The Neighborhoods of Logan, Scott and Thomas Circles

How Much Do You Really Know About Your Neighborhood?

By Paul Kelsey Williams
Arcadia Publishing, 128 pp, paper, $19.99

Reviewed for the InTowner, December 2001
by Michael K. Wilkinson

The fact that there are three traffic circles within just a few blocks of each other in downtown Washington, one bisected by 13th Street, another by 14th, and another still by 16th Street, all at or below P Street, may not come as much of a surprise to anyone who lives in the area.

Particularly if you have tried to avoid the stop and go through a maddening set of traffic lights in one circle, only to end up dodging trucks and bicycle messengers flinging through on their way downtown in the other circle. These are Logan, Scott and Thomas Circles today: commuter thoroughfares, clustered with apartment buildings, offices and hotels. Gateways to downtown.

But did you know that Logan Circle was once an executioner's square, where spies and deserters were hanged during the Civil War? At the time, the circle, then known as Iowa Circle, was little more than an open field, accessed by horse trails and dirt roads. In the decade following the Civil War, Logan Circle underwent a dramatic transformation, preceding Dupont Circle by a few decades as the most desirable address in the city for wealthy Washingtonians seeking to move away from the center city. It is this original burst of highly luxurious development, occurring primarily during the 1870s, that lent the circle the charming character that it is known for to this day.

Unfortunately, Logan Circle is the only one among the three circles covered in Williams' book that has maintained its original character, that of a 100 percent residential Victorian circle. The book does a marvelous job chronicling the various cycles of urban development, decay and redevelopment that Logan Circle has endured over the past century, following the ebbs and flows of the economic and social tides of inner city residential life through that period.

Perhaps more fascinating, though, is how the author documents the other two circles through their evolution from circumstances shared with Logan, ringed by enormously luxurious, free-standing mansions, to becoming the higher-density apartment, hotel and office building centers that they are today. In these chapters, we learn something new with the turn of each page about circles that contain every bit as much history as their more highly preserved cousin to the northeast.

Many prominent structures originally standing on these two circles are chronicled from construction to demolition, supplemented with any significant historical factoids that could be found from the years in between. We get rare glimpses into the private interiors of the homes, decked out in the styles of the day. We meet some of the neighborhood's prominent residents through time. (President Benjamin Harrison's Vice President, Levi P. Morton, once owned and lived in one of the elegant mansions on Scott Circle.) We learn the reasons for the loss of so many of the buildings, some more tragic than others. On Scott Circle alone, all but one of the grand freestanding residences was eventually torn down, as development pressures mounted from the south. Curiously, the one remaining house is that of none other than Vice President Morton!

On one two-page spread, the fate of these circles is summed up in three views. While the three images are meant to portray different clusters of houses or buildings, in fact one building appears in all three: the Thomas apartments. The largest (and earliest) photograph depicts the mid-rise apartment building prominently in the center of the picture; visible on either side, though, are smaller, single-family structures from an earlier era.

The picture's caption highlights the fact that the Thomas had replaced other smaller, earlier buildings on the site.

In the second picture, the pair of three-story row houses, shown at the left of the Thomas in the first picture, is highlighted. The bustle of pedestrians and a corner store housed in the ground level of the Thomas, evident in the earlier photograph, are missing in the later picture. It is clear that decay and neglect have set in.

Most dramatic is the third picture, focusing on the little mansard-roofed house to the right of the Thomas in the first picture. Appearing as a little brother in the shadow of the newer Thomas in the earlier view, it nonetheless has attractive window dressings and neatly manicured grounds. In the later photo, it is shown with windows boarded up and debris strewn about the front yard.

One of the captions notes dryly that the Thomas, which once gobbled earlier, smaller structures in the name of progress, was itself torn down to make way for a new office building shortly after the photographs were taken.

This book, which is replete with about 250 vintage photographs, does not just point to the fascinating history of the three neighborhoods it depicts. It also highlights the vast depth of resources available in the countless research libraries and archives situated in this, our nation's capital. Among the sources cited in Williams' book are many of this city's--and the country's--deepest and most valuable troves of historical data and images: the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress; the Washingtoniana Division of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library; the Historical Society of Washington; the DC Archives; the Moorland-Springarn Research Library at Howard University; the National Archives; the Smithsonian Institution. While it can be nearly impossible to find a specific historical image (testifying to the extraordinary research skills of the author), you can be guaranteed it exists somewhere in one of the places listed above.

In addition, the author has brought to this book his own rather formidable personal collection of historical resource materials, the result of years of patient and persistent collecting. It is from these materials that some of the most unusual views in the book are sourced. He has the eye required to not only spot the most obscure document among millions in the library, but also to uncover priceless resources buried deep within the inconspicuous brown covers of a dusty old book for sale somewhere in middle America, or on the shelves of a local book dealer.

We in Washington are fortunate to have someone in our midst who has used these talents, together with a tireless love of local history and a juicy story from the archives, to piece together his findings into this delightful, small but highly informative book.