Frederick Douglass’s first home in the nation’s capital is on the market, and its future owners will have the opportunity to transform a large, historic slab of property on Capitol Hill into residences or a museum.
The location, owned by the National Association for Home Care & Hospice, includes a little-visited museum honoring the famed abolitionist, as well as the Caring Institute, the charity arm of the medical association. It is not affiliated with the federally owned Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Anacostia, where Douglass lived later in his life.
The Capitol Hill museum consists of four connected rowhouses in the 300 block of A Street NE, east of the Supreme Court building, with an interior courtyard and surface parking. Two other properties, an enclosed parking structure and a carriage house with parking behind the museum, will be sold separately.
The home health care association purchased the buildings in the 1980s from the Smithsonian Institution, which used the property to house the original National Museum of African Art before it moved to the Mall.
“We wanted to save the property from being turned into condos,” said David Brennan, vice president of the National Association for Home Care & Hospice. “We would love to continue holding on to this property. We feel that it’s been a blessing to hold on to something that belonged to Frederick Douglass.”
Brennan said his industry has suffered financially, and the association can no longer afford more than $80,000 in property taxes each year.
The museum isn’t registered as a nonprofit, Brennan said.
He said the association prefers the buildings house a museum, but noted a developer could purchase them. The properties are located in a historical district, so the owner could only demolish or significantly modify them with city approval.
“It’s our fiduciary duty to sell it for the most amount of money,” Brennan said. “It’s our hope that the people want to turn it into a museum or something like that.”
Roy Hill, a partner at the Genau Group Realty Advisors and the listing agent, said the properties will be sold through a bidding process.
He said he already has received offers, but didn’t disclose a final deadline.
According to records at the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue, the rowhouses have a combined taxable assessment of more than $4 million.
“It’s a stone’s throw from the Supreme Court and Congress in arguably the most desirable part of Capitol Hill,” Hill said.
Douglass lived in one of the rowhouses, at 316 A Street NE, for seven years when he moved to the District in the mid-1870s, according to the website for the Frederick Douglass Museum & Caring Hall of Fame.
He was born enslaved in Maryland in 1818 and became one of the most iconic activists and writers of his time.
The museum can only be visited by appointment, which Brennan said is infrequent.
It also serves as a hall of fame for the Caring Institute’s annual award to people “making a difference” in their communities, according to the organization’s website. Brennan said the space can be rented out on a “very limited basis.”
A 1989 Washington Post story described a “long-ranging controversy” when the Smithsonian sold the building to the health care association.
Residents protested when the association tried to use some of the buildings as office space.
The association eventually abandoned those plans and its purchasing contract required it to allot a small portion of the Douglass house as a public exhibit.
Christine Healey, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission official who represents the block where the museum is located, said she expects backlash if new owners decide to change the usage of the properties.
“This is an historic property in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” she said. “It’s sale in [the eighties] was controversial, and I’m sure any proposal to change its use going forward is going to get a lot of scrutiny from the community.”