We Hope the Gyro Engine Won’t Take Flight from Columbia Heights, the Gyro Motor Company, 774 Girard Street, NW, Washington DC
We Hope the Gyro Engine Won’t Take Flight from Columbia Heights
The Gyro Motor Company, 774 Girard Street, NW, Washington DC
From the public thoroughfare of Girard Street, NW, the building set back from the street at No. 774 has the appearance of just another not-so-old normative, faceless appearance (photo of this facade not included). But don’t let this more recent “make-over” fool you as it is a rather poor representation of the building’s past, at least, that is, from this more “public” vantage point.
Central to what might be thought of as the slummiest of the highly traveled, principle avenues in the northwest quadrant of Washington DC, the 700 block of the streets wedged between Georgia and Sherman Avenues are probably among the more interesting urban compilations in NW DC. Seemingly, this particular section of the city is significant only to the African American community, both as a residential neighborhood, and its relationship to Howard University. But not too fast…
Prior to the major residential development of both Columbia Heights and its sub neighborhood, Pleasant Plains, large agricultural estates could be found “somewhere off Boundary Street (now Florida Avenue)” outside of Washington City, but within what was then known as Washington County within the District of Columbia. Throughout the 19th century pieces of these, some colonial era, land holdings were sold off due to the suburbanization of Washington County, which was incorporated into Washington City by 1878. And in the last decades of the 19th century, houses, detached and in small clusters of attached buildings, in close proximity to Howard University and even the Garfield Hospital (now the site of semi-secluded apartments), began popping up, yet this process was at first quite gradual. This trend continued until the turn of the 20th century when the area underwent its primary development as a residential neighborhood—a built environment represented by the Colonial Revival taste with bouts of both the earlier Queen Anne and Second Empire revivals as well as the later Spanish Colonial influence, among other re-revivals. Specifically, the 700 block of streets below Columbia Road that are bound by Sherman and Georgia Avenues were buildings specifically constructed for sale and lease to African Americans—this, a neighborhood, envisioned and built for working to middle class blacks—a new age was the 20th century. Up until this point, African Americans had, almost always, inherited formerly fashionable neighborhoods, but again, even long before the Civil Rights movement, there were seeds of progress in Washington.
Between 1907 and 1909 an industrial building was constructed at 774 Girard Street, NW with its principal facade facing the alleyway between Girard and Fairmont Streets. This small to medium size industrial building was moderately substantial for this section of town as such venues located in nearby alleyways were generally more rudimentary in construction and smaller in size—such is represented in an extant building that was once a small component of the larger Thompson Dairy operations in an alleyway between Sherman Avenue and 11thStreet. To ignite its industry in production, the Gyro Motor Company, officially incorporated in 1909, opened its labors at No. 774 (formerly a vacant lot) and was in full operation by the end of the decade (1910).
While the earliest beginnings of vertical flight may rest in the bamboo flying toys of Chinese children circa 400 BC, the first designs for what might eventually come to fore as a helicopter date to the 1480s when Leonardo da Vinci created a design for a preliminary version of such a contraption. However, despite these early efforts in aeronautical discovery and innovation, eventually leading to the actual flight of a helicopter by the Breguet brothers (French) in 1906, official flight of the new machine took place in 1907 and is recorded as Gyroplane No. 1. While this is acknowledged by history, the copter was unsteady or “unthethered” as it required a lighter engine.
Because of the need for such an engine, the Gyro Motor Company was incorporated with a capital of $100,000. Light weight engines of high power were not only of interest to the Breguet brothers after their unwieldy flight, but also to certain American-based scientists and inventors. Emile Berliner (1851-1929), German-born Jewish Scientist and Inventor, was not only the man to introduce both the telephone transmitter and the Victor talking machine, but he also experimented with light weight gasoline engines at his private laboratory in what is now the Brightwood Section of our Federal City. Berliner lived in Washington first at 912 6th Street, NW, later 1717 P Street, NW, and finally, not far from certain industrial headquarters, at 1458 Columbia Road, NW. With R.S. Moore, also a Scientist and Inventor, as his chief assistant, Berliner obtained automobile engines from the Adams-Farwell Company, an automobile manufactorer of Dubuque, Iowa, which he promptly rebuilt as a revolving engines for use in perfecting “machines” produced for vertical flight. His realizations allowed him to move away from the heavy in-line engines to lighter rotary models, which led to the invention of a 6-hp rotary engine for the improvement of vertical flight. It was these experiments that led to the formal creation of the company and its manufacturing operations in Girard Street. And it was the application involving the 6-hp rotary engine that initiated the use of rotary engines in aviation technology.
By 1910, continuing to advance vertical flight, Berliner experimented with the use of a vertically mounted tail rotor to counteract torque on his single main rotor design. And it was this configuration that led to the mechanical development of practical helicopters of the 1940s. When the Gyro Motor Company opened, Spencer Heath (1876-1863), a mechanical engineer (among other things), became the manager. Heath was connected with the American Propeller Company, also a manufacturer of aeronautical related mechanisms and products in Baltimore, Maryland. Both R.S. Moore, Designer and Engineer, and Joseph Sanders (1877-1944), inventor, engineer, and manufacturer, were involved in the original operations of the company. Berliner was president of the newly founded Gyro Motor Company and much of his time was spent dealing with business operations. Historic accounts often find this expenditure of time unfortunate as it depleted the amount of time that might have been better spent in his private laboratory. But what do we know of Berliner? As Berliner’s health deteriorated his son Henry moved to Washington where the two worked together throughout the 1920s on various mechanisms and models related to the helicopter and vertical flight. While both Emile and Henry were active in experimenting further, Henry eventually gave up on the helicopter, but it was his father’s early dedication to the Gyro Engine and its improvements that make 774 Girard Street a site of historic interest. The building served as a principal American manufacturer of various improved Gyro Engines throughout the 1910s and 1920s. The Adams-Farwell Gyro Motor Rotary 5 Engine and Berliner Helicopter engine, 1924 are both within the Smithsonian’s collections and are displayed within the section of the museum dedicated to Early Flight—the first of the two previously mentioned inventions was actually donated to the museum by the Gyro Motor Company in its early days.
The building operated as industrial space from its initial use just before 1910 until at least the 1930s; however, its primary period of significance to the manufacturing of rotary and gyro motor products spans from 1907 to 1926. Owners have changed throughout the years and the building had been used by several organizations. In fact, starting no later than 1931, the American Instrument Company used the building, out of which came products such as the “AMINCO Super-Sensitive Mechanical Relay” (used in Metallurgy)…among other devices produced on this site through at least the mid-1930s. Yet we fear that because the building is not within a historic district nor flagged as a local landmark, it may soon see the wrecking ball given the large vacant lot always associated with the building not to mention the rather crusty, industrial feeling of the place in general (a characteristic we prefer to newly made plastic). Unfortunately, both Columbia Heights and Pleasant Plains, along with anything Howard University, seems to comprise a section of town where historic preservation and aesthetics/culture via the built environment are quickly discarded for new development. We know this as we see the ubiquitous generic glass and metal facades of endless condominium developments that come to fore as architectural turds stamped with almost immediate expiration dates replacing earlier, more charming architecture on at a steady pace. While we wouldn’t mind the “The Gyro Motor Company Lofts” or “The Helicopter Factory Residences”, we’d hope that it would be attached to a certain industrial building of the Fairmont-Girard alley. Perhaps in light of its rarity the building may be spared from taking flight into perpetual architectural bone-yard oblivion. Or perhaps not?