BEFORE BROOKLAND: The Oldest Houses That Remain

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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.

ON THIS SPOT: Before the Arboretum

Brickmakers, Bottlers, and the Occasional Haunted House

If you live anywhere in Ward 5, you should be familiar with the National Arboretum.

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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. 

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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.

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Terrain map of the National Arboretum site. Click to enlarge.

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.  

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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. 

ON THIS SPOT: How the Monroe Street Bridge Changed the Face of Brookland

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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. 

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Looking west on Bunker Hill Road (Michigan Avenue) in 1926. The B&O railroad tracks cross just past the first utility pole on the left. Click to enlarge and you can see the striped crossing gates and the small octagonal gatehouse. Catholic University’s Maloney Hall is on the right past the tracks. Photo Historical Society of Washington.

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.

LOCAL LORE: The Bodies in the Intersection

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.

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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

Of  The

City of Washington

died

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. 

ON THIS SPOT: Cemeteries in the City

When I first moved to Brookland I quickly noticed how many cemeteries there seemed to be in our vicinity. As it turns out, of the 22 existing cemeteries within the District of Columbia borders, twelve are still active, and seven of those are located within two miles of us. 

Of course there were once many more burial grounds in the city, in churchyards, family plots, community cemeteries, and municipal grounds. They were usually crowded and not well-tended, and many conducted their burials chronologically, separating family members from each other. Those criticisms, along with growing fears of disease due to unhealthy conditions, caused legislation to be introduced in 1852 that forbade new cemeteries within the Federal City -- the highly-populated area south of Florida Avenue, between the two rivers and east of Rock Creek. All new cemeteries in the District were consigned to Washington County, which included the area that would become Brookland. 

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That change coincided with the rise of the Rural Cemetery Movement, which promoted cemeteries as places of well-landscaped beauty and tranquility, with appealing views and walking paths for contemplation. The first rural cemetery in Washington was Oak Hill in Georgetown, which opened in 1849. Soon after came Glenwood on Lincoln Avenue (now Lincoln Road) in 1853. Others began to sprout up, Prospect Hill and Mount Olivet in 1858, and St. Mary’s in 1875.  As downtown development increased, so did pressure on the old cemeteries to sell their valuable land. To do so, many began to reinter their graves in the new cemeteries in Washington County.

© Robert Malesky 2016