By Frank Leone
One of the oldest buildings in the Foggy Bottom Historic District is a distinctive Italian Villa style house, which is also an important site of Filipino-American D.C. history. From the late 1930s to 1950s, 2422 K St. was known as “The Manila House,” a gathering place for Filipino-Americans. The house is now a literary landmark, with a plaque in honoring acclaimed Filipino American author and professor Bienvenido N. Santos (1911- 1996), who wrote about the house in his prize-winning short stories.
The northern border of the Historic District – K Street – was once the most prosperous section of the neighborhood. The house at 2422 K Street, built in 1874, is more ornate than the typical Historic District rowhouse. Built of concrete-block, the house is three-stories high and three-bays wide and features a prominent oriel bay window with hood molding. It also has decorative insets with cupids in relief above the door and windows. Before becoming the Manila House, 2422 K St. was the home of professors, congressional employees, and an orphanage.
In 1937, the Visayan Club acquired the 2422 K St. property from the St. Stephen’s Club. It soon became the cultural and social hub for Filipinos in Washington D.C., who had come to study, work, or live. The Philippines (an archipelago of 7,640 islands in the southwest Pacific Ocean), was a territory of the United States from 1898 to 1946. Prior to independence, Filipinos could freely enter the United States, including as students, seamen, soldiers, or farm laborers. Many fought alongside U.S. soldiers during World War II.
The Manila House was frequented by Filipino cab drivers, students, writers, musicians, soldiers, U.S government workers, and Philippine government employees. It served as a small boarding house (especially for servicemen during World War II) , restaurant, and hosted card and game tables. The gambling room was separated from a dance floor by a lace curtain. It has a piano and featured an excellent Filipino orchestra and hosted dances.
Bienvenido Santos worked as a public information officer of the Philippine government in the 1940s, along with other Philippine Commonwealth officials who were in exile in D.C. during the war. In fact, during the period of Japanese Imperial occupation of the Philippines, Filipinos could not return home. The Manila House provided a place for Filipinos to share their thoughts about their families in the Philippines and their plans for the future.
Santos described the Manila House: “They served the finest Filipino dishes there. The dining room was clean and curtained windows looked out into a garden, weedy and wild except for the ripe tomatoes in summer and gigantic squash, and eggplants, and bitter melons, hanging on the vine.” That garden would have reached into Snows Court.
Following the war, the Filipino-American community in D.C. grew as the Philippines gained independence and U.S. immigration and naturalization laws allowed for expanded citizenship. Many of the new citizens settled in the suburbs, and Manila House no longer served as a cultural center. The Visayan Circle released deed on the Manila House property in 1976. St. Paul’s Parish currently owns the building, which since 2018 has housed the Acton Academy, a Montessori-based school.
In 2017, Filipino-American activists worked with the American Library Association to recognize the Manila House as a literary landmark, with a plaque in honor of author Bienvenido N. Santos. Santos’ collection, Scent of Apples, won the 1981 American Book Award. Only three other structures are designated as Literary Landmarks in the District: Founders Library, Howard University (1997); The Jefferson Building, Library of Congress (1998); and the Frederic Douglas National Historic Site (2007).
Sources: FBA History Project Walking Tour, “St. Paul’s Church and the Manila House,” https://theclio.com/tour/2098/16; Titchie Carandang-Tiongson, “The Manila House In Washington, D.C," Positively Filipino, May 2017, http://www.positivelyfilipino.com/magazine/the-manila-house-in-washington-dc; Karis Lee, “A Filipino Literary Landmark: The Manila House in D.C.,” WETA Boundary Stones, Jan. 30, 2020, https://boundarystones.weta.org/2020/01/30/filipino-literary-landmark-manila-house-dc; Bienvenido Santos, “The Manila House” in Scent of Apples, a Collection of Stories, Univ. of Washington Press: 2015; Cacas, Rita M. and Juanita Tamayo Lott, Images of America: Filipinos in Washington, D.C., Arcadia Pub: 2009.