Tenleytown's Woodrow Wilson High School exemplifies the high standard of architectural quality that characterized Washington's public school design and construction until the mid-twentieth century. The school was carefully designed to suit the unique shape and topography of its site, and its architectural expression makes it an excellent example of academic Colonial Revival architecture. Its style was seen as indigenous to the region, and its particular plan permitted the breaking down of a huge building into more humanely scaled and picturesque pavilions to accommodate specialized functions. Before the construction of the school, the site was part of Reno City, an African American community.
Woodrow Wilson High School neighbors Fort Reno Park. Both the school and the park were developed on a site that had previously been Reno City, an African American community developed by individuals who sought to have a free and independent community post-enslavement.
At the start of the Civil War, the Union Army took the land of Giles Dyer, a slave owner, whose property was considered an ideal spot for the construction of a fort that would join multiple others in defending the nation’s capital. In 1861, Fort Pennsylvania was established on the elevated land. It would later be renamed Fort Reno in honor of a fallen general, and this name was kept for the rest of its existence. Throughout the war, previously enslaved people settled around Fort Reno, seeking their freedom as well as work to support themselves. After the war ended many African Americans made their homes in the area, buying land and developing farms and businesses. Soon the community established a church, grocery store, and approximately 30 houses. This growing community became known as Reno City.
At the beginning of the 20th century the population of Reno City was predominately African American. Fort Reno had been demolished to make way for an underground reservoir and the town now included 100 houses. During these first years of the 20th century, the U.S. Senate Park Commission put forward a plan to preserve the city’s Civil War forts as public parks; however, this plan was not seriously considered until the 1930s. With the influx of white, middle-class families to Tenleytown during the 1930s the government decided that Reno City’s land would be the best place to develop schools and a park for these incoming families. Despite the protests of Reno City residents, the government systematically condemned and demolished African American homes and businesses, destroying and displaying the community. In its place, the government built the Fort Reno Reservoir complex, Alice Deal Junior High School, and Woodrow Wilson High School’s athletic fields. The only building of Reno City to survive demolition is the Jesse Reno School, established in 1904 and still standing today.
During 1922, a Congressional committee submitted a detailed report evaluating DC’s public school system. They determined that schools were overcrowded, with Tenleytown’s identified as the most crowded. A program titled “The Five Year Building Plan” was developed in response. The program aimed to fund the construction of new buildings and replace or increase the size of older ones. It gained significant approval; however, the Great Depression prevented it from really taking off until the 1930s. When the program resumed, design for multiple schools including Woodrow Wilson High School began. Wilson High School was designed between 1933 and 1934 in a collaborative effort by Congress, the Office of the Municipal Architect, and the Commission of Fine Arts. Despite substantial budget cuts as a result of the Great Depression, the high school’s construction was finished in 1935 and in 1938, its athletic field was completed as well. Wilson High School was considered one of the most modern schools designed and built in the city.
Throughout World War II, Wilson High School remained active in war-related activities such as holding patriotic assemblies, loan drives, participating in civil defense planning, and offering Morse code classes. The high school also had a cadet corps, with around one thousand students serving in the military. During the Cold War, citizens and the federal government were concerned about radioactive fallout in their fear of potential nuclear war. Schools deemed adequate to act as shelters were stocked with emergency supplies and in June of 1955, Wilson High School was selected to take part in a civil defense exercise where students practiced evacuating the school. Around the same time, after the ruling of Bolling v. Sharpe, some of the school’s athletes were on the first integrated Public High School All-Stars football team.
Nominated by the DC Preservation League.
DC Inventory: February 25, 2010
Contributing Building to the Grant Road Historic District
See: Jesse Reno School