Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission
Hyattsville’s earliest attempts at municipal water supply and sewerage disposal were undertaken by the mayor and city council in 1912 (p.L.L. 1912, Art.17). Prior to this, water was supplied through wells and sewerage flowed freely into the nearby rivers. Washington, DC Sanitary Engineer Asa Phillips convened a meeting of Maryland citizens to discuss his concerns as polluted water flowed from Maryland into the District. The increased number of Maryland residents that commuted daily into Washington for work increased concern about the spread of disease. It was determined that a regional approach was needed to solve these problems.
Maryland State Department of Health Dr. William H. Welch reported that “investigation in this Department has shown that it is almost impossible to maintain unpolluted wells in villages, towns and suburban settlements, and we must look forward to the time when all such settlements must maintain a common water supply in order to preserve their health.” The Bureau of Sanitary Engineering was established within the State Board of Health to spearhead this pioneer effort in regional services. A Washington Suburban Sanitary District was formed for Montgomery and Prince George’s County. After six years of studying, planning, politics, and World War I, Maryland’s General Assembly enacted legislation for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission effective May 1, 1918.
Three commissioners, governor-appointed William T.S. Curtis, Montgomery County appointee Emory H. Bogley of Bethesda, and Prince George’s County appointee T. Howard Duckett of Hyattsville, held their first meeting above Ford’s Drugstore at the southwest corner of what is now Rhode Island Avenue and Farragut Street. The first meeting located the WSSC’s main office in Hyattsville and branch offices at 611 F Street, N.W., Washington, DC. WSSC Deputy Chief Engineer Harry R. Hall recalled, “The engineering office was located in Hyattsville, primarily because of its proximity by rail and highway to both Washington and Baltimore, the two principal sources from which engineering employees were being secured.” Plans were made to purchase existing water systems of Hyattsville, Mount Rainier, Cottage City, and Decatur Heights while adding Riverdale, Brentwood, and Bladensburg to the network Hyattsville’s complete water and sewer system were purchased April 18, 1919 for $70,000, including a $55,000 assumption of bonds. In the following few years, the WSSC successively used Wells Drugstore, the Hyattsville National Guard Armory, and the Wilson Residence on Baltimore Avenue opposite current Oliver Street.
WSSC’s first office building, completed by 1921, was sited on the present-day 4000 block of Hamilton Street, facing south onto Gallatin Street, then named Ralston Avenue. This area was currently the western edge of home development within the city with only two residences occupying the eastern corners of the block. The building was a simple two stories with basement. A garage facility was located to the east of the office building. Simultaneously, construction began for a rapid sand filter plant nearby, securing a new water supply source from the local Anacostia River Branch at a rate of up to one million gallons a day. From 1918 to 1936 the population of the Sanitary District increased from 30,000 to 78,000 and grew from 95 square miles to 125 square miles. Even through the Depression, the WSSC continued a phenomenal rate of expansion to meet expanding water and sewerage needs.
Increased demands meant increased staff and the WSSC found its 1921 building cramped. Citizen complaints about the Commissions’ District administration and billing location prompted discussion of combining all WSSC functions in one location. With space around its current engineering offices, Hyattsville was deemed a logical place for a new WSSC headquarters. Two locally-prominent architects were chosen to design the new facility and to create an appropriate image for the status of the growing utility. Paul H. Kea of Hyattsville and Howard W. Cutler were the selected architects. Cutler was best known for his 1931 design of Preinkert Field House on the University of Maryland College Park campus. Kea, who moved to Hyattsville in 1933, had designed several types of buildings including churches, banks and museums. Kea was known for his civic activities, serving later in life as founder of the American Institute of Architects, Potomac Valley Chapter and Prince George’s County Chamber of Commerce President. The new building, which stands today at the westernmost section of 4107 Hamilton Street, was three stories with a basement facing north onto Hamilton, then Owens Avenue. The 90-by-50-foot structure was erected at a cost of $100,000 in early 1939. Built with buff-colored brick and decorative elements of Indiana limestone, the building was simple, yet, unique in its Art Deco-influenced ornamentation both for Hyattsville and the Washington area.
This 1939 structure was expanded twice in succeeding years. In 1953, a four-story addition with basement was placed to the east of the earlier building more than doubling the size of the original headquarters. The addition was designed by Paul Kea and used a similar buff-colored brick and echoed the rectangular design of the earlier facility. To accommodate expanded responsibilities, a second addition was started in 1963. The plan included renovation of the earlier building and the addition of an eight-story wing, perpendicular to the original building, running the full east side of the block. A cost-cutting measure scaled the project back to a four-story addition. The construction of this wing required the demolition of the three residences located on the east end of the block. A similar buff-colored brick was used and metal grills running the building’s height over its windows repeats the linear limestone lines over the original 1939 building entrance. A second entrance was added on the Gallatin Street side.
WSSC remains the primary water and sanitary organization within the Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties and Washington, DC, area. It was an early pioneer in regional water and sewerage maintenance programs. The WSSC Hyattsville facility reflects the continued growth of a successful utility. The WSSC choice of Hyattsville for its main facility kept a steady source of employment and prominence for Hyattsville for almost ninety years.
Brigham, Arthur P. History of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission. Laurel, Maryland: Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, 1988.
Everstine, Carl N., editor. Code of the Public Laws of Prince George’s County 1963 edition. Baltimore: King Brothers, 1963.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, 1922, 1933