PORTRAITS: The Birdman of Brookland

Robert Ridgway was a man of contradictions. He loved the rural countryside, yet lived most of his life in the city. He never went to college, yet became one of the country’s foremost scientists. He was painfully shy, yet regularly spoke in public and to the press. And he built one of the most distinctive homes Brookland has ever seen.

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Robert Ridgway’s Brookland home, Rose Terrace.

In 1890, when he moved to the new suburb of Brookland and built his home on 13th Street between Monroe and Lawrence, Robert Ridgway was already a distinguished ornithologist, but he didn’t follow a traditional route to get there. 

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Growing up in Illinois, Ridgway was fascinated by the natural world. He also liked sketching, and combined the two interests in detailed drawings of birds. In 1864, when he was fourteen years old, he was having trouble indentifying one of the birds he’d drawn. A friend’s mother suggested he send the picture to the Commissioner of Patents in Washington, an acquaintance of hers. He did, and in a few weeks, received a letter back from Spencer Fullerton Baird, the Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. It was the start of a lifelong relationship. Baird, impressed with the young Ridgway’s skill and enthusiasm, encouraged him, and when Ridgway was only seventeen Baird arranged for him to join the prestigious United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel from California to Wyoming. By 1874, Ridgway was appointed to the Smithsonian as an ornithologist, where he soon became the Smithsonian’s Curator of Birds, a position he held for the rest of his life.

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His magnum opus was the massive The Birds of North and Middle America, published as Bulletin 50 of the U.S. National Museum between 1901 and 1919. Here is one of his color drawings for the work, a robin. (this image and the two Ridgway photos are courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.) 

Ridgway did much of the work while at his spacious home in Brookland. When not engrossed in his ornithological duties, he could be found on the grounds, planting, weeding, trimming and otherwise tending to the natural oasis he was trying to create. Ridgway was an avid horticultural layman, even writing a thorough article for Garden and Forest magazine about his landscaping work in Brookland entitled “An Amateur’s Experiment.” Of course, birds were everywhere on the grounds.  “After dinner one Sunday,” he told a Washington Post reporter, “two of my colleagues at the Smithsonian Institution sat out with me upon the lawn, and in less than twenty minutes we counted no fewer than twenty-seven different kinds of birds."

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He shared his home with his wife Julia and son Audubon, who also displayed an interest in ornithology (how could he not, given his name?). The young man had just taken a position as assistant to the Curator of Zoology at the Field Museum in Chicago when he contracted pneumonia and suddenly died. He was only twenty-four. Robert Ridgway and his wife were crushed, especially Julia, who never fully recovered her health. The home took on a different cast without Audubon’s presence, and Ridgway himelf was feeling cramped on his little preserve. “All available space was taken up,” he said. "I could find nothing to do but go about, pruning shears in hand, looking for something to snip.” 

Robert Ridgway sold the Brookland home in 1907, eventually moving back to Illinois, where he built a new house and an eighteen acre bird sanctuary called Bird Haven. There he and his wife lived out their days. Julia Ridgway died in 1927. Robert followed two years later.

Unfortunate Epilogue: Robert Ridgway’s lovely Brookland home was not always well maintained in subsequent years. When I first saw it in the late 1960s it was looking worn, though its original beauty still shone through, if weakly. Then in 1978 a 4th District policeman with some decidely illegal tendencies owned the house. He, another policeman friend, and a third man had set up an illicit drug lab. They were in the kitchen cooking up some PCP when it exploded, killing one, injuring the other two, and causing serious structural damage to the house. We all thought it was going to be torn down, but it was not. This is the house today.

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© Robert Malesky 2016