The Victorian mansion at 16th and Lamont Street NW, now surrounded by playfields, was never used for its original purpose. Back in the late 1920s, when everyone had three names, the grand dame of Meridian Hill, Mary Foote Henderson, commissioned noted Washington architect George Oakley Totten to build a residence that would accommodate both public and private domestic activities—-including a library, salon and dining room on the second floor. It was part of Henderson’s grand vision to develop 16th Street as a prestigious avenue of foreign missions, only part of which actually came to pass.
But Henderson died in 1931, and the building sat vacant for some time, before being acquired by the U.S. government and pressed into service as the headquarters of the Department of Parks and Recreation in 1942. Since then, Parks and Rec has enjoyed some of the municipal government’s most stately office space, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
It’s getting too old to use, though. This week, DPR announced it would be moving the building’s 45 employees to more plebeian quarters at 1250 U Street NW, along with other District agencies. In part, that’s because Henderson’s manse isn’t accessible to people with disabilities, there are leaks and problems with the heating system.
Agency director Jesus Aguirre says the move is also a “significant shift, and “a little bit symbolic” move away from the “old DPR” and “baggage associated with a recent past”—-referring, no doubt, to the struggles over leadership and fishy contracts that have dogged the agency for the past few years. Unlike many other city departments, DPR has actually been able to fill many of its staffing vacancies, and will be hiring some 500 employees in the coming months as it ramps up for summer activities. Meanwhile, it’s started a whole new division for partnering with outside organizations like Friends groups, as well as leveraging new revenue from the private sector, which is now allowed under legislation passed last year.
Meanwhile, though, Henderson’s would-be embassy will sit empty—-it’s still owned by the federal government, so the District can’t sell it, and doesn’t have the money to renovate it right now. Hey, the Franklin School‘s still closed. We could always use it as a homeless shelter.