Square 54 has a long, dynamic history that predates its current use as a mixed residential/retail development in the heart of Foggy Bottom. In fact, the tract of land was first owned by Robert Peter, identified in the 1800 census, during a time when Washington, D.C. was still considered mostly unrefined swampland [SEE FIG. 1]. Many of the leaders of the newly formed United States wrinkled their noses at moving to Washington. However despite the general feelings of trepidation about the new capital Robert Peter, a powerful local man, was the first to acquired a large portion of Foggy Bottom including Square 54 (Sherwood 1974 p.10). Peter was an early tobacco tycoon, using his fortune to buy up land in and around the new capital city. His success in the tobacco industry meant he not only possessed a great deal of wealth, but also a great deal of power (Macmaster 1966 p.16). Peter became the first mayor of Georgetown in 1789 and even married his son to a granddaughter of Martha Washington. The Peters were considered one of “Washington’s ‘first families’, the capital equivalent of Boston’s Brahmins and New York’s Knickerbockers” (Jacobs, 1995, p. 29). This powerful lineage is the first known ownership of Square 54 in the new capital.
The first significant sign of change after the Peter’s family appeared in the form of a particular bill of sale shows that a portion of land within Square 54 was sold to a man of color. In 1823, John Rumney sold a one-story home to James Curren [SEE FIG. 2]. Of particular note in this deed is that Curren was a free man of color. The home was sold for thirty dollars, and the city finalized the sale within two weeks of the deed being executed. This transaction shows how early Washington, D.C. government was seemingly accepting of free African-Americans in the city, despite having many slave owners and being so close to the legendary tobacco plantations of Virginia. The significance of this is not just that Washington officials would allow a free black man to own property, but more importantly that he would be allowed to own property in an area considered prestigious and valuable, near many wealthy and prominent white families. However, the state of the home and the price are suspect, as it is described as a ‘framed dwelling’, which indicates a lower standard of living than similar homes in the neighborhood. In spite of the questionable state of the house, the transaction itself represents a shift in the function of Square 54, from the plantation of a wealthy businessman to the home of a free man of color.
As the country transitioned into its first major war since the Revolutionary War, Square 54’s function changed again as well. A lithograph from 1865 of Camp Fry, by Charles Mangus, shows a rich visual narrative of what Square 54 was like during the Civil War [SEE FIG. 3]. The government used Square 54 to help aid in the war effort in D.C., creating Camp Fry in a somewhat clandestine effort that was not reported to Congress until the war’s end. The camp did not support the efforts on the battlefields, but rather housed veterans and invalids who protected the federal government within the city. Camp Fry illustrates not only the function of Square 54 during the war but also a period in time when Washington was on the cusp of modernization. The war shaped Washington and by extend Square 54 to the point where, “by the time the Civil War had convulsed the capital with the overwhelming demands on its physical plant, Washington had achieved the framework for modernization” (Gillette, 1995, p. 26).
After the war ended Square 54 was swept up in reconstruction, promptly becoming a housing district for the ever growing city population. An 1879 map shows property assessments across Washington, D.C. at the time [SEE FIG. 4]. According to this map the population around Square 54 had grown introducing a new and mixed group of individuals including not only wealthy alongside working class but also a large increase in alley dwelling. It seems that development was truly coming to Square 54 and Foggy Bottom. The first of the Plat Maps in 1887 shows changes over nearly 80 years, until 1965 [SEE FIG. 5]. These maps clearly show another major change in both populous and function of Square 54. After the Civil Service Act of 1883 the area began to attract government workers which eventually led to the elimination of the crowded alleyway housing.
Another Reconstruction-era dwelling in Square 54 was St. Paul’s Church. An 1887 painting depicts the rise of the Episcopal Church in Washington under the English Oxford movement [SEE FIG. 6]. The Episcopal Church appealed to a wide variety of citizens because it preserved some important traditions of Catholicism while still maintaining an Anglican point of view (Ryan, 1933, p.43). This was important in a neighborhood with a mixed, immigrant population. The painting shows an area of the city that is still very much in development, with some unpaved streets and trees that had just been planted. The progress in under half a century however is astonishing especially when one looks at the 1920 Potomac Power records [SEE FIG.7]. These records show enormous increases in apartment buildings and public utilities in the Square 54 area. It seems that by the 20th century, Foggy Bottom was firmly established in the industrial age.
According to a road atlas survey in 1920 the major purpose of Square 54 shifted again, this time from booming residential area to the prominent Columbia Hospital that would eventually be the teaching hospital for George Washington University [SEE FIG. 8]. The teaching hospital had been established in 1821, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that George Washington University, formerly known as the Columbia University was running its operations. However by 1912, the building was badly in need of repair with many calling for its tear down. The prominent need for a better medical facility, rather than the stopgap fixes that had been applied to the old hospital, became apparent. “While the introduction of another hospital strengthened the character and quality of Foggy Bottom’s institutions, it threatened the existence of one of Foggy Bottom’s oldest churches” (Sherwood 1973 p. 39). As World War I ended and the city was looking towards future progress, the decaying hospital could not be the flagship institution that would sustain Square 54.
In the 1950’s, the George Washington University (GWU) Hospital was rebuilt in Square 54, meeting the need to replace the older hospital. Women began giving birth in hospitals almost exclusively, many employers were offering health insurance for the first time, and thus the capacity of modern hospitals had to keep up with demand (Thomasson and Treber, 2008, p. 77 and Buchmueller and Monheit, 2009, p. 188). In a postcard sent in 1955 a man described his stay at the George Washington University hospital for several weeks [SEE FIG. 9]. The postcard illustrated the important overall shift in Americans attitude towards intensive medical treatment, and extensive care. In general the public began trusting doctors and seeking extensive care more to meet their medical needs. In fact, the note points out that the GWU Hospital patient intended to continue his treatment at home. This postcard reiterates the importance of the hospital as a major component of the neighborhood in the mid-20th century, making Foggy Bottom not only a modern part of the city but also a crucial part in aiding the sick and injured.
The GWU Hospital represented the last major change in Square 54, shifting the neighborhood from its working class roots to one dominated by government and higher education workers. According to the Plat maps by this time, the former “alleyway” housing was long-gone and even single-family homes occupied by working class people were being turned into high-density residences for more of a professional class [SEE FIG. 5].
In a 1978 oral history, Dr. Seymour Alpert discusses his tenure at George Washington University, and mentions the construction of the hospital as a major turning point in the history of the neighborhood [SEE FIG. 10]. Alpert points to a notable decline of industrial jobs in the neighborhood in its early 20th century history, leading to “prevalent substandard conditions” (Sherwood, 1978, p. 22). Alpert points out that the hospital was not the only change, but it was a large impetus that pushed other improvement projects. The downside of this effort was pushing out many blue-collar and African-American residents away from Square 54 and Foggy Bottom, and this created class tensions between local residents and those who worked for the university. This demographic shift has continued to this day, with Square 54 now turned into a luxury high rise.
An undesirable swamp land when it was first bought in the Revolutionary era, Square 54 has kept pace with American history. As Foggy Bottom has gone from one of the first neighborhoods accepting of African-Americans to the cries of gentrification and wealth, Square 54 is an example of that change. Exhibiting how one area can be utilized for such vastly different purposes within a relatively short period of time. From a tobacco plant to a frame house to a makeshift war camp, along with several different hospitals, and finally a luxury development. On a single city square, it seems that history can be made.
Research, interpretation, and text by Ellie Davis, Elias Garfinkle, Nick DiNella, Greg Hall (2014) and Nora Douglas, Sarah Hilton, Margaret Hofstadter, and Anna Liu (2015).
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