by Ann Kessler
The Forest Hills Citizens Association was founded 90 years ago this year by some extraordinary people. One such early resident of Forest Hills was Joseph Sanders, an inventor, businessman, banker, civic leader and philanthropist.
Sanders was already quite wealthy by the time he built his home at 2612 Tilden Street NW (now the residence of the Czech Republic’s ambassador) for $25,000 in 1925. Born on Oct. 18, 1877 in Gehrden, Germany, he immigrated with his parents and four younger siblings to Washington, DC in 1886. He was 8 years old. Here they joined Joseph’s uncle Emile Berliner, the famous inventor of the gramophone. Sanders followed in Berliner’s footsteps, joining him in various business enterprises, in his concern for public health, and in his belief in giving back to the community.
Young Joseph attended DC public schools briefly, leaving in 1893 after finishing the 8th grade. He went to work as an office boy in his uncle’s laboratory from 1890-1891. At age 15, Joseph sailed alone back to Germany to begin a three-year apprenticeship at the J. Berliner Telephone Factory in Hanover. He excelled at his studies in mathematics, science, and German and returned to Washington in 1895. While taking evening classes in chemistry at the Corcoran Scientific School, he worked days at the Berliner Gramophone Company of Philadelphia, then housed in Washington.
Sanders the inventor
Sanders married his cousin Hannah Berliner, daughter of Emile, in November 1905. They would eventually have three children: a daughter, Gertrude Sanders Friedman, and two sons, Robert and Richard. The 1910 Washington, DC Census finds Joseph and Hannah living next door to her parents on the 1400 block of Harvard Street NW. Sanders would later write an article for the Washington Post (“Columbia Heights Seen in Retrospect by Early Resident,” April 6, 1924) on his fond memories of that neighborhood:
The effect of those early impressions never wore off, so it was not unnatural that, after living downtown and in various cities, I should have been drawn back at the first opportunity to build a home [2612 Tilden Street NW] within a stone’s throw of where I received my first pleasant memories of Washington.
Sanders and his uncle and father-in-law both listed inventor as their profession in the 1910 Census. They worked hand-in-hand, and in the first decade of the twentieth century, they filed for several patents including variations on sound record tablets and gramophones, a new parquetry floor covering, and a spring wheel to be used on bicycles. His diaries of 1906 and 1907 (part of the Emile Berliner Collection at the Library of Congress) describe the long hours he worked, his travels to Philadelphia, New York, and London, and the many experiments he performed trying to find the right method for duplicating records.
With Berliner’s assistance, Sanders opened the Standard Material Company in 1900. Berliner would serve as its president until 1920, but Sanders was listed as its owner. Located at 770-774 Girard Street NW, the purpose of the company was to make improvements on a flat disc sound recording device invented by Berliner. After 1910 this facility was expanded to include the Gyro Motor Company formed the previous year by Berliner. This second company worked on the manufacture of the gyro motor for use in the early airplanes and the invention of the Berliner helicopter. In 1914, Sanders took over as general manager. With the start of World War I in 1917, he became president of the company, which manufactured supplies and aeronautical instruments for the war effort. He would become its proprietor in 1921.
Sanders the banker and real estate mogul
After years of working as an inventor, Sanders realized he needed to change his focus to business management. He became a director and vice president of the Dime Savings Bank at its formation in 1908. He would remain a director until his death. He became a vice president of Equitable Life Insurance Company in 1912 and turned to real estate in 1914, as the president of the Arcade Company. Its purpose was to promote business development in Columbia Heights. Other executive positions he would eventually hold were vice president of Berliner Aircraft Co.; president and co-founder of Parking Shops, Inc. (the original owner of the Park and Shop in Cleveland Park); president of Northwood Properties, Inc.; and president and director of Sanders Investment Corp.
Sanders the civic leader
Joseph Sanders’ commitment to giving back to his community can be seen early in his career. When Crandall’s Tivoli Theater was set to open at 14th Street and Park Road in Columbia Heights in April 1924, Sanders, then president of the Arcade Company, headed the arrangements committee tasked with organizing the celebration.
In 1930, the Gutenberg Bible was to be purchased by the Library of Congress from Benedictine monks. Sanders, while an executive at the Bank of Commerce, helped authorize a loan to finance the sale until Congress could appropriate the money. He personally guaranteed that loan.
And Sanders was at the founding of the Forest Hills Citizens Association. He served on the first Water, Sewer and Public Health Standing Committee and took on several positions through the years: representing of the association in the Federation of Citizens Associations, chairing the Zoning Committee, and serving as vice president. While serving as deputy warden of civil defense for Forest Hills during World War II, he was appointed chairman of DC’s Evacuation Authority by the United States Coordinator of Civilian Defense.
He spoke on behalf of the association on various issues. In June 1954 he presented the association’s case before the Zoning Commission against developer Morris Kanfer’s plan for a >$1 million-dollar shopping center with an underground parking garage at Albemarle Street. In July 1954, the association held a luncheon in Sanders’ honor at the Army-Navy Club. At that celebration, the then-vice president of the association, Joseph N. McCollum, said of Sanders, “I don’t know of any one more adept at fighting to keep our community a residential area.”
It should also be noted that Sanders was a member of over a dozen other organizations: American Civic Association; American Forestry Association; American Association for the Advancement of Science; Association Against the Prohibition Amendment; National Association of Audubon Societies; Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis; Aid Association for the Blind; American Foundation for the Blind; Washington Tuberculosis Association; Boy Scouts of America; Bureau of Health Education; National Geographic Society; Valley Forge Historical Society; and the Columbia Historical Society. He was also on the boards of Planned Parenthood and the Social Hygiene Society, vice chairman of the Federation for Citizens Associations’ Zoning Committee, and an early patron of the National Symphony Orchestra.
Sanders the philanthropist
It’s been said that Joseph Sanders’ favorite phrase was “It’s a good thing to do.” That is certainly the way he lived. When Sanders died on August 20, 1960, he left an estate of $2.5 million. In a final generous gesture, he requested that 20 percent of his estate, not to exceed $500,000, be left to institutions to be chosen by his executors. Presumably they remembered the many organizations, associations and charities he supported throughout his life.
Sanders can be remembered for his scientific achievement and his business acumen, and honored for his commitment to giving back to his community. He was certainly one of Forest Hills’ most outstanding residents, and one we can be grateful to for making a difference.
 Hannah Berliner Sanders died February 13, 1934. She was actively involved in several health related organizations: Women’s Clinic, Social Hygiene Association, the Bureau of Health Education and the Tuberculosis Association. In addition she served as vice president of the District of Columbia Parent-Teacher Association and on the executive committee of the DC branch of the International Association for the Advancement of Colored People. (Return to rest of article)
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“Alexandria Plant of Berliner Plane Firm Begins Work,” Washington Post, Oct. 31, 1927, p. 2.
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“Civic Leaders Working for Theater’s Success,” Washington Post, April 6, 1924.
“Columbia Heights Boost is Arranged,” Evening Star, March 26, 1924, p. 20.
Douglas, Francis P. “The National Symphony Brings Back Some Memories,” Evening Star, October 13, 1946, p. C5.
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Ottenberg, Miriam. “D.C. Establishes Board to Direct Evacuations,” Evening Star, October 12, 1942, p. B1.
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“Report of the Chronicler,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society of Washington, D.C. 1960-1962. Columbia Historical Society, Washington, 1962, p. 371.
Sanders, Joseph. “Columbia Heights Seen in Retrospect by Early Resident,” Washington Post, April 6, 1924, p. EA15.
“Sanders, Joseph,” Who’s Who in the Nation’s Capital, 1938-1939. Washington: Ransdell Inc., 1938, p. 734.
Sanders, Joseph. Will. July 13, 1960. (obtained from D.C. Archives)
“Standard Material Company/Gyro Motor Company,” National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, August 4, 2014.
Willman, John B. “Washington’s Original Shopping Center Sold,” Washington Post, January 30, 1963, p. B7.