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Jan. 29, 2024

Cedar Hill in Washington, DC

Cedar Hill in Washington, DC

A tangible remnant is a historic building that left a mark on the built environment and tells the story of people who came before us. This episode explores the tangible remnant that is Cedar Hill in Washington, DC. Listen to learn about the building, architect, historical figure that commissioned the building, and how the building is being used today.



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Welcome to Tangible Remnants. I'm Nakita Reed, and this is my show where I explore the interconnectedness of architecture, preservation, sustainability, race, and gender. I'm excited that you're here. So let's get into it. 

Welcome back. Today's episode is another solo episode where I'll be talking about an actual tangible remnant, you know, a historic building that left a mark on the environment and tells the story of people who came before us.  As a framework for this episode, I'll start with the building and then elaborate on the legacy behind the building.

And the show notes for this episode will also be full of articles and resources. So if you want to go down the rabbit hole of historical research, like I did, I left you some breadcrumbs.  In the meantime, you can head over to our Instagram at tangible remnants to see photos of the building and the main historical figure that I'm about to talk about. 

And a reminder, once you're on Instagram, if you click on the link in the bio, it'll take you to our linked tree where you'll be able to sign up for our newsletter, access resources, and a bunch of other goodies related to the podcast.  All right, well, let's get into it. So to start, I'll give you three clues about this tangible remnant so you can see if you can guess the building and historical figure.

Here we go.  Number one.  Located in Washington, D. C., the house was built between 1855 and 1859 for John Welsh Van Hook, an architect from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Clue number two.  The centerpiece of the site is the historic house, which sits on top of a 50 foot hill and includes eight acres of the original estate. 

And finally, clue number three.  The historical figure who this house is known for lived in the house from 1877 until his death in 1895.  All right. Do you have a guess?  Well, let's say it together on three. One, two, three. Frederick Douglass Cedar Hill in Anacostia. That's what you got? All right, cool. Well, that's what we're talking about today.

So as many of us know, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818, and he escaped as a young man and became a leading voice in the abolitionist movement. And people everywhere still find inspiration today in his struggle, his brilliant words, and his inclusive vision of humanity.  The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site preserves and interprets Cedar Hill, where Frederick Douglass spent the last 17 years of his life.

The building has been restored to its 1895 appearance. And the house is furnished with original objects that belong to Frederick Douglass as well as other members of the household.  So to dig in a little bit more into the history of the house, because I found this super interesting as I was learning more about the building,  when it was originally built in the 1850s, the house consisted of about six to 14 rooms.

And then in 1854, when Van Hook, who was the original owner, was living there. He partnered with John Fox and John Dobler and they formed the Union Land Association. Their offices were located in the home and these are the same developers that went on to purchase a hundred acres of farmland to form a new subdivision called Union Town, which today is known as Anacostia. 

So doing more research on the National Park Service website about the historic park is where I found a lot of this information. And so on September 1st, in 1877, Douglas paid 6, 700 to the Friedman Savings and Trust Company for the home and 9. 75 acres of land. He then also purchased an additional 5. 75 acres of land from Ella R.

Talbert in 1878.  Some other research that I found showed that the majority of the money used to buy the property came from money that his first wife, Anna Murray Douglas, had saved from her years as a shoe mender. And then the Douglas's moved into the home during the fall of 1878, and it's reported that one of the reasons why Douglas chose this property was because of its serene, physical character.

And he named the residence Cedar Hill because of the cedar trees that had already encompassed its sprawling landscape.  Between 1877 and 1893,  Douglas made a series of additions to the house, including The construction of a two-story wood-framed addition at the rear of the house.  The original kitchen was converted into a dining room, and a new kitchen was added to the south wing.

And then a partition which divided two rooms on the west side of the house was removed and replaced by two walls to create three smaller bedrooms.  The attic was finished to create an additional five rooms.  Other additions that were made to the home during the years also included the building of a new library, probably around 1886.

And the addition of a second-story bedroom sometime between 1892 and 1893. And by the time of his death, the home had been converted into a 21-room mansion.  Want to learn more about the unknown ladies of architecture? Then I recommend you listen to She Builds. Podcast where we tell the stories of remarkable women who have shaped the design and construction industries.

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I know that was me in school, just taking it day by day, but not Gertie. She became the president of Evigol, an honorary association of Cornell women architects. Of course, she did.  These are stories not taught in schools.  Women who've molded the world of architecture, construction, and development for over a century.

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Hey, designers and curious minds ever wondered about the stories hiding within your buildings, walls. I'm Carrie Seaborn, Structural Engineer and host of Unstruct, the podcast that decodes and simplifies major concepts of structural design.  Behind the math and physics, structural engineering simply predicts building behavior.

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Now Douglas's first wife, Anna, she was a free black woman who mothered all five of his children. And unfortunately she was only able to enjoy the home for about five years because she died in 1882.  He then remarried a white woman named Helen Pitts in 1884. And she was a distant cousin of president John Quincy Adams.

And so as you can imagine, this interracial marriage caused quite a stir in the late 1800s, but both of his wives had a profound impact on his life and in turn his legacy.  And so after his death, the historic protection of the house really was a labor of love. And as the National Park Service website points out, historic buildings rarely survived generations by accident.

Someone made a choice or in the case of the Douglas home, a whole lot of women made a whole lot of choices over decades.  And so here's a high level overview of the various steps that it took to turn Frederick Douglass home, Cedar Hill, into a historic site.  In 1900, his second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, urged the U.S.

S. Congress to charter the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, that's FDMHA  for short. And upon Helen's death in 1903, the FDMHA received the property.  That organization then partnered with the National Association of Colored Women to complete the first restoration of the Douglas home in 1922. 

Later, the FDMHA petitioned the federal government to become more involved in the preservation of Cedar Hill. And on September 5th of 1962,  so decades later, the Frederick Douglass Estate became a unit of the National Park Service.  Plans were put forth for its restoration in 1962, and the second restoration project was completed about a decade later in 1972.

The house officially reopened to the public on February 14th, 1972.  A couple years later, there were some groundbreaking ceremonies held in September of 1980 for the addition of a visitor center to the grounds, and the visitor center was completed and opened to the public in 1982. And then the most recent restoration lasted from 2004 to 2007 with the site officially reopening to the public on February 14th, 2007. 

So learning more about the women that helped preserve this home was super exciting for me, especially because it's cool for me to learn more about the influences and the contemporaries and kind of who was friends with who, who's hanging out with who. And so I've included a link in the show notes of the various women who the Park Service highlights that were influential to saving this home.

But I wanted to highlight a few. So in addition to his second wife, Helen Fitz Douglas, there's also the National Colored Women's League and the National Convention of the National Federation for African American Women. And that organization was actually a precursor to the National Association for Colored Women's Clubs.

But there was also Ida B. Wells Barnett, who responded to an article that was written about the home, and she was instrumental in pushing for correct information on the home to be shared with people outside of D. C.  There's also Mary Talbert, who was one of the presidents of the National Association for Colored Women's Clubs, and she organized a campaign to help Helen Douglas pay off the mortgage on the house. 

Once the mortgage on the house was paid off, the National Association for Colored Women's Clubs celebrated by inviting one of the main donors, Madam C. J. Walker, to burn the mortgage papers of the house in front of a crowd. And that is the same Madam C. J. Walker. Who's mansion Villa Loaro was discussed in episode 44 of the podcast. 

Another woman who I wanted to highlight who was influential in saving the Douglas home was nanny Helen Burroughs. She was the founder and president of the national training school for women and girls. And for those of you who have ever driven down to 95 in DC,  then you pass by the exit for Nanny Helen Burroughs Drive.

And so now you know a little bit more about the woman that the exit is named after. So in addition to learning about the women in the context and the history of it, learning more about the work that's been done on this tangible remnant has been fun for me because of the various connections I've discovered along the way. 

Okay. Long before I joined Quinn Evans, our team did some work at Cedar Hill. To develop multiple options that sensitively integrated an exterior ramp for visitors who cannot navigate stairs, and that resulted in treatment recommendations from our team for the future protection use and management of the property. 

Additionally, once I joined Quinn Evans, I had the honor of doing an existing conditions assessment. On the National Association for Colored Women's Clubs headquarters in DC, learning more about how that organization was instrumental in helping to save Cedar Hill has been super cool. I'm really loving the fact that we're doing work that is helping to continue tangible connections to legacies of amazing individuals.

So it was fun for me to be able to nerd out on this one in particular.  All right. Well, that's a wrap on Frederick Douglass's Cedar Hill in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC.  Do you have a favorite historic building or, you know, a tangible remnant that you want to recommend? Email me at tangible remnants at gmail.

com and your suggested building just might make it onto the show. 

so much for listening. Links to amazing resources can be found in the episode's show notes. Special thanks to Sarah Gilberg for allowing me to use snippets of her song Fireflies from her debut album, Other People's Secrets, which by the way is available wherever music is sold.  If you haven't already, be sure to subscribe to the show. 

And now that Tangible Remnants is part of the Gabl Media Network, you can listen and subscribe. to all network partner content at gablemedia. com. That's G A B L media. com.  Until next time. Remember that historic preservation is a present conversation with our past about our future. We don't inherit the earth from our parents, but we borrow it from our children.

So let's make sure we're telling our inclusive history.  I saw the first fireflies of summer, and right then,  I thought of you.  Oh, I could see us catching them and setting them free.  Honey, that's what you do. That's what you do to me. 

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It's not just a podcast. It's a community where dreams meet action.  There is a simple equation there. And what, for me, what that did just doing that basic calculation was it allowed me to compare what I had actually saves in my retirement accounts to what I thought a possible projected annual spend might be.

Artists are temperamental. So beautiful design is going to be a priority when the job is done. We're going to actually need to live in the house, not live with the person who designed it.  So for me, the, the artistic skill, the architectural skills are most important. And so I would say like, that would be 60 percent of it, if not more. 

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