Capitol Park Apartments, completed in 1959, was the first building finished under the Southwest Urban Renewal Plan. It inaugurated Capitol Park, a model complex of apartments, townhouses, and landscape that was hailed in its day as “the first step toward a new Washington.”
The building was also important in the in the career of Chloethiel Woodard Smith, a key figure in the development and implementation of the Southwest master plan. Her success with this project led to further commissions in Washington, and helped make her one of few female architects to achieve renown during the mid-20th century.
The award-winning design incorporates features of avant-garde European modernism that were new to Washington, like raising the apartment block on pilotis, and screening balconies from the sun with terra cotta brise-soleil. The original park at the rear of the building was destroyed by the construction of new apartments in 2003-04, when the pool, vault-roofed pavilion, outdoor hearth, and Dan Kiley landscape were removed and the large mural mosaic by artist Leo Leonni was relocated off the site.
Capitol Park Apartments was built on the site of Dixon’s Court, long considered a notorious alley slum. Photographs of impoverished conditions in the alley with the Capitol dome in the background were widely distributed, and were even used in Soviet propaganda to illustrate “typical living conditions” in Washington. When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited in the late 1950s, President Eisenhower personally took him to see Capitol Park, then under construction, to illustrate the nation’s housing progress. The building is also significant for its role in the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Berman v. Parker, which broadened the interpretation of the “public welfare” to include aesthetic purposes like a better urban environment. The property taken by the government and at issue in the case was part of the apartment building site.
Despite being planned to accommodate residents of a variety of incomes, Capitol Park did not achieve its social goals, and along with the rest of the Southwest urban renewal, it has been symbolic of the huge social costs that were borne most directly by the displaced residents of Southwest, mostly African-American, and by the city at large as the social and physical fabric of entire communities was destroyed.
DC Inventory: April 24, 2003