Columbia Heights is about one and a half miles long and a mile wide. The present day population is around thirty thousand people (1990 census figures provided by M. Meyer). In recent years many refugees from oppression and war in other countries have moved here. At one time the nickname of Columbia Heights was the "City within a City". Perhaps now a better nickname would be "the World within a Neighborhood".
The subway station is in the heart of Columbia Heights downtown. This has been downtown for about a hundred and fifty years. I am sure you have heard of Washington's famous Jockey Club where the elite dine and confer. But if there is a Jockey Club where is the racetrack? The answer is that the subway station is in the middle of it. From the beginning of the Republic until about 1840 there was a circular mile long track centered, approximately, at todays 14th and Irving Streets .
After the track closed, the immediate area was a village crossroads for a farming area with some large estates. Here was the terminus for a stage coach line that ran twice daily to and from downtown Washington.
After the Civil War, and the coming of the horse drawn trolley, detached houses were built in sub-divisions and Columbia Heights developed into a suburb of the Federal City. When the electric street car arrived at the dawn of the twentieth century, Columbia Heights became densely populated with town houses and small apartment buildings. Most buildings you see today were constructed between 1900 and the 1930's. Look for free standing wood frame homes. They were built in the 1800's. Needless to say buildings of the type typical here - solid brick buildings with plaster walls and wood flooring - are rarely constructed now. They are a real bargain and modern amenities are easily added.
We have placed two maps here to help you get oriented.
The first map shows the location of Columbia Heights in relation to the Washington region. Columbia Heights is the red circle. Notice how it is almost in the center of the map. This is why Columbia Heights is such a convenient place to live. It is at the hub of a regional wheel. If you like going many places in the region, like I do, then you can get there directly, without using the Beltway which is the rim of the wheel. Washington isn't a giant obstacle that one must go around.
The other map is a closer look at Columbia Heights and it's street system. The red dot is the future location of the subway stop at 14th and Irving Streets, NW. The filled in areas represent various sites I will point out. The red lines are the streets that form the boundaries of Columbia Heights.
For a map that shows Columbia Heights in relation to the downtown/monumental area click here (81K).
The filled in area just a block north of the subway station at 14th St and Park Rd is the Tivoli Theater. This is one of the few grand movie palaces still standing. Within is a 2,500 seat theater which was in use until the late 1970's. The exterior on the 14th Street side has a row of shops that were built as part of the theater complex. The exterior architecture is unique and is a National Historic Landmark which must be preserved. Residents are hoping that after the subway is finished the complex can be renovated and put to new use.
The largest filled in area, just outside the eastern boundary of Columbia Heights, is Howard University, founded in 1867.
Presently there are no Institutions of higher learning in Columbia Heights but there once was. Columbian College established in 1821, and the namesake of Columbia Heights, was west of Howard University along 14th Street until it moved downtown in 1884. It is now called George Washington University.
The Street that goes by Howard and forms the eastern boundary of Columbia Heights is Georgia Avenue. Georgia Avenue is 7th Street extended. This was a toll road in the 1800's that lead from Washington's central market near the Capitol to the rural areas in Maryland and Pennsylvania. It was partially along this route that the Union Army traveled to Gettysburg. Shops and light industries grew up along Georgia Avenue. Today Georgia Avenue remains a busy commercial corridor.
During the Civil War there was a military hospital where the Tivoli Theater now stands and another called Carver Hospital on the Columbian University site. These were among the new "sanitary" hospitals. It was no accident that they were located here. The Columbia Heights area, at the time, was considered the healthful place to go to escape Washington's summer heat, humidity and malarial fevers. President Lincoln liked to go to the Old Soldiers Home near Columbia Heights.
The subdivision, or suburbization, of Columbia Heights into single family homes began after the Civil War. Two early developers were Senator John Sherman and his brother of Civil War fame, General W. T. Sherman. In 1868 they subdivided a portion of the west side of 14th St south of Park Rd. In 1881 Senator John Sherman named a 121 acre subdivision "Columbia Heights". This subdivision was between 14th St and today's Sherman Avenue.
The southern border of Columbia Heights is Florida Avenue. Florida Avenue was the original boundary of the Federal City of Washington which was designed by L'Enfant. Until the early 1900's there was a distinction between the City of Washington and the District of Columbia. The Federal City was generally the area south of Florida Avenue. You will notice on a map that the streets of Columbia Heights don't conform to L'Enfants grid plan. Columbia Heights grew as a rural area and then suburb outside Washington. In the early 1900's the McMillan Commission designed the entire District of Columbia to conform to L'Enfants plan but Columbia Heights was an established community by that time and couldn't conform to the grid. Today there is no distinction between Washington and the District of Columbia. Legally the Federal City has been reduced to an enclave around Federal buildings downtown.
The western boundary of Columbia Heights is 16th Street. At the edge where 16th Street meets Florida Avenue is Meridian Hill Park . Construction was begun after World War I. In my opinion it is the most beautiful planned Park in the City. It is a French-Italian formal garden with statuary, fountains and pools. The trees that line it's walkways are some of the finest in Washington. The Park had fallen into disrepair recently until the Friends of Meridian Hill and the Park Service co-operated to restore this splendid landmark. Locally the Park is known as Malcolm X Park.
The name "Meridian Hill" dates to the early Republic. Originally a meridian was surveyed from the White House, north, along what is now 16th Street. A stone marker was placed on Meridian Hill. This was proposed to mark the zero meridian for American navigational purposes in 1816, after the British burned Washington in 1814. It was to supplant the Greenwich line in England but never gained popularity. When 16th Street was extended beyond Florida Avenue in accordance with the McMillan Plan the stone's location was covered.
There are geological influences for the patterns of development discussed here. Florida Avenue runs along the base of an ancient river terrace - a hill with a flat area above. Columbia Heights proper is about 150 feet above the downtown area. Before modern sewer drainage, streams flowed down from this upper plateau area into the Federal City. Some areas near Florida Avenue were swampy as were places on the plateau. The roads up the hill were dusty in dry weather but muddy and difficult to traverse when wet. These features aided the separation of Columbia Heights from the Federal City.
There were panoramic views of Downtown, the Monuments and the River before they were obscured by higher buildings. That is one of the reasons why the two colleges were built here - their prominence on a hill emphasized the importance of learning. From 1865 to the turn of the century the Wayland Seminary for the education of Afro-American ministers was located on the grounds of what later would be Meridian Hill Park. Cardozo High School, in Columbia Heights, is similarly located and good views of downtown can be had there still.
16th Street also runs along a geological separation. Generally west of 16th is the Piedmont region and east is the Coastal Plain. Should the ice caps melt Columbia Heights could once again be along the shores of the Atlantic though I wouldn't buy property with that in mind. ;)
For one year, 1913, 16th Street was known officially as the "Avenue of the Presidents". This was partially the result of the work of Marie Henderson, the wife of John Henderson, the senator from Missouri (1826-1869) who drafted the Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery. She was a socialite and real estate developer who wanted the section of 16th Street that runs along Columbia Heights to become the new Embassy row. She developed properties with this in mind. The Polish and Lithuanian Embassies are still along this stretch. Switzerland, Italy, Mexico and Spain still retain property here but not as Embassy headquarters. The Embassy of Ecuador is located at 2535 15th St NW, a block east of the others.
16th Street is also known locally as the "Avenue of Churches" and Columbia Heights is no exception. There are many fine churches along 16th St. in Columbia Heights. They include All Souls Unitarian Church, National Baptist Memorial Church, Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church and St. Stephens Episcopal Church.
Columbia Heights' main street, 14th Street, could be known as the street that nonprofits (including churches) rebuilt. They are responsible for new housing, renovated housing and apartments, shopping, recreational facilities and more.
Building with brick and mortar is only half the story. Building lives is even more important. Here again nonprofits in Columbia Heights play a central role along with the schools. Please visit our nonprofit pages to learn about the wealth of organizations helping make Columbia Heights a compassionate and caring community.
The other green area I've marked along 16th Street in Columbia Heights between Irving Street and Park Rd. represents Lincoln field which was replanted recently as a community service by a local landscape firm. It is a popular playing field for local soccer teams. Adjacent are two fine schools, Bell Multicultural High School and Lincoln-Powell Middle School. Both are designated as Multicultural Schools to accommodate the diverse population of the area.
The northern boundary of Columbia Heights is Spring Road. Spring Road, too, is along a natural separation - Piney Branch Creek and the lower edge of another ancient river terrace. Only the lower portion of the Creek, where it joins Rock Creek, is visible today. The rest flows through an underground sewer.
Just outside Columbia Heights where 16th Street meets Spring Rd, I have marked the map with a small arrow. This is about where Piney Branch Creek flows out of the sewer and represents the approximate area where Native Americans once quarried quartz and quartzite to fashion into tools and weapons. Archaeologist William Holmes wrote of this quarry in 1897:
"The greatest aboriginal bowlder quarry known and the most important implement shops yet observed on the Atlantic slope are located two and one-half miles from the White House..."
I hope you have found this brief description of Columbia Heights interesting. Read more on the history of Columbia Heights in the Readers Additions Section. Paul Kelsey Williams has written a short history of Columbia Heights and a history of Belmont Street. William Donaldson, James Brooke and Jim Hamill have provided their fascinating remembrances of growing up in the area in decades past. Much thanks, and please provide your own material as well.
We have also created a new feature we're calling the Voices of Columbia Heights. Here, in Real Audio format, you can hear community leaders and just plain folks describe their organizations and lives as it relates to the community.
My name is David McIntire and I would appreciate any questions and comments you might have.
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