Mothballed marvel in Northwest DC: how does Chesapeake House stay neglected in such a wealthy part of town?

On a nondescript corner sits perched a mothballed little building, seemingly vacant for years.  With plywood on all the windows and doors, it fits the standard characterization of blight.

Chesapeake House in NW DC

It’s hard to imagine any city with a population over 100,000 in this country that doesn’t have at least one structure sharing this forlorn appearance.  Okay, maybe not Scottsdale, Arizona—a big city today that, one hundred years ago, had only a thousand people and did not achieve incorporation until 1951.  But Scottsdale doesn’t resemble the normal growth trajectory of an American city; it is, after all, a suburb to its larger central city (Phoenix).  Perhaps that’s the clencher: any central or core city with a population over 100,000 incorporated before the year 1900.  Which fully describes the city that contains the little mothballed edifice seen in these photos.

But this isn’t any city, of course: it’s the nation’s capital.  And Washington DC, though certainly not without its economically distressed neighborhoods, wouldn’t usually consider the site of this house to be one that warrants significant revitalization intervention.  Pivot to the other side of this building and it’s obvious even to the untrained eye:

Chesapeake House in the foreground left

Those unsightly utility poles notwithstanding, the framing in this image reveals an area dominated by much larger contemporary buildings, and no plywood on the windows.  This is the heart of Tenleytown in the Northwest quadrant of DC, far removed from the phalanx of lobbying and consulting firms that fortify the streets in the city’s commercial core.  Though Tenleytown boasts a busy commercial node itself, filled with offices and retail—a WMATA metro stop is just two blocks away—the majority of Tenleytown consists of single family detached houses.  More importantly, this is not an economically distressed part of town and never really has been; like most neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park, Tenleytown remained affluent and generally low-crime even during the city’s nadir of the 1980s crack epidemic, when DC was the nation’s murder capital. Violent crime in Tenleytown was rare then; it still is today.

So how did this building end up looking so neglected?  It’s mothballed on all sides.

Long abandoned Chesapeake House in wealthy Northwest DC

Perhaps more interestingly, it sits in complete isolation, not just aesthetically but physically and historically.  Step a few feet away to its putative “back yard” (the foundation of the parcel’s corner) and the tennis courts of the expansive park are clearly visible.

This building, known as the Chesapeake House, is the last vestige of architecture from an era when the adjacent Fort Reno Park was a neighborhood.  The long-demolished Fort Reno once stood at this verdant site, the highest point in the city, one of the 68 defensive installations deployed during the Civil War.  Its high elevation made it a critical lookout point against invading Confederate armies coming through Maryland.  In the decades after the Civil War during Reconstruction, the area morphed into Reno City, a medium-density settlement of about 600 homes primarily owned by African-Americans.  As urbanization pushed its way to this outlying area (less than a mile away from the Maryland border) and streetcars along Wisconsin Avenue helped endow Tenleytown with a real commercial node, the District government colluded with real estate pressures to purchase the land around the former Fort Reno (the Reno City neighborhood) to turn into a park.  Through eminent domain, the District quickly claimed the lands of Reno City in the 40s and early 50s, purchasing and demolishing these homes to transform into what is today the 2,400 acre Fort Reno Park—all the buildings, that, is, except for the Chesapeake House.

Chesapeake House

This lone structure, built in 1937 (making it new in comparison to the surrounding homes at the time), survives primarily due to an administrative mistake: the planners designing Fort Reno Park failed to secure a building permit.  Since the structure at the time was likely in excellent condition, they ultimately retained it.  Today, the Chesapeake House and a few stray fire hydrants are all that survive of Reno City.  And the Chesapeake House is clearly hanging by a thread.  Purchased by the federal government in 1950, it’s not in great shape, having sat vacant for decades.  Under shared ownership between DC government and the National Park Service since 1973, local community groups initially hosted gatherings there, particularly youth-oriented music concerts.  The innocuous looking, mothballed edifice was a major player in the DC punk scene, until the local Advisory Neighborhood Council (ANC) found another venue to host its meetings in the mid-1990s.

But the National Park Service hasn’t touched it since then.  Having fully acquired the parcel from District of Columbia in 2010, a lack of funds and a backlog of other, more pressing projects in the DC area—like this one, to use a single example—have kept it mothballed and unmaintained, aside from occasionally trimming the grass and ivy that engulf it during the warmer months.  This all changed in 2019, when Urban Investment Partners agreed to restore the Chesapeake House as part of a broader community benefits package that the company agreed to when it purchased a nearby underutilized office building, to transform into mixed-use apartment complex.

That’s the plan, at least.

This transformation was supposed to take place in 2020, according to DC Line (a major source of info here), but I cannot find evidence that such a restoration has yet begun.  I haven’t been to the site in about a year; these photos come from the final weekend before the nation and world retreated to domesticity in the face of the coronavirus, just a little over a year ago.  But local neighborhood activist groups, such as the Coalition for Chesapeake Community Center and Tenleytown Historical Society, had not fully devised a long-term use for the soon-to-be-restored structure as of 2019, though they expect it to involve a tribute to and recognition of the Reno City neighborhood that became Fort Reno Park during a time when civic leaders often perceived the eviction of large numbers of minorities as an act of charity—a revitalization in the guise of “urban renewal”.  The restoration of the Chesapeake House is probably a tough sell, but it’s a likely consequence of the privilege and wealth of the neighborhood and of DC as a whole.  After all, where else can hyperlocal activist groups strong-arm a developer into investing hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore an architecturally unremarkable, long mothballed building without even articulating a long-term capitalization plan after it is once again habitable?  (This is a city where an afterthought of a lot can still get developed.) Then again, Chesapeake House did sit vacant for decades despite development taking place everywhere else.  Fort Reno Park was a massive undertaking at the time.  It’s sheer ordinariness left Chesapeake House lost in the shuffle—the same neglect that actually saved it from the wrecking ball over fifty years ago.  Humble though it may seem with boards in all the windows, maybe Chesapeake House is finally getting the attention and love it has long deserved.  The staid area could use a funky little music venue.

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2 thoughts on “Mothballed marvel in Northwest DC: how does Chesapeake House stay neglected in such a wealthy part of town?

  1. AvatarDianaLeigh

    That’s a story that is waiting to have an ending. I am not sure if it even makes sense to renovate a building before even knowing it’s purpose. What is needed here? Maybe something artsy or foodie-oriented?

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirtAmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for your response! Good question. As you can imagine, it’s not a very big building. Apparently in the past it was used for live musical shows, but it must have been pretty small groups–it’s not a big enough venue to probably allow more than 50 people. As far as I can tell, it’s probably most useful as the offices of a small organization. Hopefully one day I can get back over there to verify that it actually IS being rehabilitated–or maybe a friend of mine who lives nearby will eventually respond to my questions…

      Reply

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