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.
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.”
There’s a great new resource for people interested in house history in Washington. It’s an interactive map called History Quest from the DC Historic Preservation Office that shows a range of fabulous information for 127,000 houses in the District - dates of construction, architect, builder, original owner, materials used - though some of the older homes don’t have as much info. Click on the picture above to check it out.
The map certainly helps amateur local historians like me. I’ve been researching some of the oldest homes in our area, and the map makes that task much easier than digging through old paper and microfilm records at MLK library or the DC Archives. I’ve been looking particularly for still-extant houses built before Brookland was first subdivided in 1887. Back then it was all farmland, the homes were primarily farmhouse style, and only a handful remain. Below is an 1887 G. M. Hopkins map, showing the Brookland area just before subdivision. As you can see, there was no village, just farm tracts of various sizes dotted with a few houses. I’ve circled the location of the houses mentioned in this post.
Brickmakers, Bottlers, and the Occasional Haunted House
If you live anywhere in Ward 5, you should be familiar with the National Arboretum.
Just 2 miles away from Brookland, its 446 acres make it one of the most expansive green spaces in Washington. Established by Congress in 1927, the Arboretum has become the nation's garden, a tranquil, serene escape from city life, our own little Arcadia.
It is also one of the world’s premier horticultural science institutions, a botanist’s paradise with 16,000 varieties of plants. According to its mission statement, "The U.S. National Arboretum enhances the economic, environmental, and aesthetic value of ornamental and landscape plants through long-term, multi-disciplinary research, conservation of genetic resources, and interpretative gardens and exhibits.”
Beneath the science and natural beauty, there are some interesting pieces of Washington history to be found. A stream runs through the grounds named Hickey Run. It emerges from under New York Avenue near Hickey Lane, runs through the valley, skirts Hickey Hill, and empties into the Anacostia River.
William Hickey, for whom all those spots were named, was born in Washington in 1798 into an old Maryland family. (Left, photo courtesy Historical Society of Washington, D.C.) He married in 1821, was named a captain of the District militia in 1824 (though he was always referred to as Colonel or General later in life), and came into the land where the Arboretum now stands in the 1830s. The estate was known as Greenvale and had been the summer home of William Brent, who built a large stone house there. That house burned in 1840, and Hickey built a new, imposing brick home, where he and his wife raised their six children.
The Monroe Street bridge is about to undergo a complete and long-needed rehabilitation. The original bridge was not particularly exciting on a design level (neither is the planned replacement), nor was it supposed to be. It was a utilitarian bridge with a simple purpose - to get across the railroad tracks. It quietly opened in 1908, without the fanfare that accompanied the opening of the Michigan Avenue bridge 30 years later, but its effect on Brookland was enormous.
Before the Monroe Street bridge, Brookland’s commerical area was clustered around the intersection of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks and Bunker Hill Road (soon to be renamed Michigan Avenue). In addition to the train station, there were coal and freight yards and numerous small shops, including a bakery, restaurant, grocery store, post office, and even a Town Hall building. But there was a hazard: that intersection was a grade crossing, with the railroad tracks level with Bunker Hill Road.
Grade crossings were dangerous, and as traffic increased in our region, so did accidents, close calls, and even some deaths. Beginning in 1904, the Brookland Citizens Association began calling for a solution, namely a bridge. There were a number of issues involved. Safety was certainly one, but improving transit options was a close second.
1887: Col. Jehiel Brooks had died the previous year and his 200+ acres of land had been sold. The first subdivision, named simply “Brookland,” was in the process of being platted. As the surveyors were laying out the roads, they stumbled upon something surprising. Near the intersection of what would be Monroe and 12th Streets, some graves were discovered beneath the pine and cedar trees.
They had not been well-tended. There were three large stone slabs overgrown with weeds, the corners broken on one of them. It looked like they once had rested on short sandstone and brick pillars, but those had long since disappeared. The inscriptions on the slabs were still legible. One of them read:
David Burnes, Esq
City of Washington
The 8th of May, 1800,
Aged 60 years, 2 months and 24 days.
The other two were Burnes’s wife, Anne, who died in 1807, and his son John, who died at the age of 20 in 1792.
If any of those surveyors recognized the name of David Burnes they would have been even more surprised. Burnes was one of the original landholders of what would become Washington, D.C. His home was right where Tiber Creek met the Potomac, very near today’s 17th Street and Constitution Avenue. When George Washington began discussions with the landowners to create the capital city, he got to know David Burnes well, referring to him as “obstinate.” That wasn’t a surprise, Burnes was in a strong negotiating position. His 700 acre farm was centrally located and essential to the new city.