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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Thing 153: Walking Tour of Historic Logan Circle

I live in Logan Circle. I shop there, I eat there, I've worked there -- in other words, it's my home base. Which is why I'm so embarrassed that I knew virtually nothing of the history of the neighborhood! Did you know that General Logan started Memorial Day? Or that Logan Circle was originally called Iowa Circle? And that the Iowa Circle neighborhood was called "Hell's Bottom" in the late 1800s because it was that bad? Or that Mary McLeod Bethune used to live in the neighborhood? Next to a museum for confederate soldiers?

I learned so much on this tour.
We started the tour in Logan Circle itself, with our tour guide Tim, a small and good-humored man with the faintest of mohawks. He started by explaining to us how Iowa Circle fit into L'Enfant's grand plan for the capital, as one of the points of a triangle between Logan Circle, Dupont Circle and the White House. The circle was planned to be residential, and is now the only remaining purely residential circle in the whole city.

Almost from the get go, Iowa Circle was not a great neighborhood (hence the Hell's Bottom nickname), but then in 1968 it was pretty much burned to ground or otherwise destroyed in the riots following MLK Jr's assassination. After that, it's been on a slow but steady rebuild, that was greatly accelerated once Whole Foods opened up on P Street.

We walked from Logan Circle to Naylor Court, to learn a bit about residential alley life after the Civil War, and then contrasted that by looking at the SoLo Piazza building at the corner of 13th & N, as an example of the newer architecture in the neighborhood.

We learned that the Washington Plaza Hotel was designed by the same man who designed the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami (and now that he mentioned it, I do see a strong resemblance), and across the street we learned about the rival Lutheran churches, as well as the history of the N Street Village.
Perhaps most interesting was just up the street from there, where the Mary McLeod Bethune House has been converted into a historic museum that gives tours! (It's on the list now, so keep an eye out for an upcoming Thing.) Apparently, when Mary McLeod Bethune was in DC, she lived in my neighborhood, out of the top floors of house on Vermont Ave, and on the bottom floor were the meeting places of the National Council of Negro Women. Then someone else on the tour group piped in that the enormous house two doors down from Mary McLeod Bethune's had been a rest home for Confederate veterans, and then was converted into a museum of Confederate history, which flew the Confederate flag! They must have made for uneasy neighbors.

We went down to the retail heart of Logan, P Street between 14th & 15th, where we got a peak at the original Shepard Fairey Obama portrait, and then stopped on 14th Street to talk about the Studio Theater, and the old Automobile Row of the 1950s. Have you ever wondered why so many buildings along 14th Street (like Posto, for example) have those enormous, open, first floors? They were automobile showrooms in the 1950s, and the buildings have all been deemed historic buildings since then, so they can't be redeveloped into less awkward spaces.

The tour ended back in Logan Circle, with the career of General Logan himself. General Logan was a staunch anti-abolitionist, until his experience fighting alongside black Union troops changed his mind and he became a strong advocate for civil rights. After the war, he was elected the Senator for Illinois, and had a townhouse actually on Iowa Circle, which would later be named for him. When he was re-elected to the Senate, several thousand black DC residents gathered in the circle to congratulate him, and he invited every single one of them into his home so he could have the honor of shaking their hand. Apparently, it took well into the night.

This is a brief (well, I tried to keep it brief) overview of the tour -- if you're interested in learning more about the neighborhood, I highly recommend taking the tour when WalkingTown DC comes back around next fall, or get in touch with the Logan Circle Community Association.

Coming up, I tour Brookland, and am way impressed by a neighborhood I knew nothing about!

Related: Bike tour of the Anacostia Riverwalk, Before There Was Harlem..., and North by Northwest.