History Below the Surface

Outlined in red, the original Cedars was a few blocks north of Georgetown University. Detail: The national capital, Washington, D.C. Sketched from nature by Adolph Sachse, 1883–1884. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. 75693178.

Outlined in red, the original Cedars was a few blocks north of Georgetown University.
Detail: The national capital, Washington, D.C. Sketched from nature by Adolph Sachse, 1883–1884. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. 75693178.

By Ann Carper, acarper2012@gmail.com

“There’s nothing there. It’s all been destroyed by development.”

That’s the common but mistaken reaction to DC and federal requirements that call for an archaeological assessment before the alteration or demolition of a federally designated historic property. And it’s one that Stantec archeologists Paul Kreisa and Nancy Powell handily dispelled while discussing their recent work at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts during a recent lunchtime seminar at The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum.

In fact, said Kreisa, over a million artifacts have been recovered from the city’s 400 registered archaeological sites since the implementation of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Sites must be at least 50 years old to be registered and range in scale from Native American sites, historic houses, and camps, to forts, factories, and hospitals, to physical features like canals and dams. DC’s Historic Preservation Office (part of the Office of Planning) serves as the State Historic Preservation Office, charged with historic preservation planning, survey and identification of historic properties, public education, review of government projects affecting historic properties, and promotion of federal preservation tax incentives. (City archeologist Ruth Trocolli with DC’s Office of Planning said these requirements do not pertain to private property.)

Archeologists conduct investigations on the southeast façade of Duke Ellington (along Reservoir Road). photographs and Plan courtesy of Stantec.

Archeologists conduct investigations on the southeast façade of Duke Ellington (along Reservoir Road). photographs and Plan courtesy of Stantec.

Ellington dig. From June 2014 through May 2015, Kreisa, Powell, and a team of six Stantec archeologists hired by the District’s Department of General Services labored behind the tall construction fences surrounding Ellington to see if archaeological resources were present and, if so, whether or not they were historically significant. (In addition to Ellington, Kreisa has worked on several mid-Atlantic sites, including St. Elizabeths 176-acre West Campus, which revealed evidence of Native American settlements, a quarry, plantation, small farms, and brick kilns. Powell’s responsibilities focus on fieldwork and archival and lab analysis.)

Before Ellington. But even before the first shovel hit the soil, quite a bit was already known about the site and its earlier inhabitants. The site was part of the 1,000-acre Cox Farm in Georgetown, which was originally owned by Henry Cox, father of John Cox, Georgetown’s longest serving mayor (18231845). The family residence, Cedars, was built in the 1820s but destroyed by fire in 1847. A second Cedars, likely constructed near the first, was rebuilt shortly before 1850. After that, the structure had several owners and renters, including the federal government, which confiscated it in 1863 as the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children. The building was later used as a girls school until the DC Commissioners bought it in 1896, tore it down, and began construction in 1897 on Western High School (which later became Duke Ellington).

As part of its investigation, Stantec dug many excavation units which uncovered part of the foundation (above) of the eastern façade of the second Cedars and a patio area.

As part of its investigation, Stantec dug many excavation units which uncovered part of the foundation (above) of the eastern façade of the second Cedars and a patio area.

What they found. Cut-and-fill analysis revealed that the wooded site was originally sloped and that soil was moved from the western side to fill in a ravine in the east, leveling the ground for construction of Western. The team also recovered some 1,500 artifacts, many predating the second Cedars—including shell and metal buttons, glass and bottle items, porcelain and other ceramics, and clay pipe stems. A Minié ball dates to the Civil War. These artifacts reflect access to an array of goods and the transition of this part of DC from a rural enclave to a vibrant urban setting.

From a rural residence and plantation constructed in part by slave labor to a home for indigent, recently freed women and children, to an integrated school in the 20th century, Kreisa describes the site as “entwining the American experience before, during, and after the Civil War.”

And what will become of the artifacts found there? For now, they will be maintained by the Office of Planning. DC archaeologist Trocolli expects that, after the renovated school reopens, some of them will make their way into an exhibit at Ellington as part of her office’s public education mission.

On this 1894 survey plan of the Cedars, “New Cut Road/T Street” is Reservoir Road today; “U or Road Street” is R Street.

On this 1894 survey plan of the Cedars, “New Cut Road/T Street” is Reservoir Road today; “U or Road Street” is R Street.