DC Preservation League brings Shaw neighborhood’s Wonder Bread Factory back to life

By jmullerwashingtonsyndicate on April 27, 2011, The Washington Syndicate.

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Last week the DC Preservation League celebrated their 40th Anniversary by throwing a lively party at the long dormant Wonder Bread Factory at 641 S Street NW in the Shaw neighborhood, a half block east of 7th Street and the Shaw-Howard University metro station.

Despite concerns the building would not be ready in time for the party and a city inspector declaring the property “structurally unsafe” last month, more than three hundred DCPL supporters joined leaders of the city’s development and preservationist communities to celebrate the former bakery. The building has been out of commission for the past 25 years according to the preservation league.

“It was pulled off with a lot of work by Douglas Development getting the space ready for the event. Four solid weeks of fixing a failed beam, holes in the flooring and water damage,” says Rebecca Miller, DCPL’s Executive Director.

“I thought they might be handing out hard hats,” said Audra, a new DCPL member who joined after seeing a recent ad on Groupon and plans to become more involved with the city’s preservation efforts after being in the city for nearly 15 years.

In recognition of Wonder Bread’s well-known “Builds Strong Bodies 12 Ways” slogan, throughout the first floor’s two main rooms the preservation league spray painted the walls with the 12 ways that historic preservation builds strong cities: strengthening economic development, advancing sustainability, promoting tourism and partnerships, reinforcing culture, building community, encouraging citizen engagement, increasing property values, providing a sense of place, producing local taxes and revenues, educating current and future generations and creating jobs.

“It’s important that everyone understands that preservation is more than just downtown. It’s across the entire city, and each neighborhood is unique,” says Miller.

Founded in 1971 as “Don’t Tear It Down,” DCPL hosts its annual gala in a dormant city building, warehouse, theater or other site ever year. There was open discussion and anticipation by gala goers that next year’s party will be thrown in Dupont Circle’s underground trolley station which in recent years has drawn the attention of local artists. “We haven’t even thought about next year’s party – ask me that in September,” said Miller.


History of the Wonder Bread Factory

The Wonder Bread Factory (White Cross Bakery) is a complex of seven industrial buildings completed between 1913 and 1936. Established by Peter Dorsch, the White Cross Bakery was purchased by the Continental Baking Company in 1936. The Continental Baking Company began purchasing bakeries in Washington in 1924. During Continental’s ownership of 641 S Street they produced Wonder Bread and Hostess Cakes.

According to Streets of Washington, “The oldest section of the building was built in 1913 as an expansion to an existing bakery run by Peter M. Dorsch (1878-1959) at 1811 7th Street NW. Dorsch had previously worked at bakeries with his younger brothers at various locations in D.C., including K Street in Southwest, Virginia Avenue, and Georgetown, before settling on the upper 7th Street site for his own business. Born in D.C., he was the son of a Bavarian immigrant, Michael Dorsch, who had come to Washington in the 1870s and sold imported German foods before opening a restaurant on 7th Street.”

Douglas Development Corporation, headed by the city’s reigning, yet sometimes controversial, teflon developmentmaverick and tycoon Douglas Jemal since 1985, currently owns the property. A search of the city’s property records show the property was purchased in October 1997. It is currently assessed by the city at $6,810,580. According to the evening’s program the property “is currently being marketed for adaptive reuse” which according to numerous people I spoke with and a report last fall in the City Paper indicate condos are coming, but there seems to be no immediate timeline or plans.

The long awaited development of the northwest corner of 7th & S Street is now finally ongoing with Progression Place which plans offices, flats, and shops. Construction teams have been working steadily since December and have now nearly dug out and secured the foundation. When this project begins to take tenants it would only logically strengthen the desire and ability to read more about it all as well as secure financing on the Wonder Bread Factory site for similar uses as Progression Place or strictly residential units with commercial on the first floor.

Memories of the Wonder Bread Factory

“When I would take the street car to Griffith Stadium as a child from my NE neighborhood you knew you were getting close when you began to smell the bread and the bakeries. You could close your eyes and know when you were within three blocks,” said Dr. Sandy Berk, distinguished by his white shirt and jacket adorned with the same small tri-color circles that mark a loaf of Wonder Bread.

“DC wasn’t known as being an industrial city. This building is an example of one of the few early 20th century examples in the middle of a residential neighborhood,” said Howard Berger, a former DCPL trustee and current architectural historian.

“This is a really great and strong structure. You don’t see this type or cast iron work anymore,” said Wilford Williams, a member of the large security team that protected the entrances of the factory and were asked by nearly everyone who passed by on the street what was going on inside.

“When it closed it was a sad event. A lot of people depended on them. Wonder Bread has always been a number one seller. It beats Sunbeam and giant brand. You know that Wonder Bread makes the best sandwich and their prices are reasonable,” said Williams.

At a table Eric Wingerter, 6th & S Street NW, and Martin Multon (the 39th citizen recently arrested by the Capitol Police), 5th & P Street NW, spoke about their memories years ago of being excited when a restaurant would open on 14th Street NW. They agreed the neighborhood continues to lack a variety of food options and would like to see a restaurant included in future development plans.

“It’s great to be here and have it alive. For too many years this has been a landmark in the neighborhood for the wrong reasons,” said Wingerter.

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