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Historic D.C. Housing Project Marks 75 Years

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Children play on the Frog, sculpted by Lenore Thomas Strauss, in the courtyard of Langston Terrace.
National Archives Records Administration
Children play on the Frog, sculpted by Lenore Thomas Strauss, in the courtyard of Langston Terrace.

The District's first public housing project, Langston Terrace, celebrates its 75th anniversary this spring. It was a project of the Public Works Administration, part of President Roosevelt's New Deal.

Ahead of it's opening in the spring of 1938, more than 2,500 families applied to move in. There were only 274 homes and apartments available, one of which went to the family of Eloise Little Greenfield.

Greenfield moved into Langston on her ninth birthday, May 17, 1938. Her new home was a brick row house, like many others she'd lived in before, with one difference: "It was just our family living there." They had been sharing rent with other cousins and friends her whole life. This was a home of their own.

In the new two-bedroom house, rent was $28 a month. Rent rose when a family member got a raise, or a promotion.

A project by and for African Americans

Kelly Quinn, a historian at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, explains in the early 20th century, thousands of African American families had moved to the District in hopes of working for the federal government. The majority of the families selected for Langston were government workers — clerks, butlers, bellhops. Some worked for senators and a few worked in the White House.

This housing project was designed, from the start, as a place for African American families. The NAACP and African American intellectuals at the time lobbied for black workers to play a large role in Langston's creation.

Hilyard Robinson, an African American architect and a native Washingtonian, became the lead architect. He drew his inspiration from public housing in Europe, designing the development on an entire city block, with low-rise apartment buildings all along the perimeter, and two-story row houses facing a center courtyard.

Robinson chose a cubic, modernist style, and sturdy building materials. Quinn points out the two-toned brick, "a dark brown at the base, and then a buff brick at the top," which residents said looked like stacks of butter. Concrete is used throughout the complex for it's durability, and easy maintenance.

Pathways connected rows of houses, allowing neighbors to walk to the library, a rec center, or to school without ever crossing a city street.

Artistic flourishes can be found throughout the property. Stone sculptures of large animals — a hippo, a frog, walrus and horses — on the children's playground. There's a sculptural relief on the side of one building, depicting scenes from African American history.

Beautiful properties yield civic pride

Barbara Watkins Hagans, of Oxen Hill, Md., moved into Langston when she was 2 years old. Her house faced the courtyard, and she remembers sitting by the window to see who was outside that she could play with. The girls, she said, jumped Double Dutch, while her mother chatted on nearby benches.

Even though it wasn't their property, Hagans says, everyone took care of their lawn and maintained their home as though it was. She didn't know she lived in a housing project, she said. When she asked her parents about that word, "project," they informed her that yes, she did live in a housing project, but she was always taken care of, and there was nothing to worry about.

One of the most prominent features at Langston, is a concrete water fountain, built into the base of graceful staircase entrance to the block. Kelly Quinn points out the water fountain was "a symbol of segregation" to African American families coming from the south.

"They would have seen colored and white water fountains," says Quinn. To move into a place where at the foot of the courtyard and playground there is this colorful water fountain, designed by an African American, is this "very small gesture, which made the urban space more habitable and more dignified."

Architect Hilyard Robinson went on to design dozens of buildings at Howard University, the Tuskegee airfield in Alabama, and public housing all around the country. Langston, his first major project, was designed with the human experience in mind, says Quinn.

Emily's story was informed by WAMU's Public Insight Network. It's a way for people to share their stories with us and for us to reach out for input on upcoming stories.
 For more information, click this link.

[Music: "On the Street Where You Live" by Frank DeVol Orchestra from Portraits/Bacchanal!]


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