ON THIS SPOT: The Mysterious Rammed Earth House

I drive south on 13th Street often, so regularly pass through the intersection of 13th and Rhode Island Avenue NE at the southern end of Brookland. Every time I look at the big empty lot on the northeast corner I wonder why nothing has been built there in over 20 years. I don’t know the answer to that question, nor do I know of any current plans for the future of the site. I do however know a bit of the history of that location, and it’s pretty interesting. 

Source: Apple Maps

When I first started to research Brookland history, I saw fuzzy references to a “rammed earth” house that once existed on that spot. The original builder was unknown, though it was thought the house dated from the colonial era, before Washington DC had been founded. It was no longer standing when I moved here in the late 1960s, but I’d occasionally hear an old-timer mention it. 

Once I started digging a little deeper I discovered Farmers' Bulletin No. 1500 from the US Department of Agriculture, published in 1926. It was titled "Rammed Earth Walls for Building,” and the very first illustration was of the house at the intersection of 13th and Rhode Island Avenue: 

LOCAL LORE: Bill Jones, the Avenger

National Hero or Neighborhood Eccentric?

GuiteauPuck

November 19, 1881, 3pm: The most hated man in America sat uncomfortably in the police wagon as it rattled along the streets of the Capitol grounds. Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield, was being returned to his jail cell after a day in court. Often called a “disappointed office seeker,” that term doesn’t paint a full portrait of the man. Guiteau was mentally unstable, a narcissist of the first order who felt he deserved an ambassadorship despite having no qualifications whatsoever. He stalked Garfield for months, then shot him in the back at the Baltimore & Potomac train station near the Capitol. Garfield lingered for almost two months before succumbing to the wound and inept medical treatment. Guiteau was then formally charged with murder. His trial was the kind of media sensation we would recognize today, fueled by Guiteau’s own wild statements in court and interviews he gave the newspapers regularly. Public hostility toward him was increasingly palpable. (Illustration above from Puck Magazine, July 13, 1881. Library of Congress.)

As the police van lumbered across the streetcar tracks at 1st and East Capitol Street, a lone horseman rode up next to the wagon, peered inside, and fired one quick shot. The bullet almost met its mark, nicking Guiteau’s arm, but otherwise caused no harm.

ON THIS SPOT: The Mystery of the Pope’s Letter

Today, the Catholic University of America celebrates Founders Day. One hundred thirty years ago, on April 10, 1887, Pope Leo XIII (right, courtesy Catholic University Archives) sent a letter to Cardinal James Gibbons giving his formal approval for the founding of the university. It was a momentous event, and that letter was a historic document of great magnitude for the new school.

When I was writing my photographic history of The Catholic University of America, I wanted to include a picture of that letter. I had been working closely with the folks at the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives throughout the course of researching the book, and asked them about obtaining a photo or scan of the letter. I guessed some special permission might be needed in order to handle a document of such significance. To my surprise, the archivists could not locate it. There were printed reproductions of the letter available, but not the original, handwritten letter in Latin, signed by Pope Leo XIII. 

PopeLeoLetter

Printed version of Pope Leo’s letter authorizing the formation of the Catholic University of America, April 10, 1887. Click to enlarge. Courtesy Catholic University Archives. 

I have to admit, I was confounded. So was Robin Pike, the Audio Visual Archivist, with whom I worked most closely. She queried the other archivists, plowed through dozens of finding aids and followed numerous leads, all to no avail. If that letter wasn’t at the university, where else might it be? Pope Leo addressed it to Cardinal James Gibbons, the Archibishop of Baltimore. Perhaps it was in their archives. I called Baltimore, and after another diligent search, their archivists also found only printed reproductions, not the original document.

LOCAL LORE: Wealth, Scandal, and Tragedy

The story of Metropolis View and Edgewood 

That chunk of land to the west of Colonel Brooks’ estate and south of the Middleton estate (where Catholic University is now) was once a 410-acre tract known as Metropolis View and owned by Washington Berry. 

Approximate location of the Metropolis View tract and Berry mansion.

Berry was the son of Zachariah Berry, a wealthy Maryland planter who is estimated to have owned over 8,000 acres of land in Maryland, the District, and Kentucky. His manor house, named Concord, still stands in District Heights. At his death in 1845 various tracts in and around DC were willed to his sons and grandsons. Washington Berry served in the War of 1812, married Eliza Thomas in 1822, and shortly thereafter moved here and built a grand home he called Metropolis View, which the Evening Star described this way: 

The original house was a large double structure, with wide halls and immense rooms on either side, the ceilings of which were remarkably high. The frescoes running around the upper parts of the walls in these rooms were excellently executed and represented the fruits of agriculture. This house was built of bricks burned on the place in a kiln erected on the plat near present Eckington.

Washington Berry became a gentleman farmer, using primarily slave labor to tend the place. He and his wife appear in the 1840 census with seven children and ten slaves. In addition to the brick mansion, there were stables, a carriage house, a barn and other outbuildings. His sons owned a tract called Bellevue, at the extreme southern tip of the District, and Berry managed their farm as well as his own.

BLACK AND WHITE IN BROOKLAND: This is What a Racial Housing Covenant Looks Like.

When I was researching my last post on the oldest remaining pre-subdivision homes in the Brookland area, I came across something I want to share. One of those old homes was 1525 Kearny Street NE. I went to the DC Recorder of Deeds website to research the address and discovered that in 1933 almost every house on that block of Kearny between 15th and 16th had signed a housing covenant to keep out African American residents.

15th&Kearny

I’ve posted about racially-restrictive housing covenants before, but hadn’t read the full text of one in all its cold, legalistic phraseology. Covenants were a blatantly discriminatory practice, a tool of de facto segregation, used primarily against African Americans, but also against Jews, Armenians, Mexicans and others who didn’t fit the white vision of the nation’s capital. There were two types of covenants, those written into a home's deed by the builders/developers, and those that used petitions, where neighbors gathered signatures to restrict an entire block, or multiple blocks. That’s what was used on the 1500 block of Kearny Street. 

All the petition covenants I’ve looked at use the same wording for a rationale. Keeping non-whites out was for the “mutual benefit” of the neighbors and the “best interests” of the community, and was a way to “improve and…further the interests” of the neighborhood. The covenants often ran for 25 years, sometimes less, and made it very clear what was not allowed: “No part of the land…shall ever be used or occupied by, or sold, conveyed, leased, rented, or given to negroes or any person or persons of the negro race or blood.” 


© Robert Malesky 2016