21 Feb 2011

Lost Capitol Hill: The Wallach School

Although public schools have been part of the fabric of the District of Columbia since 1804, it was not until 60 years later that the first purpose-built school was erected in the city. The site selected was at the intersection of Pennsylvania and South Carolina Avenues, SE, a location that continued to contain schools until well into the 21st Century. The first building built was named the Wallach School, and it is its almost 90-year history that we will look at today.

Until the Civil War, schools in DC tended to be single rooms in other buildings, rooms that were used for all grades together. One of the larger structures used for instruction was in fact the old presidential stable; that school was usually referred to as Jefferson’s stable, owing to that president having been in charge when the first public schools were organized.

It became ever more clear that a purpose-built structure was necessary to properly teach the youth of the city, and so in 1864 Mayor Richard Wallach jr decreed that eight schools were to be built throughout the city. He hired Adolph Cluss (who would later design Eastern Market) and Cluss’s partner Kammerheuber to design the buildings.

The first school begun was sited at the corner of Pennsylvania and South Carolina Avenues in the southeast quadrant of the city. It was a great success from the start, and soon was filled with eager students and sometimes over-eager teachers: In 1867, Mrs. E. Roys, teacher at the school, was hauled into court for having beaten one of her charges. After it was determined that such a beating was, in fact, not contrary to school policy – even if it had been delivered by a two-foot ferrule – Mrs. Roys was duly acquitted.

During the next years, two more schools were built behind the Wallach school: Eastern High (which later became Hine Junior High) and Towers School, an elementary school. A further addition fortunately was not made: in 1888 a fire house was to be built on the site of the Wallach School’s playground, but a more suitable site was found behind Eastern Market.

The Wallach School in the 19th Century (adolph-cluss.org)

By 1896, the school was in need of repairs. In the course of this, the school became a footnote in labor history, when the contractor hired to do the work, William W. Winfree, was convicted of breaking the eight-hour labor law that had been passed four years earlier. He was the first thus convicted, and the jury ruled against him even after Building Inspector Brady said that the overtime was necessary, as the building work must be completed by September 15, or there would be “100 school children […] roaming about the streets having a glorious good time and continued vacation, unless it was completed by that time.” (Post, August 20, 1896) Winfree later compounded his error by stealing the Wallach School bell.

Thereafter, the school rarely appeared in the newspaper, though in 1926, some equipment at the school was found to be 40 years old. Though some changes were made, by the late 1940s, the school was deemed to be outmoded, and without the likes of the CHRS and without the knowledge of repurposing that has been gained since the city managed to rescue the Old Post Office, the school was torn down in 1949 and replaced with what is now the empty hulk of the Hine Middle School.

Of the original schools, the Franklin School stands out as one of the survivors. Though no longer used as a school, it has been refashioned into a civic center and hosts conferences and meetings – and is well worth the visit to see what the first schools in the District of Columbia looked like.

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9 responses to “Lost Capitol Hill: The Wallach School”

  1. Thom says:

    Thanks for bringing attention to the historic nature of this intersection in the story of education in DC. However, I’d grade this an incomplete for leaving out a few things:

    1. DC has a rich, proud history of promoting education for all its citizens, including poor, working class, white and African American children. In 1851, Myrtilla Miner, a New York abolitionist, opened a normal school to education young African American women to be teachers. That school eventually evolved into UDC. Miner Elementary School, here on the Hill, is named for Myrtilla Miner. Teaching African Americans was controversial in the first half of the 19th C., with riots against black schools in the 1830s, laws against teaching slaves to read, and many threats on Miner’s life (her house was burned down around her in 1857, but she escaped). But with the abolition of slavery in DC on April 16, 1862, and passage of an 1864 law by Congress mandating equal resources be spent on the separate African American school system in DC as was spent on educating white children, African American education in DC took a step forward.

    The choice of the Wallach School site in 1862, now the Hine site, represents the commitment of Congress and the city administration, at the height of the Civil War, to extend the best education to people of all social classes. Our ancestors chose this prominent intersection in the heart of the Navy Yard district, to make that statement.

    All this is well documented in a Master’s thesis written by Gabriela P. Harris, available here:


    2. When Mayor Wallach (he was Mayor from 1861-1868) built the school at this site, he hired architect Cluss to build something so beautiful that it would attract students of all economic classes into one facility to learn together. Prior to that, DC public schools were perceived to be schools for pauper children. Middle class children attended private schools.

    In May 2008, the DC Preservation League had the wit to add “DC Public School Buildings” to the list of “DC’s Most Endangered Places” deserving of preservation. Regretably, their focus was on school buildings, not school places, and by then the beautiful Wallach School was long gone, replaced by the current monstrosity at the site. If they had it to do over again, one would hope DCPL would consider the Hine site–this place, not this monstrosity of a building–worthy of preservation in terms of it being a place that has represented DC’s commitment to public education for children of all social classes since the Civil War.

    In fact, the whole prominent intersection is an endangered monument to the importance previous generations put on learning. Students and teachers at the beautiful Wallach School building could have looked out their windows in 1920-22 to see, across the intersection, construction of one of the first Carnegie libraries built in the US, now the Southeast Branch of DC Public libraries at this intersection.

    3. The author of this post laments that if only the decision about what to do with the beautiful old Wallach School at this site had been magically postponed to the present, CHRS would have found a way to repurpose the old building and renew its usefulness. Don’t be so silly.

    CHRS does not want the history of the site to be preserved. It opposed repurposing the current Hine school monstrosity for any use of any kind by DCPS, in large part because it prefers mixed use retail. In the eyes of CHRS, the “opportunity cost” of using this site for education purposes is just too great.


    The generations who have been stewards of this location on Pennsylvania Avenue SE–those who came before us and embraced this site as a beautiful school and (across the street) an original Carnegie library–better understood what “opportunity” means. The real opportunity cost in redevelopment of the Hine site will be lost for all future generations if the developers do not find a way to include an education component in their final plans.

    Our generation is the one that put “mixed use retail” ahead of education for our children in our stewardship of this important place on the Hill, the first generation in 150 years to do so, and the Hine site might forever stand as a monument to our shortsightedness and greed.

  2. ET says:

    I have been researching my house and neighborhood off and on for a few years. And ran across two articles from the WaPo. First, there is an article from 2/15/1948 that was written when it was known that Hine was coming and the second was the one about the bell “dispute.” I also found a 1909 Washington Herald article with a hazy picture of the school and the Haines building.

    The Smithsonian has a very clear picture.

    And the Library of Congress has a picture where if you squint you can see in the the far right. Cool picture that shows you Pennsylvania Avenue circa 1860’s.

  3. Tim Krepp Tim Krepp says:


    It’s a little harsh to say Robert’s post is “incomplete”. It’s a blog post, not the comprehensive history of the site. I think it’s great that you (and others) link to more information on the topic; that’s exactly what makes a blog strong: the active participation of its readers. Unlike, say, the master’s thesis you referenced, it’s not designed to stand alone. Having folks like yourself continue the conversation improves the original article.

    As to your points, they are very well laid out but I find nr 3 a bit simplistic. Are you arguing that their is some historical or architectural merit to the Hine school site that warrants its historic preservation? Or that its purpose as a school means that it should stand indefinitely? Either way, it has little to do with the actual thrust of the original post, which was simply a history of the building that once stood there.

  4. Thom says:

    @ Tim,

    Obviously, you did not make use of the excellent “incomplete” option the way I did at extensively when I was at school. It’s not harsh! “F” is harsh. “Incomplete” just means, “Wait, there’s much more to cover here.” It’s a reprieve, not a failing mark.

    This location, this place, has represented the community’s commitment to education for almost 150 years. So, yes, that “commitment” deserves preservation, even if our predecessors managed to swap out a beautiful building for a monstrosity along the way.

    If you are accusing me of trying to hijack Mr. Pohl’s thread, you bet I am. CHRS explicitly rejects any use of the site for kids or education. I hope HPRB does not follow that lead. The new development at this location ought to include something that reflects the history of the site–the location of the very first purpose-built public school building in DC, as Mr. Pohl notes. To me, capturing and preserving the commitment and purpose of the site is at least as important as preserving historic buildings.

    I am glad THIH and Pohl turned readers’ attention to the historic significance of this site. But the site is now in flux, under development, and so rather than being satisfied with presenting pretty pictures of the old building (and thanks! to ET for the additional pictures) and leaving it at that, I challenge readers and THIH to take the next step–what should be required of the winning developer inclusion of some element that reflects this history of the site among the many other elements of the development?

  5. Tim Krepp Tim Krepp says:

    Ahh, so Robert’s post was incomplete because he didn’t address your agenda? Got it.

  6. Thom says:

    @ Tim. Agenda?

    Not my agenda. HPRB’s agenda.

    The very first words on the HPO/HPRB website state HPRB “safeguards the District of Columbia’s cultural heritage, supports the local economy, and fosters civic pride in the city’s beauty and history.”

    Cultural heritage…and history. Not buildings.

    Not my agenda. The Hill is Home neighborhood’s agenda. I’m not the one knocking down all the structures between 7th and 8th and Pennsylvania Avenue and C Street and putting something new there. The city is, through its winning developer, Stanton/Eastbanc. That makes preserving “the cultural heritage and history” of the site the Number One agenda item for the community and ANC6B over the next month or two, as this development goes through the HPRB process.

    So, yes, a post about what used to be at the Hine site that specifically states, in effect, “If only CHRS had been around when the Wallach school building was in danger,” begs the question–are CHRS, the community and ANC6B going to make sure the development of the site protects the culture, heritage and history of the site?

    What’s your agenda?

  7. Tim Krepp Tim Krepp says:

    My agenda is to simply say that this article was about the history of the site. I’m not about to engage with you on the current development on this thread as it has nothing to do with the article.

    When there’s some new development, I’m sure one of THIH’s writers will put a new post up about it. At that point, I might, just might lay out my opinions. But I see no need to do it in a history article.

  8. anti-NIMBY says:

    Mixed use for this site is not the worst possible outcome- what some in the CHRS would love to see is a parking facility- and I bet that 25 years from now , after it is half falling down, they would decalre it a national landmark. Parking is the MAIN concern of CHRS- and keeping density and streetcars out is also a high priority of theirs. However- the re-use for education- for at least part of the site- has a lot of merit- as this city is changing and we are going to, at some point, going to HAVE TO stop turning school buildings into gyms , condos, and “homeless” shelters. In order to keep attracting affluent and peaceful, non-dysfunctional families, we are going to need SCHOOL buildings. The city cannot get by on single people forever- we need to get middle class and affluent family people back into DC- and great schools are part of the solution.

  9. Thom says:

    @ Tim,

    I think we agree, then. If I jumped the gun, I apologize. You ask whether “their [sic] is some historical or architectural merit to the Hine school site that warrants its historic preservation.” I think there is, and it warrants the attention of ANC6B and HPRB, THIH and the neighborhood, when the right time comes.

    Which is over the course of the next 3-4 weeks, starting next Tuesday:
    Tuesday, March 1, 6:30PM, Caesar Chavez Public Charter School (712-722 11th Street, SE) ANC Planning & Zoning Committee, in part to review Hine designs.
    Wednesday, March 2, 6:30PM, Stanton Development Corp. (above Marvelous Market) EMMCA, Eyes on Hine, and unaffiliated 8th Street neighbors to review Hine designs.
    Tuesday, March 8, 6:30PM, ANC meeting, in part to vote on Hine designs.
    Wednesday, March 16, 6:00 – 8:00PM, EMMCA Membership Meeting and Election, in part to review Hine designs.
    Thursday, March 24, Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) hearing on Hine designs.

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