After half a century as D.C.’s unofficial African-American history museum, the Office of the Recorder of Deeds faces sale.
For more than half a century, Benjamin Banneker and Crispus Attucks have greeted visitors to the Office of the Recorder of Deeds from a series of dramatic murals. Attucksdepicted in jagged strokes of red and brown in the act of receiving the mortal wound that made him, in 1770, the first casualty of the American Revolutionguards the entrance to the lobby, while Bannekersimply drawn in a plain blue suitoversees some of the instruments of the
surveyor’s trade and a 1792 map of Washington on a panel near the lobby’s disused secondary entrance.
Across the street from the E. Carl Moultrie Courthouse, this three-story building at 515 D St. NW is, according to preservationists, one of the city’s outstanding examples of art-deco/art-moderne architecture. It also has a long history of serving as Washington’s unofficial African-American history museum.
From the building’s opening, in 1942, until the Washington school system was integrated a decade later, students from D.C.’s black schools would come to see the murals during Negro History Weeka February celebration of black culture initiated by Carter G. Woodson in the Baltimore and D.C. school systems in 1926 and the precursor of today’s Black Heritage Month. At the deeds office, they’d learn about such revered figures in African-American history as Attucks, Banneker, and Frederick Douglass, who served as recorder of deeds from 1881 to 1886 after being appointed to the post by President James A. Garfield. The muralspainted by Maxine Seelbinder, Herschel Levitt, Ethel Magafan, Martyl Schweig, Carlos Lopez, Austin Mecklem, and renowned African-American painter William Edouard Scottwere selected from nearly 360 entries in a national competition held in 1942 and 1943 by the Public Buildings Administration. The theme: “the contribution of the Negro to the American Nation.”
In addition to the murals, the building’s lobby displays 12 portraits of recorders of deeds, commissioned in 1936 by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. George Washington appointed the first clerk in charge of local property records, and from 1868when the contemporary recorder of deeds position was createduntil the Truman administration, the local position remained a presidentially appointed post. During that time, the post was awarded to several prominent African-American political figures, including Blanche K. Bruce, who served as the nation’s first black senator from 1875 to 1881 and went on to become recorder of deeds from 1890 to 1894. In all, 20 of the 24 recorders of deeds have been black.
Dr. William J. Tompkins, recorder of deeds from 1934 to 1944, came to D.C. in 1917 and later became chief surgeon at Freedmen’s Hospital (now Howard University Hospital) and president of the National Colored Democratic Association. He was appointed recorder of deeds by Franklin Delano Roosevelt after helping the 27th president win his first term in 1932. At the time, the Office of the Recorder of Deeds was housed in a nonfireproof space off Judiciary Square and rented for the then-astronomical sum of $240,000 per year.
In 1940, Tompkins asked Congress for a new, fireproof building to house the records of all property transactions in the Districta library that includes deeds of sale for all slaves sold in D.C. from 1792 until emancipationand $450,000 was approved to construct the D Street space. Designed by Nathan C. Wyeth, who also designed the D.C. Armory, it was the last building in Washington built by the Public Works Administration. It has served as a lasting reminder of the ambitious, never-finished project to create a local municipal center for the city grand enough to rival the national government’s Federal Triangle.
Lasting, perhaps, until now. On Jan. 30, Mayor Anthony A. Williams asked D.C. Council Chair Linda Cropp to submit legislation on his behalf allowing the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development to negotiate a sale of the building to a consortium of local developers headed by A. James Clark and Randolph C. Brophy. The developers have proposed to gut and redesign the property in hopes of luring the ever-growing Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), whose present office abuts the deeds office, to expand into the space. Although their plan would maintain certain aspects of the existing lobby designincluding the paintingsit also calls for constructing a curved seven-story addition on top of the existing rectangular building.
Deputy Recorder of Deeds Larry Todd was so upset by the proposal that he contacted Alexander Padro of the D.C. Preservation League (DCPL) to ask Padro’s help in preserving the deeds building as it is. The DCPL, in conjunction with the Art Deco Society of Washington, is waging a campaign to preserve and renovate the building, which has an assessed land value of $3.7 million. The two groups plan to file an application to grant the building historic-landmark status. “It’s not about efficiency,” says Todd of the proposed sale, which includes provisions to modernize the deeds office. “It’s about [he rubs his thumb against his fingers to signify money]…I think if the city government could get money for anything, they’d do it.”
“This was the sort of building,” says Padro, “that uplifted the hearts and minds not only of the people who worked there, but the public….There is no reason for the recorder of deeds office to have to be abandoned by its agency when all it needs is restoration.”
The office has not undergone any substantial renovations since being built. The original green linoleum floor still shines in the building’s library, which is lined with fireproof metal panels designed to look like walnut walls. Throughout the room, little has changed since construction: A few air-conditioning ducts have been attached to the ceiling, but even such rewiring as there is has been installed over the original panels, rather than inside the walls. The centerpiece of the library is, ironically, a fireplace, still operable, and one of only two working fireplaces to be found in a D.C. government building. A thermostat on the wall still urges ration-conscious energy consumers not to be “fuelish” and points to 80 degrees as the appropriate summer air temperature.
In the lobby, the original robin’s-egg-blue ceiling has been painted a less elegant off-white, and some of the brass detail work around the doors and windows has been painted a dull public-school brown. But no one has bothered to take down the vintage fallout-shelter signs, with their jarring yellow-and-black triangles, and the dumbwaiter in one of the halls is still used to ferry documents from floor to floor. By the looks of it, the desk used by Acting Recorder of Deeds Henry Riley isin addition to being as big as a queen-size bedalso original. And if the murals aren’t enough to entice you to wander around the lobby, James Lee Hansen’s 1941 painted plaster statue Young Abraham Lincoln is sure to draw your eye. It’s one of only two statues in the country to depict this toweringly grave figure as a shirtless, beardless young man. And here, Abe wears low-slung pants and a languid, almost come-hither look.
Despite its many charms, there’s no question that the building could use some modernization. Some of the artwork is damaged, with water streaks and bubbles on paintings. Preservationists say that reviving the office’s forgotten educational role is the way to go. “The building has national significance as an African-American history museum,” says Jerry Maronek of the DCPL. He’d like to see field trips to the building once again required of D.C. public-school students, and he thinks that the lobby could become a center for African-American-heritage tourism in the city, with rotating displays and a permanent collection. The proposed sale, he says, is “an example of inappropriate expansion and development.”
Padro, who is also an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 2, organized a Feb. 15 tour of the building for the public as part of the 7th Street Arts District’s monthly Third Thursday event. It was the first such tour since the ’50s. Private tours for D.C. Councilmembers Jim Graham and Phil Mendelson are planned, and Padro has been lobbying staffers for the other councilmembers to come out and take a look, too. As for the mayor’s legislation, which the council will have 90 days to approve or veto, “none of the councilmembers I spoke with had actually reviewed it, but all expressed interest in learning more about the situation,” says Padro, adding that “apparently there was a technical deficiency in the legislation, so it was sent back to the mayor’s office.” Although the bill has not yet been revised and resubmitted to the council, Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Eric Price has indicated that Williams plans to resubmit the request.
Complicating that move is the fact that the SEC, the proposed tenant for the build-out, has recently expressed strong public interest in a differentand even largerspace near Union Station. “There is no longer any benefit to the city selling this building to this developer except for the developer to make a profit,” argues Padro. “We would like to see it be restored and renovated so that it can be a source of pride for all Washington residentsand especially African-Americans.” “We’re optimistic,” says Maronek, who helped lead the Thursday tour with Padro and Todd. “But we need all the support we can get.” CP