The Recorder of Deeds building, which houses the city's land records, is one of the city's Art Deco/Art Moderne landmarks. Designed by white DC Municipal Architect Nathan C. Wyeth, it was completed in 1941.
Congress created the office of Recorder of Deeds in 1863, and in 1869 this city agency was given the job of “recording all deeds, contracts, and other instruments in writing affecting the title or ownership of any real estate or personal property” in the city. The holders of this job have been appointed by U.S. presidents. African Americans have served as recorders of deeds (and in most staff positions) for Washington, DC, since President James A. Garfield appointed Frederick Douglass in 1881. Ten other African Americans succeeded Douglass. In 1878 Henrietta Vinton Davis (1860-1941) became the first black woman employed in the office, and she later served as Douglass's assistant. (See the separate entry for Davis in this database).
Until it moved to this building in 1943, the Recorder of Deeds office was housed in the old City Hall/DC Courthouse (today the DC Court of Appeals).
This building interior is distinguished by a series of seven Works Projects Administration-era murals on the theme of “the contribution of the Negro to the American Nation,” including the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, astronomer Benjamin Banneker, and explorer Matthew A. Henson. Noted sculptor and teacher Selma Burke (1900-1995) also created a bronze relief of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in profile. Burke believed, as do many others, that this portrait is the basis for the John Sinnick engraving of Roosevelt on the U.S. dime.
The Recorder of Deeds office moved to Southwest in 2010.
Barbara Bair, “Henrietta Vinton Davis,” in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, vol. 1, Darlene Clark Hine, ed. (Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, 1993): 308-309.
Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, “Selma Hortense Burke,” in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, vol. 1, Darlene Clark Hine, ed. (Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, 1993): 190-195.
“The D.C. Recorder of Deeds Building,” D.C. Preservation League, October 2001.
Laurence F. Schmeckebier, The District of Columbia: Its Government and Administration. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1928): 707-709.
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