Kenyon Street Elevation from original drawings by architect William M. Poindexter, dated March 14, 1898.
Passersby may know the school at 770 Kenyon Street as the Cesar Chavez Prep Middle School, but this has only been since 2009. For much of its existence, it was the old Bruce Elementary School.
The Bruce School was constructed in 1898 to designs by William M. Poindexter to provide a school for the growing African American community north of Florida Avenue. It is an Italian Renaissance style building of red brick with stone and pressed metal trim. The eight-room school was designed with a conventional floor plan with four rooms on each floor arranged around a central hallway. In 1927, the overcrowded conditions of the school were relieved by the construction of an eight-room extensible annex to the west designed in the Colonial Revival style by municipal architect Albert L. Harris.
By July 1897, the Superintendent of Schools decided that a new school was needed in the vicinity of Sherman Avenue, between Harvard (Irving) and Marshall (Kenyon) streets for the Columbia Heights area. In surveying the area, the available corner lots were considered unsuitable as the majority were either below or above the grade of the street necessitating a large expenditure to grade them properly before a building could be erected. Due to this, the Superintendent preferred the lots on the south side of Marshall (Kenyon) Street which were upon the grade. A water main already had been extended as far east on Kenyon Street as Sherman Avenue allowing for an extension to Seventh (Georgia) Street without extra cost to the District. These favorable factors led the Commissioners to order the purchase of the Kenyon property on July 27, 1897, at a cost of $7,650. This left a sum sufficient for the extension of the sewer, approximately $650, for a total of less than $10,000, which permitted the erection of a $30,000 school building, out of the $40,000 appropriation.
As this detail from the 1903 Baist’s Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Washington shows, upon completion the Bruce School would have been an imposing and impressive building in a sparsely developed area of Washington.
The school on Marshall Street was one of a handful of schools being planned at this time. In addition to the Bruce School, the eight-room Turner School located on the southeast corner of 24th and F Streets, NW, was being designed for white pupils of the fifth division; an eight-room building on sixth street between B and C streets northeast, adjoining the old Peabody annex, was being planned for white pupils of the third division, an eight-room building at Eckington was planned for white pupils of the sixth division, and the Lovejoy school at 12th and B streets northeast was being remodeled for black pupils of the tenth division. The decision to build schools in more remote locations rather than in more densely populated parts of the city was a result, in part, of the Congressional appropriation law that set a standard amount for school buildings without regard to the value of land, which was necessarily greater in the business and residential sections of the District. This frustrating situation was noted by the Commissioners who vowed to take it up with Congress during future appropriation requests.
The architect chosen to design the new school on Marshall, in accordance with the policy recently inaugurated by the District Commissioners of having the designs and plans of local public buildings made by architects of the city and not the employees in the office of the inspector of buildings, was William M. Poindexter. The change in policy was considered to not only create structures of superior design, but also to relieve the building inspector from a great deal of work that had consumed a good deal of time and also taken the employees away from their “legitimate duties; namely, to see that the building regulations [were] carried out.” The new building was of the regulation eight-room size, but Poindexter had reportedly introduced a number of features which added to the building’s convenience and improved the health conditions of the structure. By July 7, 1898, the Commissioners had also decided to name it the Bruce School in honor of the late ex-Senator Blanche K. Bruce, who was for a number of years a member of the board of public school trustees. Construction of the building lasted into the fall of 1898.
The original Bruce School as it looks today.
The Bruce School is among the first group of purpose-built schools built to serve students in the new suburbs north of the original city boundary. In additional to Bruce School, other notable earlier schools included the Monroe School, once located on Columbia Road, built in 1889 (since razed). Other known early purpose built school buildings in the Columbia Heights, Park View, Pleasant Plains, and Petworth area include Hubbard (1899/1900 – razed), Petworth (1902), Johnson (1895 – razed), Powell (1909 -razed), Park View (1916), and Raymond (1924). Other nearby purpose-built black school buildings of the period located north of Florida Avenue included Wilson Public School (1891), Thomas P. Morgan School (1902 – razed) and the Military Road School (1912).
In addition to William Poindexter’s design for the Bruce School, the majority of his work was residential. Other than residential, he also designed small-scale commercial buildings as well as several large institutional buildings including the Columbian University Building at 15th and H Streets, NW (1883 – razed) and several buildings at the U.S. Soldiers Home. He was in charge of the renovations and expansion of the Sherman Building, the original 1862 hospital on the Soldiers’ Home grounds which had 1870s alterations and additions. Poindexter partnered with Flemer to design the 1887 renovation and expansion, which included removal of the 1870s mansard roof, upper story additions, and the construction of a north wing.
The Bruce School is an architectural gem. Next time you walk past it take some time to examine the details, and imagine what the neighborhood was like when the school was new and few buildings surrounded it.
To the west of the original structure is the Colonial Revival addition to the school built in 1927. Today, the building houses Chavez Prep Middle School