By Mary A. van Balgooy
Historic preservation means different things to different people. In the end, however, it’s about saving something—a house, building, cemetery, ruin—because it’s important to the community. A house, for example, may be important to save because of its architectural style, its association with a prominent person or group, or its connection with an historic event. Sometimes the significance of a site is not always apparent, such as the house at 224 Elizabeth Avenue in Lincoln Park. When an adjacent church requested a permit in 2009 to demolish the house to make a parking lot, the Historic District Commission reviewed the request as required. The exterior of the house didn’t suggest it was historic. But in the public hearings, community members of Lincoln Park shared their memories and revealed that what is remarkable about this house is not its style or who lived there but how it got there.
The story begins with Harrison and Frances Ricks. In 1930, the Ricks started purchasing property in Lincoln Park. They built a theater for the community (African Americans were segregated at the town’s Milo Theatre) on the north side of Frederick Avenue and a small grocery store nearby. By 1949, the Ricks had accumulated several mortgages so they sold their properties to Oliver W. Madden. For a few years, the theater stood empty.
Letha E. Payton, a mother of thirteen children, had emigrated from Greenville, North Carolina to the Rockville area in search of work. When she found a job, she sent for her mother and eight of her children to live with her. When living arrangements with another family did not work out, Payton and her family moved into the abandoned movie theater. It is not clear who let her live there but the theater served as the family’s home for approximately two years. The family used the lobby area as a kitchen and the two projector rooms as their bedrooms.
In 1952, Madden sold the properties, including the theater, to Lenmor Corporation, who planned to remodel the building into apartments. The Payton family would have to move. To ease their burden, Morris Stern, a director of the company and owner of Stern Furniture, offered the grocery store as a house for the family on the condition they move it to a new location.
With financial assistance from her brothers and Mount Calvary Baptist Church members, Payton was able to purchase a lot for the house. Community leaders Jim Davis, John Jones, and Nelson Cooper led the effort to lay a foundation, move the house, and build an addition on the front.
Payton lived in the house with her family until 1959 when she sold her property to Robert Snowden and moved to Baltimore.
Other community leaders, such as Irene Snowden and Rupert Curry lived in the house at one time but the story of how the Lincoln Park community transformed this house into a home for the Payton family makes it especially significant and historic.
In 2009, the Letha E. Payton House became a historic district—a fine ending for this modest style house.