- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 16, 2004

When Jim Byers first visited Hillcrest, he sat in his car for a full 10 minutes.

“I was afraid to move,” he says. “I was so conditioned by what I heard about the terrible things in Southeast that I was afraid to get out of the car.”

Today, Mr. Byers is a proud homeowner in this far Southeast neighborhood, which will be throwing open its gardens and a few doors to the public on Saturday for the 11th Annual Hillcrest Garden Tour.

He is not the first person to insist that Hillcrest is special; just about any homeowner hereabouts will do that. But he’s certainly part of an ever-increasing chorus touting the neighborhood’s small-town ambience and distinct appeal.

Hillcrest, residents say, encompasses all the best things about life in the District: easy access to downtown, easy living and a neighborhood that’s easy on the eyes and ears — and there’s nary a row house in sight.

“We love it,” says Michael Brown, whose garden adjoining his center hall Colonial on 31st Street SE is featured on Saturday’s tour. “It’s a great place to live.”

For the past couple of years, Mr. Brown has been reclaiming overgrown space in his yard for a front garden. Today it’s a showpiece, complete with a water feature and birdhouses that he built with his daughters, Kyndall, 9, and Monique, 7.

“I’m still working on it,” he insists, eyeing more land toward the back. “I’d like to clear that out, too.”

There’s something about Hillcrest that quite naturally promotes a friendly competition among gardeners, says Mr. Brown, who faces a lot of that from his wife’s father, who lives close by. Perhaps it’s the way the streets curve in around the hills, or the parcel of permanent green space from federal parklands that dot the area.

Of course, having community-minded neighbors doesn’t hurt, either. In a town where apartment dwellers rarely know their neighbors, Hillcrest residents know just about everyone. Bottom line? Hillcrest is just plain friendly.

“I’m so impressed by the teamwork in the community,” says Sherry Ways, a Hillcrest resident who is one of the organizers of the garden tour. “This is the first neighborhood that I’ve lived in that has such enormous pride.”

Hillcrest began in the mid-1920s, after a couple of enterprising developers began to construct summer cottages for city folk looking for a breeze. Many of these early structures can still be seen along W Street in the oldest section of the neighborhood. Construction of year-round residences began in earnest during the building boom of the late 1920s and continued into the 1930s and postwar years.

These are no lookalike tract houses, to be sure. There are sprawling foursquares, tidy Colonials and neat bungalows. There are even a few Spanish-style homes, and one that exhibits a certain art deco sensibility.

“The stonework is called chromatic stone,” Mr. Byers says of the art deco house. “Inside it’s filled with mosaics.”

According to Mr. Byers, the house was designed by master craftsman John Joseph Earley, a genius at designing architectural concrete, and is identical to several houses he designed in Silver Spring. A Hillcrest resident commissioned the house, which was built in 1933. Mr. Byers says that Earley was also responsible for projects in Meridian Hill Park, the 1941 terminal at National Airport and ceilings and mosaics at the Department of Justice.

Then there are the views. On a clear day, Hillcrest residents enjoy breathtaking sights of the Capitol and the Washington Monument, which after all are just minutes away. Many homes are deceptively small, seemingly modest in front but opening out to glassed-in multistory expanses in the rear.

Hillcrest’s elevation makes the neighborhood about 8 degrees cooler than the temperature in the heart of the city, according to promotional literature issued by the Hillcrest Citizens’ Association. This was a big draw for homeowners in the 1920s and 1930s, before the days of air conditioning.

The residential boom came relatively late to Southeast. In 1920, just 7,000 residents lived in all of far Southeast, south of Pennsylvania Avenue, according to Howard Gillette Jr., writing in “Washington at Home: An Illustrated History of Neighborhoods in the Nation’s Capital” (edited by Kathryn Schneider Smith). By 1930, with the development of Hillcrest as well as Twining City and Randle Highlands, west of Hillcrest along Pennsylvania Avenue SE, the population had doubled.

In those days, housing in Washington was largely segregated by race, and Hillcrest was no exception. Today, however, what began as a whites-only community is a mixture of white and black residents, young and old, homosexual and heterosexual. It’s a neighborhood that celebrates its diversity and embraces newcomers.

But no matter where you come from, if you live in Hillcrest, somehow, you end up gardening.

“It was a side of me I’d never seen before,” says Margaret Roberts, an attorney with NASA who moved to Hillcrest two years ago after years of apartment living in Northern Virginia. “I just love it.”

Miss Roberts’ 1939 home and garden is also featured on this year’s tour. Highlights include hardwood floors, wooden mantels and the dining room set she purchased from the previous owner.

“I looked at this house and knew immediately that it was my house,” Miss Roberts says. “I told everyone at work that I had found my home.”

• • •

Early housing developments in far Southeast followed the streetcar lines that first appeared in 1875. Unlike Congress Heights, which was developed in the 1890s, Hillcrest, tucked away along Branch Avenue between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Prince George’s County line, didn’t depend on the streetcar. Instead, residents had a new way to get to their Tudors and Cape Cods: the automobile.

Soon, it became the preferred mode of transportation for most Washingtonians.

“Overlooking the Capital on the north, and Oxen [sic] Run Valley, Md., on the south, the drives and scenery of Hillcrest are a source of pleasure to an increasingly large number of Washington motorists,” says the inaugural issue of the Hillcrest Bulletin, published in June 1928 by the Hillcrest Citizens’ Association.

First introduced in 1897, the automobile was largely relegated to pleasure driving, write Frederic M. Miller and Howard Gillette Jr. in “Washington Seen: A Photographic History, 1875-1965.” The first traffic light wasn’t installed until 1925, when the majority of Washingtonians still took some form of public transportation to work. But by 1929, a year after the Hillcrest Citizens’ Association got going, only a third of the District’s residents did.

In Hillcrest, where the lawns are large and the hills are high, some of the streets seem just built for Sunday drives. Not that there’s a whole lot of traffic these days, unless you count the children out riding bicycles or their parents walking over to the neighbors with a hosta cutting or two in hand.

When Michael Brown was busy building birdhouses with his daughters, his neighbor came by with bird books. When Miss Roberts heard that new neighbors were moving onto her street, she promptly ran off invitations, gave them out (sometimes to people she didn’t know) and held a party to welcome them. Everybody came.

The friendliness seems to be spreading along with the hosta. Residents now speak of “greater Hillcrest,” an area that has outgrown its original boundaries to encompass nearby Penn Branch and parts of Fort Dupont. You might call it a “Hillcrest sensibility.”

• • •

Of course, even the original development was none too small. That means that there are plenty of choices for house and garden tour planners.

“We’re big enough that we don’t have to do the same tour over and over,” Mrs. Ways says.

This year’s tour focuses on “Good Hope,” a six-block section of Hillcrest that is laced with green space from one of the Fort Circle parks. If you come at 11 a.m. sharp, you’ll be treated to a bus tour that will drive by some of the other highlights of Hillcrest.

Within Hillcrest are also at least a couple of nods to the pre-Hillcrest past. Perched on the highest hill in Hillcrest is Nonesuch, the original 18th-century farmhouse from whose farmlands the development was carved. It’s been restored and is now in private hands on Bangor Street.

Then there’s the historic firehouse at 2813 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, which has been adopted by the Hillcrest community and is featured prominently on its Web site. Built for Chemical Engine No. 2 in 1911, the firehouse was erected on land belonging to Col. Arthur Randle to serve his Randle Highlands subdivision. Since 1920, according to histories of the D.C. Fire Department, this house has been the home of Engine 19.

Over the years, a number of famous, even notorious, individuals have called Hillcrest home, or at least a place of assignation. Two houses on 33rd Street, near Frankford Street, reportedly boast a connecting tunnel, designed during Prohibition to outwit federal agents. Local legend has it that J. Edgar Hoover frequented a house at Branch Avenue and Gainesville Street. Adam Clayton Powell reportedly stayed at another home in the 1960s.

There was even a moment when the area that is now Hillcrest could have become the next, or shall we say first, Cleveland Park.

“Grover Cleveland did come down here to look at some property to build a summer house,” Mr. Byers says. “But when the farmer who owned the land found out who he was, he quadrupled the price.”

So Cleveland took his business north of town, buying a stone farmhouse in Northwest in 1886, during his first term. The result is Cleveland Park, with its sprawling Victorians, heavy traffic and Starbucks.

• • •

There’s no Starbucks, and not much retail, in Hillcrest. That’s something that residents are working to change. Already, a nearby shopping center has been renovated to include a Safeway and a few small businesses.

“One thing that we have been denied in the past couple of decades is retail,” Mr. Byers says. “There simply are not enough places to shop in Southeast.”

Then there is the question of home improvements. What residents really want to know is who has the best handyman. It seems like just about everyone is planning a little job or two.

ANC Commissioner Kathy Chamberlain maintains a section on the www.hillcrestdc.com Web site that lists the qualities and capabilities of neighborhood handymen. But residents are more than willing to compare notes in person as well, especially during meetings of the Hillcrest Community Civic Association or the Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 7B. The neighborhood even has a strategic community plan.

“We’ll push for anything that benefits the community,” Mrs. Ways says.

Residents are especially proud of the neighborhood’s new recreation center, which is scheduled to open this fall.

“It’s going to be fantastic,” Mrs. Ways says.

Of course, there is a down side to all this buzz. When Mr. Byers first bought his home six years ago, a Craftsman-style bungalow in the oldest section of the neighborhood, he paid less than $200,000. Today, prices start at far more than that, with some larger homes reaching into the $500,000 range. But that hasn’t stopped onetime residents from returning to the old neighborhood.

“You find that even if people leave for a little while, they still come back,” Mr. Byers says. “It’s like a revelation. It flies in the face of everything you’ve heard about this side of town.”

Interested in seeing the neighborhood that Washingtonian magazine named one of its “Best Places to Live” for its April 2004 issue? If you want to join the Hillcrest Garden Tour, here’s what you’ll need to knowa:

Meet at the 2900 block of Park Drive SE. (From the Sousa Bridge, continue one mile on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Turn right on Branch Avenue, and continue one-fifth of a mile. Make the first right on Park Drive SE and continue to the 2900 block.

TICKETS: $10 in advance, $15 day of tour.

INFORMATION: Call Kathy Chamberlain at 202/581-8272 or visit www.hillcrestdc.com.

NOTE: First-time visitors are encouraged to take the optional bus tour that leaves at 11 a.m. sharp. Complimentary bottled water is offered during the tour, and a reception will follow.

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