July 30, 2014

415 M Street: The History of a Dynamic Neighborhood, Told in One House

  • By: Cassie Keener

415 M Street NW, Washington, D.C., in the Mt. Vernon Square neighborhood

If you were to walk past 415 M St. in Washington, D.C., you’d probably think it was just another house in the Mt. Vernon Square neighborhood. But sometimes the simplest looking places have the most history within their walls.

You might not guess that the building, built in the 1860s, has had many lives since its original construction, but single family homes, a synagogue, churches, and several other dwellings have all inhabited 415 M.

The 19th century building was home to butcher Joseph Prather until 1914 when the residence became home to the Young Men’s Hebrew Association for a year. From 1915-1925 the building kept its ties with the Jewish community and was used for the Hebrew Home for the Aged. The organization relocated in 1925 to a larger home that could care for more residents.

Once again on the market, 415 M St. became Shomrei Shabbos, a synagogue for a small Eastern European Orthodox Jewish community in the late 1920s. During its time as a synagogue, part of the first-floor ceiling was removed to create an open balcony where women would stand and be able to look down upon the religious service.

It was also during this time that a beautiful, two-story mural was painted above the ark (where the Torah Scrolls are kept), and a portion of the mural still remains today. The congregation left the building sometime in the late 1940s to move to a venue with more space, and 415 M was then occupied by The Baptist Church of Jesus Christ until the early 1980s.

Members of the Metropolitan Community Church gathered for a photo outside of 415 M Street when it housed a church.

Led by Mother Lena Sears, the church was established in response to the Bible Way Church’s refusal to let her preach because she was a woman. But because of 415 M St., she became the first female to do so in Washington D.C.

The Metropolitan Community Church moved into the building in 1984 and remained there until the early 1990s. As an LGBT congregation, members of the church were very active in regards to civil rights, a fact that certainly contributes to the diverse history of 415 M.

In 1993 the building once again became a private residence, but it was during this time that then-owner Stephanie Slewka rediscovered the mural from the Shomrei Shabbos synagogue underneath layers of wallpaper and paint. The discovery of the only synagogue mural in Washington D.C. has since sparked the interest of the Jewish community in the area, and especially the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (JHSGW).

In 2013 the building was purchased by the real estate company BlackRock Holdings, with plans to convert it into an apartment complex. When JHSGW learned of this and realized that it would affect the condition of the mural, the two organizations partnered together in order to preserve an important piece of local history.

“The way we’re working with BlackRock is the way that preservation should work in regards to a 90-year-old mural,” said Zachary Levine, curator at JHSGW. “They want to help us; it’s good for them too.”

The remnants of the Shomrei Shabbos synagogue mural, the only synagogue mural in Washington, D.C.

The JHSGW set up a fundraiser with a goal of $20,000 to extract and preserve the mural at 415 M, and is working with BlackRock and the community in order to save and remember a piece of history within the local Jewish community. They currently have $18,904 raised.

“It may take time for the Jewish community to latch onto the weight of this mural and what it represents,” said Levine. “But it’s definitely a community-based effort, they’re the ones who are helping us. After all, how often does something like this happen?”

Construction was originally scheduled to begin in July of 2014, but has been rescheduled by BlackRock to wait until September. The timing turned out to be a fortunate occurrence for the community, seeing as the JHSGW is close to the goal that will allow them to preserve the mural.

The mural at 415 M St. is only a small portion of the history that exists within the building, and tells a fascinating story about the dynamic ethnic history of the neighborhood. Want to see 415 M in action? Check out this great video by Stephanie Slewka:

Cassie Keener is an Editorial Intern at the National Trust. She enjoys writing, spending time outdoors, and enthusing about movies and music.

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