Before the Civil War
The area known as Columbia Heights had its beginning as a horse track, which was located on what is today 14th and Irving Streets. The horse track was finally closed around 1840 and the area became a village crossroads for farms, some of them large estates. A mansion built by John Porter in 1819 was home to John Quincy Adams after he left the White House in 1829. Geographically located at a higher elevation than most of Washington, with views of the city and cool breezes, city residents flocked to the area during the Civil War to escape the oppressive Washington summer heat.
After the Civil War
It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the area that was to become Columbia Heights started its transformation into a suburb of Washington. In the late 1800’s, as real estate speculation in
undeveloped areas of Washington became rampant, one of the biggest investors, John Sherman, named a 121-acre subdivision in the area “Columbia Heights.” With the introduction of the electric streetcar in the early 1900’s, and especially a new electric street car line running north-south on 14th Street, development of Washington beyond Florida Avenue (originally known as Boundary Street) became a reality. Columbia Heights was soon densely packed with rowhouses and small apartment buildings. Harry Wardman, the famous Washington developer known for the quality of his buildings, built 650 rowhouses in Columbia Heights between 1902 and 1913. This northwest area east of the Rock Creek Park was mostly populated by middle-income and government workers.
Columbia Heights was the first home of Columbia College, now known as George Washington University. The federal government purchased some of the land vacated by the College to build the Meridian Hill Park, which officially opened to the public in 1936. The Park, which is also commonly known as the “Malcolm X” Park for the famous rally held there, covers 12 acres between 15th, 16th and Euclid streets and Florida Avenue NW. It’s hilltop location used to offer residents panoramic views of the downtown. The Tivoli Theater was built in 1924 in an Italianate design and was considered one of the most elegant movie houses in Washington. With seating capacity of 2,500, it provided upscale entertainment to residents until its closing in 1975. By the 1960’s Columbia Heights was a vibrant and busy retail district. It was known as the “City within a City.”
Columbia Heights Renewal
In 1968, however, many of the buildings and businesses were damaged or destroyed in the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King. The region suffered a huge setback when many of
the businesses never returned and homes remained vacant. Even the Tivoli Theater, which was not damaged in the riots, finally closed for business in 1976. Efforts to revitalize the area have been ongoing for many years, but the opening of the metro in 1999 was the first real break for the community. The Tivoli Theater, which had been threatened with demolition for years, was fully restored with a portion of the theater still dedicated to the performing arts.
Sources and Additional Reading
For further reading about the history of Columbia Heights the following are links to good resources that we referenced in writing our brief history of Columbia Heights.