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. 

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Hickey Mansion c. 1916.                                                                                                                              (Photo courtesy the Rambler Photograph collection, Historical Society of Washington, D.C.)

According to a 1916 Evening Star column by “The Rambler” (Harry Shannon), Hickey Mansion "was the scene of many festivities and the resort of many men famous in their day, and of men whose name is secure for all time. Among the frequent guests at Greenvale were Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Edward Everett, John C. Calhoun…and scores of other distinguished public men who were the friends of Col. Hickey.” During the Civil War, a great many Union soldiers camped on Greenvale’s grounds. William Hickey held a number of government positions throughout his career. At the time of his death in 1866 he was Assistant Secretary of the Senate. Greenvale was then divided into large lots and sold, with the Hickey family retaining the lot with the mansion. 

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1913 real estate map showing the division of Greenvale into large lots. Click to enlarge.

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Two of those lots were bought by a fellow named Leopold Luchs, who ran a cigar import business with his brother. Looking to try a new venture, about 1904 Luchs established the Red Oak Spring Company to sell bottled water. (Right: Red Oak logo, courtesy the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.) Typhoid fever was a serious problem for the district at that time, and bottled water was seen as a health measure. Luchs built a round springhouse next to a stream that ran through his property. That stream is now called Springhouse Run. Luchs built a round reservoir next to the springhouse for pumping the water into 5-gallon carboys, which were then transported to the bottling plant downtown. The Red Oak Spring Company appears to have gone out of business around 1912, but the two round buildings remain.   

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Bottling springwater wasn’t the only business to start on the Greenvale grounds. In 1909, the National Capital Clay Products Company built a factory for firing bricks just a few hundred yards west of the Red Oak springhouse. There were around 100 brickmaking facilities in Washington at that time, most of them small-scale family operations. This new brick company was destined to be one of the largest in the city. It changed title (and name) a few times over the next several years, first to the Hudson Brick and Supply Company, which built a series of square kilns, and then to the United Brick Corporation, which assumed title in 1930. By 1931, the rectangular kilns had been replaced by a dozen round beehive kilns. 

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The New York Avenue brickworks in 1978, six years after the plant had closed. Of the 12 beehive kilns that once stood there, only three remain today, along with one smokestack and part of the factory building.  Click to enlarge. (Photo: Library of Congress.)

The United brickworks became one of the larger suppliers in the District, and the domed beehive kilns became a distinctive local landmark. The clay for their bricks was excavated from the banks of the Anacostia River. They supplied bricks for numerous local projects, including the New Executive Office Building, the National Cathedral, the Broadmoor apartments on Connecticut Avenue, and many others. The brickworks stayed in operation until 1972, when the factory was closed and abandoned. The land was then transferred to the National Arboretum.  The area is fenced off, but you can still get close enough for a good view. 

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As for Hickey Mansion, the descendants of William Hickey seem to have departed the house before the turn of the century, leaving it vacant. In 1916, the superintendant of the brickworks lived there with his family, but the old place was slowly deteriorating. Given its lonely spot on a knoll with not much else around other than the brick factory, it’s no surprise that eerie legends began to appear. According to a 1929 story in the Evening Star:

It became known as a haunted house and weird tales of ghostly happenings within its stately walls were manufactured....Rumors were also circulated to the effect that the earth beneath the mansion was honeycombed with subterranean channels, and that there was a mysterious secret room just beneath the basement.

In 1923, the Hickey lot was purchased by the brick company and the decaying mansion was used as housing for some of Washington’s poor families, all of them African American. Ghost stories continued to proliferate. Finally, in January 1929, it caught fire and most of the interior was destroyed. No one was killed, but the house was no longer habitable. It caught fire a second time in August, completely gutting the place, leaving only the walls standing. It was a sad end to a once proud home.

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The burned out husk of the Hickey mansion in 1930. 

Photo courtesy the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

After it was authorized in 1927, the National Arboretum began buying up the various lots at Greenvale. By 1929, 250 acres had been obtained and the real horticultural work began. Progress was slow and funding was dicey due to the Great Depression, but thanks to help from the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Arboretum managed to survive and eventually flourish. Today, it is not only a place of pastoral beauty and serious scientific research, but is one of the few places in Washington where you can see the original lay of the land, much as it was when the city was founded. Obviously the greenery has changed with all the plantings done by the Arboretum, but the hills, valleys and streams remain much as they were in the 18th century.

Last week I went to the site of the Hickey mansion and walked around a bit. I could feel the history beneath my feet, but found no evidence of ghosts or subterranean tunnels. But it’s still a lovely view.

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SOURCES:

Gahn, Bessie Wilmarth. “William Hickey of Greenvale,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., v 35/36 (1935), pp. 109-123.

Goodrum, Charles A. “The History and Development of the National Arboretum,” Washington, The Arboretum?, 1950.

Jacobson, Dorothy R. “United Clay Products Corporation: New York Avenue Brickyard,” Historic American Engineering Record, Washington, D.C., 1983.

Kelly, John. "What are Those Odd and Distinctive Brick Buildings near the National Arboretum?” Washington Post, November 14, 2014.

Shannon, Harry. “The Rambler Visits Greenvale, the old Hickey Home,” Sunday Star, Washington D.C., August 6, 1916.

“United Brick Corporation Brick Complex” National Register of Historic Places Inventory - Nomination Form, 1978.

Water of Public Wells and Springs and their Relation to Typhoid Fever,” Hygienic Laboratory-Bulletin #34, National Institutes of Health, May 1907. 

Williams, Kim Prothro. “Rural Remnants of Washington County,” D.C. Historic Preservation Office, September 2013.


All color photographs are ©Robert Malesky 201

© Robert Malesky 2016