“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
“Bite-Size Bits of Local, National, and Global History”
Southwest in Washington, District of Columbia — The American Northeast (Mid-Atlantic)

Housing Reform and the Syphax School

River Farms to Urban Towers


—Southwest Heritage Trail —

Housing Reform and the Syphax School Marker image. Click for full size.
By Craig Swain, April 10, 2010
1. Housing Reform and the Syphax School Marker
Inscription. In the 1890s, American cities had a common problem. The working poor lived in deteriorating housing, often no better than wooden shacks. In Washington much of this housing lined the city's hidden alleys. But people needed healthier and safer places to live. Who should provide better housing? The government?

In 1897 two Washington public health officials, George Sternberg and George Kober, decided that private investors should build solid, affordable housing, even though there would be little profit. Between 1897 and 1939, Sternberg and Kober persuaded charitable Washington investors to clear slums and build 1,034 units (houses and apartments) around the city. The new housing was very popular.

By 1939, however, the investors were disappointed by poor profits. Their building stopped. But in 1934 the federal government had created the Alley Dwelling Authority to address the housing problem, so the work continued. The low-rise buildings just ahead were built by Sternberg and Kober's investors. The James Creek Dwellings and Syphax Gardens further down P Street were built by the Alley Dwelling Authority and its successors.

The Syphax School, located nearby at 1360 Half Street, honors William Syphax, a descendant of Martha Washington's grandson and an enslaved woman. Syphax was the first president of the board of the Colored
Back of Marker image. Click for full size.
By Craig Swain, April 10, 2010
2. Back of Marker
Public Schools of Washington (1868-1871) and an outspoken opponent of school segregation. Syphax School operated from 1902 until 1994. In 2004 Manna, Inc. was preserving the original school's exterior as part of a development of affordable housing.

(Photo Captions from upper right to lower left):
Alvin Ford beside his home at 1206 Carrolsburg Place one of the houses built by Sternberg and Kober's philanthropic investors.

Gertrude S. Wender and baby Elaine in the center of Sterberg Courts, 1943. The buildings are now part of St. James Mutual Homes.

The James Creek Dwellings seen here as it neared completion in 1943, was designed by Albert I. Cassell, architect for much of Howard University's campus.

The old Syphax School, below, on Hall Street three blocks from this spot, was named for educator William Syphax, right. Nearby were the Syphax Homes apartments where soul music superstar Marvin Gaye (1939-1984), left, lpent part of his childhood.

(Back of Marker):
From 1800 until 1950, Southwest was Washington's largest working-class, waterfront neighborhood. The beginning in 1954, nearly all of Southwest was razed to create an entirely new city in the nation's first experiment in urban renewal. The 17 signs of River Farms to Urban Towers: Southwest Heritage Trail lead you through the Modernist buildings erected
Housing Reform and the Syphax School Marker image. Click for full size.
By Craig Swain, April 10, 2010
3. Housing Reform and the Syphax School Marker
in the 1960s while marking the sites and stories - and the few remaining structures - of the neighborhood that was. Follow this trail to discover the area's first colonial settlers and the waves of immigrants drawn to jobs on the waterfront or in nearby federal government offices. Here Chesapeake Bay watermen sold oysters and fish off their boats. The once-gritty streets were childhood homes to singer Marvin Gaye and movie star Al Jolson. Later residents included Senator Hubert H. Humphrey and other legislators.

River Farms to Urban Towers: Southwest Heritage Trail, a booklet capturing the trail's highlights, is available at local businesses along the way. To learn about other DC neighborhoods, visit

(Caption for Photo on Back of Marker): Gordon Parks photographed the Branch family, original James Creek Dwelling public housing residents saying grace in their home, 1942.
Erected by Cultural Tourism DC. (Marker Number 14 of 17.)
Location. 38° 52.325′ N, 77° 0.931′ W. Marker is in Southwest, District of Columbia, in Washington. Marker is at the intersection of P Street SW and 3rd Street SW, on the right when traveling west on P Street SW. Click for map. Marker is in this post office area: Washington DC 20024, United States of America.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. Military Education at Fort McNair (about 400 feet away, measured in a direct line); Linking the "Island" to the City (about 700 feet away); Harbour Square (approx. 0.2 miles away); Walter Reed (approx. 0.2 miles away); a different marker also named Walter Reed (approx. 0.2 miles away); Titanic Memorial (approx. 0.2 miles away); Blending Old and New (approx. 0.2 miles away); The Law House In Peace and War (approx. 0.3 miles away). Click for a list of all markers in Southwest.
Categories. African AmericansNotable Buildings
Credits. This page originally submitted on , by Craig Swain of Leesburg, Virginia. This page has been viewed 864 times since then and 62 times this year. Photos:   1, 2, 3. submitted on , by Craig Swain of Leesburg, Virginia. This page was last revised on September 11, 2016.
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