McLean Gardens complex celebrates its 75th anniversary

McLean Gardens was built in 1942. (Susan Bodiker/The Current/September 2017)

The McLean Gardens condo complex celebrated its 75th anniversary on Sunday with a festival and series of talks on the history of the area.

The Sept. 24 event included speeches by Mayor Muriel Bowser, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh and two authors who have written books about the area’s history.

McLean Gardens was constructed as World War II-era housing for government workers. (Brady Holt/The Current/March 2012)

Mendelson — who served as the area’s advisory neighborhood commissioner prior to becoming a D.C. Council member — discussed his own history as a member of the area’s tenant association in the 1970s.  When Mendelson first moved to McLean Gardens, it was a rental apartment complex. He later helped convert it into the condominiums that exist today.

During the 1970s, there were various attempts to convert or demolish the site. In 1977, units stopped being rented out, and the following year all residents were told to vacate their units. Mendelson said he and others organized in opposition to this effort.

By September 1978 more than 500 units were vacant and much of the maintenance on the property had stopped, with many units boarded up, he said.

McLean Gardens’ residents became the second group in the city to exercise their “first right of refusal,” which allows tenants the first opportunity to purchase the property they are living in by matching another offer being considered. The tenants also held a candlelight vigil — which, according to Mendelson, everyone running for citywide office attended.

Phil Mendelson is the D.C. Council chairman. (Brian Kapur/The Current/January 2015)

“As a tenant association, we benefited immensely from our political activism,” Mendelson said. “It’s the reason why I got involved in the ANC and ultimately ran for the council.”

In the end, the developer offered to sell the property to the tenants for between $25 and $27 million. The residents ultimately succeeded in buying McLean Gardens and converting the apartments to condos, Mendelson said.

Long before McLean Gardens was converted to condominiums, the area housed government workers during World War II, a period of time discussed by local authors John DeFerrari and Cindy Gueli.

Gueli, author of “Lipstick Brigade: The Untold True Story of Washington’s World War II Government Girls,” spoke about the history of female government workers during World War II, or “government girls” as they were called, and their relationship to McLean Gardens.

McLean Gardens is located along Wisconsin Avenue NW between Cleveland Park and Tenleytown. (Susan Bodiker/The Current/September 2017)

In 1942, the federal government bought the property to build a complex to house the workers. Couples and families received apartments, and the “government girls” got space in dormitories. They worked long hours doing clerical tasks, and ultimately helped to liberalize social attitudes toward working women in the District, Gueli said.

“Government girls didn’t permanently or immediately shatter existing norms in D.C.,” Gueli said at Sunday’s event. “But they did manage to stretch them a bit, and McLean Gardens gave you a place to do so.”

John DeFerrari, author of “Lost Washington, D.C.,” spoke about public transportation in the District during the war, particularly D.C.’s streetcars.

According to DeFerrari, most war workers at McLean Gardens did not have access to cars and those who did were unlikely to use them for commuting because of rations on gas and a scarcity of tires. Instead, the streetcar line that ran along Wisconsin Avenue was vital for residents to get to their jobs downtown, DeFerrari said. “They knitted together the parts of the District into one city, which hadn’t previously been,” he said.

Meanwhile, Bowser issued a proclamation congratulating McLean Gardens on its anniversary and recognizing its history.

“What’s really great about neighborhoods like McLean Gardens is you have a story to share with the rest of the city,” Bowser said. “And I do hope that you will continue to do that, continue to thrive, continue to be a place where people can learn about the history of Washington.”

This post has been updated to replace a photo of the nearby Vaughn Place with one showing the original McLean Gardens.