After 1886, when the District Commissioners approved the extension of Massachusetts Avenue from Florida Avenue to Wisconsin Avenue, rural properties between Rock Creek and Tenleytown saw a wave of real estate speculation.
The land tracts that constitute Massachusetts Avenue Heights were acquired by the financier John W. Thompson and his syndicate between 1887 and 1894. In 1888 the syndicate built a bridge across Rock Creek to promote access. Subdivision took place in 1911.
When it was subdivided in 1911, Massachusetts Avenue Heights consisted of 212 acres lying east of Wisconsin Avenue and north and east of the Naval Observatory, bisected diagonally by the planned extension of Massachusetts Avenue.
(Report of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, 1911, Vol.3, p.10; Records of the Columbia Historical Society, 9:209; “Massachusetts Ave. Heights: Paradise Found”, Washington Post, September 30, 1989, p.F13; Priscilla W. McNeil, “Pretty Prospects: The History of a Land Grant”, Washington History, Fall/Winter 2002, pp. 6-25)
(See John W. Thompson.)
“Roughly speaking, the property is bounded by Massachusetts avenue, Woodley lane, Cathedral and Wisconsin avenues, and Rock Creek. The entire tract embraced within these limits is in the possession of the syndicate, with the exception of the United States naval observatory circle.”
“Among the heaviest investors in the syndicate are the estate of John W. Thompson and Mrs. Plumb, widow of Senator Plumb, of Kansas.” (Senator Preston B. Plumb, Republican of Kansas, was chairman of the Committee on Public Lands.)
“The property was not intended for market purposes until Massachusetts avenue, which splits it in half on the western side, was extended. That thoroughfare bounds the tract on the south for a part of the distance.”
(“Millions in Realty Involved in Deal Made Yesterday by Syndicate.––Property Almost Surrounds the Naval Observatory Circle. Massachusetts Avenue Heights Company Obtains Deed to 212 Acres, Which Are to Be Converted Into Fashionable Subdivision”, Washington Post, February 4, 1911, p.1)
Initial sales in 1911 were on 36th Street, 36th Place, Davis, Edmunds and Fulton Streets, and along Wisconsin and Massachusetts Avenue, in the portion of Thompson’s subdivision south of Massachusetts Avenue, and known since circa 1988 as Observatory Circle. (“Twenty-five Lots Sold.––Good Demand for Massachusetts Avenue Heights Property”, Washington Post, April 23, 1911, p.CA3; “Demand Is Growing.––Fisher & Co. Report Many Sales in Massachusetts Avenue Heights”, Washington Post, May 7, 1911, p.C8; “D.C. Realty Assessments Rise 13.5%; Homeowners Find Increases Twice Last Year’s”, Washington Post, March 3, 1988, p.A1)
Reports Sale of 147 Lots.––Many Homes Planned in Massachusetts Avenue Heights.––Thomas J. Fisher & Co., Inc., reports that a total of 147 lots have been sold in Massachusetts Avenue Heights since April 3, last. There are but 533 building sites in the entire subdivision. Among the recent purchasers were:
H. Harrison Ham, a lot having a 50-foot frontage on Fulton street, north of Massachusetts avenue.
Dr. James J. Richardson, three lots having a combined frontage on Massachusetts avenue and Thirtieth street of 304 feet. Plans are being drawn for a palatial residence to be erected on the east 100 feet of the avenue frontage.
C.R. Denmark, a lot at southeast corner of Wisconsin avenue and Davis street.
F.R. Wheater, a 50-foot lot on Davis street, between observatory circle and Thirty-sixth street.
Eli Fabre, the Georgetown builder, two lots on Wisconsin avenue, south of Davis street. Mr. Fabre will erect two houses at once.
Ella N. Ray, a 50-foot lot on Davis street, west of Observatory circle.
(Washington Post, June 18, 1911, p.B2)
“Buys Fulton Street Lot.––Col. Henry C. Fisher, U.S.A., to Build in Massachusetts Avenue Heights.––The sale to Col. Henry C. Fisher, U.S.A., of a 50-foot lot in Fulton street, Massachusetts Avenue Heights, has been reported by William K. Ellis, realty operator. Col. Fisher will erect a residence on the property.“
(Washington Post, June 18, 1911, p.B2)
A 1911 photograph in the Bryan Collection of the Library of Congress shows construction on Massachusetts Avenue, just above Observatory Circle, and looking west. The large building on the horizon is the Richard Goldsborough house called Tunlaw Towers, at the northwest corner of Garfield Street and Wisconsin Avenue.
Another photograph in the Library of Congress shows the Observatory Circle neighborhood in 1914, including the houses at 2709 and 2713 Wisconsin Avenue, advertised in 1913, as well as the Naval Observatory, and the Industrial Home School. This picture, erroneously catalogued as taken from American University, is more likely to have been taken from the top floor of the Richard Goldsborough house, called Tunlaw Towers, at the northwest corner of Garfield Street and Wisconsin Avenue. (“Permits to Build”, Washington Post, July 14, 1891, p.6; “To Occupy the Goldsborough Mansion”, Washington Post, April 8, 1896, p.3; Ghosts of DC)
Massachusetts Avenue Park
As adherence to the District of Columbia’s grid street plan was impractical on the sloping terrain northeast of the Naval Observatory, in 1910 Thompson’s syndicate obtained a Congressional waiver for the part of the elite subdivision promoted as Massachusetts Avenue Park––but which continued to be referred to as Massachusetts Avenue Heights.
Massachusetts Avenue Park––where Thompson and his first wife, Janette McGill, are remembered in the names of Thompson Circle and McGill Terrace––has been known as Woodland Normanstone since about 1988.
(Massachusetts Avenue Park, John W. Thompson & Co., Washington, D.C., 1917; “Record Property Sale––Massachusetts Avenue Heights Bring Millions of Dollars.––New Syndicate the Buyer––W.E. Davis and E.N. Coolidge represent Parties Who Take Over the Land From the American Security and Trust Co. and Amos H. Plumb as Trustees––Plans for the Future”, Washington Post, April 29, 1917, p.12; Artist Architects To Lay Out Suburb––Thompson Company to Direct Massachusetts Avenue Extension”, Washington Post, May 6, 1917, p.R2)
An interactive map of every structure in the city, showing square and lot, year built, original owner, and other useful information, was made available by the District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office in 2016.
The citation and acknowledgement of my research is greatly appreciated.
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