The Washington Post: Always a Good Story
Historic DC: Destiny and the Founding of a Capital
Donna Evers • September 7, 2016
After the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers had to choose a capital city. The place we now know as Washington, D.C., was not everybody’s first choice. In the late 1700s, […]
Historic DC: Destiny and the Founding of a Capital
Donna Evers • August 31, 2016
After the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers had to choose a capital city. The place we now know as Washington …
How We Live Now: The Demise of the Florida Room
Donna Evers • September 17, 2015
Washington, D.C., has gone through a gigantic sea change over the past several years, from a city of modest middle-class incomes and homes to a metropolitan area having many huge homes with elaborate interiors, reflecting the opulent lifestyles of the people within.
One way to see how our concept of informal living has changed is to trace the evolution of a Washington favorite, the so-called Florida room.
Back in the 1950s and ’60s, the first Florida rooms were considered a big improvement over the open side porches on the small redbrick colonials that dominated Northwest Washington and the suburbs of Silver Spring and Chevy Chase.
Instead of sitting outside on your open side porch swatting mosquitoes, you could fill the open spaces between the porch columns with jalousie windows and screens, creating a seasonal addition to your house. These jalousie windows, made up of frames holding rectangular pieces of glass, had hand cranks to open and close the glass window slats, letting the air in through the screens but keeping the bugs out.
When it got cooler in September, you could crank these louvered windows shut and still have the illusion of being outside. This was the spot where mom could bring dad his martini or scotch and they could talk over dad’s workday and enjoy the feeling of being, well, almost on vacation. Meanwhile, the kids could play in the semi-finished downstairs area called the rumpus room.
We can guess where the term “rumpus room” came from, but where exactly “Florida room” came from is unclear. The name probably added to mom and dad’s feeling of being able to unwind in the balmy atmosphere of a summer’s evening.
These Florida rooms were usually small, typically 150 to 300 square feet, and they were attached to two-story colonials that were also small, a total of 2,200 to 3,500 square feet. There was a living room, a dining room, a small kitchen and a porch or Florida room on the first floor, and three bedrooms and one or two bathrooms on the second. Of course, there were also much bigger homes in D.C. and its suburban neighborhoods, but colonials of this size and shape far outnumbered the larger homes.
Now, let’s fast-forward to 2015, and take a look at the typical new home being built today in Washington’s close-in neighborhoods. Builders are continually looking for a home on a lot large enough to carve off another lot, or to tear down an existing house, to build the type of big, new home that is in demand.
This new house will be 5,000 to 8,000 square feet, with a living room, a dining room, an expansive family kitchen with islands and table space, an adjoining family room and a den. The second floor will have a multi-room master suite — sometimes bigger than the entire square footage of the colonials described above — plus several bedrooms and bathrooms. The lower-level areas include such amenities as climate-controlled wine cellars, exercise rooms and home movie theaters.
The humble Florida room has been replaced with scads of informal space, but this time it’s where the whole family congregates. Since both mom and dad work now, at the end of the day they want to share time and space with the kids. The kitchen is still “the heart of the home,” but it is open and spacious. With gourmet accoutrements, it adjoins a richly equipped family room with a large flat-screen television, a fireplace and a wall of glass windows and doors, opening to porches, decks and usually a small, but well-landscaped backyard.
Currently, backyards are not used that much, since the children are pretty well booked after school with lessons of various kinds and the parents and kids go to interesting places on weekends. Granted, this is not everybody’s lifestyle, but it generally accounts for a growing number of people who are buying new luxury homes.
This is a far cry from the lifestyle reflected in the 2,500-square-foot colonials. So, bid adieu, with an accompanying wave of nostalgia, to the Florida room. It served its purpose at a much different time in our cultural history. Come to think of it, couldn’t everyone use a climate-controlled wine cellar?
In Memoriam: Revisiting the Wall
Donna Evers • July 16, 2015
These balmy days between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July are a good time to visit the war memorials on the National Mall. If you haven’t been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial lately, go back and take another look. At a time in our history when we can appreciate the ambiguity of military involvement, it is as expressive a war memorial as you will find anywhere.
Four years after the fall of Saigon, a group of Vietnam veterans started a drive to raise funds for a memorial. The plan was initiated by Jan Scruggs, an army corporal during the Vietnam war, who was inspired by the film “The Deer Hunter.” Scruggs wanted to honor his dead comrades in what he described as “the most ambiguous venture in America’s military history.” Though the fund drive started at a time when many Americans wanted to forget this chapter of our history, the group managed to raise $9 million and get Congressional approval to build the memorial.
In 1980, Scruggs and his group asked for design bids. More than 1,400 applications were submitted. The guidelines for the memorial were that it be reflective and contemplative and harmonize with its surroundings; contain the names of the 58,000 Americans who were killed or missing in action; and make no political statement about the war. The entries were given numbers so the judges would not be influenced by the names of the designers.
The unanimous choice was No. 1026, a design submitted by Maya Lin, the 20-year-old daughter of Chinese immigrants and a student at Yale University.
Lin’s black wall was not well received. There was a public uproar about the memorial being disrespectful and inappropriate. Some of the most prominent people in favor of the memorial withdrew their support when they saw the design, including H. Ross Perot and James Webb. The opposition was so great that — as a supposed remedy — a bronze statue of three soldiers was proposed to stand where the two sections of wall come together. Lin was against this plan, and a compromise was reached in which the statue was placed off to one side, as if the soldiers were observing the wall and the visitors. Later, another statue was added nearby to honor the women who had served.
The controversy surrounding the unusual memorial diminished once people began visiting the three-acre plot of ground, where the shining wall reflects the trees and grass as well as the visitors themselves. When you walk along the wall, you see your reflection imposed over the seemingly unending rows of names; you feel that you are no longer on one side of the wall, but a part of it.
The effect is transformative. Empathy for the loss of the 58,000 soldiers is squarely and vividly brought home. Whether you were for or against the war — or any war — and whether or not there is a name of someone you knew there, the words of Hemingway’s famous novel, and John Donne’s poem, come to mind: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
When Lin originally submitted the design, in response to an assignment at Yale, she received the grade of B. Now the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is ranked 10th on the American Institute of Architects’ “List of America’s Famous Architecture.” It attracts more than three million visitors a year. When she won the award, the young artist explained that the design was a symbol of regeneration. “Take a knife and cut open the earth,” she said, “and with time the grass will heal it.”
Take another look at this very moving memorial the next time you have some free time on a summer afternoon.
Donna Evers is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest womanowned and woman-run real estate firm in the metropolitan area; the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia, and a devoted fan of Washington-area history. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clang, Clang, Clang Went the Trolley!
Donna Evers • May 11, 2015
Ralph Blane, co-composer with Hugh Martin of “The Trolley Song” – made famous by the 1944 film “Meet Me in St. Louis” – said he was inspired to write the award-winning song after he saw a photo of a trolley car in a 1900 newspaper, captioned, “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley.”
The concept that trolley cars, or streetcars, are nostalgic reminders of a romantic past must be what caught the imagination of at least three recent mayors of Washington, D.C., and that of many of the city’s inhabitants. But before we commit to the current proposed trolley lines, maybe we should take a look at the District’s checkered history with this mode of transportation.
The first form of public transportation in many U.S. cities, including Washington, was horse-drawn trolley cars that had steel tires and ran on rails flush with the pavement. These were popular from the 1860s through the 1890s, when they were replaced with electric trolley cars – a lot cleaner and easier to keep than horses. And, unlike the horse-drawn streetcars, they could climb steep hills, leading to the ever-expanding boundaries of the city and up Wisconsin and Connecticut Avenues to the new suburb of Chevy Chase.
When Congress approved the switch to electric streetcars, it prohibited overhead wiring and insisted that the electric cables be buried in the roads next to the tracks. This caused the system to suffer from the expansion and contraction caused by the summer heat and the winter cold. Historian Robert C. Post noted that the “demands of routine maintenance were relentless.” Nevertheless, streetcars were the main mode of public transportation for Washingtonians for many years.
The streetcars’ demise came about when a perfect storm of problems finally became insurmountable. By 1933, the consolidation of many streetcar companies resulted in the Capital Transit Company, which, in the beginning, had ample funds to deal with the constant repair problems, even though the increase in family-owned automobiles continued to chip away at streetcar ridership. As the number of riders decreased, the company was sold to a group of investors. Paying much less than the company’s value, these investors commenced to reward themselves with large dividends, depleting company reserves.
At the same time, the unions decided that their streetcar workers had gotten cheated out of their share of the riches. In 1951, they went on strike, creating what the AP reported to be “the biggest traffic jam in history,” with people abandoning their cars in the middle of downtown streets next to empty streetcars and trudging the rest of the way to work in the stifling summer heat.
After strikes erupted again in 1955, Congress decided to step in and take the company away from the greedy investors. It was sold to O. Roy Chalk, a New York entrepreneur who had to promise to close down the streetcar system and change it to 100-percent bus service, which he did. The last streetcar line went out of service in 1962. Schoolchildren were given the treat of riding on the last trolley, after which it was shrouded with black crepe and a mourning wreath.
We can only hope that if trolley service ever actually returns to the District, there won’t be a repetition of this history. Meanwhile, we can get in the mood to embrace the concept by singing “The Trolley Song” with Judy Garland, or the song in which Tony Bennett made the little cable cars of San Francisco so unforgettable.
Donna Evers is the owner and broker of Evers & Co Real Estate Inc., the largest woman-owned and woman-run real estate firm in the metropolitan area, and the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia. Reach her at email@example.com.