04 Nov 2009

How the Schools of Capitol Hill Got Their Names: Brent Elementary

photo courtesy of brentelementary.org

photo courtesy of brentelementary.org

How many times have we walked by a school on Capitol Hill, or for that matter, sent our kids to one, and remained relatively incurious as to the origins of its name? Thanks to DC’s vigorous school choice policies, parents on Capitol Hill are relentlessly educated consumers, heavily researching all facets of our local schools, but we pay little attention to their actual names. We use them liberally as labels for specific buildings, faculties, and communities, but we generally have scant knowledge of the people for whom they were named.

I thought I might spend the next few weeks sharing the stories of several of these folks, and, where possible, a little of the history of the schools they’re named after. Some are nationally known figures, such as Presidents and Civil Rights leaders, that schoolkids from around the country are (or should be) conversant with. Others were named for local leaders, politicians whose contributions were often slight and details of their personal stories can evade even a historian. But in aggregate, they serve to bring into focus much of the ebb and flow of history on Capitol Hill, both national and local, that have shaped the neighborhood we live in today. First on the list, Brent Elementary.

I’ll start, selfishly enough, with my daughter’s school, Brent Elementary, located near the Capitol on 3rd and North Carolina, SE. This location has been in constant use for education since 1809, when a portion of the lot was purchased for the Washington Academy for a whopping $100, a price that today might allow you to purchase a commemorative brick or two for Brent’s walkway. The Academy went through several iterations, and eventually became known as Eastern High School, which, of course, is still going strong on the other end of Capitol Hill, and undergoing major renovations. Brent School, as such, started on this site in 1883; then, as now, a primary school.

So why “Brent”? Who is this Robert Brent guy, and why should we care? Put simply, Robert Brent was the first mayor of Washington, DC. He stumbled into that role by happening to own a fair amount of land when the Federal Government decided that much of it would make a lovely capital. Coupled with that, he had excellent political and social connections, being very much a member of the upper crust of what was then Maryland society. Brent’s mother was a member of the influential Carroll Family (fans of National Treasure will recognize the name as that of the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence) and his uncle, John Carroll, was the first Catholic archbishop appointed in the United States, as well as founder of Georgetown University.

Robert Brent would become a prosperous merchant, most notably by selling the government the sandstone required to build the White House and the Capitol. He was asked by Thomas Jefferson to become the first mayor of the new City of Washington. Having little population at the time, there was relatively little point in having an elected mayor at this point. He served without pay for ten years, reappointed annually well into President James Madison’s term. As mayor, he was responsible for starting the process of turning Peter L’Enfant’s grand vision into a working city, made that much more difficult as L’Enfant had been sacked and many of his details had not been elaborated upon. In Brent’s ten terms, provisions were made to continue laying out roads, establish a tax system, build public markets, and, yes, establish a public school system.

But little did he know it that his story would come full circle at Brent Elementary. In a recently discovered document, Robert Brent was one of 370 local luminaries that signed a pledge by President Jefferson to build a public school system in the nation’s Capital. In an original version of a public-private venture, they raised funds to build two one rooms school houses, one of which was on the site of  –you guessed it– Brent Elementary.

Robert Brent would go on to become Paymaster of the U.S. Army, before passing away in 1819. While mayor, he lived on the southeast corner of 12th and Maryland Ave, SW, but shortly before he died he completed a large mansion known as Brentwood for his daughter, Eleanor Pearson (now on the site of Gallaudet University). Robert Brent was laid to rest in the adjoining family vault, which would later be the center of some unusual activity. The section of DC known as Brentwood is to the north of this, and was once part of that estate.

Brent School would be built and named for Robert in 1883, originally as a classic 8-room brick building. The school and faculty served the Hill community well for several decades, despite periodic problems with mad dogs and scarlet fever, until a fire in 1962 prompted discussions of a new school. The current building was completed in 1968, and the original was demolished. As of a few months ago, it is now the site of Brent’s highly exciting new playground.

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8 responses to “How the Schools of Capitol Hill Got Their Names: Brent Elementary”

  1. MCN says:

    Thank you for opening my eyes to the wonderful history that surrounds me every day. Keep up the good work.

  2. JD says:

    If you want a smidgen of a peek of Brent under construction in 1968, look at the far right of this photo, taken in Folger Park on Easter 1968:


  3. Tim Krepp says:

    Thanks for the feedback folks, and especially the picture JD. I looked around for some old pics of Brent, and couldn’t find one. Imagine my surprise then when I walked in last week and saw a picture of the original posted in the front lobby, courtesy of one of our crossing guards, Mr. Wilson, who has worked with the school system since 1958 (if my memory is correct).

    Unfortunately, I didn’t find it in time, but on the better late than never idea:


  4. wow – Mr. Wilson was great! I can’t believe he is still there. I attended Brent in the 1970’s.

  5. wow – Mr. Wilson was great! I can’t believe he is still there. I attended Brent in the 1970’s.

  6. Tim Krepp says:

    Unfortunately, he’s not any more. He still comes by and visits from time to time, though! And yes, he is great!

  7. Tim Krepp says:

    Unfortunately, he’s not any more. He still comes by and visits from time to time, though! And yes, he is great!

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