Bloomingdale’s rich history begins with its development just north of Washington City’s original boundary, today’s Florida Avenue. During most of the 19th century, the area consisted of several sprawling country estates, and on the area’s eastern border, two cemeteries built in the 1850s. The original subdivision of Bloomingdale was created in 1889 from the former estate of Emily Beale, which straddled today’s North Capitol Street. Beale’s land extended from just west of First Street NW over to Lincoln Road NE, and from Florida Avenue up to T Street. By the early 1900s, the neighborhood known as Bloomingdale encompassed other subdivisions west and north of Beale’s land, eventually extending from Florida Avenue north to Michigan Avenue and from 2nd Street east to Lincoln Road. When North Capitol Street was later widened and especially after underpasses were constructed in 1961, the area east of North Capitol became associated with Eckington rather than Bloomingdale.
Bloomingdale is particularly interesting because of its relatively early and speedy development starting in the late 1880s. Rowhouse development began in earnest as nearby streetcar lines made new subdivisions accessible. Francis Blundon, Lewis Breuninger, Thomas Haislip, William Palmer, and Harry Wardman were among the developers and architects who built this elegant DC neighborhood over the course of two decades.
Many of Bloomingdale’s classic Victorian rowhouses were designed for well-to-do families. First floors were raised for privacy and separation from muddy streets. Basements housed maids’ quarters; sleeping porches made summers bearable; bay windows gave residents a view up and down the street; and towers added grandeur. Other houses were more modest. Among those who lived in Bloomingdale during its first few decades was Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor.
Bloomingdale is also historically significant for its role – within DC and nationally – in the history of segregation and in the battle by Civil Rights groups to do away with racially restrictive covenants. When the neighborhood was first built, some developers wrote covenants into their property deeds to prevent sales or rentals to African Americans. Beginning around 1911, neighbors also began to organize to prevent African Americans from moving to the neighborhood, which they believed would cause property values to decline. Charles Hamilton Houston was among the renowned black attorneys associated with nearby Howard University who represented numerous clients in covenant cases. Houston brought four cases involving Bloomingdale houses to the Supreme Court in 1947, contributing to the landmark 1948 ruling in Shelly v. Kraemer that restrictive covenants could not be enforced in DC or anywhere else in the nation.
Despite racial covenants, Bloomingdale was attractive to black homebuyers. Its sturdy, elegant, and relatively new housing stock as well as its proximity to Howard University and LeDroit Park—which became an elite black neighborhood by 1920—made Bloomingdale especially desirable. The neighborhood’s many prominent black residents included Edward Brooke, the first African American elected to the Senate in the 20th century. Bloomingdale was also home to the first privately owned black art gallery in the United States, the Barnett Aden Gallery. The gallery supported such local and nationally known artists as Lois Mailou Jones, Elizabeth Catlett, and Charles White.
Until it was fenced off in the 1940s, Bloomingdale was served by a park and recreational facilities at the site of McMillan Reservoir, which sits along the neighborhood’s northern border. McMillan Park is remembered for its band concerts, playground, tennis courts, and for providing open green space for walks and picnics. The reservoir site was recently designated a National Historic District for its historically innovative sand filtration system; for its association with Senator James McMillan and his McMillan Commission; and for its park, which was designed for public use by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.