The history of Tenleytown begins with a tavern. A man named John Tennally opened one in the late 1700s at the spot where River Road now meets Wisconsin Avenue. Over time, a village of farms and estates —called “Tennallytown” — sprouted up around that central tavern.
In the time between then and now, the Northwest D.C. neighborhood has undergone many phases to become the commercial center, American University home and residential enclave it is today. It’s been host to a Civil War fort, an African-American community called Reno City (which the federal government started dismantling in the late 1920s), a top-secret code-breaking center during World War II, and a variety of radio and television broadcast centers.
As of last week, 19 new markers dot the neighborhood, pointing out such historical sites of interest to passersby. The markers — signposts with stories, photographs and maps — make up the “Top of the Town: Tenleytown
Heritage Trail,” a three-mile selfguided walking tour that traces the area’s history from Tennally’s tavern
The heritage trail, the 11th in the city, will celebrate its launch on Nov. 13. Cultural Tourism DC, the
nonprofit that organizes the trails with funds from the city and federal government, plans to complete 17
total and is now working on trails for Georgia Avenue, H Street NE and Anacostia.
Cultural Tourism DC historian Mara Cherkasky said planning for the Tenleytown project began three years ago. The organization benefited from a number of resources, Cherkaskysaid: a well-established local historical society, “lots of people active in the neighborhood history and preservation” and Judith Beck Helm’s 1981 book on the area’s history. That book, “Tenleytown, DC: Country Village Into City Neighborhood,” became “a bible” for the project, Cherkasky said.
The newly created trail guides pedestrians from Fort Reno Park down through the restaurants and chain stores on Wisconsin Avenue and along Nebraska Avenue to Ward Circle. It also dives off onto a handful of sites on residential streets deeper into the neighborhood. Some of the highlights include:
- “Reno City” (Marker 6, at Chesapeake and 40th streets). During the Civil War, Union troops seized the property of farmer Giles Dyer to create Fort Pennsylvania — later renamed Fort Reno — at the city’s highest natural point. After the war, the Dyer family sold the land to developers. The area attracted many former slaves who had found work and safety at Fort Reno during the war. According to the trail materials, by 1900 the resulting “Reno City” was 75 percent African-American and included a school, three churches and a Masonic lodge. Between the late 1920s and early 1950s, the federal government — with plans to create a park on the former Fort Reno, as well as build schools and reservoirs — purchased and razed the homes in Reno City, scattering the community.
- “A Country Road” (Marker 2, at the intersection of 39th Street, Grant Road and Nebraska Avenue). The quiet, winding byway of Grant Road, today still replete with historic homes, was once part of the military road that connected the city’s ring of Civil War forts. By the late 1800s, working-class residents lived in the road’s one-room-wide houses, while farm animals roamed nearby fields. One prominent visitor was President Theodore Roosevelt, who had a hunting lodge in the area.
- “On the Circle” (Marker 14, at Yuma Street and Tenley Circle). The stucco structure at Wisconsin Avenue and Grant Road, now a dry cleaning shop, is the neighborhood’s oldest still-standing commercial building. It started off as a feed store in the 1890s, becoming “Doc” Scholl’s pharmacy in 1915 and serving sundaes in the 1920s. • “In Touch With the World” (Marker 7, at Wisconsin Avenue and Brandywine Street). Western Union Telegraph Co. built the 90-foot “Tenley Tower” in the 1940s to relay microwave-transmitted telegrams and television signals. In 1953, Broadcast House at 40th and Brandywine streets took advantage of the technology with three television studios and four radio studios for WTOP. Forty years later, WAMU, American University’s public radio station, moved into a building across the street.
- “Winning the War” (Marker 16, the 3900 block of Nebraska Avenue). During World War II, the U.S. Navy took over the 3801 Nebraska Ave. campus of the Mount Vernon Seminary for “essential wartime activities,” according to the trail materials. Among those who worked to break German and Japanese communication codes were WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services).
- “Live on Our Stage!” (Marker 18, the 3900 block of Nebraska Avenue): NBC Radio and Television moved into Nebraska Avenue headquarters in 1958. Two years later, the station broadcast the second televised presidential candidates’ debate, between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy. The station’s local affiliate, WRC, also aired the television debut of Kermit the Frog.
The launch celebration of the Tenleytown Heritage trail will take place Saturday, Nov. 13, starting at 1 p.m. at the Fort Reno Park bandstand.