Two Historic Jewels in DC’s Chinatown
by Everett Langworthy
Editor’s Note: On June 25, BVA National Headquarters commemorated 22 years in its present location at 477 H Street NW in the Nation’s Capital. The following is an adaptation of Everett’s May-June 2003 Bulletin article and an earlier piece in the 50th anniversary issue in 1995.
For BVA members and their families who have never had the opportunity to visit the national headquarters, a stop at the quaint old structure will no doubt reveal the previously unheralded wisdom associated with its purchase some 23 years ago.
Located in the Chinatown section of downtown Washington, DC, at the corner of 5th and H Streets Northwest, the building is 13 blocks from the U.S. Capitol in one direction and another 13 from the White House moving in the other direction.
At first glance the area might appear a little run-down in some respects. A closer look reveals an exciting history of tolerance, diversity, and, most recently, vibrant economic growth and revitalization.
There is charisma in the surroundings. Across H Street is a beautiful Catholic church constructed in 1890. In the steeple is a clock that chimes at the quarter hour and bongs out the hour on the hour, keeping the entire neighborhood informed of the correct time.
Chinatown has undergone many changes over the years. Amazingly, one change that the area was not forced to endure was reconstruction after the rioting and looting resulting from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Surprisingly, Chinatown went essentially untouched by the rioters.
The most dramatic changes affecting the area around BVA Headquarters have occurred within the past 10-15 years. The completion and inauguration of what is now the Verizon Center, home of the Washington Wizards basketball team and Washington Capitals hockey franchise, began a major revitalization and redevelopment effort in Chinatown.
A handful of high-rise luxury apartment structures now surround our building, one of which replaced a parking lot previously used by BVA staffers and located directly behind the building. A $200 million project two blocks west on H Street developed 926,250 square feet into a retail, entertainment, and residential area, including a multiplex cinema, restaurants, stores, a health club, a medical clinic, a bowling alley, and a five-floor underground parking garage.
Visitors to BVA National Headquarters check in at a reception area immediately upon entry. They are greeted by two additional jewels in their own right, Geraldine Adams in the morning, left, and Marie Johnson in the afternoon.
The three-story BVA Headquarters building itself is stone-faced and was constructed in the classic revivalist style. The front of the structure features four stone columns and an impressive cornice over the front entrance. The interior measures 11,575 square feet.
BVA National Headquarters was originally built as a church. In 1923, major reparations were made to accommodate the International Exchange Bank. The bank’s logo is still visible on the floor in the main foyer. Reliable sources contain information that the bank’s president committed suicide in one of the vaults in the basement sometime during the Great Depression.
The Gospel Rescue Mission, still located across the road on 5th Street, acquired the building in the 1940s and used it as a distributing facility for the underprivileged. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower reportedly participated in that activity. In 1985, the building was purchased by a firm specializing in renovating older properties. The company upgraded the building in keeping with the Chinatown motif, which brought a soft, subdued style to the interior.
BVA bought the structure in October 1987 after a rather extensive search. Before moving in on Saturday, June 25, 1988, the BVA Board voted to install an elevator, a reception area, and a restroom on the third floor.
In many ways the purchase was a dream come true. For a number of years there had been interest in buying a building, but the funds had not been available. Of particular significance in the fundraising area was a successful direct mail campaign, which became a springboard to a building fund in the early 1980s.
The purchase price was $2.5 million. The Association made a down payment of $1 million and mortgaged the remaining sum. Needless to say, the value of the building increased markedly from 2003 to 2007 and has remained relatively constant the past three years.
An exciting and unexpected event occurred in 1990. A letter was received from a lawyer in Southern California. BVA had been mentioned in the estate of Dolly Green, who had recently passed away. Because no one seemed to know who Dolly was, the notice was not given much attention. A few months later, another letter was received, stating that BVA’s share of the inheritance was 2.2 percent. Because the percentage was small, no one was very interested. A few months later still another letter arrived. It indicated that BVA’s share of the estate would be $4.5 million. That letter got everyone’s attention! The story behind the amount is that Dolly’s father had bought a tract of land in Southern California years before. The tract of land later became part of Beverly Hills. Dolly was the lone family survivor and inherited her father’s estate, which was estimated at $300 million before taxes. The Board voted to pay off the mortgage and place the remainder of the Dolly Green bequest in conservative investments.
Like all old structures, the maintenance and upkeep of BVA National Headquarters is an ongoing, never-ending task. Just ask John Williams and Brigitte Jones, into whose capable hands the task has fallen the past 20 years. The building is the crown jewel of the BVA inventory and will continue as our headquarters for years to come. It is a wonderful treasure that has been left to us, and it is our responsibility to protect and preserve it for the future of blinded veterans yet to come.
Two historic jewels reside at 477 H Street NW: first, the Blinded Veterans Association and its now 65 years of service to blinded veterans and second, the wonderful structure that will allow that service to endure for as long as it is needed.
Everett Langworthy, North Carolina Regional Group, is a former BVA Director of District 3.