Research Research

This week I continued my neighborhood research. Researching these neighborhoods has been a bit of challenge, because they are not well known. When I google them sometimes information comes up on websites like Wikipedia, but I am determined to use solid sources so I can produce work that I am proud of. After scouring the internet for reputable sources and getting books from the NBM’s small library, I had had no luck in finding information about the history of Petworth. . My supervisors had mentioned that I was welcome to go to the Washington, DC Historical Society to do research, so I went on Tuesday. The historical society is an easy fifteen minute walk from NBM, so getting there was no problem.

When I arrived at the building I had to sign in at the front desk. Then when I went upstairs to the library I had to show my driver’s license and get an account. Once I had set that up I went straight to the reference librarian, and asked if she had any suggestions for researching Petworth and the Southwest waterfront, the two areas I decided to focus on for the day. I was expecting her to direct me to some books on D.C. history. However, she pulled out folders full of newspaper clippings relating to the neighborhoods from a file drawer.

These folders turned out to a gold mine. I actually only had time to go through the Petworth folder, as it took me the better part of the day. However, I was finally able to piece together a detailed history of Petworth. Most useful to me were several articles that had been written in the 1940s and published in the Washington Star. I learned that the land that is now Petworth was bought by Colonial John Tayloe in 1803, who farmed the land. He named the area Petworth after an English Estate. In 1808 construction began on Georgia Avenue, which was then a turnpike. The completion of the road tied Petworth to Washington, D.C. In 1852 Tayloe sold a portion of his land to a group of families to settle. This group of families was led by Benjamin Summy, who brought twelve families with him from Buffalo, New York. The group bought 137 acres. Each family got a site for their house and four acres of woodland. The first home was in this new settlement was built by Summy in 1853. In 1887 Tayloe’s heirs sold the 250 remaining acres of Petworth to a syndicate represented by B.H. Warner and Myron M. Parker for $1,000 an acre. In 1892 Horace C. Cummings bought 205 acres for $2,500/acre. The land was graded, a plumbing system installed, and tree lined streets were laid out.

Petworth really began to develop when the streetcar was extended into the neighborhood in 1890, making it a “streetcar suburb”. Grant circle was constructed at the center of Petworth, a 1.8 acre park lined with fifty year old trees, hedges, and benches and with a statue of Ulysses S. Grant in the center. Two story brick row houses were built from 1910 to 1920, which provided affordable housing for working people, families, and senior citizens. Unfortunately, Petworth fell onto hard times in the sixties, when many families chose to move to the suburbs. In addition, the neighborhood struggled with a drug problem throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties. However, the opening of the Georgia/Petworth Metro stop in 1998 had began a period of revitalization.

After I spent all day Tuesday taking notes on the newspaper clippings, I spent the next day actually assembling a binder on Petworth. I organized all my research into a concise summary. I then combined the history with other information about Petworth, including special attractions and revitalization efforts. In the binder I also included a large section of photographs. The Washington DC Historical Society has an excellent online database of historical photographs of the city. I was even able to search the database by neighborhood, which was perfect for my research. The earliest photograph they have of Petworth dates from the 1890s, and shows when the area was mostly rural. A majority of pictures are from the 1920s. I thought it would be interesting to compare what Petworth used to look like to what it does now. The historical photographs included captions explaining their locations. I entered those locations into google map, and used the street view function to get photographs of present day Petworth. I was able to find the same location as the historical photographs and make interesting comparisons. Sometimes some of the same buildings are in both the present day and historical photographs, but often they look completely different. I hope these comparisons will be interesting for the students to look at and help them to understand how the neighborhoods have changed.

For the rest of the week I worked on researching and assembling a binder for the Southwest Waterfront. Luckily this was much easier, as this neighborhood is much more well known than Petworth. I found an excellent book to learn the history of this neighborhood, Southwest Waterfront by Paul K. Williams In addition to providing a concise history, the book also has a plethora of photographs, which beautifully illustrate how the neighborhood has changed. I showed Jamee Telford the book online and she agreed with me that it was a great source, so she went ahead and ordered it. Luckily it arrived quickly, so I was able to do the vast majority of my historical research using this source. I also used articles written for the Washington Post. Once again I used the database of the Washington, D.C. Historical Society to get excellent pictures of Southwest Waterfront.