by Ann Kessler
Looking at Connecticut Avenue between Van Ness and Albemarle Streets today, it might be hard to imagine that it was once a destination for drivers seeking gas for their cars. There isn’t even one gas station left. But where there are office buildings and stores and restaurants today, there used to be a driver’s dream selection of filling stations.
The neighbors didn’t much care for them, however. Here’s what a March 1929 article in the Evening Star said: “A resolution describing Connecticut Avenue as ‘gasoline alley’ and protesting against establishment of additional gasoline stations on the thoroughfare was adopted last night by the Chevy Chase Citizens Association.”
Six gas stations were pumping gas between Van Ness and Albemarle Streets in the 1930s, and the Forest Hills Citizens Association took up the fight in 1939. The Association didn’t organize a protest, however, until the Blue Bell Realty Company applied to the Board of Zoning Adjustment in September 1939 for permission to build a gas station on the northwest corner of the intersection of Connecticut and Idaho (now Windom Place) Avenues. That meant a seventh gas station would be crowded into the three blocks. The neighborhood thought it already had more than enough.
At a hearing before the Board of Zoning Adjustment that September, six citizens associations (Forest Hills, Chevy Chase, Connecticut Avenue, North Cleveland Park, Cathedral Heights-Cleveland Park and American University Park) and the Northwest Citizens Council protested the proposed station. Mrs. Leslie Wright, on behalf of the Forest Hills Citizens Association, analyzed the situation:
With six gas stations in one block on the opposite side of the street, an additional station at that location would tend to “type” the neighborhood. We have evidence to show that the neighborhood is adequately serviced without this station. But the larger question is whether Washington is to be reserved as a beautiful city or whether the whim of minor officials should be allowed to wreck it. We have a right to have Connecticut Avenue preserved.
Much to the neighborhood’s dismay, the Board of Zoning Adjustment approved Blue Bell’s application at the beginning of November 1939. As the Evening Star commented, “Sharp argument over the case had developed at a recent public hearing. Protestants argued that sections of Connecticut avenue were being turned into ‘gasoline alley.’”
The BZA did force changes in Blue Bell’s proposal, however. In redrawing their plan, Blue Bell was to place the station in one lot and the entrance would have to be moved from Connecticut Avenue to the Idaho Avenue (Windom Place) side.
The neighbors vowed to continue their fight and appealed to the zoning board. This time the neighbors added a potent weapon: a letter to the Federal Works Agency from Lyman J. Briggs, director of the National Bureau of Standards. The bureau was located between Tilden and Yuma Streets from 1903 to 1961. It was a prominent part of the neighborhood and a major local employer. The neighborhood hoped that anything Briggs said would carry great weight with the zoning board.
“I believe I can say without contradiction that no matter what improvements are erected on the proposed site they will affect the property of the Bureau of Standards,” Briggs said in his letter. E.O. Seaquist, the assistant director of the bureau, added that the it might wish to build on property near the gas station in the future.
Despite the efforts of the neighborhood and the Bureau of Standards executives, the Board of Zoning Adjustment announced on November 22, 1939 that they would not reconsider their decision on the Blue Bell gas station permit for Connecticut Avenue. The issue was dead and the gas station was allowed to be built.
In time, of course, all those gas stations that so worried the neighborhood would close one by one. Longtime residents can probably remember a few of them:
- McDowell Brothers Service Station (4201 Connecticut Avenue) was replaced by the Freudberg Building in 1966.
- The Texaco Service Station (4225 Connecticut Avenue) was the last station to close. Walgreens built a store on the site in 2012.
- Morin and Captain’s Amoco building (4300 Connecticut Avenue) was torn down to become the current home of Potbelly and a Wells Fargo branch.
- Van Ness Gulf (4339 Connecticut Avenue) became the new location for Calvert Woodley Wines and Liquors after the merger of Calvert Liquors and Woodley Wine and Liquor in 1982.
- Harness Shell Service Center (4401 Connecticut Avenue) became the Malasky Building in 1988 and eventually the headquarters for WAMU.
- Van Ness BP (4444 Connecticut Avenue) at the southwest corner of Albemarle Street, was replaced by the Hastings condominiums in August 1982.
Those gas stations weren’t the only automobile-centric features of “Gasoline Alley.” In 1956, within the same blocks as those gas stations, were the following auto dealerships:
- 4217-21 Flood Potomac Co. autos
- 4301 Rollins Motor Washington autos
- 4326 Central Motor Sales used cars
- 4400 Moore-Grear Motors Inc. autos
- 4401 Norwest Motors used cars
One reminder of the “Gasoline Row” days remains: the Flagship Car Wash, built in 1931 at 4432 Connecticut Avenue.
Baist, Robert Harrison. Baist Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington, District of Columbia. Volume 3. Hatboro, PA: R.H. Baist, 1968.
“Citizens Oppose Zone Law Change,” Evening Star, March 21, 1929, p. 26.
“Connecticut Avenue Groups Oppose More Filling Stations,” Evening Star, September 20, 1939, p. B1.
“Curb Sought on New Filling Stations on Connecticut Ave.” Evening Star, November 2, 1939, p. D4.
“D.C. Zoning Board to Hear Appeal on Gas Station,” Evening Star, November 22, 1939, p. B1.
“Filling Station Foes Lose in Zoning Fight,” Evening Star, November 23, 1939, p. B1.
“Gas Station Row Reaches Climax Today,” Washington Post, November 22, 1939, p. 15.
Homer Hoyt Associates. “Market Survey of Van Ness Office Building and Shopping Plaza: Connecticut Avenue at Van Ness Street, N.W., Washington, D.C.” Washington: Hoyt Associates, November 1964.