Woodson House Restoration 'Slow'

Margaret Summers | 2/26/2014, 3 p.m.
Individuals passing the aging and empty Victorian-style brick row house at 1538 9th Street Northwest between P and Q Streets ...
The Northwest D.C. home of Carter G. Woodson, "The Father of Black History," is seen here. Photo by Margaret Summers

Individuals passing the aging and empty Victorian-style brick row house at 1538 9th Street Northwest between P and Q Streets might not think about its famous former occupant, renowned educator and historian Carter G. Woodson.

From 1922 to 1950, “The Father of Black History” lived and worked there, researching and documenting African-Americans’ historic achievements and contributions.

“The National Park Service designated the house a national landmark in 1976,” said Sylvia Cyrus, executive director of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) which was founded by Woodson. “They acquired the home from ASALH in 2005.”

The park service also acquired two buildings adjacent to the home at 1540 and 1542 9th Street Northwest. It plans to make the Woodson home a visitors’ center, with the adjacent buildings housing interactive videos, exhibits and other materials. But as of this February – the 88th anniversary of Black History Month (formerly Negro History Week which Woodson originated) – the restoration remains unfinished.

“The efforts have been hampered partly by the impact of the (August 2012) earthquake in the District, and the (2012 derecho) storm,” said Cyrus. “They severely damaged the back of the house.”

“It was always the Association’s plan to have the National Park Service renovate the Woodson home,” she said. “Bob Stanton, the first and only African-American National Park Service director, who served under President Clinton, increased the agency’s acquisition of African-American historical sites [including Dr. Woodson’s house].” Cyrus said District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced the legislation in 2000, which was signed into law in 2003, authorizing the National Park Service to acquire the home and adjacent houses.

Cyrus said more funds are needed for the restoration and to accelerate its pace. “We have tremendous support from across the nation, which is very encouraging,” she said. “We also have support from the NAACP, Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest D.C., members of Dr. Woodson’s family, the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, and other partners. We at the Association are working on pulling all of these entities together to create new funds.”

She said that given the amount of funding available, even if the home is restored and opened to the public by September 2015 – the ASALH’s centennial – visitors will only see empty rooms, with a few posters on the walls and other art to illustrate Woodson’s groundbreaking work. In addition to founding the ASALH in his home, Woodson’s Negro History Bulletin and the Journal of Negro History were published there. The house headquartered his publishing company, Associated Publishers. Woodson also trained educators and researchers in his home.

Paul Wells, a great-great-nephew of Woodson’s, is happy the project is underway but expressed reservations about the time involved. “I think restoration has been relatively slow,” he said. “I understand the project is taking place in phases. Phases one and two consist of shoring up the structures of the house and adjacent homes.”

Wells, a Maryland resident who owns a cyber security company, said fundraising to complete the project, part of phase three, has been difficult. “I think the National Park Service only had $3.2 million in its budget for this project, but I believe it should cost between $9 and $12 million,” Wells said. In 2013, the National Park Service won a $75,000 grant for the project from Partners in Preservation, a contest sponsored by a charitable foundation of American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Wells said he would like the Woodson home restored in a manner similar to the Frederick Douglass home in Southeast D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood, featuring furniture like that which Woodson used in his home, along with his speeches, books, clothes and other artifacts. However, the time it is taking to renovate it concerns him. “I would like to meet with President Obama to discuss it,” he said.

Repeated attempts to obtain comments for this article from National Park Service spokespersons were unsuccessful. The agency’s website regarding the restoration says that structural stabilization work on 1538 and 1540 9th Street Northwest began in January and will continue through June. It says that between this fall and fall 2015 the National Park Service will conduct additional reconstruction.

For now, visitors to the agency’s Woodson home website view a notice which says they may go to the house and see its outer façade but cannot go inside. “It is in need of rehabilitation and restoration and is closed to the public,” the notice reads.