Washington DC in 1950
Recently I processed two accretions for Record Group 66, Records of the Commission of Fine Arts. The first was for entry 18B for the Shipstead-Luce Act Numbered Case Files (ARC 559476), and the other entry 23 the Old Georgetown Act Numbered Case Files (ARC 559486 ). They both contain files about various properties in Washington, DC within the Georgetown Historic District and particular areas in the District. For both of these the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts advises on design matters affecting the Historic District of Georgetown, under the Old Georgetown Act, as well as other private sector areas adjacent to federal interests, under the Shipstead-Luce Act. The applications found in the files for review are for permission to put up or change signage, make building alterations, or erect new buildings in the affected areas.
The files I processed were from the 90s and what struck me were that the photos of the projects submitted for review. They sometimes had street scenes, some with people, most not, and I saw them very reflective of the time period, in this case the early and late 90s. So I wondered if the same applied to files found earlier in the series.
I have a particular interest in the Old Georgetown Act Numbered Files because I find myself in the Georgetown community once or more a month. So when I looked at the photographs submitted with the applications, I would run through my mental street view map of Georgetown to try to remember what that block or building looks like today. Some things remained the same but a lot has changed.
Going back to earlier files, starting in 1950, there is much change in the past 60 years. OG-29 for 1229 Wisconsin Avenue, NW is for changes to a parking lot sign. Looking at the sign, I see that daily parking was 50 cents, monthly parking, ten dollars. Parking costs have gone up considerably in the neighborhood and $10 does not cover daily parking.
In file OG-60, also submitted in 1950, is a few doors down at 1241-43 Wisconsin Avenue, NW. Wisconsin Avenue is one of the major commercial areas of Georgetown, where I would wander around while waiting for a metro bus to take me home. In this photo from file three shops are shown. Those shops no longer exist, the signage for Becker Paint and Glass Co. and for Georgetown Furniture are long gone. When comparing the photograph to Google Map’s street view, I also notice that the iron balcony is gone as well and the shop windows for two of the stores are flush with the building. 1239 Wisconsin Avenue, NW in the photograph has a store window that juts out a bit. Comparing the 1950 image with its current look, that store window has also slightly changed. Lastly, there is a small sidewalk wide alley next to 1239. Today that alley appears to be filled by a tiny building with a door, awning and second floor window.
Though the photographs are about the building undergoing review, I find all the other things going on in the photograph to be fascinating. The photographs capture things like the cars on the street, litter on the sidewalk, what pedestrians are wearing, and street hardware such as street lamps and parking signs. I tend not to find myself west of Wisconsin Avenue, but one day after standing in line for a cupcake bakery, I found myself over there and vaguely remember being on the 3300 block of O Street. Except for the door, which application OG-64 for 3317 O Street, NW, asks to be changed, there isn’t much change. Even the trolley tracks in the streets, which can be barely made out in the photograph, remain. Besides the houses along O Street there is young man walking down the sidewalk and the cars parked along the street, creating a snapshot of Washington, DC, particularly Georgetown, in 1950.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a name or address index at the National Archives, matching the OG file numbers to persons or places. The Commission of Fine Arts or a local historic preservation organization may have that information. A homeowner or property owner whose property falls within the Georgetown Historic District may find the photographs, building plans, drawings and other file material of interest, particularly if they are planning to make alterations or researching the property.
Business historians may find interest in the series because changes of the commercial corridors can be observed by combing through the files for new or changing signage. I noticed that in the 1990s, the retail store called the Gap, underwent several changes to the font of its signage, changes that are captured in the files. So when a new venture adds a sign to the streetscape to advertise themselves, there is a chance there is an application for that sign in this series.