The first housing commissioner: Part 10, “And hoped she would be able to stay”

December 22, 2016 | Affordability, Ellen Axson Wilson, Eminent domain, George M. Sternberg, Housing, MEEs, mission entrepreneurial entities, Slums, Theodore Roosevelt, Urban renewal, Urbanization, Washington Sanitary Housing Company, Woodrow Wilson


By: David A. Smith


[Continued from the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, and Part 9.]


With the enactment of the Alley Dwelling Act of 1918, the Federal government, at the urging of General Sternberg and benefiting from the proof-of-concept rental housing developed by his Washington Sanitary Housing Company, extended itself into the business of assuring the upgrade of unsafe, unhealthy, unsanitary neighborhoods, in phrases that still have meaning and judicial authority a century later:


Control by regulatory processes having proved inadequate and insufficient to remedy the evils, it is in the judgment of Congress necessary:


1. To acquire property in the District of Columbia by gift, purchase, or the use of eminent domain in order to effectuate the declared policy by the discontinuance of the use for human habitation in the District of Columbia of buildings in alleys.


There it is – eminent domain for public welfare, and from here it will not be a long step for the post-World War II Supreme Court to find eminent domain to cure blight or merely to add jobs equally Constitutional (for half a century, anyhow).


2. Thereby to eliminate the communities in the inhabited alleys in said District.

3. To provide decent, safe, adequate, and sanitary habitations for persons or families substantially equal in number to those who are to be deprived of habitation by reason of the demolition of buildings under the terms of this subchapter.


There’s another marker – the first mention I’ve found of the phrase that would later ring in the National Housing Act of 1949: ‘decent, safe, and sanitary housing’


Baseball behind the tenements, Washington (probably Anacostia), ~1948


4. To prevent an acute shortage of decent, safe, adequate, and sanitary dwellings for persons of low income.

5. To carry out the policy declared in the Act approved May 18, 1918, as amended, of caring for the alley population in the District of Columbia.


And to that end it is necessary to enact the provisions hereinafter set forth.


From and after the Alley Dwelling Act of 1918, the government – including the Federal government – had made both affordable housing and slum clearance matters of national policy and legislation.


Clearing Lincoln Square to make Lincoln Center


Nor was that all: over the ensuing decades more and more political effort was devoted to the cause of urban upgrading.


Twenty years later [1934], Eleanor Roosevelt’s first public act as First Lady was to accompany Charlotte Everett Hopkins on a tour of the back-alley slums; she continued Ellen Wilson’s crusade for twelve years.


Charlotte Hopkins


Bates Street evolved from rental to homeownership:


Individual homes were eventually sold to tenants, and by the 1950s, an Italian immigrant population dominated Bates Street, according to Mary, who lived around the corner as a teenager and is now a homeowner there today.  Some of the former two-flat homes have been converted into single-family homes, while the majority remain two apartments owned by one of the occupants.


Some are still two-family: note the dual entrances and dual meters


While the shutters are long gone, the street widened, and the wooden bay windows covered with siding, the street remains a charming and desirable place to live, with a past as affordable rental housing that will likely surprise even a long-time resident of the neighborhood.


What a century ago was improved economy has now become part of Washington’s urban architectural character:


A legacy in streetscape: the Baste Street Civic Association



Sources used in this post


An Act To incorporate the Washington Sanitary Housing company (Library of Congress, April 23,1904; pickle font)

The History and Development of the Housing Movement in the City of Washington, DC, by George M. Kober, 1907 (lavender font)

Report of the Committee on Building of Model Houses, George Mr. Sternberg (1908); more President’s Homes Commission materials here

Letter to Committee on District of Columbia, January 20, 1910 (cinnabar font)

George Miller Sternberg, a biography, Martha Sternberg, May, 1920 (deep purple font)

Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume I; Blanche Wiesen Cook (buff blue font)

America’s First Ladies, Nancy Hendricks (burnt umber font)

Washington Post (July 25, 1996; charcoal font)

Assessment of Ellen Wilson Dwellings HOPE VI (2001; seaweed font)

The House History Man blog, February 23, 2012, Paul K. Williams

Washington Post (November 3, 2013; emerald font)



And what of Ellen Wilson and her legacy?  In 1941, under president Franklin Roosevelt, the Federal government embarked on its most ambitious slum clearance effort ever, and in southeast Washington it demolished alleyway slums to erect modern public housing that it named after Ellen Wilson:


Ellen Wilson Dwellings, one of the first public housing developments in Washington, was constructed in 1941 on the site of former slum alley dwellings not far from the U.S. Capitol. 


Ellen Wilson Dwellings, 1941


The development consisted largely of low-rise (two- and three-story), garden-style apartment buildings of concrete and brick construction. There was also one block of row houses. The original development contained a total of 205 units and occupied less than 20% of a five-acre site, with the remaining land left as open space.


In terms of space, sanitation, and structure, it was a huge upgrade over what had been before, but like so many government properties it succumbed to the ribbon-cutting illusion: that once built properly, it would thereafter naturally rise. 


The project planners made little effort to integrate the development into the surrounding Capitol Hill neighborhood, where street-front row houses are the prevalent residential building type.


Oscar Newman would deplore the lack of defensible space, and that, plus its socioeconomic isolation, gradually doomed Ellen Wilson Dwellings.


Most of the Ellen Wilson structures faced the interior of the development, with landscaped courtyards at the center.


Nearly all the legacy public housing built between 1940 and 1965 repeated those same mistakes of location (out-of-sight out-of-mind), layout (isolated and disconnected), design (institutional), and ownership (bureaucratic and non-entrepreneurial) – and like so much of that malformed inventory, Ellen Wilson Dwellings was boarded up (1988) and eventually demolished, as reported in the Washington Post (July 25, 1996; charcoal font):


Just the right side of the expressway: the Townhomes at Capitol Hill


The gutted shell at Sixth Street and Virginia Avenue SE collapsed without much of a fight one afternoon in late May, leaving the impression, in ten minutes and a cloud of dust, that the easiest part of building the new Ellen Wilson Dwellings was leveling the old.


“Man, it’s coming down like match sticks,” exclaimed D.C. public housing receiver David Gilmore, watching as two backhoes made short work of the brick carcass.


Mr. Gilmore – whom I’ve worked with briefly and like a great deal – was the authority’s court-appointed receiver, a position in which you make few friends from among your colleagues, is of the generation of housing professionals whose careers began against the backdrop of public housing’s failures.  In his case, he was the receiver of choice, moving from one horribly dysfunctional authority to another.  After his DC stint, he relocated to the Big Easy.


David Gilmore at the end of his receivership of the Housing Authority of New Orleans, 2014


Before he left, he and others oversaw the remaking of the Ellen Wilson Dwellings streetscape:


And Amy Weinstein, the architect, will never again underestimate the complexity of wiping two alleys off the District’s official street map and adding two new block-long streets, Ellen Wilson Place and I Street SE, which will run through the rebuilt Ellen Wilson Dwellings from Sixth to Seventh streets SE.


Ellen Wilson Place, which will be classified as an alley on the city’s official street map, will be so narrow, with parking on both sides, that it will have room for just one lane of traffic. It will, in fact, offer a new type of streetscape, with seven carriage-house duplexes on each side separated by small side gardens.


Seventeen years after Ellen Wilson’s name was taken off housing whose outcome she would have abhorred, its physical and political heir has returned to a vision not unlike General Sternberg’s, as reported in the Washington Post (November 3, 2013; emerald font):


In January 1999, when Juanita Jones became one of the first residents of the Townhomes on Capitol Hill and moved into her newly constructed townhouse on Capitol Hill, a federally funded project that replaced the abandoned Ellen Wilson public housing project with mixed-income townhouses, she kissed the floors, the walls and the doors, and hoped she would be able to afford to stay. 


And somewhere, the spirit of George M. Sternberg is smiling now.


That is, if he ever smiled: George Sternberg, 1869