Mid-Century North Portal Estates

Mid-Century Neighborhoods Tour

The 1950s development of North Portal Estates in upper northwest, DC initially catered to a largely Jewish home buyer, but within its first decade of development, it became attractive to African Americans. Both cultural groups had a predilection for the Modern, appropriately introducing split level ramblers and more unique mid-Century dwelling forms into the hilly and wooded terrain adjacent to Rock Creek.

Just west of 16th Street, North Portal Estates is located at the far northern apex of the diamond-shaped District of Columbia. Although a section of the neighborhood along the north side of North Portal Drive was historically part of the residential subdivision of Rock Creek Park Estates, established in 1926, the larger area was not developed until 1952. That is when Leo Maceo Bernstein, a real estate mogul and philanthropist purchased a still-undeveloped 60-acre tract of land and began to develop it as Redwood Terrace Estates. Almost immediately, the northern sliver of Rock Creek Park Estates and the newly platted Redwood Terrace Estates became known by the single entity of North Portal Estates.  

Bernstein, a successful Jewish businessman, saw an opportunity to build and market houses in his new subdivision to middle- and upper-class Jewish families who had been shut out of the older Rock Creek Park Estates due to restrictions in the deeds. Initially, upon the newly platted lots, Bernstein and other builders to whom he sold lots, built large homes that followed traditional mid-20th-century revival-style forms. Within a few years, however, more unique and low-lying mid-Century rambler-type houses were introduced, firmly establishing the architectural character of the new neighborhood. These distinctive houses were built both speculatively and as custom commissions. 

In the early 1960s, upper-class professional Blacks, seeking better schools and city services, began to move into the predominantly Jewish North Portal Estates. These buyers purchased existing houses and also built their own on vacant lots, often hiring Black architects with a predilection for mid-Century Modern design.

Below are some of the most distinctive mid-Century houses in North Portal Estates: 

1784 Sycamore Street (1955) was the first truly mid-Century Modern house to be built in the neighborhood. It was designed by DC's most prolific mid-Century design firm, Brown and Wright, whose staff included many graduates of Howard University School of Architecture. The firm also designed the two adjacent houses at 1780 and 1788 Sycamore Street. All three houses were speculative ventures developed by North Portal Construction Co.  

1809 Redwood Terrace (1957) offers a premier example of a wide, gabled-roofed house form typical of mid-Century design. The house was designed by and for architect Elkan Groll. During the 1940s, Groll worked for the federal government on large-scale institutional planning projects, but in 1949, he left the federal government to re-immerse himself in the design world.  Groll is known to have designed several custom houses in DC, but additional research is needed to learn more about him.  

8361 East Beach Drive (1958) is one of several Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired houses in the neighborhood. With its battered front wall clad with narrow-cut stone and its attached carport with a broad hipped roof, the house recalls Wright's Prairie-style houses. This house, and the similarly designed house at 8351 East Beach Drive, were built by Duane Gooselaw, a home builder and contractor. Gooselaw appears to have operated as a small-scale developer, buying vacant lots and building architect-designed houses on them. Gooselaw worked with architects Earl Von Recheinbach and Herbert Korzendorfer on other houses, but no architect has yet been attributed to his East Beach Drive houses.  

1800 Sycamore Street (1958), is one of several mid-Century houses in the neighborhood to have been designed by the architectural firm of Byrd & Bryant. The low-lying brick house is characterized by its extremely broad gable roof with overhanging eaves, large expanses of glass, and raised stone foundation, all mid-Century characteristics. David R. Byrd established his firm in 1951 and in 1959 Andrew Bryant, a graduate of Howard University School of Architecture joined the firm.  Byrd & Bryant were both African American, born in Washington and were deeply involved in large-scale government projects. Byrd & Bryant also designed the houses at 1825 Tulip Street (1964), 1943 Tulip Street (1965) and 1939 Tulip Street (1966). 

After Byrd moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1966, Andrew Bryant continued his practice in DC as Andrew Bryant & Associates (or simply Bryant & Associates) and continued to design houses in North Portal Estates. Immediately after Byrd's departure, Bryant designed two houses next to each other at 1776 and 1778 Verbena Street and then, a couple of years later, in 1968, he designed his own house at 8500 East Beach Drive where he lived until his death in 2002. Although these houses are less overtly mid-Century Modern than Byrd & Bryant's 1800 Sycamore house, they, all the same, share Modern design influences in their geometric massing, spare use of ornamentation, and broad and encompassing roof forms. 

1720 Redwood Terrace (1964), along with the two adjacent houses at 1921 and 1925 Spruce Street, form a cohesive collection of Modern design in North Portal Estates. The geometric massing, flat roof and integrated garage of 1720 Redwood Terrace are all distinctive characteristics of the period. The three houses were designed by Yettekov Wilson, a graduate of Howard University School of Architecture whose residential design work can also be found in the Crestwood and Hillcrest neighborhoods.