1833, Thomas Blagden purchased the wharf between Third and Fourth Streets SE on the shore of what was then called the Eastern Branch of the Potomac. The wharf, along with real estate holdings and a lumber business, provided the means for Blagden to purchase his properties in Washington – including the farmstead along Rock Creek that grew into our neighborhood.

    Blagden’s son, also named Thomas Blagden, would occasionally host baseball games on the estate we now call home. As the Washington Post reported on April 24, 1901: “For the second time this season the fast playing nine of the Riggs National Bank yesterday defeated a picked team at the country place of Mr. Thomas Blagden.” Riggs broke open a 3-3 tie with eight runs in the top of the seventh inning to go on to an 11-6 victory over “the Blagdens.” As a property owner who was looking forward to developing his land, perhaps it was good business to let the banker win.

    One can only guess where Blagden might have located the playing field. Much of Crestwood has at least a gentle slope, with steep drop-offs that could claim foul balls. My best guess would put the batter’s box in the far northeastern end of the estate, where Thomas Blagden (as opposed to various other members of the family) still had title to the land in 1901. Perhaps the hitter would step up to the plate around present-day Emerson or Farragut Street facing toward the southwest. If so, one of the houses that would eventually sprout in the middle of the infield (at 4720 Sixteenth Street) would belong to Clark Griffith, the owner of the Washington Senators.

    Just to the north of our neighborhood, local baseball teams would take the field from time to time at the Brightwood Driving Park. This was a horse racing track that remained popular up to the time it was closed in 1909 when Sixteenth Street was extended right through the middle of the property (about where Kennedy Street intersects Sixteenth today). The final season of baseball at the track included a May 31, 1909 Suburban League match-up in which Brightwood defeated Petworth 9-6. The Washington Post called it “one of the most exciting contests of the season at the Brightwood driving park…First one team would take the lead, only to lose it in a few minutes. The winners were presented with a handsome silver loving cup by A. Davis after the game.”

    Play ball!

    -David Swerdloff

  • Fri, June 28, 2013 3:33 PM | Anonymous member

    Our neighborhood origins

    As the real estate market heats up, this week’s Crestwood History Blog centers on a land deal that came out of the blue in 1904 to shock our neighborhood into development.

    Thomas Blagden owned the estate that grew into Crestwood when he died without a will in February, 1870. By 1876, the property had been partitioned into about 40 lots owned by members of the Blagden family. It appeared on DC maps as the Blagden Sub-Division. The maps included small but mostly phantom roads that separated the lots. In truth, very little development on the estate had taken place for years – save, perhaps, for a home along Blagden Avenue for Thomas Blagden’s daughter Harriet and her husband, Arthur Mathewson. The main manor house and large portions of the estate were controlled by Blagden’s widow, Laura (who lived in the house until her death in 1908) and their son – also named Thomas Blagden.

    By 1904, there were indications the former estate would be ripe for development. A bridge was on the way to span the deep Piney Branch Valley and bring Sixteenth Street out from Mount Pleasant into our neighborhood. The old Washington Times reported in April, 1904: “Foreseeing the extension of Sixteenth Street, a number of years ago Mr. Blagden had accurate surveys made, and built on the line of said street, introducing at the same time city water, sewer and gas.” The trolley was coming nearby, as well, with the Capital Traction Company tracks along 14th Street open all the way to Brightwood by 1906 (accessible via Decatur Street).

    But the younger Thomas Blagden still was surprised when a real estate broker named Herbert A. Gill approached him in 1904 with an offer from patent attorney Shelton T. Cameron to buy a chunk of the estate for a whopping $17,000. The Times report called the offer “unsought by (Blagden), the property never having been placed on the market up to the present time, excepting for renting purposes.” This “lot of unusual size” was located just outside today's boundaries of Crestwood in the northeast corner of the estate along Piney Branch Road. The large tract had at its southwest corner the present-day intersection of 16th and Allison Streets.

    As the Times story related, the sale convinced Blagden “to place his property on the market” and “sell it by metes and bounds, so as to meet individual requirements of purchasers.” Mr. Cameron came back for more, purchasing ten acres of the estate along the path of Sixteenth Street for more than $80,000 in 1906. The Washington Post called the price “$4,500 more per acre than has ever been paid before for land in (the) vicinity.” On a modern map, the property would appear today bounded on the north and south by Emerson and Decatur Streets, and on the east and west by Piney Branch Road and Blagden Avenue.

    Many buyers and many builders were to follow “by metes and bounds” - with the earliest building permits in the neighborhood issued in 1910. They were all within that second parcel purchased by Cameron - on Blagden Avenue, Sixteenth Street and Decatur Street. But the First World War intervened to put off a real boom until the 1920s.

    Plans are underway to publish a book about Crestwood history to raise funds for the Crestwood Citizens Association.

    --David Swerdloff, Trumbull Terrace

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