Top of the Town: I read all the signs so you don’t have to

Lily Carr

I started off the Tenleytown Heritage Trail with fairly low energy, but would soon learn that was an unfortunate mistake. Seen by all, but forgotten by most, the “Top of the Town” trail contains 19 signs scattered around Tenleytown, filled with information and photos detailing the neighborhood’s history.

To begin my journey, I located the first sign in front of the Target which, according to the placard, used to be a Sears back in the day. Sign #2 marked the spot where Little Edna Burrows of 4426 Grant Road had received horseback rides from Theodore Roosevelt while he was visiting his hunting lodge nearby. 

I continued my journey down Grant Road, but was so excited to learn about the history of Deal Middle School at sign #4 that I accidentally skipped the third, which chronicles the streetcars that frequented Tenleytown in the late 19th century.

Sign #5 was right by the beginning of the Fort Reno path, which generations of Wilson and Deal students have traversed. Its post detailed the role Fort Reno played in the sole Civil War battle to take place in DC. As I strolled past Fort Reno to reach sign #6, I learned about Reno City, which was a community of predominantly Black families until 1928 when the houses were bought and demolished by the federal government to develop green space and schools (what would become Wilson and Deal) for the growing white neighborhood surrounding it.

Searching for sign #7 was quite a journey (spoiler alert: I never found it). I had been looking near CVS for far too long and was beginning to lose my sanity… and probably looked like a tourist.

After failing to find sign #7, I was feeling a little down. However, not long after, I found sign #8 and learned of how John Tennally’s tavern and inn attracted many visitors in the early 1800s.  From here on, everything felt so much easier to find. 

I arrived at sign #9 in front of Eldbrooke United Methodist Church, which was used as a guardhouse, storehouse, hospital, and mess hall during the Civil War. I headed to sign #10 where I learned that two houses on 42nd Street were built by the Perna Brothers, who also built Glen Echo, St. Columba’s, and the Washington Monument. 

Sign #11 was near Georgetown Day School, which used to be “Harry’s Field” before being bought by GDS. The farm was beloved to many people, including Franklin Roosevelt, who enjoyed its strawberries. Sign #12, by St. Columba’s Episcopal Church, detailed the founding of the church and Bernard T. Janney School. The brick building to the left of sign #13 was where many community members were treated during typhoid and influenza epidemics. Ironically, entering this building almost 100 years later, you would still be wearing a mask. 

I then began my jaunt to Ward Circle, which was quite simple compared to the endless turns that I had faced earlier on. Sign #14 explained the history of Tenley Circle and a few landmarks around it. Sign #15 sits by the National Presbyterian Church and School which dates back to 1795. 

I adventured along Nebraska Avenue to sign #16, where I learned the red brick building there was used as a seminary where volunteer women worked to break German and Japanese codes during World War II. At sign #17, American University’s history was documented where I learned the land there was once owned by Tenleytown’s largest landowners before the university was established by Congress in 1893. 

I made a quick U-turn and headed back down Nebraska, relieved but heavy hearted that the walk was coming to a close. Sign #18 was in front of the NBC headquarters established in 1958, where, just two years later, NBC broadcasted the second televised presidential debate between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy. 

Finally, I arrived at sign #19, which was just a right turn away on Warren Street. I learned that Engine House Number 20, Tenleytown’s fire station, was established in 1900. Previously, firefighters had to come from Georgetown.

When I finished the trek, my feet were tired, my back was sore, and my phone was dead, but I had learned a lot about Tenleytown’s history (especially given that when I started this adventure I wasn’t even 100 percent sure how to spell Tenleytown). Let’s just say I was ecstatic to be able to use an old Robeks gift card. •