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.
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.
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.
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.
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.