- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 25, 2002

Something about an old road pulls you into the past. Bending, winding, turning where you least expect, it is as enticing as it is confounding. Who built that old house? What was that strange building used for? Why doesn't that street go through?In Washington, a city where twists and turns are associated more with politics than geography, old roads persist. Ghostlike, they flit between warrens of numbered streets and forests of indistinguishable row houses, coyly hinting at an earlier existence.
Looking for a new experience? Want to find out more about the past? All you have to do is take a trip down an old road. You don't even have to leave the District.
Of course, nothing is really that simple. Over the years, road names have been changed many times to conform to regulations and residential patterns. Missouri Avenue, for example, began life as Milkhouse Ford Road. A portion of it east of the intersection of present-day Missouri and Georgia avenues, running to about North Capitol Street was Magnolia Avenue then Shepherd Road and, until the 1940s, Concord Road.
Some roads, such as Georgia Avenue, began life on one side of town and ended up on another. In its Northwest incarnation, Georgia Avenue replaced Brightwood Avenue, which had replaced Seventh Street Pike.
Then there's that strange loop that Piney Branch Road takes near Georgia Avenue. It seems that Brightwood residents were loath to pay the toll on the turnpike, so they built an extension around the tollgate. Other roads exist mostly in memories, such as De Russey Road, which was once part of the network of streets of the old Fort Reno neighborhood, on the present site of Alice Deal Junior High and Wilson Senior High schools in Northwest.
"It's confusing," admits Brian Kraft, a local historian who leads walking tours of the Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, and Le Droit Park neighborhoods, all in Northwest, for the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. "Early developers paid no attention to the grid. Plus, you could have three or more roads all with the same name."

Well into the 1930s, in certain sections only a few roads branched out from the central Washington or connected the few farms and estates beyond the city limits of Florida Avenue (then called Boundary Street), which runs across both the Northwest and Northeast quadrants of the city.
Snaking westward from Georgetown is the old Conduit Road, built in 1863 to mark the route of the pipes that brought water to the city. The road's name was changed to MacArthur Boulevard in March 1942 to honor Gen. Douglas MacArthur. On either side of the road, modest 1920s bungalows vie with more substantial turn-of-the-20th-century country houses for pride of place in the Palisades neighborhood west of Georgetown, a subdivision that began at the close of the 19th century by advertising such benefits as "salubrity and health unquestioned."
Branching off from the old Conduit Road is Chain Bridge Road, a curving colonial post road that winds its way northward up the hill between MacArthur Boulevard and Nebraska Avenue to another old road, Loughboro. Chain Bridge Road appears on a number of old maps, perambulating along with Conduit Road for a time, then making its way down toward the Potomac River.
This portion of the once-modest country road is filled with multimillion-dollar homes. Students of architecture would do well to study Chain Bridge Road in Palisades; its collection of faux and real Victorians, art deco, Bauhaus, and postmodern houses is a lesson in itself. Here too is Battery Kemble, where remnants of the Civil War battery are visible.
Tucked between a group of McMansions and an older estate on Chain Bridge Road in Palisades, just a few blocks past the MacArthur Boulevard Safeway, is an old cemetery.Historian Steven J. Richardson, in "The Burial Grounds of Black Washington 1880-1919" for the Columbia Historical Society (vol. 52), identifies the cemetery as the Union Baptist Burial Ground and refers to it as the "mysterious black cemetery in the District."
Its origins are clouded. Old maps refer to it as the "colored cemetery." Old histories of the area written by whites briefly state that the cemetery resulted from a land grant by local landowner. The Butler family, which has ancestors buried there and has been taking care of the cemetery for most of the 20th century, believe it began during slavery times. After freedom, many black families lived along a now-vanished road, unnamed on any old map,that branched off from Chain Bridge Road.
"It was started by the Union Burial Society of Georgetown's Mount Zion United Methodist Church," says Charles Butler, who retired from care of the cemetery three years ago. "They are not the same congregation as now but part of an earlier congregation that eventually relocated to Clinton, Maryland." Mount Zion United Methodist in Georgetown is at 1334 29th Street NW.
The cemetery was the heart of a thriving black community that settled along Chain Bridge Road long before the Civil War. Its headstones range from names scratched into pieces of rock to ornately carved monuments with Latin inscriptions.
"I've never been paid for what I did other than being able to live in the house on the grounds," says Mr. Butler of his service to the cemetery. "But I did it out of respect for the people that are buried there."
His grandson Christopher, who took over the caretaking duties three years ago, has turned down several offers from affluent local residents who have said they would pay as much as $200 a month to run their dogs in the cemetery.
"No dogs in this cemetery," he says, indicating the space with a sweep of his hand. "My people are buried here. You don't just go traipsing over it with your dog."

Walk on the 4500 block of Grant Road NW in Tenleytown, and the sounds of the city fall away. Venture around the bend in the road, and the sounds of the country rise up to meet you.
Not bad for a country crossroads that grew up around John Tennally's tavern.
"You really get mellow on Grant Road," says Dorothy Biard, president of the Tennally Town History Committee, who led the move to have a 13-house section of the block declared a historic district. "It usually takes about 15-20 minutes just to walk up this one block, there's so much visiting going on."
According to neighborhood historian Frank Hendler, who frequently leads walking tours along Grant Road, the road was part of the military road that connected the Civil War fortifications in the area.
The road called Military Road today is not that road. The original military road encompassed 32 miles, and it connected important roads and the forts that ringed the capital, which were built close to important arteries.
Fort Pennsylvania, which was renamed Fort Reno, for example, commanded control of three important roads: River Road, the Tenleytown Road, and Grant Road (then New Cut Road, according to Mr. Hendler.) Like many streets in the District, Military Road appropriated the name of an earlier road.
To make matters even more confusing, there is also a Fort Circle Drive, which was planned in the early 1930s to connect the remaining Civil War forts. Only portions of it were actually built, further eroding Washington's old roads.
But it took the coming of the electric streetcar at the turn of the 20th century to really galvanize what had been just a small crossroads village.
The Tennallytown and Georgetown Electric Railway was just one of the streetcar companies that eventually made their way up Wisconsin Avenue as far as Rockville. In the early 1890s, Wisconsin Avenue was High Street.
"Development took off" with the streetcar, Mr. Hendler says. "That's when a lot of the building really got going."
Along Grant Road in Tenleytown, modest 1880s houses testify to the mixed character of the neighborhood.
"People were farmers, butchers, or they worked on the streetcars," Mr. Hendler says. "The road didn't even get water until 1923."
Today, Grant Road makes its way around old Tenleytown in fits and starts. Another piece lies off Connecticut Avenue, tucked away once again between the gridded streets of expensive Forest Hills. Here, between Grant and Gates Streets, off 32nd Street NW between Davenport and Brandywine streets, an old country estate, "Owl's Nest," stands at the crest of an expanse of lawn.
"It was built around 1907," says Mr. Kraft. "Most of the other development here came later, around the 1920s."
Mr. Kraft can easily research the history of your house, if you are so inclined. But his real interest lies in the often-neglected stories of neighborhoods like Le Droit Park.

Perched on the edge of the old city limits, in Northwest, Le Droit Park began in 1873 as a project of two white investors. In its earliest years, Le Droit Park functioned as a whites-only suburb that included many faculty members from nearby Howard University.
Le Droit Park's streets are canted, departing from the grid at an angle designed to set it apart from the city's axis. It was part of an attempt to create a country feel, along with the neighborhood's semi-detached Italianate and Gothic revival villas designed by architect James McGill.
You wouldn't know it from today's stubbornly prosaic street names: U Street, T Street, Sixth Street. But in the beginning, streets were named to remind residents of the bucolic setting that would have pulled them from the city's center. Spruce, Elm and Maple streets are long gone, but a hint of the past remains in some of the neighborhood's street signs. Above the modern name is a sign bearing the old designation.
"Most streets here have seen a lot of changes since Le Droit Park began,"Mr. Kraft says. "But every once in a while, you'll come upon a block where nothing has changed. Take the cars away in the 400 block of U Street, and you can't tell what time it is."
Beginning in 1893, affluent blacks began moving into Le Droit Park. Their entrance was not always easy: When Octavius Williams moved in with his family, someone fired a bullet through his front window.
In the 1920s, Le Droit Park boomed as a beacon for the city's black upper class. Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes and Oscar DePriest, the first black congressman elected after Reconstruction, lived there.
Anna J. Cooper lived at 201 T St. NW, where she operated Frelinghuysen University, an adult education center, out of her home until the 1950s. Today her home sits derelict, its hexagonal gazebo and bargeboard trim hinting at a more glorious past.

Across the Anacostia in Deanwood, in the far Northeast section of the city, Sheriff Road and Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue stretch eastward from Anacostia Avenue, now Minnesota Avenue.
Sheriff Road is probably the oldest road in the neighborhood. It is the only one designated on turn-of-the-20th-century maps. Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue, the other semi-commercial street in the area, was once called Dean Avenue. John T.W. Dean had married Mary Cornelia Sheriff, a daughter of Levi Sheriff, who bought his original parcel of land in 1833. Their son, Dr. Julian Dean, invested heavily in real estate and in a perpetual-motion machine, neither of which lasted.
Before the early 20th century, much of Deanwood was farmland, Mr. Kraft says.
"Many of the farmers had held slaves before the Civil War," he says. "But there were always some free black landowners."
Then, in 1909, educator Nannie Helen Burroughs began to erect the buildings that would become the National Training School for Women and Girls, just up the hill from Dean Avenue, renamed in her honor.
"We specialize in the wholly impossible," the black educator declared at the time. To be sure, her task was a daunting one: She had few funds at her disposal, and the area had no electricity or running water until well into the 20th century.
Her energy proved so effective that the school became a sort of city on a hill, a beehive of activity centered on Miss Burroughs' precepts of "the Bible, the bath, and the broom." The institution provided vocational classes and teacher training and even had a basketball team.
Called Nannie Helen Burroughs School, the school continues as a coed elementary school. Neighborhood residents refer to it as the "school on the hill." While the buildings have been replaced by a modern facility, the old entry arch, with its bas-relief of Abraham Lincoln as the keystone, remains.
The past is present as well on nearby Sheriff Road, named for Levi Sheriff, a farmer whose daughters decided to subdivide the family estate in the years after the Civil War.
Walk along Sheriff Road on a Sunday morning, and the sounds of the services from the churches that line the street fill the air in this neighborhood of modest homes built by black craftsmen in the early 20th century. Anchoring them all is the First Baptist Church of Deanwood, which this year is celebrating its centennial.
Portraits of its pastors adorn the walls of the church complex, which was used as a command post during the civil rights era. The church prides itself on its outreach into the community and plans to build a community center on a neighboring lot to provide services for youths and senior citizens.
All that goes to show that not much has changed in Deanwood, says Herbert Turner, 80, a parishioner who still lives in the house his family moved to when he was just two years old.
"People here are friendly," he says. "They're loving and kind. Even the people who moved away always come back for church.

Just northwest of Old Anacostia is Twining City, a name on old maps unfamiliar to many Washingtonians.
A working class neighborhood that swelled in population in the 1920s, after developer Arthur Randle brought in a streetcar line, Twining City resembles more a sleepy Southern town. Modest homes run down to the railroad at the bottom of the hill. The still-functioning Columbian Iron Works at 1401 22nd St. SE, sits next to an impressive Victorian residence.
"It belonged to the Swede or German who owned the iron works," says Charles Day, who lives on 22nd Street SE, off the crossroads of Minnesota Avenue and Naylor Road. His early-1900s house has inlaid floors and an ornate iron fence around the periphery. "When I was a child, the only people who lived in this neighborhood were working-class whites."
Mr. Day, a lifelong Washingtonian who grew up in Northwest, never expected to be living in Southeast.
"You hear so many stories," he says. "But this is a neighborhood of hardworking, decent people. All they want to do is raise their kids and own some property. It's a great road to live on."

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