A Brief History of Burleith by Ann Lange (edited)
(see article background)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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. E1wyn 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
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
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
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.