ON THIS SPOT: The Mysterious Rammed Earth House

I drive south on 13th Street often, so regularly pass through the intersection of 13th and Rhode Island Avenue NE at the southern end of Brookland. Every time I look at the big empty lot on the northeast corner I wonder why nothing has been built there in over 20 years. I don’t know the answer to that question, nor do I know of any current plans for the future of the site. I do however know a bit of the history of that location, and it’s pretty interesting. 

Source: Apple Maps

When I first started to research Brookland history, I saw fuzzy references to a “rammed earth” house that once existed on that spot. The original builder was unknown, though it was thought the house dated from the colonial era, before Washington DC had been founded. It was no longer standing when I moved here in the late 1960s, but I’d occasionally hear an old-timer mention it. 

Once I started digging a little deeper I discovered Farmers' Bulletin No. 1500 from the US Department of Agriculture, published in 1926. It was titled "Rammed Earth Walls for Building,” and the very first illustration was of the house at the intersection of 13th and Rhode Island Avenue: 

HilltopHouse02

FIG. 1.—A house now standing in Washington, D. C, the main portion of which was built of rammed earth in 1773. The portico and rooms at rear have been added in recent years 

Rammed earth construction, also known as pisé de terre, is an ancient method of building, and is relatively cheap, efficient, and long-lasting. The most crucial ingredient is the soil, which can’t have too much clay or too much sand, but needs to clump nicely. Organic matter and large rocks are removed from the soil, then wooden forms are constructed and the moistened soil is poured between them. It is then tamped down with a weighty metal rammer, the forms are removed, and the wall is allowed to dry, becoming hard and durable. The bulletin told me how a rammed earth house was constructed, but didn’t give any more details about the home in Brookland, especially what I wanted to know: who built it. But there are some clues in old maps. The most detailed seems to be the 1867 Michler map, which gives the property owner’s name.

RammedEarthMichler1867a

Click to enlarge. Source: Library of Congress

"Mrs. N. McDaniel” is also identified on the 1861 Boschke map as the owner of this property. The noted historian John Clagett Proctor wrote about the house in a 1947 article for the Evening Star:

At the time the writer was gathering information regarding Brookland, he came across an old house at 1300 Rhode Island avenue which stands at an elevation overlooking the surrounding country …. Just who built this house is hard to say, though it does seem to have been one of the Queen family enterprises.

That makes sense, as the sprawling Queen family owned a considerable amount of land throughout the region. A little further digging provided a possible answer. “Mrs. N. McDaniel” was actually Ann MacDaniel, widow of Martin Norris MacDaniel, and her maiden name was Ann Queen. There was the Queen connection; Ann Queen was the daughter of Walter Queen. I looked for him in Prince George’s County land records and found this: 

Indenture made August 16, 1771; Marsham Queen of Charles County, Maryland in consideration of 5 shillings current money and other considerations moving him thereunto has given to Walter Queen part of a tract called "The Inclosure" formerly granted to Ninian Beall on June 12, 1688...

“The Inclosure” was the original name for the large tract of land that included the future Brookland. Walter Queen was given a section of it in 1771. The US Department of Agriculture says the rammed earth house was built in 1773, so the likely conclusion is that Walter Queen built the house, which then passed to his daughter Ann. That made for a tidy family grouping in this region. Ann MacDaniel’s brother Nicholas Queen owned a good-sized estate just a mile north, his manor house located at present-day 8th and Taylor Streets NE. And nestled between those two tracts was the estate of Nicholas Queen’s daughter, also named Ann, who married Jehiel Brooks, the progenitor of Brookland. 

Ann MacDaniel was quite wealthy, her farm prosperous. In 1860 the estate was valued at $28,000. Not as much as the $50,000 estate of her brother Nicholas, but considerably more than the $5,000 estate of her niece Ann and Jehiel Brooks. Ann MacDaniel owned six slaves in 1862, when the Compensated Emancipation Act was passed, freeing those in the District of Columbia. In her petition for compensation, she describes the six in the matter-of-fact way people of the era talked about the human beings they deemed “property.” 

George Allen - is a very fine Restaurant cook, market gardener & handy with all tools. Of sound body & mind, and good morals.

Armstead Turner - is a good cook, House Carpenter, Market gardener, waiter, sound in body & mind, and good morals.

Thomas Turner - Brick moulder, waiter & unsound in body, of immoral habits.

Lucy Turner - first rate cook, washer & Ironer & sound in body & mind, good morals.

Elizabeth Turner - good cook, washer, Ironer, chamber maid, sound in body & mind, good morals.

Cecilia Turner - seamstress, chamber maid, waiter, sound in body and mind, good morals.

There is a note at the bottom of the petition that says “Said George Allen was purchased merely and simply to prevent his being separated from his family, as they were owned by different persons, and he was sold to be sent to Georgia."

MacDanielgravesite

Ann MacDaniel died in 1877 (her gravesite at Mount Olivet Cemetery erroneously gives the date as 1878. See photo right) and the estate with the rammed earth house passed to her daughter Mary. Soon afterward, the property was sold to developer William O. Denison, who platted the acreage as the subdivision “South Brookland” in 1889. Over the subsequent decades, the rammed earth house, which had come to be known as Hill Top House, passed through a number of owners and kept up appearances for a time, but by World War II, it had started to noticeably deteriorate. 

HillTopHouseWymer

Click to enlarge. Photo courtesy Historical Society of Washington.

The picture above, taken in 1948, shows the overgrowth of the now largely untended house. But plans were already being made for what was to come. On March 7, 1950, this story appeared in the Evening Star:

The Rhode Island Apartments will occupy the site where the rammed-earth Hill Top House stood for 177 years. The 2-foot earth walls of the old building will be completely crumbled down by tomorrow, according to the Ace Wrecking Company. The packed earth will be returned to the ground as fill-in for the house’s excavation. 

Not only did they level the house, they leveled the hill as well, flattening it to accommodate the 413-unit apartment building that was coming. The Rhode Island Apartments, soon renamed Rhode Island Plaza, was part of an experiment by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) to provide upscale housing options for the city’s growing African American middle class. Three city projects were approved with FHA-insured mortgages for solely African American occupancy, the largest nearly 4 million dollars for the Rhode Island Plaza apartments. 

Advertisement for Rhode Island Plaza  from the Evening Star of March 1, 1952.              Click to enlarge.

When it opened in 1952, expectations were high and the apartments were projected to fill up quickly. They didn’t. Before a year was out the owners had dropped the rental rates and opened the building to all races. It didn’t help. After two years, only 300 of the 413 units had been rented and the owners defaulted on their loan. The federal government took control of the building. For a little while Rhode Island Plaza was able to maintain the distinguished image of the initial advertisements. Many nurses, doctors, teachers, government workers, and other middle class tenants still lived there throughout the '50s and into the '60s. But then things spiraled quickly downhill. Although the original owners had defaulted on the loan, the government allowed them to continue managing the apartments. They did a poor job, letting the building deteriorate and running up a million dollar shortfall in mortgage payments. In the mid-'70s, the owners tried to raise rents, which led to a bitter rent strike. As the building decayed, newer, poorer tenants sometimes didn’t mix well with the older residents. In 1985, the Washington Post ran a story on the stark conditions there, quoting one of the elderly residents: 

It used to be so beautiful. The people who lived here were lovely, high class. They respected you; you could talk to them,” she said, stopping to study the pale green walls of the lobby where youths dribble a basketball in space that once held “very nice” furniture before it was stolen. “I’m really hurt and ashamed of this place. I don’t have very many visitors. I used to think it couldn’t get much worse, but it has gotten worse. Nobody cares.

Despite the conditions, Rhode Island Plaza managed to hobble along for another decade. It was finally torn down in 1997. In the 20 years since, the land on which it and the rammed earth house once stood has remained vacant. Incidentally, of the three buildings approved for African American occupancy by the FHA in 1950, Rhode Island Plaza was the only one to fail so spectacularly. The other two still stand — at 3435 Holmead Place NW and 1825 T Street NW. 

It seems that beneath every plot of land in Brookland you can find some interesting remnant of history.



Sources:

“Rammed Earth Walls For Buildings,” Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1500, U.S. Department of Agriculture, August 1926.

Deed of Gift to Walter Queen, Prince George's County, Maryland Land Records 1769-1772; Liber AA 2 {Abstract by Mike Marshall}; Page 278.

“Ann MacDaniel,” Death Notice, National Republican, March 27, 1877

“Brookland’s Development,” John Clagett Proctor, Evening Star, April 20, 1947.

“3 Apartment Projects for Negroes Receive Approval from FHA,” Evening Star, March 7, 1950.

“Plush Rhode Island Plaza Fails to Meet Mortgage Payments,” Evening Star, July 17, 1954.

“Tenants Lacking, Interracial Apartment House Fails,” Washington Post, July 22, 1954.

“HUD Probed For Fraud in Project,” Washington Star, November 26, 1979.

“Once-Proud Apartments Home of Despair, Frustration,” Michel Marriott, Washington Post, January 7, 1985.  


© Robert Malesky 2016