The origins of this neighborhood date back to 1760 when Robert Peter, a Georgetown tobacco merchant, established a plantation on the land that would become Greater U Street. After Mr. Peter died, this land was largely undeveloped with only a few burial grounds and frame houses.
When the DC street grid was created in 1791/2, square 362 marked the site of the neighborhood now known as Westminster. However, development of the U Street area didn’t really begin until after the Civil War. During the War, as DC’s population increased with an influx of large numbers of free African Americans and war refugees, housing started to spread northward from downtown. Horse-drawn streetcar lines were built in the 1860s running from Florida Avenue (then named “Boundary Street”) down 7th Street to the Potomac River and down 14th Street to downtown. Howard University was created in 1867, and development in the 7th Street and 14th Street corridors soon followed. By 1890, Square 362 was the sole surviving undeveloped square in the area. This changed when Henry A. Willard, who owned the Willard Hotel, subdivided the square and between 1891 and 1902 built the houses we know today.
Before 1890, Square 362 was called Athletic Park. It had a 150-foot long grand stand along T Street, which was built in 1883 (building permit number 1047) in preparation for the fifth nation convention of the League of American Wheelmen, a national organization of bicyclists. The first American bicyclist to ever ride 100 miles on an outdoor track did it here in 1884. Athletic Park was also used for baseball, wrestling, and polo. Westminster Street wasn’t in the original L’Enfant plan. It appeared on maps as early as 1880, but didn’t take on a name until Willard developed the square. The street may have only existed on paper during the time the athletic field was in existence. Willard had a family home in Westminster, Vermont and, although no documentation has yet been found as to the origin of its name, Westminster Street may have been named after Willard’s Vermont home.
Some maps as late as 1872 show a short north/south street, named Carlyle Street, running from R Street to T Street through the middle of Square 362. This street disappeared at some point before the square was developed.
Around the time of square 362’s development, racial tension began to grow in DC. Laws passed during Reconstruction guaranteeing civil rights were being ignored or removed from the city’s legal code. As segregation was imposed, Greater U Street became the center of African American life and culture in DC. During the 1920s and 1930s, the strip known as “You Street,” “Black Broadway,” and “The Colored Man’s Connecticut Avenue” was the political, economic, and social center of black life in the District of Columbia. Comprised of theaters, bars, and jazz clubs, U Street was built largely by entrepreneurs, using financing from community banks, to create an elegant commercial and residential neighborhood.
“Little Known” Facts About The Westminster Neighborhood:
- Clara Barton lived at 947 T Street in 1879.
- An early Red Cross building was in the 900 block of T Street.
- Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington, among others, used to stop by 1901 Vermont Ave to relax after performing at the Howard Theater. There was a bar in the basement.
- The house on the northwest corner of Westminster Street was a funeral home in the 1960’s. The playground was a parking lot for the funeral home.
- The Grimke School (originally the Phelps School), built in the 1880s, was named after Francis Grimke, a writer and orator who championed constitutional rights for African Americans. Built as a white school, it transferred into the black school system in the 1920’s.
- 902 T Street (corner of Ninth & T) was the Washington Conservatory of Music from 1903 to 1960. Harriet Gibbs Marshall, the first African American to graduate from Oberlin Conservatory of Music, founded the Conservatory.