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League Offers Tours of Deeds Building

In celebration of Black History Month, the D.C. Preservation League is offering tours of the Recorder of Deeds Building, a structure rich in black history.

“We offer the tours as part of our mission to educate the public,” said Krista Schreiner, D.C. Preservation League program manager. “Our mission is education and advocacy. By allowing people to see the insides of historic buildings they wouldn’t otherwise see, they are better educated.”

Tours are available from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday and 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 20.

The building, once seemingly forgotten by the public and scheduled for disposition by the city, houses seven murals featuring black Americans and portraits of the 12 recorders of deeds, 10 of whom were black.

Up until 1961, recorder of deeds was the highest appointed office to which blacks could aspire. The first recorder, appointed by President James Garfield in 1871, was Frederick Douglass. From that time on the office was traditionally reserved for blacks who showed interest in the presidential campaign, said Alexander Padro, an advisory neighborhood commissioner and historian.

When the office, originally housed in the City Hall building, outgrew that space, then-Recorder of Deeds William Tompkins lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to include a Recorder of Deeds Building as a part of a Federal Works Project. The proposal was approved, and in 1942 the building, designed by municipal architect Nathan Wyeth, was erected at 515 D St. NW.

To decorate the inside of the building, the Treasury Department sponsored a nationwide mural contest. According to Padro, Tompkins wanted the artwork to be completed by black artists, but that was considered discriminatory and therefore was not permitted. Of the seven murals selected by Tompkins, only one of the artists was black, but one was Hispanic and two were women, so the artwork achieved Tompkin’s goal of diversity. The murals were installed in 1944.

After the building was finished, black schools recognized its historical significance and children from these schools took tours of the building during Negro History Week, the equivalent of Black History Month during segregation. But after integration, the building, along with its historical significance, was all but forgotten, Padro said.

It was not forgotten forever, though.

In 1999, while Padro was doing research for a book on D.C. monuments and murals, he came across the building only to realize that it was on Mayor Anthony Williams’ (D) agenda to sell the building to the private sector where it would have been demolished. On the agenda the building was listed only by address and therefore citizens did not connect the location to the historic building, Padro said.

“We so embarrassed the Williams administration that the legislation to approve the disposition was withdrawn and no more efforts have been made to defall it,” Padro said.

Since Padro brought the building to the League’s attention in 1999, it has been sponsoring the February tours in an effort to protect the historic building by educating the public.

Traditionally the League has only offered tours on one day during February, but last year’s turnout numbered in the hundreds so the League added a second day to the event.

The application for landmark status is pending, but Padro said the building is out of immediate danger.

“Once an application is filed the building can’t be torn down,” said Padro. “At least the building has been saved. That’s the important thing.”

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