Fifteenth Street Fashions

Other than the question whose answer is "Location! Location! Location!", the oldest real estate cliche is "Never buy the biggest house on the block". For the early owners of these Second Empire row house triplets, this was easy advice to follow. They lived across the street from Alexander Graham Bell's mansion at 1501 Rhode Island Avenue and just down the block from banking magnate W.W. Corcoran, whose ballroom had a stained glass ceiling.

These late 1870s row houses in the 1200 block of 15th Street NW lay within a golden triangle whose perimeter was formed by the blocks of Massachusetts, Vermont, and Rhode Island Avenues that connect Scott to Thomas to Logan Circle. As the Grant Administration faded into the Hayes Administration and Hayes gave way to Garfield and Arthur, some of Washington's richest families put up monumental houses along these avenues. A second eschalon of merely prosperous families lived on the triangle's interior streets in elegant houses like these. Originally, the house with the large evergreen belonged to a member of the Galt family of jewelers, while the center house was home to the family of an English hotel owner.

Perhaps it began when the Bells moved out in 1889, but, by 1910 the neighborhood was losing its chic. A few families on the avenues still lived an elegant lifestyle, such as Dr. John Simpson of 1421 Massachusetts Avenue, who employed an Irish personal servant, a German cook, a waitress, and an African-American butler. But the family in the house with the evergreen lived modestly with a single servant.

The red brick house at the north end of the row had become a rooming house, kept by Pauline Nalls, a widow from Virginia. Mrs. Nalls' six male and four female lodgers were a cross-section of white collar middle class Washington.

Except for a millinery designer and a middle-aged South Carolinian with her own income, all Ms. Nall's lodgers worked for the federal government, including a Treasury engineer, a lawyer for the Interior Department, and clerks at the Census Office, Weather Bureau, and War Department. Only one lodger hailed from the Washington area, and the household included an immigrant from Norway.

At some point after Mrs. Nalls' boarding house went out of business, our row house triplets were converted to office space. Although the north unit appears to have lost the crown on its faux-turret roof and the middle unit no longer has a stoop, they weathered their first 125 years well. For at least 30 years, the triplets were surrounded by a vast parking lot with additional frontage on the 1400 blocks of Massachusetts Avenue and N Street. In 2003, the parking lot became the site for a gigantic mixed-use project, triggering alarm about the eventual fate of the 3 houses. Today the skeleton of the huge new building towers over them. (2002-2003)

UPDATE 2007: Although massive new buildings surround the houses on two sides, they survive. In late 2006, they were included in an expansion of the Greater Fourteenth Street Historic District and are now protected as contributing buildings.

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