History

INTRODUCTION

Named for the 18th-century country estate that preceded it, Eckington is a late 19th-century and early 20th-century neighborhood in the near northeast section of Washington, DC. Currently bounded by Florida Avenue on the south, Rhode Island Avenue on the north, North Capitol Street on the west and the railroad tracks on the east, the well-defined neighborhood actually comprises a series of older residential subdivisions, including High View, McLaughlin’s Subdivision, Eckington, West Eckington and Center Eckington.

The most prominent of these, historically, was Eckington, a residential subdivision platted in 1887 and developed by real estate entrepreneur George Truesdell. Truesdell laid the streets and provided the initial infrastructure, including most notably the Eckington and Soldiers’ Home streetcar line. The streetcar not only provided the rapid transportation that was vital for any 19th century suburban community, but it also allowed for electric lights for the streets and individual residences, a sought-after amenity for any new neighborhood.

As Eckington experienced immediate success, Truesdell expanded his vision and inspired others to do the same. By the end of the 19th century, the residents of the disparate collection of subdivisions in the area banded together to form the North Capitol and Eckington Citizens Association, thereby creating the community that persists today.

In the decades after its initial development, the Eckington neighborhood ebbed and flowed, as the population increased, but the land area decreased when the federal government condemned acres of land in order for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to establish its freight yards there. These freight yards encouraged the growth of private industry, thereby causing the creation of one of the few industrial clusters in the city. The successful commingling of a residential neighborhood and industrial corridor is unique to this city and fully characterizes the Eckington neighborhood today.


PRE-SUBURBAN HISTORY/DEVELOPMENT

“One of the cows, indeed, which we overtook strolling or grazing along the edge of the road, cast a suspicious glance with a momentary alarm, lest she should attempt to cross our path; but, luckily, she forthwith took a direction from the road instead of crossing it, and we were let off for the fright.”

When Mr. Joseph Gales, Jr. (1786-1860) described his first train ride between Baltimore and Washington following the opening of the B&O Railroad in August 1835, he would have already been familiar with the “well wooded and watered” countryside approaching Washington from the northeast.

For while Gales, mayor of Washington from 1827-1830, and co-owner and editor of the National Intelligencer lived in the city at Lafayette Square across from the President’s House, he spent summers and weekends at his country estate “Eckington” just north of the city limits. Gales had purchased the 112-acre parcel of land in 1815, named it for the village of Eckington in England where he was born, and thereupon built a large dwelling at the height of a hill at the present site of Third and T Streets, NE.

Located north of Florida Avenue (the city’s original boundary) and east of North Capitol Street, Eckington was one of a series of estates built by Washington’s elite in the early 19th century, forming a ring around the outer edge of the city’s L’Enfant Plan. In the immediate vicinity of Joseph Gales’ “Eckington” were W.W. Corcoran’s “Trinidad,” Amos Kendall’s “Kendall Green”, and the Pearson (later Patterson) family’s “Brentwood”.

Following Joseph Gales’ death in 1860, his Eckington house was used as a hospital during the Civil War and later became a popular picnic ground. In 1873, the bucolic nature of the property saw the first of future changes when the B&O Railroad opened its Metropolitan Branch between Point of Rocks, Maryland and Washington, DC. The Metropolitan branch line entered the city from the north, bisecting the Eckington estate with its railroad tracks. The B&O Railroad’s “Eckington” station soon established itself at New York and Florida Avenues, engendering the first industrial development in the area and inspiring the future growth of Eckington.

George H. Truesdell, on the Eckington and Soldiers’ Home Railway and the Subdivision of Eckington:
“Approaches and the streets of Eckington are illuminated every night by means of 135 electric lights, of twenty-five candle power, and the scene viewed from the top of the hill, upon which the manor house stands is a brilliant and fascinating spectacle.”

The real catalyst for the development of Eckington came, however, not from the inter-city B&O railroad that spurred the development of suburbs along its route, but from the city’s first streetcar line, the Eckington and Soldiers’ Home Railway. George H. Truesdell (1842-1921), first president and organizing force behind the streetcar line, had come to Washington in 1872 and immediately became involved in the real estate and construction business. Recognizing the real estate potential for Eckington, just beyond the city’s limits, Truesdell seized the opportunity to develop a close-in suburb and to provide the all-important streetcar access to it.

In May 1887, Truesdell purchased the surviving 87-acre Eckington estate including the still-extant manor house. He then subdivided the property into streets, squares and lots for residential development. The plat included 23 blocks or squares divided into large-sized 50′ x 100′ suburban sized lots, located to either side of the B&O Railroad tracks and bounded on the east by Brentwood Road and on the west by Eckington Place, with two of the blocks (Blocks 1 and 2) located south of New York Avenue. Block 7 to the west of the track and at the northern end of the subdivided land included the former Gales’ house.

As dictated by law according to the Permanent Highway Plan established in 1887 for developments outside of the city limits, the streets of Eckington were laid in conformance with those within the city, becoming an extension of the L’Enfant Plan. Truesdell thus extended certain streets beyond Florida Avenue: Second, Third and Fourth Streets, and S and T Streets, thereby retaining the existing street names and numbers for the major streets and adding Randolph Place, Seaton Place and Thomas Place (later Todd Place) for the minor streets. The inspiration for the names Randolph and Thomas are not clear; Seaton however, was likely named for William Seaton who was the brother-in-law of Joseph Gales, Jr. and his co-editor at the National Intelligencer.

Simultaneously and with every intention of providing rapid transport to and from the city center to his emerging residential neighborhood, Truesdell established the Eckington and Soldiers’ Home Railway. In October 1888, the Eckington line opened as the city’s first electric streetcar line, just seven months after electric streetcar service was first introduced to the nation in Richmond, Virginia.

The line, which began downtown at the intersection of Seventh Street and New York Avenue, ran eastward on New York Avenue to Third Street, NE then continued north on Third Street to Boundary Street (Florida Avenue), eventually reaching the heart of Truesdell’s new residential subdivision in Eckington where it terminated at the car house at Fourth Street and T Streets, NE. Overhead cables strung between poles erected alongside the tracks powered these first electric streetcars, or “trolleys.” However, from the beginning, the idea of aboveground poles and electric wires within the city limits was controversial as they were considered a visual blight to the nation’s capital.

Despite heated discussion, Congress agreed to not revoke the already granted permit to the Eckington and Soldiers’ Home Railway to build its streetcar line with aboveground poles, but it immediately passed a law banning the future erection of overhead wires within the city limits. Congress further required that any poles already permitted had to be completed in a short time frame. In order to comply with the new law, the Eckington and Soldiers’ Home Railway company was forced to complete the line “hastily” prior to the new law taking effect, prompting The Washington Post to report on September 12, 1888:
“The construction of the Eckington & Soldiers’ Home Electric Railroad is being pushed forward as rapidly as possible so as to get the poles all set and the wires up before September 15, the limit set by the law for the erection of overhead wires in this city. The work is being done so hastily that many of the poles will not stand very straight at first, but they will be straightened up after the road has been finished.”

The opening of the city’s first electric streetcar service brought with it great excitement, drawing an estimated five thousand passengers on the first day. The newspaper coverage of the event, which did not lack for detail, fully described the design and color of the streetcars:
“The prevailing color of the new car is bright orange. . . . The rounded guards that inclose [sic] the platforms are painted yellow and bear in gold letters the words, ‘New York avenue, passenger and freight station of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’. Along the side of the car, under the high, wide windows, is a belt of bright green, on which is the number of the car and the name of the road.”

Fully aware that rapid transportation was the key to success in developing a residential suburb, George Truesdell divided his time equally between his two endeavors. Within two years, the Eckington and Soldiers’ Railway had been granted its first extensions, providing uninterrupted service from Eckington to the city’s downtown financial district north to the Soldiers’ Home. For these extensions in the city where overhead lines and poles were now banned, Truesdell again introduced a first by developing and patenting an innovative storage battery system for propelling the new streetcars. At the same time, Truesdell was completing the laying and grading of the streets and beginning the construction of houses in Eckington.


BEAUTIFUL ECKINGTON

“Energy and capital were not spared by Mr. George Truesdell, the promoter of this enterprise, and the results were soon apparent when beautiful villas on commanding sites began to rise, as if by magic from the very bowels of the earth.” (From The Washington Post, December 7, 1890.)

By 1890, Truesdell’s subdivision of Eckington was already being hailed by the local press as “Beautiful Eckington” and Truesdell himself was being compared to Baron Haussman, the famous 19th century Parisian city planner. Eckington’s streets, cut and laid with asphalt, were illuminated with electric lights that were powered by the streetcar powerhouse, the sidewalks were laid in bluestone and lined with a variety of shade trees, and the curbs were cut of granite. A series of artesian wells were dug at the north end of the property providing pure drinking water to the residents.

For his subdivision, Truesdell clearly envisioned a suburban residential neighborhood of dwellings with all of the necessary services as well as special amenities. To that end, Truesdell planned and began the conversion of the former Gales Mansion into a hotel to attract potential residents to his new suburb and prevailed upon the city Commissioners to deny permits in Eckington “for the sale of liquor, or the transaction of other business.” In addition, Truesdell promoted owner-occupied, over rental, residences in Eckington and, though it never came to fruition, offered the donation of lots in the subdivision for the construction of a public hall and library.

To set the architectural tone for the neighborhood and encourage lot sales, Truesdell initiated the development of Eckington by building the subdivision’s first houses. By the spring of 1891, eighteen houses that were considered “models of architectural beauty” had been erected and occupied. For the most part, these first residences were freestanding Queen Anne-style frame “cottages” clad with a variety of shingles and weatherboard siding, and replete with porches, turrets and towers.

According to the local press at the time, “None of the houses at Eckington can be rented, but they are constructed upon the most approved plans of modern architects, to become the permanent residences of their owners, the prices for these homes ranging from $10,000 upwards, according to the size and location. . . .”

The same article identifies some of the owners of the new residences that included a former District Commissioner, an Episcopal minister, professionals in the Patent Office and the Department of the Navy, and the manager and builder of the subdivision, John H. Lane.

John H. Lane, architect and builder, collaborated with George Truesdell in Eckington and built many of the original “cottages,” including his own house at 1725 Third Street. Most of these early houses were located along Second and Third Streets and along S Street and Seaton Street, in the blocks just south of the subdivision’s high point and site of the future Eckington Hotel located in the former Gales mansion. These first houses enjoyed large lots and exceptional views. According to an account in The Washington Post:
“From the high ground upon which the houses are situated a panorama can be witnessed that is probably unexcelled anywhere in the world. Looking to the south . . . can be seen Kendall Green, the Capitol and the Washington Monument, while north, east, and west the verdure-clad hills of Maryland and Virginia form a suitable frame for such a beautiful picture.”

The early wood frame houses of Eckington garnered particular praise from the press, and even engendered special treatment from the law. As development spread beyond the city limits during the late 19th century, the District Commissioners extended the boundaries of the city’s fire limit. This limit, which banned the construction of wood frame structures, was deliberately gerrymandered around Eckington in an effort to “preserve the future character of the building conforming to those already built”.

Based upon the early success of Eckington due largely to the electric streetcar line leading to it from the heart of the city, George Truesdell expanded his vision, and in 1891 platted “West Eckington.” This second subdivision included 13 acres north of Florida Avenue to R Street and from Lincoln Avenue to Eckington Place.

In subdividing “West Eckington,” Truesdell was able to capitalize on the newly established street plan for the city beyond Florida Avenue and its improvements, including the already asphalted Lincoln Avenue and R Street, and the newly established Truxton Circle. Truxton Circle, improved around 1900 with a central water fountain and landscaped parterres, became the perfect centerpiece for the lots in West Eckington that fanned out in an arc around the circle itself. Truesdell’s West Eckington, along with three more subdivisions by other – “Center Eckington,” and the earlier “H.J. McLaughlin’s Subdivision” and “High View” – completed the platting of the formerly rural and wooded landscape around Joseph Gales’ estate.

By establishing the Eckington and Soliders’ Home streetcar line, Truesdell had enabled this outlying area to become part of the city. So, rather than the suburban setting of frame cottages that Truesdell had planned for “Eckington,” he established a more urban subdivision in “West Eckington” consisting of narrower urban lots ranging in width from 20 to 30 feet. Unlike the large lots of Eckington that inspired the rise of freestanding dwellings with views all around, these lots necessarily catered to the urban row house building form. Also, since the lots would fall within the city’s expanded fire limit, the houses built upon them were all built of brick and stone.

The houses of West Eckington, begun in earnest in 1892, mirrored those of other emerging neighborhoods in DC. Rows of two and three-story brick dwellings designed in vernacular expressions of the Queen Anne and other late Victorian styles filled the streetscapes of Florida Avenue, Q, Quincy and R Streets.

Despite the similarity of design to houses elsewhere in the District, Truesdell apparently encouraged the experimentation of creative construction techniques that would likely be praised as “green” architecture today. As described in an article on the city’s real estate market in The Washington Post:
Plans have been submitted to a number of contractors for bids on the twenty-one houses to be built by Col. George Truesdell, on R Street, between First and North Capitol, at a cost of $150,000. The houses, which will be for rent, will be unique. The fronts will be of orange red shingle, tile, and light non-absorbing brick, trimmed with terra cotta. They will be made soundproof by the use between the floors of eelgrass quilt. The joists will be cross-firred with cork between the bearings. Everything will be done in the most substantial manner.”

John Lane continued his role as builder in West Eckington illustrating his versatility of style that ranged from the individual freestanding Queen Anne cottages in Eckington to the rows of brick dwellings in West Eckington. Although Lane often worked as the architect and builder, other times he collaborated with architects. At the same time, other speculative builders were also moving in, and after purchasing large and small groupings of lots, were themselves designing and building new rows of dwellings.

While the urban row house building form was at first limited to West Eckington, it was beginning in the first decade of the 20th century, to spread into Eckington. The originally platted 50′ lots were subdivided in half and sometimes into thirds and brick row houses began to rise next to the still new frame cottages.

Ever the entrepreneur, George Truesdell, in 1901, introduced the first apartment buildings into Eckington. Working in tandem with German architect Albert Goenner and his favorite builder, John Lane, Truesdell built the three-story brick Owasco apartment building at the intersection of R Street and Lincoln Road, NE. At the intersection of Eckington Place and R Street, Truesdell collaborated with architect George S. Cooper to build the Onandago Apartments.

In June 1894, in what presaged future setbacks to the subdivision, the Eckington Hotel, filled at the time with 60 guests, was largely destroyed by fire. The main section of the hotel (the original mansion house) was salvaged and the hotel additions rebuilt, but it was not to last. Two years after re-opening as a hotel, Truesdell sold the property for use as a women’s college. Known as Washington College for Ladies, the college operated on the site for at least a decade, providing a wonderful venue for plays, teas and other fetes, often noted in the papers. At one of the college-sponsored lawn parties in 1900, The Washington Post reported,

“The grounds of the college, with the wide terraces, closely cropped grass and well-kept shrubbery, make an ideal scene for an outdoor fete . . . Winsome schoolgirls, in the softest and daintiest of summer creations, flitted here and there and welcomed the guests.”


THE ECKINGTON CIVIC ASSOCIATION AND THE GROWTH OF A COMMUNITY

From the start, this association has been made up of active men deeply interested in the improvement of the Eckington and Bloomingdale subdivisions, and they have given their time and efforts to the public good . . . in the paving of streets, the erection of school houses and the betterment of transit facilities.” (“The North Capitol and Eckington Citizens’ Association,” The Washington Times, September 13, 1903.)

Initially, to jumpstart the development of Eckington, George Truesdell provided all of the necessary amenities and perks. However, beginning in 1895, he began to withdraw his personal commitment to the subdivision. The rapid transportation that he had introduced was beset with problems as the law banning overhead poles and wires within the city limits came into effect. Until a new method of underground propulsion was perfected, the Eckington line suffered under experimental systems and even a return for a while to horse-drawn service. Eckington residents became frustrated with the long commute that required two transfers and slow service.

As the problems mounted, Truesdell began to extricate himself from his ownership, selling services such as the streetcar line and electricity and managing to get the city to take over others. Not contenting themselves to criticize alone, the residents of the various subdivisions of Eckington and adjacent subdivisions banded together as the North Capitol and Eckington Citizens Association, building and promoting the disparate groups of residential houses into a community. Formed in 1896, the association was a major force behind continued improvements to the neighborhood.

In 1896-97, in one of its first major acts, the Association, in its call for fire protection, secured a firehouse for the neighborhood, noted for its “artistic architectural design.” The Association pushed the School Board to build two schools for Eckington – Eckington School and Emery School, as well as a third school for the residents of Bloomingdale.

In addition, the Association successfully fought against the District Commissioner’s proposal to replace the neighborhood’s electric streetlights with gas ones, and although it was never carried out, the Association also sought to build a neighborhood public hall and library. The organization held a popular annual garden contest, inspiring the landscaping and maintenance of the area’s private yards and public open spaces.

The Eckington Presbyterian Church, built in 1905 at North Capitol and Q Streets and Florida Avenue at Truxton Circle stood as a major landmark of Eckington prior to its demolition. The Presbyterian congregation began in 1890 in a house on the west side of North Capitol Street, but eventually built its church on the east side of the street at Truxton Circle.


UNION STATION AND THE RISE OF INDUSTRY IN ECKINGTON

That portion of Eckington near the railroad is rapidly adjusting itself for the future, as is evidenced by the warehouses rapidly going up. . . .” (The Washington Times, 12/10/1905.)

As part of the 1901 Senate Park Commission Plan (McMillan Commission Plan) for the District of Columbia, a new “union” station was planned for the city whereby the individual railroad lines would enter the city at a single station, Union Station, to be built at Massachusetts Avenue and North Capitol Street.

As part of that plan, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company whose Metropolitan Branch line ran through Eckington was authorized to expand its holdings there and build its extensive Freight Yards and Depot on the site. As implemented over the course of the next few years, the freight yards spanned the area between Eckington Place and Brentwood Road thereby obliterating the entire eastern section of the original Eckington subdivision and requiring the displacement of houses and people.

Despite the anticipated damages, the residents of Eckington recognized the overall benefit of the plan to the city and only sought minor concessions, including the retention of Quincy and R Streets between Second and Third Streets, NE; the construction of a wall along Eckington Place, NE to shield the residential neighborhood from the tracks; the construction of the freight depot south of Q Street; and the erection of a bridge across the tracks at T Street. At least one of these concessions – the bridge over the tracks at T Street – was honored, while others, such as the wall along Eckington Place, were not. As it turned out, instead of a wall separating the residential neighborhood from the railroad tracks, a number of industrial concerns sprang up, creating a buffer and merging residential with industrial that ultimate gave the neighborhood the character it has today.

Before the 1907 completion of the B&O Freight lines and depot, the still undeveloped lots of Eckington located along the new eastern edge of the subdivision, on the west side of the freight lines, were ripe for commercial and industrial development dependent upon the railroad. Although the Daish & Son feed dealers had been operating in Eckington since 1894, the McDowell Mill and Feed Company was considered the industrial pioneer of 20th-century Eckington when it built several substantial buildings along the line in 1905. Within that same year, the building firm of Barber & Ross Company established its iron and steel department at Fifth and V Streets and Malnati Stoneworks built its plant just north of this.

Two years later, in 1907, the Schlitz Brewing Company built its brewing plant on the south side of Randolph Place and the National Biscuit Company built its manufacturing plant and an adjacent stable across the street. The Biscuit company, which advertised heavily for its famous Uneeda Biscuits, built a siding extending up Randolph Place giving the biscuit plant direct connection with the railroad. In 1908-09, Randolph Place garnered particular attention when Paul Bartlett, a famous sculptor hired to design and sculpt the pediment of the House of Representatives, built his studio on the street (no longer standing). By 1909, Eckington was considered to be the heart of the city’s rising industrial and manufacturing center.

For several decades, the rail lines continued to promulgate industrial growth in Eckington. In 1912, Judd & Detweiler, printers constructed the first of several printing presses in Eckington, and in 1925 built a home for the National Geographic, whose magazine Judd & Detweiler had been printing since 1896. In the 1920s, the Sanitary Grocery Company truly established the area as an industrial one when it erected two large, four-story warehouses and bakery buildings in Eckington to accommodate its growing business enterprise.

The industrial growth remained confined to the edges of the tracks and did not deter the continued residential construction in Eckington. By then, however, the former freestanding frame dwellings of the Eckington subdivision were a thing of the past as rows of two- and three-story brick row houses began to surround the once isolated suburban houses. Stylistically, there were changes, too, as Victorian row house forms gave way to more transitional and more purely Colonial Revival-style dwellings.

The commingling of residential and industrial was not all seamless, however. In 1906, residents of Randolph Place and surrounding streets signed a petition complaining that a nearby stable was a “public nuisance and a drawback to the community.” The residents argued that “the odor arising from the stable is almost unbearable, and that the workmen cause a disturbance with their loud talking and laughter. . . .”

The continued residential growth of Eckington and the surrounding area demanded new amenities, namely schools, and in 1926 McKinley High School was built at Second and T Streets. When built, the school was located on a commanding site near Eckington’s highest ground and across from the then still-standing Gales Mansion. In 1932, however, after extensive fire damage, the old Gales mansion was demolished. Still, despite demolition of this first phase in the history of Eckington, the area’s many layered history is readily discernible in its combination of residential and industrial buildings unique in the city.

A commercially printed brochure containing this narrative  – along with photos and captions – can be viewed as a PDF. A black and white version formatted for letter-sized paper is also available as a PDF.

The original narrative featured on this page, Paul K. Williams’ “A Brief History of Eckington” (including photos), is still available as a PDF.