River Farms to Urban Towers
—Southwest Heritage Trail —
Directly across Fourth Street from this sign is the Capitol Park complex of high-rise and townhouse residences. Designed by Chloethiel Woodard Smith of Satterlee and Smith, the high-rise (now Potomac Place) opened in 1959 as the first new structure in the redeveloping Southwest. Critics hailed it as a "beautiful building, inside and out" with inspiring views of the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Smith won awards for her creative design (efficiencies had a "folding wall" to create a separate bedroom) and materials. Soon she was the leading choice for designing other new Southwest buildings.
Capitol Park replaced Dixon Court, a set of alleys inside the block bordered by Third, Fourth, H, and I streets. For years the press and social reformers presented Dixon Court as a blighted environment that incubated crime and disease. Its 43 tiny houses, lacking plumbing and green spaces, were chronically overcrowded and in need of repairs. Yet when the court was the first to be demolished in 1954, a close-knit community was also destroyed. Neighbors had worked together and watched out for one another.
The relocation of 23,500 Southwesters was an enormous job. Many who were financially able left Southwest when urban renewal plans became public. Workers with the Redevelopment Land Agency helped others
find affordable housing. In 1960 the Washington Housing Association reported that 46 percent had moved to Southeast, 27 percent to Northeast, and 15 percent to Northwest. Only 12 percent returned to Southwest.
From 1800 until 1950, Southwest was Washington's largest working-class, waterfront neighborhood. Then beginning in 1954, nearly all of Southwest was razed to create an entirely new city in the nation's first experiment in urban renewal. The 17 signs of River Farms to Urban Towers: Southwest Heritage Trail
lead you through the Modernist buildings erected in the 1960s while marking the sites and stories—and the few remaining structures—of the neighborhood that was. Follow this trail to discover the area's first colonial settlers and the waves of immigrants drawn to jobs on the waterfront or in nearby federal government offices. Here Chesapeake Bay waterment sold oysters and fish off their boats. The once-gritty streets were childhood homes to singer Marvin Gaye and movie star Al Jolson. Later residents included Senator Hubert H. Humphrey and other legislators.
River Farms to Urban Towers: Southwest Heritage Trail
, a booklet capturing the trail's highlights, is available at local businesses along the way. To learn about other DC neighborhoods, visit www.CulturalTourismDC.org.