Then and Now: Tracing the origins of the WSSC headquarters

Former Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission building. File photo

By STUART EISENBERG — Whether it’s the villain or the beleaguered hero of your vision for a better Hyattsville, the WSSC headquarters has an origin story that ties into other aspects of the Hyattsville community development story. Exploring plats, land transfers and uses prior to the present day buildings yields interesting discoveries.

What never was: Filed in 1882, the plat for Wine & Johnson’s First Addition to Hyattsville has a graceful, fan-shaped block terminus at Lutrell Avenue (41st Avenue) which emanates from a semi-circular hub bounded in the back by the County Road (now 40th Place), as well as an elegant triangular walkway or pocket park. In 1921, WSSC built a two-story facility across the street from the rear of that bygone cul-de-sac. Revisions in 1884 and 1886 erased that promising street plan and the original vision of an idyllic neighborhood. Today, Top of the Park Apartments occupies most of that subdivision portion.

The former WSSC facilities are on two separate, contiguous parcels. The upper half (Parcel 1) and lower half (Parcel 2) have different development histories. Parcel 2, which lies in Holladay Company’s Addition to Hyattsville, traces back to transfers in the early 1940s from the Estate of William Pinckney Magruder to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC).

M-NCPPC held the northern half of the lower lot until 1950, then sold it to the WSSC.

The southern part of the lower lot was transferred to the Prince George’s County Police Boy’s Club in 1946, and then to WSSC in 1963. Construction of the third wing of the headquarters in 1964 would have led to the extension of the paving, but aerial photos show that that section remained unpaved as late as 1965. Another surprising find was an automotive repair/filling station situated near the apex of the curve on Ralston Avenue (depicted on Lot 59 on 1922 and 1933 insurance maps). A previous article in this paper also associated the Parcel 2 site with Zantzinger Park and a ballfield. Further title research is needed to connect that use with the adjacent park’s namesake, William P. Magruder.

Reveals in the Parcel 1 land records gave me pause. Given the muddied legacy Magruder left upon Hyattsville, there seems to be a convergence of influence and power, where prominent Hyattsville property owners have left their imprint in the record and upon the land, and this contentious and contested site is somehow its legacy. This site coalesces the values and property interests of developer Otway Zantzinger, lawyer T. Howard Duckett (founder and commissioner of the WSSC and one-time president of the Hyattsville Building Association) and finally, Magruder (one-time mayor, businessman, real estate investor and a founder of the Hyattsville Building Association).    

Johnson & Wine’s Third Addition to Hyattsville was the precursor of the Hyattsville Hills subdivision. The deeds from the period of Johnson & Wine lot sales do not seem to bear the imprint of racially restrictive covenants. But that practice was to change. When Louis Wine died in 1905, most of the Third Addition’s lots hadn’t yet conveyed to homesteaders or builders. When Zantzinger bought the Wine estate’s interest in the remaining property in 1912, 417 out of 497 single family lots were available. Ten years later, two years after the death of George J. Johnson, Zantzinger purchased that estate’s remaining interest in the subdivision. Both purchases included Johnson and Wine’s portions of Parcel 1. Zantzinger appears to have been a patient, deliberate businessman.

The first official meeting of the WSSC was convened on May 15, 1918. The WSSC was under the gun to get things done, and Duckett maneuvered to bring the WSSC office to Hyattsville. The official minutes say, “… Moved by Mr. Duckett that the principal engineering office of the Commission be located in Hyattsville, Maryland.”

Zantzinger conducted three transactions to convey six lots to WSSC between 1919 and 1922. Two transactions (1919, 1921) were completed while he and the Johnson estate co-owned the lots. He completed the final one (1922) after purchasing the remaining 400-plus lots in the Third Addition subdivision. It is in this July 1922 transaction that a racially restrictive covenant first appears on any WSSC-associated property deed in Hyattsville

These transactions, relationships and contract elements are, as yet, only converging associations in our title examinations, and not yet evidence of anything other than a segregationist society. Further research is called for to drill down into the relationships between these individuals, their institutions and their intent. But it is staggering to learn that three of the wealthiest and most influential early Hyattsville builders were intimately involved in the Prince George’s County region’s planning and development and simultaneously propagating and constructing a segregationist legal structure. Their property interests and values intersect and converge at what is for me a very symbolic intersection at the entrance of Magruder Park.

The Hyattsville Preservation Association seeks to engage residents in the preservation and promotion of the many historic homes and buildings in our city: www.preservehyattsville.org.

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