Bay Front Historic District
The Bay Front Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2013, The Gombach Group.
The Bay Front Historic District in Somers Point, New Jersey, is significant because of its importance in the development of the town of Somers Point and South Jersey as a resort area. From the time that its first settlers arrived, residents of the town have fished, built boats, and engaged in maritime trades. Toward the end of the nineteenth century and following the development of Atlantic City, Somers Point, like other shore towns, began to attract tourists who had discovered the joys of recreational swimming, sailing, and fishing. Although the town is not on the ocean, its location on Great Egg Harbor Bay provides a sheltered area for water sports. The arrival of the railroad in 1880 made Somers Point accessible to inland residents, although many preferred the oceanfront resorts on Absecon Island. Construction of houses accelerated in the Bay Front Historic District around the turn of the century when new trolley services no longer limited the luxury of a seaside visit to the rich and fashionable. The Bay Front Historic District is also significant because it is a cohesive group of buildings built in the styles and types that were popular in resort areas between 1890 and 1935. Although there are a some large houses and former hotels overlooking the bay and a few buildings that once served commercial purposes, most of the buildings are houses in cottage, bungalow, and vernacular modes typical of seaside colonies. Nowhere else in Atlantic County is there a similar group of modest-sized cottages in good condition retaining their original fabric to such a large degree.
History and Background
The Bay Front Historic District in Somers Point covers a few blocks between the present Shore Road and Great Egg Harbor Bay in the town of Somers Point in Atlantic County, New Jersey. Although Somers Point has a long history and was an important commercial and transportation center among the Shore Road towns of Atlantic County, it also contains the largest and most cohesive group of medium-sized late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century houses that make up a resort community.
Atlantic City, the "Queen of Resorts" in Atlantic County, developed in the mid-nineteenth century and grew rapidly with the construction of luxury hotels and its famous boardwalk. Ventnor, Margate, and Longport followed Atlantic City's lead in becoming vacation spots for those who sought the open Atlantic Ocean. Somers Point could not offer the long sandy beaches and rolling waves of the ocean. Instead, it offered the quieter waters of Egg Harbor River and Bay where vacationers could bathe in calm water, sail their small boats in comfort, and fish if they chose. Luxury hotels and the huge "cottages" of the very rich never found their way to Somers Point; here more modest hostelries and moderate sized cottages and houses near the bay suited vacationers with less pretentious means and tastes. Their cottages and even some of their hotels have weathered the test of time. Over two hundred buildings in the Bay Front Historic District are tangible reminders of an earlier day. However, they are not simply reminders of the past; they continue to serve their original purpose of being comfortable dwellings close to the salt water of Great Egg Harbor Bay.
The towns along Shore Road, the old road that stretched from Somers Point at the south to Leeds Point at the north, were among the earliest settled in Atlantic County. Atlantic City soon outstripped them after the railroad connected the new resort to Camden and Philadelphia in 1854. The Shore Road towns supplied some of the new resort's foodstuffs and personnel, but the people in them continued to lead rather quiet agricultural and maritime lives for several decades after the establishment of Atlantic City. Although the 1860 census is not broken down to show who lived in precisely the area that is presently Somers Point, it does list the people in the Somers Point Post Office area within Egg Harbor Township. In 1860 the residents of Somers Point were still mainly engaged in farming and the maritime trades, while in Atlantic City the majority of the population were innkeepers, laborers, bartenders, housekeepers, and in other occupations related to the growing resort industry. In 1860, the Somers Point residents with the greatest wealth were primarily farmers whose land holdings accounted for their net worth.
The period of significance for the Bay Front Historic District is from 1890 to 1935, the years during which housing in the district developed. This was also the time when seaside cottages and the time to use them became available to large numbers of Americans who had not enjoyed them before. After 1935 and World War II construction methods and styles for vacation houses as well as for permanent residences changed abruptly. Within the Bay Front Historic District there are only a few reminders of Somers Point's early history which goes back to colonial days. One of those reminders is the stone monument overlooking the beach at the foot of New Jersey Avenue that is a memorial to those who served in the war of 1812, but nothing remains of the fort which once stood nearby.
As in most waterfront communities, man has altered the shoreline over the centuries with filling and dredging to suit his current needs. There have been alterations to the marshes in Great Egg Harbor Bay, and old marine railroads and other reminders of early maritime commerce are gone. In their place, recreational boating, salt water swimming, sport fishing, and pleasant waterfront living continue a tradition established in the late nineteenth century.
Cape May and Atlantic City were among the resorts that firmly established the South Jersey shore as a vacation area. Their development came about partly because of the growing attitude of Victorians toward fresh air and the seashore as beneficial to health. As Richard Guy Wilson explains in "Nineteenth Century American Resorts and Hotels," the search for health-giving waters was the impetus behind the development of the earliest American resorts. As more and more people attributed healthful qualities to the seashore, it joined the spa as a holiday destination. Sports such as tennis became a part of the resort scene, which soon included luxurious accommodations and sumptuous dining. Cities were expanding with the growth of industry, and their residents soon had the opportunity to enjoy the clean and quiet countryside and seashore. Wilson pointed out that "Contributing to the great age of American resorts was the development of transportation and also the innovation of vacations — or at least days off." One of the sports that developed and became popular in waterfront resorts was sailing or yachting in small boats. The great yachts had been popular with the very rich for some time before the racing of small sailboats became popular. Surely there were informal sailing and racing of small open boats in much earlier times, but it was not until the late nineteenth century that there were regattas and that the racing of small sailboats became a sport. Somers Point, with its sheltered bays but easy access to the ocean, was perhaps the ideal spot for the sport. Thomas Eakins' paintings of catboats sailing on the Delaware in 1874 bears a striking resemblance to a series of early photographs of sailboats in Somers Point. The Bay Front Historic District in Somers Point had all the attributes necessary to become an attractive resort: salt water, fresh air, transportation, and space for construction.
In the 1870s there was virtually no development within the Bay Front Historic District. However, by the end of that decade an atlas of the New Jersey Coast said that Somers Point "lying directly on Great Egg Harbor Bay is much resorted to in summer for the advantages of sailing and fishing." The same atlas listed several yachts, pleasure boats as opposed to working vessels, owned by Somers Point residents: F. Steelman owned the 24-foot American Eagle; W. Steelman owned the 24-foot Wave; J. Steelman owned the 27-foot Hinkin; J. Townsend and J. Somers each owned a 24-foot boat.
In 1880 the Pleasantville and Ocean City Branch of the West Jersey and Atlantic Railroad began operating to Somers Point. The passenger station, which no longer stands, was located just outside the district near the intersection of Bay and Gull avenues. In the same year Captain John Townsend and Harry Van Sant convinced the Philadelphia and Atlantic Railroad to construct a narrow gauge line between Pleasantville and Somers Point. Townsend and Van Sant had built the Bradford House hotel in 1881, and they also owned Bradford Cottage and Bay View House, which stood near the present bridge to Ocean City. These properties which are no longer standing gave Townsend and Van Sant a vested interest in transportation to Somers Point. Rail service apparently was not adequate because as late as 1891 a business review extolled the virtues of Somers Point but complained that "until better railroad facilities are provided its growth must be very slow, and indeed without some provisions an untimely death is to be feared." A guide to the New Jersey coast in 1889 simply referred to Somers Point as a small village on Great Egg Harbor that served as a port of entry. There was no mention of its virtues as a resort. Peck's Beach Association in Ocean City invested in a steamboat to make the trip to that resort from Somers Point, promoting a round trip by ferry, rail, and steamer between Philadelphia and Ocean City for $1.65. A similar service operated between Somers Point and Longport. Somers Point was more of a transportation center than a resort.
In 1886 Somers Point became an independent borough within Egg Harbor Township, and it had a post office and a telegraph office in addition to expanding public services and local businesses. By 1891 Townsend and Van Sant's three hotels could accommodate eighty guests with dining room seating for fifty people at a time. The owners provided rowboats, yachts, bathing, fishing, and gunning for vacationers. Both men were retired sea captains, and in addition to their hotel venture, they had laid out "a large and desirable tract of land overlooking the bay into building lots, which they offered to those contemplating building at very low rates and upon easy terms." This was apparently the beginning of the promotion of development in the Bay Front Historic District.
Although there were some houses in the district prior to 1900, it was the advent of trolley service that spurred the sale of lots and development in the Bay Front area. The Atlantic and Suburban Railway, also known as the Florida Avenue Line started operating in 1903. From Atlantic City the trolley ran to Pleasantville, where it split into two lines, one running north to Absecon and the other running south to Somers Point. The Somers Point branch ran along Shore Road to New Jersey Avenue, where it turned and ran east to Bay Avenue and continued toward the bridge to Ocean City. Almost immediately a second trolley line went into operation. In 1906 this second line, also originating in Atlantic City and traveling via Pleasantville, began operating on the old steam railroad tracks west of Shore Road in Somers Point. A year later trolley service extended to Ocean City via a new trestle bridge crossing four channels and three islands in Egg Harbor Bay. Ferry service was no longer necessary to connect Ocean City and Somers Point.
By 1900, Townsend and Van Sant seem to have had some success with their land-development venture for there were at least thirty private houses and hotels within the district. The Schick Hotel stood just outside the district on Bay Avenue and is no longer standing. Its owner, Jacob Schick, had been born in Germany, and several other German-born residents lived in the district. One owner whose name is illegible in the census records, lived on New Jersey Avenue and was a bayman. Another owner, Robert Reidel, was a painter who lived on Delaware Avenue.
A total of seven baymen (watermen) lived in the district at that time, along with house carpenters, a few laborers, a steamboat captain, and two men who listed their occupation as yacht sailing. Several residents were "gentlemen" or were retired on their own income. There is no map showing exactly how many houses there were in the district in 1900. However, ten years later there were considerably more houses than there were residents, indicating that many of the houses were either vacation houses or rental properties.
In 1910 there were several hotels along Bay Avenue, most of which were in the popular resort styles of the time, although smaller in scale than the large hotels in famous resorts. The Anchorage Hotel, built in the Second Empire style, is located at the corner of Delaware Avenue, and Schick's Hotel, mentioned above, stood on the west side of Bay Avenue. Across the street the large house that now belongs to Dicks Dock served as a clubhouse, and the present 800 Bay Avenue was the Grand View Hotel. The hotels and the big house at 905 Bay Avenue were the largest buildings in the district and all had a view of the bay. A small restaurant on George Street, a meat store and a drug store on Delaware Avenue, and a general store beside Schick's Hotel were the only other commercial buildings in the district. In 1911, however, hen houses behind one of the houses on George Street and on the present Anchorage Street were still reminders of the small town heritage of Somers Point.
The number of Germans in the district had increased in 1910 perhaps because of the influence of Schick's Hotel or the town's proximity to the German community in Egg Harbor City. In addition to Jacob Schick, Lewis Diether, a retail hardware merchant, Louis Steuber and Adolph Schlect, both born of German parents and both with their own independent incomes, lived on Bay Avenue. Steuber owned the stone bungalow at 825 Bay Avenue.
The four residents of George Street included two who had independent incomes, one retail merchant, and a laborer. A fisherman and a saloon proprietor lived on Annie Avenue (it was not yet called Anna Avenue). Adolph Kappella, a fire-insurance agent, and John Fassio, a native of France with an independent income, lived on Somers Street. The residents of Delaware Avenue included house carpenters, a police officer, a meat merchant, a druggist, a mail carrier, the captain of a pleasure yacht, and one woman with her own income. New Jersey Avenue showed a similar diversity, and three of its residents also had independent incomes.
Census records and old maps make it possible to compare the number of residents and the number of houses on a street. This comparison points out the resort nature of the district. For example, there were six residents of Bay Avenue while there were twenty-three houses. On Annie Avenue [Anna Avenue] there were two residents but seven houses, while there were nine residents of New Jersey Avenue for fifteen houses. Clearly, the houses were owned by people whose residence was recorded elsewhere.
Home construction, particularly of vacation houses, came to a halt during World War I. The war and the advent of Prohibition starting at about the same time had a deleterious effect on the hotel and resort business. Events also had a negative effect on the German-Americans whose ancestry associated them with the enemy and whose business was frequently in the brewery or restaurant trades. It is uncertain just what the overall effect was of these two events on the Bay Front District, but, as in many other places, some of the hotels became clubs where there might have been some leniency in the general prohibition against alcoholic beverages. The Grand View Hotel became a vacant building, and although Schick's and the Anchorage stayed open, their businesses must have changed when they no longer had the saloons they originally featured.
The 1920s was a time of prosperity in America, and the construction of houses in the Bay Front District accelerated. Between 1911 and 1923, there were several new houses built on Delaware Avenue, and one older house, now 35 Delaware Avenue, had become the Colonial Boarding House. There were also new houses on Echo and Elk, now Anchorage and Miller. New Houses on the south side of New Jersey Avenue included the concrete block house that is today 50 New Jersey Avenue and 18 New Jersey Avenue, the large Colonial Revival house near Shore Road. Initially little development took place north of New Jersey Avenue, but by 1923 there were many houses on both Gibbs and Higbee Avenues. Higbee Avenue, probably named for a mayor of Somers Point, had originally been called Somers Avenue but its name was changed to eliminate the confusion of having two streets of the same name within a few blocks of each other.
Somers Point was obviously becoming more of a resort community. An aerial view of the town dating from the mid 1920s shows a large concentration of houses in the Bay Front Historic District, a sandy beach along Bay Avenue, and four piers stretching out into Egg Harbor Bay. Having had a population of only 308 in 1900, the town now had a year-round population of 3,000 and a summer population of over 10,000. Promotion literature showed sailboats dotting the bay, and the town boasted that "Somers Point stands high in the list of ideal resorts on the South Jersey Coast." Among its advantages were sea and bay shores, sailing, fishing, woodlands, game ranges, and the Ocean City Golf Course, just west of the Bay Front Historic District.
One trolley line continued to serve Somers Point and its Bay Front district via Shore Road, New Jersey and Bay avenues until 1929. The line increased its fare from 6 cents to 7 cents in 1920 but found it no longer feasible to operate the service after 1929. The tracks remained in place until World War II when they were sold for scrap. The Shore Fast Line west of Shore Road continued to operate until the late 1940s when a fire destroyed part of the bridge between Somers Point and Ocean City.
Trolley transportation might have remained a viable means to travel to the Jersey shore without the introduction of the automobile. The private automobile made it possible for more and more Americans to drive themselves wherever they wished to go. Along with the automobile, the private vacation house came within the means of an increasing number of Americans. By the time of the Great Depression of the 1930s all but a handful of the houses now in the Bay Front Historic District had been built. Behind many of the houses there was also a small garage, indicating that a number of the house occupants were also automobile owners. In addition to the private garages, an auto repair service was located on Delaware Avenue.
In 1930 there were almost no commercial enterprises within the district except for one small store on George Street and the new Seaside Movie Theater that still stands at the northwest corner of Bay and Higbee avenues. The Depression of the 1930s from which America did not recover until World War II, slowed all business, including resorts, almost to a standstill. The economic recovery in the form of wartime industry and mobilization of the armed forces did nothing to revitalize resort areas or vacation spots either. The slow housing growth of the Depression years had little effect on the Bay Front Historic District because it was nearly filled with houses by that time. Despite recent development along the waterfront and the expansion of marinas the general ambiance of the district has changed little in the past fifty years.
The Bay Front Historic District is significant for its architecture, a collection of over 200 moderate-sized houses and hotels dating from between 1890 and 1935. The hotel buildings remaining today include the Anchorage in Second Empire style at the corner of Delaware and Bay avenues. This large three-story wooden building with its mansard roof is a prominent landmark in the Bay Front Historic District. Second Empire was extremely popular for public buildings in American cities. Americans picked up the style after it appeared in the mid-nineteenth century additions to the Louvre in Paris. The city halls of both Philadelphia and Boston are outstanding examples of this generally ornate style that seemed best suited for large buildings. It was undoubtedly its use in large government buildings that made hotel builders consider it to be appropriate for their buildings, which they also wished to have dominate the landscape. The Anchorage was certainly not a large hotel in its time, and the inspiration for its architecture may have come from the much larger Congress Hall Hotel in nearby Cape May. Like most hotels of the time, the Anchorage featured a large veranda overlooking its best view, in this case the Great Egg Harbor Bay. In their essay on verandas in Catskill resorts Betsy Blackmar and Elizabeth Cromley explain the purposes of this outdoor living space. It was a place to enjoy the view, a place to walk and enjoy nature, and a place to socialize. "The veranda was a defining trait of Victorian resorts. It served as a sign; just as a striped barber pole signifies a barber's shop, so did the veranda advertise the building as a hotel. In towns where other public institutions — the bank, the courthouse, or town hall — might have columned porticos, the hotels did not stop at an accentuated entry, but expanded the veranda the full length of the building, even to two or three sides, and to second and third stories."
Other hotels and large houses in the district followed similarly popular styles. The Grand View Hotel at 800 Bay Avenue, a block away from the Anchorage, is another large three-story building. However, it has a steeply pitched gable roof and cross gables more in the Gothic mode with Stick or Eastlake style trim elements. Its porch is now partially enclosed, but it originally extended from the front corner around the waterfront section of the building, where it was two stories high. Another large three-story house at the south end of Bay Avenue is now a part of the Dick's Dock complex. Two sizes of dormers with hipped roofs extend from its steep jerkin head roof. With its irregular shape and two-story bay window it originally had elements of the Queen Anne style. For many years it was a private club and had a large veranda wrapping around three sides of the building. The club also had its own boathouse and dock extending into the bay. A similar veranda extends around three sides of the large house on the west side of Bay Avenue between Anna and Somers avenues. It retains many elements of the Stick and Eastlake styles that was also popular in seashore areas. Exposed rafter ends and a spindle frieze trim the porch roof, and many of the windows contain sash surrounded by small colored panes. A small wooden privy behind the house has its wooden shingle and clapboard siding, similar no doubt to the original siding that covered the main house.
The private houses in the Bay Front Historic District echo popular American styles that were particularly adaptable to the smaller houses near the seashore. The simple wooden ell or T-shaped two-and-a-half-story house with balloon frame and gable roof could easily become a farmhouse, suburban house, or seaside cottage. It was relatively easy to build, and a variety of trim elements could dress it up in the owner's choice of styles. The house at 17 George Street is one of the older houses of this type in the Bay Front Historic District. It has had several additions over the years but still features a saw-tooth barge board, an oriel window at the side, and upper sash surrounded by colored panes. Houses at 12, 21, and 38 Higbee Avenue all have the steep gable roofs of this house type and show the variety of shapes it might assume. At 9 New Jersey Avenue, which probably dates from near the turn of the century, the house still has its wooden clapboards, cross gables at the side, and porch with wooden posts and balustrade. Several other houses on the street are of a similar type but have had more alterations. The John Monroe Steelman House at 28 Delaware Avenue dates from 1892 and is one of the best examples of the type in the district. This ell-shaped house has a wrap-around porch with Stick style trim, double doors on the main entrance, and wooden clapboard exterior. It probably most closely resembles what the houses of this type in the district looked like originally. Next door at 24 Delaware Avenue another similar house also has Gothic windows, wood-shingle trim, and a porch with openwork brackets. Houses at 31 and 37 Somers Avenue and 829 Bay Avenue have similar characteristics.
A simplified variant of the two-story ell-shaped gable-roofed house is the plain rectangular-shaped house. There are two groups of four two-story houses of this type on Bay Avenue: one is on the west side of the avenue in the 900 block and the other group is on the east side of the street in the 800 block. All stand at slight angles to the street, and originally had porches facing the bay. All date from before the 1920s, and the only trims remaining are in a simple Stick style.
Dictionaries define a cottage as "a modest dwelling, frequently for summer use," and most Americans probably would agree with that definition. Architecturally, the term derived from A.J. Downing's mid-nineteenth century designs for cottages. Downing believed that the simplest cottage could embody what he considered to be good taste incorporating his favorite stylistic motifs. As an architect, Andrew Jackson Downing was an advocate of the "picturesque, " a term that to him would include "irregularity and a partial want of proportion and symmetry." Downing's designs for cottages included small cottages for a workingman, cottages trimmed with brackets along the roof lines, Gothic cottages, gatehouse cottages, Italianate cottages, Swiss cottages, and even a "Cubical cottage in the Tuscan style." None were as elaborate or as large as his designs for villas and country houses.
Americans popularized and adapted Downing's plans through the years, and eventually the plans as well as the components of such houses became available by mail. The cottage is the dominant house type in the Bay Front Historic District. Most are one-story houses with a gable roof that has its end toward the street. They are a simple design that many builders might have constructed without a plan, but they are very similar to Downing's Design I for a laborer's cottage. In the Bay Front Historic District as well as in other resort areas, the cottage also made the best possible use of the narrow lots favored by most developers.
The majority of the cottages in the Bay Front Historic District have plain gable roofs, but some have jerkin heads, and others have hipped roofs. While many have lost some of their original features, 59 Gibbs Avenue is a good example of a cottage that still has its wood clapboard siding, wooden porch, and six-over-one windows. Its neighbor next door is a few years younger and has a similar basic shape but is built of rusticated concrete blocks, a material that became popular in the 1920s. A slight variation of the basic cottage is "Sans Souci" at 28 Anna Avenue, built before 1910. It has a hipped roof that slopes out to cover a wraparound porch. The house once belonged to J.G. Winner and appeared in an early-twentieth century promotional booklet about Somers Point. Somers S. Steelman of Somers Point was probably the contractor responsible for the construction of this and other cottages in the Bay Front Historic District. He advertised in the same booklet that "most of the cottages illustrated in this booklet have been built by me. For fourteen years I have given satisfaction in the construction of the finest cottages and bungalows."
The Bungalow is another style popular within the Bay Front Historic District as well as throughout America. As Alan Gowans has written in The Architecture of New Jersey, the Bungalow was probably more popular here than in any other state. Bungalows came in a number of styles, but the true Bungalow was a one-story house in which a dormer permitted use of the second floor. As Marcus Whiffen wrote in American Architecture Since 1780 "the word bungalow is a corruption of the Hindustani adjective Bangla which means belonging to Bengal." The British brought the word and the idea of a low house with a veranda from India. Its various versions in the Bay Front district generally feature sloping gable roofs and porches. The coziness of the Bungalow appealed to the vacationer and its porch was a place to enjoy the view and sea air. The large stone and shingle Bungalow at 825 Bay Avenue was built before 1910 for Louis Steuber. Other Bungalows are at 18 and 30 Gibbs Avenue.
The American adaptation of the Queen Anne style that had started in England became popular near the turn of the century. Its irregular shape with a variety of surface finishes, window sizes, porches, and roof types was first used for large suburban or resort houses. The style frequently featured a tower with either an open porch or windows from which the occupants had a view of the surrounding land. Urban rowhouses often used Queen Anne features to dress up what might have been monotonous facades; towers and bay windows frequently appeared on smaller houses in the country. Although large Queen Anne houses were fairly popular in the New Jersey oceanfront resorts, the style appears in the Bay Front Historic District only in the form of bay windows and in a single example of a tower at 57 New Jersey Avenue.
There are also several houses in the Bay Front Historic District in the Foursquare mode. Houses in this basically square shape with hipped roof and hip-roofed dormers were a design that was a part of the rectilinear movement, a stylistic revolt against Queen Anne and other ornate Victorian styles. By 1895 there were many published plans available for Foursquare houses, and several companies also sold prefabricated houses of this type. Most popular in American suburbs and small towns, good examples of the Foursquare in the Bay Front Historic District are at 17-19 Somers Avenue, 14 and 47 Gibbs Avenue, and 811 Bay Avenue.
A mixture of styles blend together in the Bay Front Historic District to show the development of the area. One feature that appears on nearly every house regardless of style is the porch. The porch was a prominent feature in late-nineteenth century American architecture, but it was most important in the resort or vacation retreat. Just as the porch was a part of hotel life, it was also a part of cottage life.
The intrusions within the Bay Front Historic District are mainly in the form of large new commercial marinas on the east side of Bay Street. Although they are out of scale with the older buildings, they must be considered a natural development along a modern recreational waterfront. The Bay Front Historic District is a distinct entity within Somers Point, bordered by the busy commercial area along Shore Road on the west, the heavily traveled route to Ocean City on the south, and a new hospital complex on the north. The Bay Front Historic District is unique in Atlantic County in that there is no other similar community of modest sized houses in excellent condition remaining from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. Maintenance within the Bay Front Historic District is generally very good, and some of the residents are now  working to establish a local historical society and to preserve the historic aspect of the area.
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† Priscilla M. Thompson, Owner, The History Store, Bay Front Historic District, Atlantic County, NJ, nomination document, 1987, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.