13 Nov 2012

Lost Capitol Hill: W. W. Chambers Brings Art Deco to 11th Street

I have frequently gotten emails asking about some Capitol Hill location or other, and some of my most interesting columns have stemmed from user questions.

517-519 11th St SE today (RSP)

But this is a first: A question via Twitter. Actually aimed at my colleague, Tim Krepp. He passed it on to me.

And, what do you know, a little research later, I learned something new about my own street.

Just south of Pennsylvania Avenue on 11th Street is a unique – at least for the Hill – Art Deco building. Located at 517-519 11th St, SE, it is today an apartment building, though the facade, and particularly the clock perched on top, indicate that it was not always used for this purpose.

Old maps show that, at the turn of the century, a couple old wood-frame houses occupied the lot. They were used by a confectioner and as a milk store over the years. In the early 1930s, the two buildings were bought by W. W. Chambers, who had been in the funeral business in Washington, D.C. for the past 20 years.

Chambers got his start in the funerary business through his father and grandfather. They had been in the livery business for decades, with one of their sidelines was supplying funeral processions with the appropriate horses, carriages and other accouterments. Chambers began adding other services, and soon had opened his own funeral parlor at 1400 Chapin St, NW.

Unfortunately for his business, the first world war intervened, and the business suffered while he was serving overseas in the Army. After the war, his business boomed, particularly after he met Ella Echols, who became both his business partner – she was one of the first female licensed funeral directors – and his wife.

Under their partnership, the business boomed, until it made sense to expand. The location on 11th St, SE was perfect, just off of Pennsylvania Avenue, and close to Congressional Cemetery, where they were responsible for many funerals. The only aspect that simply wouldn’t do was the actual building, and so in November 1932, Chambers applied for a building permit to build a new structure. He hired LeRoy H. Harris to design it, and Harris came up with a remarkably modern design, with elaborate stonework over the windows, glass and metal decorations flanking the central section – and a clock on top to finish it off. It looked nothing like a funeral parlor, which may have been exactly what Chambers and Harris were looking to do.

For the next 60 or so years, W. W. Chambers Co. flourished, even after Chambers himself died unexpectedly in 1954 at age 60. His wife and children continued the operation and expanded out into Maryland. In the early 1990s, however, the property was sold, and the Ralph Williams Funeral Home operated out of it for a few years, before it was turned into the apartments that it is today.


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  • jenhoward

    I always admired and wondered about this building. Thanks for sharing its history.

  • DorothyP

    This is also the location where Henry Vinson ran DC’s largest gay escort service.

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