It’s been almost three years since I set out to earn badges from the 1916 Girl Scout handbook, How Girls Can Help Their Country.* In the meantime, a 1920 edition has been published. Renamed Scouting for Girls, it’s full of new badges, as well as revamped old ones with new, generally more realistic requirements.
I’m on it! But I’m scaling back from my insanely ambitious effort last time, when I tackled all 36 badges over the course of just two posts. That was a bit much, what with all the knot tying and flower drawing and ironing and recorder playing. My poor husband! Plus, at that torrid pace I tended to give up on requirements I could have fulfilled if I’d been willing to devote more time to them, like memorizing the names of all the cabinet secretaries. I decided to take it slower this time, with one badge per post.
For my first badge, I chose Pathfinder, where you learn about your local area. I came fairly close to success last time, but I failed the requirement to know all the public buildings and public schools in my city. There’s a vastly improved set of requirements in the 1920 handbook, plus I’m in a different city—Cape Town, South Africa, then and Washington, D.C., now. (I rotate between the two.) I decided to focus my efforts, where possible, on the neighborhood of Mount Pleasant. It’s not my actual neighborhood, but it was developed in the early years of the 20th century so has a 1920s feel.**
Being a Pathfinder ended up being no simple task. At least, not in the overachiever way I decided to go about it, which included not just knowing about places in my community but photographing them and learning about their history. Where possible, I chose buildings that were at least a hundred years old. The project started to balloon out of control, so I decided to scale my ambition back further and devote this post to one particularly labor-intensive requirement. I’ll be back with additional pathfinding in a future post.
Here’s the requirement:
#4. Know the names and locations of the Post Office, Telegraph and Telephone Stations, Public Library, City or Town Hall, one hospital of good standing, one hotel or inn, three churches, one Protestant, one Catholic, one Synagogue, and the nearest railroad.***
As you see, a lot to unpack here.
Mount Pleasant doesn’t have its own post office, so I photographed the one in nearby Cleveland Park. The 1941 building was designed by architect Carroll Meigs. When I looked him up, I found (after being sidetracked by the father-son civil engineering duo of Montgomery C. Meigs Sr. and Jr.****) a request to the D.C. government’s historic preservation office by the owners of a Meigs-designed Safeway in the Palisades neighborhood not to have the store designated as historically significant. As part of this effort, the owners dump all over Meigs and the store’s builder, calling its architecture “undistinguished” and saying that “despite the fact that both men had practices based in Washington, DC, neither are considered preeminent in their field.” The review board agreed, saying, “Even if its architect had been recognized as a creative master, this is not a master work or a manifestation of artistry.” The store, which was the oldest Safeway on the East Coast, closed in 2019.*****
Telegraph and Telephone Stations
With technological progress and the breakup of Ma Bell, telegraph and telephone stations have gone by the wayside. A search for nearby cell phone towers proved unexpectedly difficult—the sites I looked at were all difficult to navigate, insecure, or lacking in information. And the reward, a photo of a cell phone tower, didn’t particularly motivate me to persevere.
However, I did happen upon this old C&P Telephone building in Columbia Heights, a few blocks from Mount Pleasant, which is now a child care center. Apologies for the photo quality—there was a lot of glare on my phone, so I was blindly snapping away.
For extra credit, here’s a photo of women working at a C&P telephone exchange, from my post “Are You H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan’s Ideal Woman?”
The Mount Pleasant Public Library was built in 1925. It’s the third oldest D.C. library still in use and was the last to be built with funding from Andrew Carnegie.
This library, which was renovated and expanded in 2012, has been a constant in my life as I’ve moved in and out of Washington over the decades. I’ve checked out probably hundreds of books there and gone to a few yoga classes. During COVID, the library set up operations outdoors; you’d put a hold on a book, and when it arrived you’d give your name to a librarian sitting at a table outside the entrance and they’d go in and fetch it. That’s what I call service!
I’m nostalgic for the days when the wide set of steps in front actually led to the entrance—access is now through a flight of stairs on the side—but I’m lucky to be able to call this my local public library.******
City or Town Hall
My ambitious goal to photograph all the sites myself fell by the wayside with D.C.’s center of government, the John A. Wilson Building. It’s kind of far away, down past the White House. So you’ll have to make do with this vintage postcard.
I did learn a lot about the Wilson Building, though, starting with the fact of its existence. I realized when I saw this requirement that I had no idea where the seat of the D.C. government was—a shameful fact given that I have lived here on and off (mostly off) since 1983. This is partly due to D.C.’s neither-fish-nor-fowl administrative status, which makes City Hall less of an institution than it is in other cities. But still, shameful.******* Originally known simply as the District Building, the Wilson Building dates from 1908. It was renamed in 1994 after a former head of the city council.
The original City Hall, built in 1822, now houses the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. I was familiar with this building, since it’s right in front of you when you get off the Metro at Judiciary Square on your way to the Mall.
I will definitely keep an eye out for the Wilson Building next time I’m in the area.
Hospital of Good Standing
My effort to locate an old-timey hospital in D.C. provide futile. Several of the city’s hospitals are over a hundred years old as institutions, but all of them have relocated to modern buildings.
The closest hospital to Mount Pleasant, according to ushospitalfinder.com, is Howard University Hospital. It’s currently housed in a nondescript modern facility, but it has an interesting history, originating as the Freedman’s Hospital and Asylum in 1862. Beginning in 1863, it was headed by Dr. Alexander Augusta, the country’s first black hospital administrator and professor of medicine. After the Civil War, it became Howard’s teaching hospital but remained a federal facility.
New quarters for the hospital, previously located on a military base, were built in 1909. The hospital was transferred to the control of Howard University in 1967, and the building remained in use as a hospital until 1975. It still stands, now housing the university’s communications school.
The current hospital, built in 1975, is on the former site of Washington’s Griffiths Stadium.******** It’s been beset with scandals and financial problems in recent years, making the “good standing” criterion in the badge requirement debatable. It’s under new management now, though, and was allocated $100 million for the construction of a new facility under the infrastructure law passed earlier this year, which I’ll take as a thumbs-up.
Hotel or Inn
Finally, an easy one! The Line Hotel in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, just down the road from hotel-less Mount Pleasant, occupies a former Christian Science church that was built in 1912. The building sat empty for a quarter-century while the church retained a presence in the form of a reading room next door.
The Line opened in 2017 and quickly became a trendy hangout, with music pouring out of the building and guests and local residents relaxing on colorful cushions on the steps. It soon became embroiled in a dispute with the city government about a $46 million tax abatement related to the hiring of D.C. residents, which was eventually resolved in its favor. (Learning about your local community turns out to lead to all sorts of cans of worms). The hotel shut down for a while, along with the rest of the hospitality industry, because of COVID. A visit to the Line on a recent Sunday afternoon showed that it was, if not exactly hopping, pleasantly buzzing.
The two impressively stocked bars were deserted, but I wouldn’t necessarily call a deserted bar at 6 p.m. on a Sunday a bad thing.
Three Churches, One Protestant, One Catholic, One Synagogue
Mount Pleasant borders 16th Street NW, a boulevard that’s lined with houses of worship all the way up to the Maryland border, so I had an abundance of riches to choose from. To represent the Protestants, I selected the National Baptist Memorial Church, which is is exactly a hundred years old. Here’s President Harding at the 1921 groundbreaking.
You can see the National Baptist Memorial Church on the left in the photo at the top of this post, along with All Souls Unitarian Church and the Unification Church’s National Family Church, which was built in 1933, with granite shipped from Utah, as the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the Mormon church.
I had to go further afield to find a Catholic church and a synagogue. St. Augustine Catholic church has a storied history as the first African-American Catholic church in the District. It was founded in 1858, and its parish school was one of the first in the city to educate black children.
St. Augustine subsequently merged with St. Paul’s, which had a dwindling congregation of white parishioners. The original church was torn down, and the longtime headquarters of the Washington Post was built on the site. The current church, built in 1897, is the old St. Paul’s.
On a walk in Georgetown, I passed Kesher Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue that was founded in 1911. The congregation operated above a store on M Street at first, and in 1915 it moved into new quarters, pictured below. The current synagogue was built on the same site in 1931.
Prominent members of Kesher Israel have included Herman Wouk, author of The Caine Mutiny, who called Kesher Israel “the best little shul in America,” and senator and vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, who occasionally walked the three miles from the synagogue to the Capitol for votes that took place on the Sabbath.
Union Station is Washington’s Amtrack station—the railroad’s second busiest, I recently learned (after New York’s Penn Station, presumably). Busiest in terms of riders, that is. In terms of hustle and bustle in the station itself, not so much. I took the Metro there on my way to the Library of Congress recently and was taken aback to see how deserted the station, once a bustling shopping center, is now.
Curious about how this had happened, I did some Googling and found a recent Washington Post article about the sad state of affairs, which has to do with a drop in ridership during COVID, an influx of homeless people when libraries and other public buildings closed, and the station’s complex ownership/leasing/subleasing setup. Planning for a $10 billion renovation project is underway, but that will take a decade. I hope that the station will return to at least a semblance of its former glory well before then, and that I will once again be able to browse happily in its shops.
In the meantime, here’s a photo of the station’s lobby, taken a few years after it opened in 1908.
Whew! That was quite a requirement! It was well worth the effort, though. When I walk around my community now, I see it with new eyes and feel an increased sense of belonging.
Stay tuned for Part 2!
*How Girls Can Help Their Country was a spinoff of the British How Girls Can Help to Build Up the Empire.
**Mount Pleasant is one of Washington’s most diverse neighborhoods today, but, like many Washington neighborhoods, it has a troubling racial history. In the 1920s, almost all residents signed deeds prohibiting the sale of their homes to African Americans. You can learn more about the neighborhood’s history in this 2021 Washington Post article by a Mount Pleasant resident.
***I’m condensing this and other badge requirements, since there are separate instructions for city dwellers and residents of small towns or rural areas.
****Meigs Sr. served as the Union Quartermaster in the Civil War and supervised the construction of the U.S. Capitol. Meigs Jr. was, in addition to being a civil engineer, the father of boring children’s writer Cornelia Meigs.
*****Meigs has gotten enough grief, so I’ll refrain from commenting and let you be the judge:
******When I was a kid, they used to play a song about the “local public library” on Captain Kangaroo and show photos of the lions at the library at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street in New York. I assumed that was the name of the building, and I asked my mom if she could take me there. She pointed out that we had just gone to the library, I said, “No—the Local Public Library!” Naturally, she had no idea what I was talking about. The sad thing is that we lived in New Jersey at the time and she could easily have taken me to visit the lions (to the extent that anything is easy when you’re the mother of four small children).
*******I polled two friends and both of them knew that the Wilson building is the home of the D.C. government.
********I had to stop myself from going down a whole other rabbit hole about Griffith Stadium, former home to the Washington Senators, the Redskins (now the Commanders, although I prefer the interim moniker Washington Football Team), and the Grays, the Negro League baseball team. You can learn more about this, and about the history of Howard University Hospital, on this fascinating page on Howard’s website.