Building Park Morton: An Historical Perspective

The selection of The Community Builders/Dantes Partners as the new developers of the Park Morton Housing Complex in the Fall of 2014 renewed efforts dating to 2008 to replace the aging low-income apartments located east of Georgia Avenue between Park Road and Morton Street. As one would expect with most major neighborhood construction projects, the city’s decision to include the former Bruce-Monroe School site as part of the re-imagined Park Morton – along with the series of community engagement meetings and workshops – has both its critics and supporters.

In order to fully understand the path forward it is helpful to look back … and for Park Morton that means going back about 60 years. Planning for Park Morton began in the mid-1950s with the complex completed and opened in November 1961.

Reimagining Southwest and the Birth of Park Morton

The 1950’s witnessed a growing commitment to eradicate slums in American Cities. By 1955, efforts in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Pasadena, and Kansas City, Mo. – to name a few – had shown enough promise that the National Association of Real Estate Boards had launched a blight elimination program under the slogan: “No Slums by 1960.” Within this broader context was the decision to eradicate the slums of Washington’s Southwest neighborhood through a massive urban renewal program. The redevelopment of Southwest displaced hundreds of families and required the construction of new replacement housing. One of the earliest developments planned to house displaced families was Park Morton.

Planning Park Morton

Photograph of 700 block of Morton Street in the mid-1950s taken as part of the Park Morton survey.

Photograph of the 700 block of Morton Street in the mid-1950s taken as part of the Park Morton survey.

In May 1957 the District Commissioners agreed to schedule a public hearing for May 24 on a proposed 174-unit public housing development to be located in northwest Washington. By this time, the National Capital Housing Authority (NCHA) had already conducted surveys of potential locations for the project, narrowing it down to the 600 and 700 blocks of Morton Street. Ultimately, the NCHA decided that the 600 block of Morton Street would be the better location for the project, and that it would consist of three-story walk-up apartment buildings. At the time, the site was occupied by a store, partially destroyed by fire, and 81 buildings considered to be in poor condition. Most of these buildings were rowhouses, many of them among the oldest structures in the neighborhood.

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Map showing general area for the Park Morton development (from the Washington Post, May 10, 1957).

The hearing on May 24 was attended by both supporters and those in opposition. In addition to the NCHA, supporters of the Morton Street development included the Washington Urban League, the Washington Housing Association, the Federation of Businessmen’s Association, and the Urban Renewal Council. Opposition to the project included Herman Schmidt of the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Washington, Nelson Roots who was president of the Pleasant Plains Civic Association, and 22 residents. Among the neighbors speaking in opposition was Raymond C. Lewis of 3402 Warder Street, who “complained about having ‘undesirables’ mov[ing] into the new project from the Southwest slum-clearance area.”[1]

As a result of the hearing, the District Commissioners decided to defer action on the project pending more study. Yet, this put Federal funding in jeopardy as there was a July 23, 1957, deadline for NCHA’s right to planning funds for a total of 1,500 units of public housing that the District was required to provide. At that time, the 174 units on Morton Street project were the only ones even proposed.

Finally, the District Commissioners gave their approval of the Morton Street development on June 27, 1957, giving the green light to the NCHA to seek an advance planning loan from the Federal Public Housing Administration for appraisal of the existing 81 buildings that needed to be purchased and razed and the related surveys. While this was good news for the development on Morton Street, it was still necessary for the Federal Public Housing Administration to grant the District additional time to find sites for the remaining 1,325 public housing units critically needed for families being displaced from Southwest.

Morton Street 1958(Detail of Morton Street and Park Road, showing configuration of houses prior to their redevelopment for Park Morton.)

Challenges and Delays

Despite the critical need for housing, and the approval for 174 units on Morton Street in 1957, the development was not without delays. Immediately upon the project’s approval by the District Commissioners, they were immediately requested by the Washington Home Builders Association to sidetrack the development even as the NCHA was actively engaged in acquiring property on Morton Street and Park Road.

The next challenge to Park Morton was identified in July 1958 when the NHCA discovered that their design for the new apartments was in direct conflict with the new 1958 District zoning regulations which had gone into effect in May. The old rules would have permitted a group of apartments with separate outside entrances and division walls to be considered the same a one big building with connecting halls inside. As Park Morton was not designed to be one large building, but rather a collection of smaller buildings, the planners requested a reinstatement of the earlier zoning provision from the zoning commission. The design’s conflict with the zoning regulations was not resolved until mid-1959.

In April of 1960, Blake Construction Company was declared the low bidder with a bid to build the 12 3-story buildings at Park Morton for $1,698,000. Construction commenced in May with a planned completion date for 18 months later. However, as construction was nearing completion, the District Highway Department and the NCHA clashed over the issue of tree removal. The highway department wanted to remove 18 mature shade trees located along the curbside of the development. In response, the National Capital Planning Commission declared that “there’s nothing worse than a brand new, raw building with skinny little trees around it.”[2] Also supporting the retention of the trees was NCHA executive director Walter E. Washington, who urged that each of the 18 trees be considered on a tree by tree basis with only dead or dying trees removed.

Park Morton March 1961(Park Morton nearing completion in March 1961.)

Completion

Park Morton was completed in November 1961. It was among the first affordable housing developments planned and completed by the NCHA for families displaced by urban renewal in Southwest, D.C. It also represented a new trend in affordable housing – a trend that was moving away from large, many storied developments and toward smaller houses, three-story walkup apartments, and garden apartments. The goal was to create an informal pattern of buildings that avoided monotony and were grouped around play areas and grass.

For their efforts, architects Keyes, Lethbridge & Condon were recognized in 1964 by the Federal Public Housing Administration with a Special Commendation for Park Morton’s façade treatment, which included balconies. While the General Accounting Office later took issue with Park Morton’s balconies as an unnecessary expense, the GAO itself was criticized for its nitpicking and “war on decent housing for poor people.”[3] For their part, the NCHA was defended and praised in the press for what they accomplished at Park Morton. An article published in February 1966 put it thusly:

“Fortunately for [Washington], the Housing Authority realized that the cost of good architecture is very small compared with its benefits. When the building itself is an example of poverty and neglect, its tenants will neglect it. When the building is attractive, its tenants will respond. Even in purely fiscal terms, a dreary building is a blight on its surroundings and the blight is eventually reflected in assessments. A handsome project like Park-Morton sets a standard of excellence for the entire neighborhood. Balconies are good for people. Balconies are good for the city.”[4]

While unacknowledged by many today, Park Morton was successful architecturally and thrived through the 1970s. Its eventual decline had much more to do with the impact of outside forces on the residents – such as the crack epidemic of the 1980s – and with the Housing Authority’s inability to keep the buildings in good repair than it did with the architecture and planning of the apartments.

Park Morton 1965(Park Morton upon completion in the early 1960s.)

Bibliography

“$20 Million in Public Housing.” The Evening Star, September 17, 1961, p. W-27.

“$75 Million More in Public Housing Ahead for District.” The Evening Star, April 26, 1965, p. B-1.

“Architecture and the Auditors.” The Washington Post, February 27, 1966, p. E6.

Barthelmes, Wes. “SE Housing Offer Stirs Controversy.” The Washington Post, July 21, 1957, p. A1.

Beveridge, George. “More Housing OKd In Southwest Area.” The Evening Star, May 7, 1959, p. B-1.

“Blake Bids Low On Park-Morton.” The Washington Post, April 7, 1960, p. B1.

Carberry, James. “City Faces Loss Of Housing Grants.” The Washington Post, March 23, 1960.

“City Heads Delay Action On Morton ST. Housing.” The Washington Post, June 7, 1957, p. A12.

“City is Granted Time to Find Housing Sites.” The Washington Post, July 18, 1957, p. B1.

“Commissioners Approve Low-Rent Housing Plan.” The Evening Star, June 27, 1957, p. A-14.

“D.C. Housing Project Weighed After Hearing.” The Evening Star, May 25, 1957, p. A-23.

Deane, James G. “D.C. Housing Deadline Nears.” The Evening Star, July 3, 1957, p. B-1.

Deane, James G. “Terrace Deal Killed, NCHA Scans New Offer.” The Evening Star, October 16, 1957, p. A-33.

“District Defers Housing Project.” The Evening Star, June 7, 1957, p. B-9.

“Hearing Is Voted Housing Project.” The Washington Post, May 10, 1957, p. B1.

“Highway, Housing Agencies Clash On Removal of Park-Morton Trees.” The Evening Star, August 3, 1961, p. B-1.

“Housing Authority Wins OK on 174-Unit Project.” The Washington Post, June 28, 1957, p. B1.

“Housing Project Bid $1,698,000.” The Evening Star, April 7, 1960, p. C-12.

“Housing Unit Studies Morton Street Plan.” The Evening Star, July 11, 1958, p. A-19.

Jackson, Luther P. “Shift in Inner Loop Plan Called a Housing Hazard.” The Washington Post, March 26, 1959, p. D9.

Mac,Neil, Neil. “Private Industry, U.S. Join in War on Slums.” The Washington Post, July 17, 1955, p. G1.

“More Beautification for the Nation’s Capital.” The Washington Post, April 24, 1965, p. B1.

“Morton St. Housing Spurred.” The Washington Post, June 15, 1957, p. C13.

“Morton St. Project Hit In Zoning Code Conflict.” The Washington Post, July 12, 1958, p. B1.

“Public Housing ‘Frills’ Scored.” The Washington Post, February 25, 1966, p. C1.

“Renewal Unit Confirms Backing of N.W. Project.” The Evening Star, June 12, 1957, p. B-13.

Ruvinsky, Aaron. “U.S. Honors Best in Housing Design.” The Evening Star, October 23 1964, p. F-1.

“U.S. Housing Is Misused, Say Builders.” The Washington Post, July 24, 1957, p. B1.

Viorst, Milt. “’Old’ Approach Likely In Welfare Services.” The Washington Post, April 14, 1960, p. A15.

Von Eckardt, Wolf. “GAO Criticized for Public Housing Attack.” The Washington Post, February 28, 1966, p. B1.

Von Eckardt, Wolf. “SW Project a Winner For Design Excellence.” The Washington Post, October 23, 1964, p. B8.

[1] “D.C. Housing Project Weighed After Hearing.” The Evening Star, May 25, 1957, p. A-23.

[2] “Highway, Housing Agencies Clash On Removal of Park-Morton Trees.” The Evening Star, August 3, 1961, p. B-1.

[3] Von Eckardt, Wolf. “GAO Criticized for Public Housing Attack.” The Washington Post, February 28, 1966, p. B1.

[4] “Architecture and the Auditors.” The Washington Post, February 27, 1966, p. E6.

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6 Comments on “Building Park Morton: An Historical Perspective”

  1. Lyn Says:

    Nice history; thanks, Kent.

  2. Angry Parakeet Says:

    Now I can understand how at the beginning it was successful but gee, for only about 12 years? The setting appears so wholesome but too many residents must have been uncaring and criminally driven either by addiction or addiction to the money to be made dealing.

  3. steve Says:

    Great Article! Hearing about the thoughts of the people who did “slum” removal is fascinating. Would love to hear the other side of that story – maybe from the current residents themselves!!! 🙂

    As a resident who lives looking at the Park Morton buildings, I love to draw the connection between Fish in the Hood and the communities historic connection to the waterfront, and the breaking of it as the SW “slum” clearance project moved forward. People in our neighborhood remember what it was like when they lived next to the water. It was when they experienced forcible displacement that they actually left.

    Honestly, though, while I appreciate the commitment that the urban planner of the 50s and 60s have to “slum” clearance, a more truthful narrative is that we bulldozed poor African-American’s homes to build I-395 in SW. This allowed the new craze at the time – car-focused tract housing – to be more successful. It improved their vehicular access to the urban core. As this occurred, DC experienced a population decline for decades. Not surprising considering all the resources and disruption to our urban fabric that ramming freeways through DC involved. Note that the continuation of the Interstate plan to build a freeway through Rock Creek Park didn’t get far. NW neighborhoods with money and white-ness put a stop to that. It’s always funny to drive the remnants of that project when you drive the tiny bit of abortive freeway that is the Whitehurst Freeway and that 8 lane stretch that winds around the Kennedy Center.

  4. Audi Says:

    Really interesting post, Kent. I can understand why displacement is of concern, especially for some of older residents.


  5. […] completion of Park Morton in November 1961 was an important accomplishment (read earlier post here). Not only did it house families displaced by urban renewal, but it also introduced garden style […]


  6. […] is a collection of 12 apartment buildings containing 174 apartments. The original effort to build Park Morton dates to the 1950s with the development completed in November 1961. It was among the first affordable housing […]


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