The Potomac Improvement Company

A visitor or prospective buyer to the new developments of Del Ray and St. Elmo in the summer of 1894 would have seen very little. The developer, Wood Harmon & Co, had simply bought flat, open farmland and laid out a grid of gravel-covered streets and planted little flags on poles to indicate the boundaries of the uniform lots offered for sale. The vast majority of the 1,651 lots for sale had a 25 foot frontage on one of the east-west streets, such as Howell or Hume, and extended 105 feet deep to meet the rear line of the identical property behind it. A developer, by the standards of the time, did only that, laid in roads (sometimes finished, often rough) and surveyed lots. No buildings, no utilities. Each buyer had their own house built, often a decade or more after buying the property.

 An interested potential buyer had to guess, with no guidance whatsoever, what the new developments would look like. If they envisioned something like Parker-Gray (north of Old Town), with its row houses and duplexes, then a single 25 foot lot was sufficient. That would accommodate either a fairly wide row house or a somewhat narrower half of a duplex. On the other hand, if the neighborhood would develop as single-family homes, then you needed a 50-foot double lot for your house.

 It quickly became apparent that Del Ray and St Elmo would not develop as row house neighborhoods. Although the single-family-home eventually emerged as the dominant form, the duplex retained some popularity for about 15-20 years. Into this uncertainty stepped the area's first developer/builder.

The beautiful Potomac Improvement row houses in the unit block of East Del Ray in 2015. The one on the left shows its original stucco appearance.

The Potomac Improvement Company was chartered in May 1907, with Edwin L Cockrell as president and with a minimum capital stock of $10,000. They wasted little time and within two months they purchased twenty lots from Wood Harmon, almost all on Peyton (now Del Ray) Avenue. Twelve of those lots were in grouped into three properties each four lots (100 feet) wide.

 The company was a believer in duplex housing, and one would have thought that they would put a half-duplex on each 25 foot lot, pairing them to create two full duplexes on each 100-foot property. But this is where it gets interesting – each of their duplex half-units was given a full 50-foot double lot, or a hundred feet of frontage for a duplex building. That meant that although such a house might be hard up against its neighbor on one side, it had an exceptionally wide side lot on the other side. It was thus sort of a hybrid, with a shared party wall on one side, but a lot of ground space for garden and lawn.

 A first such duplex was built on Peyton (now Del Ray) between DeWitt and Leslie and almost immediately sold, all four lots and both halves of the duplex, to Hardy Hicks, with the officers of the company taking back a mortgage to fund the purchase. Thus encouraged, the firm built a similar unit on Peyton between Commonwealth and Clyde in 1908. Here, however, their luck (or marketing skills) ran out.

  Cockrell had left as president to launch a much more aggressive foray by himself into Del Ray real estate. In 1909 Hardy Hicks defaulted on his mortgage and those properties, the only ones sold, reverted back to the Potomac Improvement Company. Lacking buyers, the firm turned the two duplexes into rental properties. By 1914 the company still had all their original properties on hand and they tried a different tack. Among their purchases had been a single two-lot (50-foot) property at the NW corner of Peyton and DeWitt. On this they built their only single-family home and it actually sold quickly, to Walter Hedrick for about $2,500 in January 1915.

The duplex at 315-317 E Del Ray had the front porches removed in the 1930s and permastone applied sometime after that, changing their appearance considerably.

The company's sole single-family house, at 222 E Del Ray, still stands, although its front porch has been enclosed and apparently excavated below for an enlarged basement.

This sole success was not enough to assuage the officers of the company and in July 1916 they liquidated the corporation. One true believer remained, however. Martin Wiegand, a 48-year German immigrant, the treasurer of the corporation, bought the land from the shell of a company on his own. He fared no better than the corporation had and he did not manage to dispose of any of the plots. Three years later he sold all the undeveloped land to Sherwood Stonnell. He did sell one of the eastern houses to a John McKenny shortly thereafter, and finally the western pair to John R. Smith in 1920. The unglamorous ride of the Potomac Improvement Company, the first builder/developer in Del Ray, had finally come to an end.

 Fortunately, all of these cool buildings still exist, the unique duplexes at 17-19 and 315-317 East Del Ray, and the single-family home at 222 East Del Ray. In particular, the unit at 19 East Del Ray has retained its original configuration and is a beautiful classic example of a duplex of the time.

 As an aside, one of the duplexes housed a very long-time Del Ray resident. The John R. Smith who bought the western pair of duplexes died shortly thereafter and his widow Laura and youngest daughter, Ann, born in 1906, moved into what is now 19 E Del Ray. By 1930 Ann had begun teaching piano in the house. In 1948 Laura died and left the duplex to her two unmarried daughters, No.17 to Emily and No.19 to Ann, although they appear to have not recorded the transaction. “Miss Ann”, as she was known in the neighborhood, never did marry and continued to teach piano there until her death in 1981, having lived in the house since 1920.

 Miss Ann's half had slid into genteel decay through the 1970s. In January 1981 the City sent a “notice of rehabilitation” to the last owner of record, Laura, requiring her, now deceased for 33 years, to fix up the property. In the ensuing silence the city then launched an effort to locate a current owner, but Ann had died by then as well, without a will, and her surviving brothers and sisters had scattered across the country. None of the probable heirs, on learning of the state of the property and the requirement to fix it up, along with the confusing tangle of ownership, expressed any interest at all in the house. The house sat abandoned for several years, with at least one neighborhood child (who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent-by-youth) managing to find a way in, relating now that the two pianos, dust-covered and out-of-tune, were still sitting there. Finally, in September 1983 the City acquired the property by condemnation and sold it in December for $38,500. That owner, Chester Garvin, brought it up to code and subsequent owners each invested both money and sweat to improve it, so that it is now even better than it was when new. After a long and checkered past and with much hard work, this duplex is now a source of pride for Del Ray.