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Lost Capitol Hill: The Union Plaza Dormitories
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Lost Capitol Hill: The Union Plaza Dormitories

January 10th, 2011 by Robert Pohl · 1 Comment · Capitol Hill

Washington DC is full of “temporary” things that have become permanent, and critics often decry any “temporary” government action by saying that it is bound to become permanent. There are, however, numerous excellent counter-examples, with the best-known probably the tempos built on the Mall during World War II.

Closer to home, though somewhat earlier, there were a number of temporary structures that were, indeed, removed after they had served their purpose: The Union Plaza Dormitories near Union Station, which served their purpose from the late 1910s until 1930.

On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and her allies. Noble as the sentiment was, it had little relation to reality, as the US Army was incapable of fighting any large-scale battles whatsoever at the time. In fact, there existed no infrastructure for building up the armed forces in order to fight the war. Nor were not enough people who could help organize the infrastructure in DC and certainly no place for them to live in when they did come.

Congress jumped into action, and on May 16, 1918, they passed “An Act To authorize the President to provide housing for war needs.” This act authorized 60 million dollars (shortly thereafter raised to an even 100) to remedy this deficit and plans were swiftly drawn up for temporary buildings to be built on a five-sided piece of land bounded by Delaware Ave NE, North Capitol Street, D and E Streets NE and the Union Station Plaza.

The buildings built here were to house only women, and in fact women who were working for the federal government. In the end – which, given the difficulty of hiring skilled contractors during the war, was not until 1919 – it could house 1,944 women in 12 dormitories. The buildings, which included a central hall with dining facilities, were designed by Waddy Butler Wood, who had started his career 20 years earlier by designing the East Capitol Car Barn. Given the temporary nature of the structures, Wood spent considerable amount of time designing the exteriors, using a Georgian Revival style that would not be out of place with the other buildings surrounding them. In spite of the amount of work invested, Wood took no fee for their design, thus earning the praise of future President Franklin Roosevelt.

The Union Plaza Dormitories as seen from Union Station (Library of Congress)

The first building was completed in December, 1918 – about a month after the Armistice was signed. The central dining room opened on March 1, 1919, and on April 6, the Washington Post reported that seven of the 12 dorms were completed, and that there was rush to move in, as the cost and amenities offered were far better than what single women had to choose from otherwise.

On December 17, 1919, the House voted to abolish the Housing Bureau, and sell off all dormitories, except the Union Plaza one. Even with the end of the war, housing in DC remained dear, and with rooms renting for $45 a month, the Union Plaza Dormitories remained popular. Unfortunately, the inflation that had hit the US with its entry into the war and had continued, post-war, drove the government to raise the prices, and when this caused a strike among those living there, the government lowered the rent again. Unfortunately, they also reduced the quality and quantity of food being served in the cafeteria, and Capital Losses (James M. Goode, Smithsonian Press, DC, 1981) writes that 100 women were struck by food poisoning.

In spite of all of this, it was only towards the end of the 1920s that the buildings were converted from dormitories to office space, and in 1930, the buildings were torn down to make way for the park and parking lot that today occupy this space.

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