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"You have then received a letter from your brother?" inquired I.
"No," said he, "and that especially makes me uneasy."
"But how do you know that he is suffering?"
"Because, for the last few days I have been suffering myself."
"Excuse my never-ending inquiries, but that does not explain the cause."
"Do you not know that we are twins?"

-Alexander Dumas, The Corsican Brothers (1845)

If Lucien the Corsican feudist was pinked with a foe's sword and Louis, the Parisian philanthropist writhed in pain, it was a message of hope. It tells us that family and blood ties run far deeper than the circumstances which separated the de Franchi twins once they were parted by a surgeon's knife.

These twins of the 900 block of R Street NW were born identical but lead lives as different as Lucien and Louis. Beginning in the Grant or Hayes Administration, a remarkable row of perhaps 10 houses stretched up R Street from the corner of 9th Street to mid-block. This row was not a string of identical houses. Rather, it was an integrated design suggesting a single, palace-like structure. While each house in the row had elegant lines, the middle and end houses were larger, set slightly closer to the street, and had higher, more elaborate rooflines to suggest towers at the end of wings. The easternmost house had what is the apparent name of the row, Arlington Terrace, carved in stone just above the first story.

The pictured twins are the "bookends" of the row. In closeup, the westernmost house's window frames show the abundant detail which characterizes the row. The eyebrows above the third floor windows have curved lower edges while those on the second floor have points.

But, if Dumas' twin theory is to be believed, what pangs of anguish the westernmost house must have felt at the calamities that have befallen its eastern twin!"

The last sentence is more true today then when it was written in March. On Saturday, August 17th, 2002, the fates finally caught up with 901 R St NW. By the next afternoon, it was an anonymous brick-strewn lot turning to dusty yellowish clay in the August sun.

The article that appeared in Sunday's Washington Post suggested that 901 was built about 1900. It was considerably older. In 1880, it was the home of Otis Presbry, "lawyer and solicitor", his wife Sarah, their 15 year old son John, three "government clerk" lodgers , and Anna Robinson and Irene Johnson, live-in servants who were likely born slaves in Virginia. In fact, at that time every house in the Arlington Terrace row was owned by a White householder who employed at least one Black female servant on a live-in basis.

John Haase has noted that, as the century turned, Washington was on the way to becoming "the undisputed capital of black America. It had the largest black population of any city in the country and it was the leading center for African American culture." Although the rest of Arlington Row had White occupants, in 1910 901 R was owned by William McNeil, a 32 year old physician of "Mixed" race. The McNeil household included Dr. McNeil's parents, two younger sisters who were public school teachers, and a younger brother. The McNeils also rented accommodations to the Rowe family, in which the father was a Treasury Department "copyist" and the son a typist in the school system.

During the years surrounding World War I, Washington had truely acceeded to its brief reign as the African-American cultural capital, and the Arlington Terrace Row became a bastion of the emerging Black middle class. Although few new householders could match the mc Neils'accomplishments, they were skilled laborers, chauffeurs, government messengers or clerks, who lived with lodgers and extended family.

9th Street Profiles:

Above, March, 2002;

Below, August 18, 2002

In the years following World War I, the new music that was sweeping the country made 901 R Street a community landmark. By 1920, its owner was Louis Thomas, a 28 year old native Washingtonian who had gained notice as a ragtime pianist and gave his occupation as "manager of the Club Clef". Thomas hosted a cabaret on the first floor of the building, and rented rooms to young musicians above.

Several of Thomas' tenants became celebrities. Hall Johnson (1887-1970) became the founding director of the Hall Johnson Chorale, which performed in such Broadway shows as South Pacific and appeared in movies for years. Thomas's tenant Elmer Snowden, a popular jazz banjoist from Maryland, had aspirations as a band leader. In the early 1920s, he directed The Washington Black Sox Orchestra, which included a young pianist from Ward Place NW named Ellington. Ellington, who had already acquired the nickname "Duke", also performed at Louis Thomas' Cabaret, and began to have his musical career promoted by Thomas, who doubled as his booking agent. The story is told that, when Ellington discovered the size of Thomas' cut of his bookings, he became intensely involved in the music business finance. This was perhaps the seed that produced enough acumen to keep the same orchestra together for over 40 years , as the other big bands succumbed to the whims of fashion.

Long before the depression, the Washington music scene represented by the Louis Thomas Cabaret faded. In 1923 Snowden took the Washington Black Sox Orchestra to New York, where their name was shortened to "The Washingtonians". After a dispute over money, Snowden was forced out of the band and the young Duke Ellington was elected leader. The rest, as they say, is history. Back in Washington, Arlington Terrace continued as a fashionable row and the Louis Thomas Cabaret survived for a time, but Washington's music had moved to Harlem to stay.

Click here to see more images of the destruction of 901 R Street NW: 

"And the Walls Came Tumbling Down"