The 800 Block
Imagine no buildings, no statues, no parks and no Vermont Avenue; just sparsely populated fruit trees and wildlife running freely. That is what made up the bulk of the landscape at what is now the 800 block of Vermont Avenue.
The land the makes up the present day 800 block, also encompassing Lafayette Park, used to belong to a family known as the Pierce’s. The Pierce’s owned a farmhouse located on what is today H Street (previously known as the Old Ferry Road).
The White House was the only residence in the vicinity of the 800 block until 1816, when St. John’s Episcopal Church was constructed at the corner of H and 16th Streets, which lies directly behind the modern day 800 block.
Sometime after 1819, Congressman Richard Cutts of Massachusetts built a residence across the street from the present 800 block. This was the second residence to be built in the area (the first being Stephen Decatur’s house).
July 1822, St. John’s Church, Sixteenth & H Streets Northwest, Washington, DC Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LOC)
In 1836, Matthew St. Clair Clarke built a house directly behind St. John’s Church. Today, that house is part of St. John’s Church. Behind that house are two other homes that were owned by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Senator Samuel Clarke Pomeroy of Kansas at 1523 H Street.
1890, St. John’s Church, Sixteenth & H Streets Northwest, Washington, DC Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LOC)
Circa 1867, Senator Charles Sumner’s House, 1600 H Street, Washington, DC Courtesy the Historical Society of Washington DC
As more residences emerged on the 800 block of Vermont Avenue and the prestige of having a residence so close to the White House grew, it is no surprise that the area would attract businesses with its prospects. So it was that William Corcoran purchased three homes on Vermont Avenue, had them demolished, and began construction on the Arlington Hotel.
The three mansions that stood on the grounds of what became the Arlington Hotel once belonged to William L. Marcy, Secretary of War under President Polk and Secretary of State under President Pierce; Lewis Cass, Secretary of State under President Buchanan and the third mansion belonged to Reverdy Johnson, minister to England under President Buchanan (Pictorial Guide to Washington p146).
William Corcoran commissioned E.G. Lind to design the Arlington Hotel, which formally opened for business in 1869 (Streets of Washington Blog). E.G. modeled the Arlington Hotel after Victorian-like architecture.
The Arlington Hotel prior to its enlargement stretching to I Street, circa 1887 Courtesy the Historical Society of Washington DC
According to the Streets of Washington blog, Vermont Avenue was the first street to be paved in asphalt in Washington, DC, for the peace of the guests.
The Arlington Hotel Courtesy the Historical Society of Washington, DC
The Arlington Hotel, or Arlington House, thrived for years due in part to its proximity to the White House. Twenty-three years after inheriting the hotel from his grandfather, Eustis Corcoran sold the hotel to wealthy investors.
The Arlington Hotel (View to the South) Courtesy the Historical Society of Washington DC
Those investors had other bigger and better plans for a new hotel, and so in 1912 they completely demolished the building along with the residences that once belonged to Senator’s Sumner and Pomeroy, which had become a part of the hotel in 1880. Unfortunately, due to the hard economic times experienced when the market took a turn for the worse shortly after the demolition, the new hotel was never built. The abandoned lot was soon foreclosed upon and became a blot on the landscape until the Federal Government purchased the lot in 1914.
Construction began anew in 1917 on a building intended to house Naval personnel. Plans changed during construction so that instead of Naval personnel moving into the office space being built on the 800 block of Vermont Avenue, it instead fell into the hands of the Bureau of War Risk Insurance (BWRI), which had been mandated by amendments set forth by Congress to provide life insurance to all members of the armed services (Records of BWRI).
Groundbreaking on the new office space that will become the BWRI, 1917 Courtesy the Department of Veterans Affairs Historian
Construction of the BWRI Building Courtesy the Department of Veterans Affairs Historian
Completion of the External Construction of the BWRI Building in 1918 Courtesy the Department of Veterans Affairs Historian
Two years after the BWRI was fully occupied by employees of the Department of the Treasury, the BWRI was abolished in 1921, and its tasks shifted to the United States Veterans Bureau (USVB) under the amended War Risk Insurance Act. This effort merged the Public Health Service (Veteran’s Hospital Division) and the Federal Board of Vocational Education Rehabilitation Division with the remaining responsibilities of continuing to provide life insurance to servicemembers (Records of BWRI).
Modern Day Department of Veterans Affairs, December 2012
Veterans Bureau west side of the 800 block of Vermont Avenue NW, circa 1930 Courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington DC
In 1924, the War Risk Insurance Act was recodified in the World War Veterans’ Act. Then in 1930, the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers and Pension Bureau, which has previously fallen under the responsibility of the Department of Interior, became a part of Veterans Administration (previously known as the USVB). Responsibility for processing war risk and life insurance claims were moved to the Department of Justice around this time (Records of BWRI).
In 1988, under President Ronald Reagan, the Veterans Administration was formally designated as a Cabinet-level agency to become what we know today as the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Modern Day Department of Veterans Affairs, December 2012
As the industrial age ushered in progress, a once quiet piece of land not far from the banks of the Potomac River, became a hustling and bustling place covered in concrete, asphalt and multi-story buildings to produce what we know and see today.
Aerial View of Veterans Bureau Building, circa 1927, Courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington DC