Want to learn more about the history of the All Souls neighborhood? Check out this new series on the Young Souls Blog that features historic information about the surrounding area.
By John DeFerrari
“The Meridian Hill Hotel for Women, completed in 1942, seems at first glance to be a rather ordinary building. Located at 2601 16th Street NW, the hotel has served for the last 47 years as a Howard University dormitory, but before that it had a starring role as the first building constructed by the federal government during World War II to provide housing for female wartime workers, known as Government Girls.
With able-bodied men in short supply, federal agencies turned to women to perform the countless clerical tasks that were needed to support the herculean war effort. According to Cindy Gueli, whose fascinating new book, Lipstick Brigade: The Untold True Story of Washington’s World War II Government Girls, chronicles the many trials and travails of these valiant workers, nearly 200,000 came to Washington during World War II. Most were eager to leave behind the wearying straits of the Great Depression and join the excitement in the Nation’s Capital as it consumed itself in the war effort. As Gueli says, some were naïve, idealistic, and carefree; others were hard-working and ambitious. Nearly all had at least one thing in common: they faced a daunting challenge in finding a place to stay in a city that had been overcrowded even before the war began. At the war’s height, nearly 1,000 newcomers arrived every day. Where would they all live?
During World War I, the government had been slow to build dormitories for workers. One of the largest projects was not finished until 1919, long after the war was over. Because a much faster response was needed, the Defense Homes Corporation (DHC) was chartered in 1940 to build war-related housing wherever the open market could not provide it. In September 1941, three months before Pearl Harbor, the DHC purchased the large undeveloped lot located at 16th and Euclid Streets NW, (just across from Meridian Hill Park) from the French government, which had intended in the 1930s to build a new embassy there but had moved to Kalorama Heights instead. The DHC quickly drew up plans to build a $1.5 million dormitory on the site that it said would house 600 female government workers. Officials promised the hotel would charge rent at “rates within the reach of Government workers.”
Built by the New York firm of John W. Harris Associates, the eight-story building was designed by prominent Washington architect Louis Justement (1891-1968). Though of Belgian descent and born in New York City, Justement went to school in Washington (George Washington University) and became an ardent supporter of the city, contributing to hundreds of projects in the D.C. area. A Modernist with a bent for sweeping urban renewal, Justement would later collaborate with fellow architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith on an early plan for the radical redevelopment of Southwest in the 1950s and 60s. By the 1940s he had already completed successful public housing projects in Silver Spring (the Falkland Apartments) and Anacostia (Fort Dupont Houses) and had developed a reputation as an expert on large-scale residential projects…” Continue reading this article on the Streets of Washington website.
Streets of Washington, John DeFerrari, March 2016.