For more information about the history of Burleith and the Burleith Citizens Association, please visit the Burleith Historical Documents page. To learn more about possible historic designation for Burleith, visit the Exploring Historic Designation page.
The following is an abridged version of an article written by Burleith resident Ann Lange and published in the Burleith newsletter in 1998, during Burleith's 75th anniversary celebration. Her sources appear at the end of the article.
Washington—City and Capital (American Guide Series of the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration, 1937), in one paragraph, gives us this background:
"The convent (Visitation) stands on the site of Berlieth, the home of Henry Threlkeld built about 1716. The pecan trees in the convent garden were a gift from Thomas Jefferson to Threlkeld's son, John, when he married Elizabeth Ridgely. The original Berlieth was burned shortly after the Revolution, but another house was built."
Henry Threlkeld (1716–1781) was an early settler who bought "Alliance," an estate of 1,000 acres bordering on the Potomac River. This tract, part of which came to be known as Berlieth (the spelling has changed over the years), extended north from the river to include the grounds of what is now Georgetown University, the Convent of the Visitation, and farther north to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts (formerly Western High School) and present-day Burleith.
Henry Threlkeld's son, John, was mayor of Georgetown in 1793. In 1822 he conveyed an 11-1/2 acre parcel of land to his son-in-law, John Cox, in trust for Cox's wife, Jane (John Threlkeld's daughter). Cox, like his father-in-law, also served as mayor of Georgetown, from 1823 to 1845 (a longer term than any other person), succeeding Mayor Henry Foxhall, for whom the neighboring community of Foxhall Village was named. In order for Cox to accept the nomination for mayor, the city limits of Georgetown were expanded to include his estate.
Cox erected a magnificent manor home called "The Cedars" on the site of what is now Duke Ellington School. Prior to the Civil War, there was only farm land west of Fayette Street (now 35th Street) and north of 7th Street (now Reservoir Road), and the Cox homestead seems to have been the last outpost beyond which there were only pastures, creeks, and ponds "good for skating in winter."
The home was destroyed by fire in January 1847 but was subsequently rebuilt by Richard Cox (son of John Cox). Richard Cox's sympathies were apparently with the South, because the home was confiscated by the government during the Civil War and was used by the Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children. In 1866 it was restored to its owner and the Home for the Destitute was relocated to a building erected on the 8th Street side of what is now Banneker Recreational Center.
Later, the Cox manor house was converted into Misses Earles' Seminary, an academy for girls. In 1892, Western High School was built on the site of the seminary. The area where the school and parts of present-day Burleith are located was known as "Cox's Woods." Where the school's stadium is now was once a thicket, where in a clearing, boys played baseball in the l890s on a field named "Redlands Ball Diamond."
Prime for Development
Burleith was built on comparatively high ground and enjoys a cooler climate than most other parts of the city during the summer. Charles Dickens, following a visit, described Georgetown's heights in 1842:
"The heights of this neighborhood, above the Potomac River, are very picturesque; and are free, I should conceive, from some of the insalubrities of Washington. The air, at that elevation, was quite cool and refreshing, when in the city it was burning hot."
The 1880s saw much speculation in Washington real estate, not only by small-scale speculators who were building three or four row-houses at a time, but also big-time syndicate-type operations. Properties of Kalorama and Chevy Chase, for example, were bought at this time to be turned into expensive developments. Frederick W. Huidekoper purchased the Burleith tract in 1886 and apparently planned to develop more comfortable and larger houses there than the ones later built in the 1920s. Contrary to popular belief, no old mansion house was standing in Burleith back in the days when the Huidekopers owned it.
By 1910, there were already some houses along the northeast border of the tract (known as Bryantown), along S and T Streets and Whitehaven Parkway, between 35th and 36th Streets. Other pre-Shannon & Luchs buildings included a one-block row of townhouses on 35th Place, which became known as "Incubator Row" due to the number of small children there, and the Bourke residence at 3611 R Street. North of Whitehaven Park, in what is now Glover Park, was Connelly's Dairy Farm.
Much of the remaining tract consisted of fields and wooded areas, with scattered shanties and a trash dump at what was to become 37th and T Streets. The Q Street bridge had been assured, but the nearness to Georgetown was considered no asset, since rejuvenation of that area had not yet occurred.
Huidekoper poured 3,200,000 cubic yards of dirt into the hole or "lake" then at the intersection of what is now 37th and S Streets. Water ten feet deep poured down the ravine near T Street when it rained. "We had a terrific time getting the place fixed for streets," Col. Frederick Louis Huidekoper recalled, "but the ground work was done and the streets opened through before the sale [to Shannon & Luchs] was made."
The Neighborhood Takes Shape
Based on a hunch and a survey for guidance, the real estate firm of Shannon & Luchs decided in 1923 to take a chance on property purchased from the Huidekoper family to develop housing for "the buyer of moderate means, but of more than ordinary good taste," according to a Burleith sales brochure. The survey had convinced Herbert T. Shannon that Washingtonians did not mind living in row houses if they liked the neighborhood.
The promotional brochure prepared by Shannon & Luchs in 1926 touted the "ideal location" of Burleith as "adjacent to historic old Georgetown," with the southern boundary "formed by the holdings of two great educational institutions: Georgetown University and the Convent of the Visitation." The western border, the brochure continued, "is the magnificent estate of the Archibold family," which, "it has been intimated," will be "given to the city to form a part of Glover-Archbold Parkway," and to the north are "tracts recently purchased by the U.S. Government for purposes of forming a connecting link between Glover-Archbold Parkway and the Rock Creek Park system." (Whitehaven Parkway, the three-block northern boundary of Burleith, was never built through, although sections of Whitehaven may be found between Macarthur Blvd. and Foxhall Road, and again near the British Embassy on Massachusetts Ave.)
Shannon & Luchs, in building some 450 homes in Burleith between 1923 and 1928, departed from the traditional row house style, adding architectural distinction and variation to relieve the monotony. Much of the architecture is basically American Colonial and is an adaptation of Georgian. Brick, in different colors, is the basic building material, with stone, wood, and plaster used to vary the appearance of each house. Trims, moldings, and other details were machine-produced and could be ordered from a catalog. These streamlined building techniques allowed a wide range of possible facade treatments while keeping costs and labor within reasonable limits.
Burleith homes, which cost between $8,950 and $13,500, included features usually reserved for higher priced housing, such as hot water heat, real floors and real plaster. The development, which consisted mostly of six-room homes, received national acclaim. Based on the Burleith example, similar developments were constructed in Detroit, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.
Much of the credit belongs to Arthur Heaton, a local architect, Herbert T. Shannon, who drew the floor plans, and Waverly Taylor, vice president and general manager of Shannon & Luchs's construction company. (Following the Burleith development, Taylor formed his own company and completed the English-style Foxhall Village after Boss & Phelps developed the first portion.)
An additional block of houses was added to Burleith when, shortly after the completion of the Shannon & Luchs construction in 1928, another construction company, Cooley Brothers, built Tudor-style row houses on the north side of T Street between 38th and 39th. That company continued the Shannon & Luchs tradition of varying rooflines and facades.
During the early stages of the development, when only a few homes were occupied, "the Great Burleith Fire" destroyed seven houses on 37th Street, largely because fire equipment was unable to get through construction on S and T Streets. Luckily, no one was hurt.
Convenience, Bus Service, Schools
Other important features of Burleith were its convenience to the business and shopping centers of the city, service by the Burleith bus line of the Washington Railway and Electric Company, and school facilities including a graded elementary school, a soon-to-be constructed junior high, and Western High School, "the outstanding college preparatory school of the city." Other nearby schools included the parochial school of the Trinity Church, the Convent of the Visitation, and the Devitt School, a school preparing students for West Point and Annapolis.
Fillmore Elementary School, at 35th and S Streets, was built in 1892 and named after President Millard Fillmore, while Gordon Junior High, constructed in 1929 at 35th and T Streets, was named after John Holdsworth Gordon, a member of the Washington Board of Education.
Western High (now Duke Ellington School of the Arts) opened in 1890 in the Curtis School at 32nd and O Streets. In 1898, it moved into its new building at 35th and Reservoir Road, on the site of the manor home of John Threlkeld, one of the early mayors of Georgetown. The new school building was the only one in the city with a gymnasium and the first to have a lunchroom, complete with hot food, linen, silver, china, napkins, and fingerbowls. Despite a temporary setback in 1914, when a fire destroyed most of the third floor and closed the building for a year, the school was overcrowded and operated with split sessions by 1920.
A major addition, larger than the original building, was built in 1925, adding 28 classrooms, 2 gymnasiums, and an auditorium. A three-acre parcel of land at 38th and Reservoir Road, originally designed for construction of homes, was purchased in 1927 from Shannon & Luchs by the District of Columbia Government for use as Western's athletic field. Enrollment at the school continued to swell, with the introduction of a free textbook system and the influx of students from private schools caused by the stock market crash of 1929.
Those factors, together with the rapid development of the Burleith, Foxhall Village, Glover Park, Wesley Heights, Colony Hill, and Spring Valley communities and the migration of a large number of students across the Key and Memorial Bridges, caused Western High School to reach its peak enrollment of 2,079 in 1934. Western was highly regarded academically and won a number of awards for its competitive drill team and for its student publications Many of its distinguished alumni went on to the military academies or to respected colleges and universities.
The Convent of the Visitation, founded in 1799, was the first Catholic boarding school in the 13 original colonies. During the Civil War, the convent and school were the only buildings in the area not conscripted as military hospitals.
Two other institutions worthy of note are the House of the Good Shepherd, at 36th and Reservoir Road (now site of the Washington International School), and the Industrial Home School, at Wisconsin and Calvert Street.
The House of the Good Shepherd, built in 1890, was a home for women and girls. The home's operation, under the supervision of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, of a laundry service and bakery (for making the wafers used for Holy Communion for most of the Catholic churches in the area) caused some controversy. Residents of Burleith opposed the home's efforts to expand in the late 1930s and again in the early 1950s, arguing that the proposed addition would exceed the zoning height restrictions, that the laundry service was approaching "commercial proportions" and was the source of odious black smoke, and that such an institution, with "inmates" restrained behind a wire fence, was not appropriate for a residential family community.
The Industrial Home School was founded Thanksgiving Day 1867 as "a reform school for delinquent white children." Located on the current site of the Guy Mason Recreation Center, the home school had a 14-acre tract, complete with football fields, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, and a swimming pool. The home school came into prominence during the 1920s and '30s as an experimental social service laboratory for behavior problem children sent there by the D.C. Juvenile Court.
Although the Shannon & Luchs pamphlet indicated that the company planned to leave land for stores, none was built. Two stores did exist along the eastern border, however. A corner store at 35th and Reservoir, reputed to have been built about the time of the Civil War, was occupied by a number of businesses, including Benjamin F. Baker's grocery store, O'Donnell's Drug Store, Meadowbrook Dairy, Clover Dairy, and High's Ice Cream Shop. The Western Pharmacy, opened in the same location by Dr. Harold M. Elwyn in 1947, served as the site of the annual children's Halloween party for a number of years. The Burleith Market, a grocery store at 35th and T, was operated at one time by the Schiffmans and later by Sam and Rose Holtzman. The market apparently closed some time in the l960s.
Burleith Citizens Association (BCA)
Even before all the first inhabitants had moved into their homes, a number of residents formed the Burleith Citizens Association and adopted its constitution in January 1925. In the early years, the association was instrumental in getting superior streets, street lights, sidewalks, and improved bus service. Later, it fought for and obtained playgrounds for its children, a community center at Gordon Junior High, night classes at Western High, and the Georgetown branch of the D.C. Public Library built in 1935 at Wisconsin Avenue and R Street, on the site of the old reservoir, from which Reservoir Road derives its name.
Burleith has been and remains a fairly stable community. Even the Depression did not change that. According to a newspaper interview with Herbert Shannon, an investor at that time wished to buy 100 Burleith homes for rental purposes, but could find only six for sale.
Minutes of the citizens' association meetings over the years reveal the community's concerns, many of which were specific to the times, many of which are the same today. For example, during the Depression, the association was active in preparing Christmas baskets for the needy and permitted the unemployed to use vacant lots to grow their own food. However, the association was also concerned about those ever-present problems of speeding and truck traffic on 37th Street, noise from low flying airplanes, lack of playgrounds, inadequate bus service, sidewalk and street repair, increases in utility and transit rates, and student rentals.
According to a 1939 Washington Post article on Burleith, the three bedrooms "rent like hotcakes," to Georgetown University students, particularly those in the medical and dental schools. Army and Navy families formed the largest single block of homeowners, holding onto their deeds through assignments to all points of the world, and renting through their absences, usually to friends or acquaintances also in the service.
The article noted that the major problem facing the Burleith Citizens Association was one that would mature in 1942, when the 20-year covenant protection clauses in the original deeds expired. The covenants provided that the Shannon & Luchs houses could not be "sold, rented, or leased to those of Negro blood," could not be used "for the sale of spiritous or malt liquors," could not be used "for livery or car stables," could not "be extended beyond the present building line," could not be used "for manufacturing or mechanical purposes." Another covenant provided that "no house could be erected on any lot at a cost of less than $3,000."
A concerted effort, starting in 1938, was made by the association to reach agreement of the owners to renew the covenants for another 20 years. A "signing bee" was held in January 1941 to gather signatures. However, this issue was put on the back burner as a result of World War II.
The War Years
During the early 1940s, the concerns of the association centered upon the war and its ramifications. A suggestion for a swimming pool at 37th and Whitehaven was rejected because the War Production Board banned construction projects for amusement purposes. There were blackouts, salvage drives, victory gardens, purchases of war bonds, and discussions of nursery care for children under five in order to free mothers for war work. Seventy temporary housing units, designed to remain for one year, were built in 1942 on the golf course at 35th and Reservoir Road.
In the ensuing cold war years of the early 1950s, the association discussed what to do in the event of an atomic bomb attack. On a more optimistic note, the Burleith garden club was very active at this time. It won an award for its exhibit at the D.C Armory Garden Show and sponsored a 100-person dinner at the Fairfax Hotel.
To this day, Burleith is noted for its trees, gardens, and flowers. A noted site is the terraced gardens, the "Hanging Gardens of Burleith," behind the homes on 38th and 39th, above T Street.
1954 was a pivotal year for Burleith. The winds of change, epitomized by the buffeting from Hurricane Hazel, blew through the area. That year saw the desegregation of the public schools, the relocation of the Industrial Home School to Laurel, Md., the construction, despite opposition, of a new building by the House of the Good Shepherd, the evacuation and destruction of the temporary war housing at 35th and Reservoir, and the opening of the Safeway grocery store on Wisconsin Avenue.
The Next 30 Years (1955–1985)
One of the most dramatic changes in Burleith during these years was the transformation of the schools. Declining enrollments were attributed to the natural aging of the surrounding communities, as well as to "white flight" to the suburbs and to private schools following the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 desegregation order in Brown v. Board of Education.
By 1961, according to one report, "tradition-steeped Western, which once had a heavy emphasis on preparing students for college, was doing its utmost to hold on to its reputation for academic excellence during a period of change and upheaval in the city's public school system, involving new boundary lines and student patterns." The school was facing competition for students from private schools and vibrant new suburban schools.
One memorable incident during this period involved the appearance of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) at Western in 1966. He posed some questions to the students who, by a show of hands, indicated that they favored the U.S. staying in Vietnam, favored the bombing of North Vietnamese cities, and thought Red China should be recognized by the U.S., but should not be admitted to the United Nations.
In a momentous 1967 decision, Judge Skelly Wright of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit shook the D.C. public school system to its roots when, to resolve a racial discrimination suit, he ordered abandonment of the existing ability track system as discriminatory against blacks and the poor, ordered the open enrollment plan struck down, and instead called for the establishment of rigid school zone boundaries. The new zone for Western extended almost eight miles, from the Anacostia River to Spring Valley. As a result of that court order, Western abandoned most of its ability groupings and became the most racially and economically mixed high school in the city, with classes made up of students of wide ranging achievement levels.
Racial tensions increased, and reached a peak in 1970 when a student group called the Student Coalition Against Racism (SCAR) convened an unscheduled assembly, calling for a week-long boycott of classes and demanding the creation of an Afro-American Department, courses on black studies, an end to police patrolling the school, and the resignation of the principal. The principal, who had been criticized both for being too liberal on discipline and for being racist when he refused to recognize black-only organizations, resigned and was replaced by Western's first black principal, at a time when the student body was 68 percent black.
In 1974 the School of the Arts, an outgrowth of Workshops for Careers in the Arts, opened at Western and shared the building with the last class of regular non-arts students who graduated in June 1976. The school, now known as the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, offers specialized training in the visual and performing arts, vocal and instrumental music, dance, acting, and graphic arts.
Gordon Junior High (35th and T Streets)
Some of the same factors that helped to shape the transformation of Western were at work at Gordon Junior High as well. During the early and mid-1960s, Gordon was held up as a model of successful integration, with an enrollment of 800 fluctuating between 60 percent white and 60 percent black for almost ten years. In 1966 there was a proposal to make both Gordon Junior High and Western High model schools.
However, after Judge Wright's 1967 order, the character of Gordon changed. Almost all ability grouping stopped and students of third grade level ability were in the same classes as students of 12th grade level ability. Discipline became a problem. During the mid-1970s the school's stage curtains were set ablaze and were never replaced. A tear gas grenade was set off, and the cafeteria furniture was burned. When several teachers were assaulted, the teachers staged a one-day sick-out demanding tighter discipline.
By 1978, one report said, enrollment had dropped to 261 students, of which only 13 were white, and "the school which lost its neighborhood children and became a troubled center for inner city problems, closed after 50 years." But the school rebounded that same year and reopened as the Gordon Center, the product of a merger by the Americanization School and the Program of English Instruction for Latin Americans, which had been located in the heart of the Hispanic community. The name was later changed to the Carlos Rosario Center, in honor of a distinguished D.C. Latino activist. Before its closure in 1996, Rosario had approximately 1,600 adult students.
Fillmore School (35th and S Streets)
There had been talk of closing Fillmore School as early as 1957. The solution at that time, however, was simply to combine the three elementary schools - Fi1lmore, Hyde, and Jackson - under the supervision of one principal. In 1967, as a result of Judge Wright's order, black students were bused from Anacostia to ease overcrowding in that part of the city. However, by 1974, declining enrollments, dwindling teaching staffs, and the gradual phase-out of busing, due to an ambitious school building program in Anacostia, left Fillmore with only 39 students. Five other nearby elementary schools (Hardy, Hyde, Key, Mann, and Stoddert) were also small, old, and underutilized.
Hardy and Fillmore were scheduled to close in order to become office buildings for the school system administration. However, parents, teachers, and administrators banded together to save the schools in 1974 by forming the Six School Complex. Under this plan, Hardy became a middle school for grades five through eight; Hyde, Key, Mann, and Stoddert remained elementary schools, each with its own specialty, and Fillmore became an arts center, lacking a student body of its own and dedicated to serving the other five schools.
Following the formation of the complex, enrollment jumped from about 500 for six schools in 1974 to more than 900 in five schools by 1979. Fillmore was voted one of the 10 best art programs in the nation in 1982, and under the Reagan Administration was been named the adopted school of the National Endowment of the Arts.
The House of the Good Shepherd (36th and Reservoir Road)
The schools were not the only institutions undergoing change. Sisters from the House of the Good Shepherd moved into their newly constructed convent on Reservoir Road in the mid-1950s, leaving the original 36th Street building (which had been built in 1890) entirely for use as a school for the re-education of delinquent girls. Ten years later, the provincial seat of the order of the Sisters of the Cross moved to the convent from Philadelphia. The school for wayward girls was closed, and the girls were transferred to Baltimore. Major renovations were begun in l968 to convert the original building to a house of studies for young sisters. At that time, the top floor of the building was torn down, as was an adjoining laundry building, the smoke from which had prompted many complaints from Burleith residents over the years.
By 1972, however, there was less demand for housing for the nuns, as the order stopped renting space to sisters of other orders. All of the nuns moved into the convent building, and the original building was once again renovated and leased to the D.C. government for use as the Rose School, a community mental health program for learning-disabled and troubled children. That program continued until 1981 when, due to budgetary constraints, the Rose School was forced to relocate. The building remained essentially vacant for two years, until 1983, when the sisters rented two floors of the building to Duke Ellington School of the Arts during the renovation of the old Western High building. A year later the two remaining floors were rented to the Levine School of Music. (In 1996, the last nuns moved to Baltimore, and the property was sold to the Washington International School, which recently opened their new building).
Mt. Tabor Church (35th and Wisconsin Avenue)
Mt. Tabor Church also changed character in the mid-1950s. Built in 1874, the church was known in its early years as the Butcher's Chapel, because it served the butchers and cattle drovers who herded their cattle down High Street (now Wisconsin Avenue). During the 1940s, the D.C. Chief of Police taught bible classes to police officers and the congregation delighted in the fact that it was probably the best protected church in the city. In 1946, the congregations of three churches—Mt. Tabor, Congress Street, and Aldersgate Methodist—merged to form St. Luke's congregation, but they continued to use the church building until 1954, when they moved to St Luke's current location at Wisconsin and Calvert Street. It is unclear whether that move was prompted simply by the need for more space or by the threat of a highway to be built at Whitehaven Parkway. In any case, the present day Divine Science Church, a Christian metaphysical denomination, moved into the building in 1956 and continues to lease the space from the National Park Service.
This account of Burleith history was published in the Burleith newsletter in 1985. The history was originally printed in three parts; this is an abridged version that was published in two parts in September/October 1998, during Burleith's 75th anniversary celebration. The author was Ann Lange, a Burleith resident who was by day an editor for the Bureau of National Affairs. The text has been updated somewhat, but remember that this still largely reflects a 1985 perspective.
Information that Ann drew on in preparing the article included A Short History of Burleith, prepared in 1955 by Edgar Farr Russell; files prepared by Jane Winer in the early 1970s; a 1978 paper by Karen Hansen Shook; articles published in the Washington Post and the Washington Star, and on file at the Georgetown Library Peabody Room; and the minutes of the Burleith Citizens Association (now stored at George Washington University's Gelman Library).
In addition, Ann conducted interviews with Colonel Robert Curtiss and Agnes Robertson, long-time Burleith residents, Pat Mitchell of Fillmore School, Maurice Eldridge of Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Sr. Ivy and Sr. Mary Beth of the Convent of the Good Shepherd, Leonard Sanders of the Rose School, and many others.