Home The Washington Diplomat September 2011

After Years of Revitalization, Penn Quarter’s Personality Shines

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At the symbolically significant halfway point between the White House and Congress, located on two hillocks above the Potomac marshland, Pierre Charles L'Enfant's original plan for the city of Washington envisioned a national cathedral, or pantheon to American heroes, to be constructed on a low ridge of dry land at the intersection of 8th and F Streets, NW.

But in 1836, the technology-obsessed young nation began building a more practical, worldly structure on that spot. A massive granite monument to American ingenuity, the U.S. Patent Office, towered above the modest two- and three-story brick buildings that rose around it. Together with the General Post Office building across F Street, where construction began in 1839, it anchored the neighborhood of government workers, merchants and laborers who lived and worked in the core of the nascent capital city.

The area's early development was also shaped by the commercially vital 7th Street, connecting the farm country to the north with Washington's Central Market, located at the intersection of 7th and Pennsylvania, as well as to the Potomac wharves, a gateway to distant markets. This commercial corridor, which quickly became the neighboorhood's main street, proved strategically important during the Civil War, when Union soldiers encamped in the downtown area marched up and down the road to defend the city against the Confederate Army from the string of forts they built on its perimeter. In fact, during the Civil War, the ornate U.S. Patent Office became a temporary military barracks, hospital and morgue, housing wounded soldiers on cots alongside glass cases holding models of inventions that had been submitted for patent applications.

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Photo: Destination DC
The International Spy Museum, opened in 2002, was part of an early wave of development in Penn Quarter that began after the MCI (now Verizon) Center was built in 1997 and continues to this day.

Though the neighboorhood prospered from the federal government's expansion through the latter half of the 19th century and during World War II, when the population of Washington swelled dramatically, the suburban exodus in the 1950s and '60s, a move affecting cities nationwide, led to its gradual decline. Five days of riots, triggered by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, further cemented downtown D.C.'s downward spiral.

"It was downtrodden, and there wasn't much to do," recalled New York native Jo-Ann Neuhaus. Still, "it was never a slum," added Neuhaus, an urban planner and neighborhood activist who played a decisive role in the area's redevelopment over a 20-year career with the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation from the 1970s into the 1990s.

From Patents to Patent Leather

During that time, the area now known as Penn Quarter (short for Pennsylvania Quarter) has undergone multiple personality changes, overcoming a long period of urban blight and decay and shedding its early federal government roots, while retaining some of that early charm. Today, the U.S. Patent Office is home to the National Portrait Gallery. And the General Post Office? The Hotel Monaco, a Kimpton boutique property that maintained much of the building's original architecture, has been going strong in that location for a decade now.

Penn Quarter's reinvention continues to this day, as the neighborhood evolves from the chain restaurants and generic entertainment ventures that popped up after the MCI Center began revitalizing Chinatown in 1997. Today, although the sports complex, now named the Verizon Center, still anchors the action in the heart of Chinatown/Gallery Place, the area increasingly boasts specialty, high-end eateries and bars, trendy boutique shops and quirky galleries (among them the Spy Museum and the newer National Museum of Crime and Punishment).

Although Penn Quarter is widely associated with Chinatown — which some consider to be a part of Penn Quarter while others view as its own distinct neighborhood — the area encompasses a swath of Northwest D.C. roughly between 5th and 10th Streets (exactly how far out it extends from 7th Street is an issue of debate) and north of Pennsylvania Avenue up to Massachusetts and New York Avenues.

An eclectic roster of businesses has transformed this relatively compact stretch into one of the city's most unique, jam-packed destinations. The Blue Mirror, Garfinkel's, and Murphy's five and dime store of yesteryear have all been replaced by the likes of H&M, Zara and the soon-to-be-opened Anthropologie. Penn Quarter is also at the vanguard of D.C.'s dining scene, from Mike Isabella's recently opened Graffiato (see this month's dining review) to upscale restaurant-lounges such as the massive Buddha Bar and the even more decadent Sax featuring live cabaret shows.

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Photo: The Shakespeare Theatre Company
Penn Quarter has undergone a cultural renaissance of sorts, with additions such as the recently constructed Sidney Harman Hall of the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Similarly, the arts and culture scene is thriving, propelled by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Newseum, Landmark's E Street Cinema, Madame Tussaud's wax museum, the Goethe-Institut German cultural center, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and — long overdue — Riot Act, a brand new comedy club to compete with the aging DC Improv.

Alongside the commercial growth, sparkling new condominiums have arisen from razed parking lots, while historic landmarks such as churches have withstood the development wave. And although the tide has definitely turned in Penn Quarter, poverty and homelessness remain pronounced in some pockets. The result is that on any given day, you'll see tourists, sports fanatics, foodies, street musicians, drag queens and even drug addicts form a strangely fascinating parade of people that embody Penn Quarter's diverse heart.

Anatomy of a Revitalization

During an hour-long interview peppered with personal anecdotes and recollections of long-defunct eateries and movie theaters of a bygone era, Neuhaus described how the "supreme" development plan created by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (PADC) set the stage for the Penn Quarter's revitalization. As key properties along Pennsylvania Avenue, such as the Willard InterContinental Hotel, were restored, and others such as the Market Square development framing the new Navy Memorial were built, some high-profile tenants decided to move into the area, lending it cachet. Initially, lower office rents provided an incentive to businesses. Shifting attitudes about city centers as retail destinations also contributed to the reawakening.

While PADC focused on developing retail and office space west of the FBI building (constructed in the mid-1960s), to the east it required developers vying for construction rights to offer residential space as well. Thus the stage was set for the neighborhood to once again become a place where people, after a 100-year hiatus, could not only work, but live as well.

Neuhaus is one of them. After transfering to George Washington University in 1962, she lived in Foggy Bottom, Dupont Circle and American University Park, as well as 25 years in Bethesda, Md., where she raised her children before moving to the upscale Ventana condominiums on F Street, between 9th and 10th Streets, in 2006. Directly adjacent to her current digs is Booth Alley, where Lincoln's assassin escaped after shooting the 16th president in Ford's Theatre in April 1865. "I walk along and say 'Wow, history!'"

Even while living in the suburbs, Neuhaus said she "always really believed people like to live in cities." In the late 1980s, to encourage the incipient downtown movement, Neuhaus, through PADC, gathered five key developers and formed a neighborhood association, which she still heads today.

One of the association's first tasks was to rebrand the area. Hiring a PR firm and working with focus groups, the association eventually settled on the name "Pennsylvania Quarter" due to the associations it conjured with the Latin Quarter in Paris or the French Quarter in New Orleans. Even so, it took "many, many years" before the new name was adopted by the media (first the national, then the local, Neuhaus noted), and became part of the Washington vernacular sometime in the mid to late 1990s.

Phoenix Still Rising

Today, the shortened name Penn Quarter stands for the phoenix-like revival of one of the city's oldest neighborhoods: a place not only of chic apartments, tony hotels and celebrity chef-run restaurants, but also of a large and growing assemblage of entertainment and cultural offerings, unrivaled in Washington.

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Photo: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

Reading Eve Zibart's September 2004 article "Penn Ultimate" in the Washington Post, one is struck by just how much has changed even in the past seven years. The Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery were then in the midst of a years-long rennovation. They would reopen on July 4, 2006. Sidney Harman Hall, the Shakespeare Theatre Company's architecturally stunning second venue on F Street across from the Verizon Center, was being built. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company was on the verge of moving to its new location on D Street just off of 7th. The 2008 opening of the Newseum, with its glamorous Wolfgang Puck Asian fusion restaurant the Source, was still several years out on the horizon. The International Spy Museum, launched in 2002, was in its infancy, though it had already counted 1 million visitors. It had not yet been joined by the Museum of Crime and Punishment, another 2008 addition, not to mention the profusion of bars restaurants that have sprung up in the interim.

This transformation keeps marching forward, notes Kate Gibbs of Destination DC. In addition to newly opened restaurants Hill Country and Carmine's on 7th Street and the Riot Act Comedy Theater at 8th and E, Gibbs pointed to the massive construction project at the site of the former convention center, where the City Center DC complex of retail, office and hotel space — large enough to be touted as a new "neighborhood" by its developers — broke ground this spring.

Though in 2004 Zibart could still write that "tourists and locals alike are venturing into almost virgin territory, working their way north from the Mall to a new campus of museums," such a description is now passé. The "Quarter" has long since made its comeback.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of today's Penn Quarter is the architectural interplay between old and new. Walk down almost any street and you'll see restored 19th-century brick façades, many with elegantly adorned cornices, seamlessly integrated with modern residential and office buildings.

For example, the Gallup Organization headquarters at 9th and F Streets blends the French renaissance revival style of the 1867 Lansburgh building, designed by prolific Washington architect Adolf Cluss, with a sleek modern office building via an airy staircase and foyer.

Across 9th Street, the undulating glass canopy of the Kogod Courtyard at the center of the National Portrait Gallery in the old Patent Office building, completed in 2007 and designed by Sir Norman Foster (also designer of the Reichstag cupola in Berlin), provides another example of the area's striking architectural fusion. On any given day, the courtyard hosts museum-goers, lunchers enjoying free Wi-Fi, or special cultural events.

Head up the curving staircase on the F Street side of the building to a one-room exhibition that sheds light on the events and individuals, from sports team owner Abe Pollin, to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), that shaped the Penn Quarter of today. The exhibition could hardly find a more fitting setting.

The display highlights the efforts of the DC Preservation League, founded in 1971 as "Don't Tear it Down," in saving many of the historic edifices that give downtown Washington its unique character today. It seems that virtually every building, including the Patent Office, was at one time threatened with demolition.

Walk Through History

In conserving the buildings, activists also helped to preserve Penn Quarter's cultural heritage, including the multiple waves of immigrants that closely mirror broader trends in U.S. history. Careful observers can learn much about this history by venturing somewhat off the beaten path.

On an unusually pleasant Thursday in early August, I met a Slovenian friend arriving from New York near the Chinatown Arch, and together we set out to uncover some of these lesser-known aspects of the neighborhood.

We started with lunch at the Wok and Roll Restaurant at 604 H St., NW, where we enjoyed delicious Chinese-Japanese fare amid historic surroundings. We were actually eating in the 1843 Mary E. Surratt Boarding House, where the charismatic actor John Wilkes Booth met with conspirators (including, to a greater or lesser degree, Ms. Surratt), to plan the Lincoln assassination. Though I had walked by this spot a hundred times, I'd never before noticed the explanatory sign on the site.

Our next stop was at 3rd and G Streets, where the oldest synagogue building in Washington — an understated yet graceful red brick structure used by the Adas Israel congregation from 1876 to 1908 — today sits tucked against the on-ramp to Interstate 395. To enter the Lillian & Albert Small Jewish Museum, as it is now called, we had to ring the bell at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, one block west on G Street. We were soon treated to a private tour by archivist Claire Uziel, who used historic photographs to illustrate her stories of the building and its congregation. One showed the synagogue being moved three blocks east from its original location at 6th and G in 1969.

Another historic property of the Adas Israel congregation, a 1906 synagogue at 6th and I Streets, is today part of the cultural revival of Penn Quarter. Restored in the early 2000s, the historic building now hosts diverse cultural events.

After a brief stop in the outstanding gift shop of the cavernous National Building Museum, built in the 1880s to house the U.S. Pension Bureau, we continued on to the German-American Heritage Museum of the USA, opened in March 2010 in the 1888 townhouse on 6th Street built by German immigrant John Hockemeyer. This small museum, complemented by the Goethe-Institut, recalls the huge influence of German immigrants in shaping today's Penn Quarter during the 19th century.

Before completing our tour at the FroZenYo shop around the corner from Ford's Theatre, we visited the FreshFarm farmer's market on 8th Street between D and E, a Thursday afternoon institution in Penn Quarter. Market manager Andrea Cimino told of the big-name chefs who regularly come to shop here, including José Andrés, founder of area restaurants including Zaytinya, Jaleo and America Eats Tavern. The latter, a pop-up restaurant that opened July 4 in the former Café Atlantico/Minibar space on 8th Street (and will close next January), serves American classics in partnership with the current National Archives exhibit "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" depicting the federal government's role in shaping the national palate.

The National Archives, built in the 1930s where 8th Street meets Pennsylvania Avenue as part of the Federal Triangle development project, stands where D.C.'s sprawling Central Market once supplied Washington kitchens, both humble and grand. The Andrés-Archives culinary collaboration provides yet another example of Penn Quarter's mixing of old and new, drawing on downtown Washington heritage to fit the zeitgeist.

The neighborhood today is not without problems—Neuhaus (the "queen of Penn Quarter," as Gibbs called her) cited noise pollution in an area not zoned as residential as one persistent complaint she hears. A 2007 City Paper story told of a peevish 6th Street resident who poured a bottle of water from the window of her condo onto an unsuspecting crowd chattering outside a nightclub below.

Meanwhile, to deter youth loitering along 7th Street by the Verizon Center, various aural tactics are being employed, from classical music to high-pitched buzzes. The ethical implications of these, as well as the merits of a D.C. police program to engage teenagers who hang out in the area, are being debated in various online forums.

Even with these universal urban problems, the general verdict is that Penn Quarter's renaissance has been successful — years in the making but long overdue. The heart of downtown Washington is beating once again.


About the Author

Jacob Comenetz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 18, 2014