Old Washington (Judiciary Square—Part IV)

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, May 24, 1913 [pt. 2, p. 3]

When the population of the city of Washington numbered about 34,000 more than 12,000 resided in what was known as the third ward, which extended to the river. There were anterior to 1844 but two public schools, one at the corner of 14th and G streets northwest and the other at the corner of 3d and B streets southeast. Therefore, school accommodations, especially for the poorer class, were limited, and these two schools drew their pupils in part from the remote parts of the city. That in the western district was attended by a number who lived on the banks of the Potomac and near the woods about the northern part of the city. The other school drew from the extreme southern end of the city, about 1st an W streets, as well as the neighborhood of the Spring Tavern on the Bladensburg road.

In 1844 measures were taken to increase the accommodations, and December 6 of that year the corporation passed an act reorganizing the public school system by dividing the city into four districts instead of two. The western public school became that of the first district and the eastern that of the third. For the second district, which took in all of the old third ward, the central part of the city north of the Mall and canal, Col. Peter Force, Maj. Thomas Donohoo and John C. McKelden were appointed trustees, and an appropriation having been secured for the erection of a schoolhouse, permission was obtained to erect the same on Judiciary Square, the spot selected being on the west side of the square, near where F street strikes it, and thus Judiciary Square had a new building.

It was a small plain structure, which would be laughed at by the scholars of today. The lower portion was used by the male department and the upper portion by the female department.

School Opened on Square
The school was opened September 1, 1845, by Dr. Tobias Watkins and Mrs. S.P. Randolph. There were about a hundred pupils during this first term, some of them coming from the leading old families, and among them can be recalled many who made their mark in subsequent life. A number later practiced law. One of them, Judge S.C. Mills, occupied the police judgeship; another, William Elwood, became chief of the fire department, and one of the natives of the city hall born in the basement, was also a pupil here, late in life settling in New Orleans. A.H. Regan attended here, and for many years subsequently was in the employment of the United States Senate. Among other trustees who served many years were Valentine Harbaugh and Gen. Peter S. Bacon. In after years John E. Thompson was a teacher for a short time before he was made principal of the fourth district school.

The school was occupied as a district school until the erection of the Abbott School, on the corner of 6th and L streets, which building was occupied conjointly with the Northern Liberty Fire Company in the 50’s. The school and fire company soon proved uncongenial, and the fire company went out of service about 1857.

As may be imagined, the pupils of this school had much to district them from their studies by reason of the jail and courthouse and infirmary nearby, and though the lot afforded a wide expanse for play, there was a fence around the schoolhouse, the inclosed space being designated as a playground.

Tent Shows and Fairs
There were also often in the square circuses and menageries, to say nothing of temporary buildings erected for fairs and balls, and the frequent parades of some of the military companies whose armories were in the lower rooms of the city hall.

Among the menageries recalled are Van Amberg’s celebrated show, Welsh, Mann & J. Delaven’s circus, and among those who appeared in them were Dan Rice, a famous clown of his day, and Gardner and Franconi’s hippodrome, and associated with the latter is quite a romance. The performer who was the central figure on the floral car was a fine roust, handsome woman, measuring about six feet in height. In casting her eyes around the audience she captivated a rather diminutive carpenter, and the result was that after introductions the marriage took place, and the hippodrome lost one of its greatest attractions, the woman living in harmony with her companion for some years. Eventually tiring, she again took to the circus ring.

A number have made their mark, not a few of them in the army and navy during the civil war; one became a valued officer of the coast survey, and in this community today are to be found retired merchants, builders, professional men and at least one capitalist who were on Dr. Watkins’ roll when he opened his school in 1845.

In 1844 a great mechanical fair was held in a large frame building near the southwest corner of the square, and for weeks it attracted large crowds. This was the first time the recently invented reaper and sewing machine were exhibited, and they excited great curiosity and created quite a furor. Many predicted that these two inventions would result in crowding out labor, and in every section of the hall could be heard discussions as to the utility of the inventions for mankind.

The woman folks generally looked with disfavor upon the sewing machine, but it was not long before there was a change in sentiment.

Temporary Ball Buildings
Several times inaugural balls were held in large frame buildings erected near the city hall, and some of the rooms were utilized as dressing rooms, etc. Lincoln’s first inaugural ball took place here in 1861, and in 1873 that of Gen. Grant’s took place in a temporary building on the east side of the square.

This ball is well remembered, for the thermometer was down near zero and there was much suffering. But so anxious was the populace to see the interior that at a fancy ball which took pace the night after there was a jam.

In front of the building one or the other of the great political parties raised their campaign flags, the whigs using large pine poles and the democrats hickory ones. The front of the hall was also the place for political and other public meetings, and it was also the point where the inaugural and other processions were formed.

The top of the hill was cut down a few feet in the fifties, and then was laid bare a collection of oyster shells, and this fact led to a discussion which was carried to the public prints as to whether or not this was evidence of the place once being covered with water. The illusion however, was dispelled by the late William Birth. His father furnished the stone used about the building, and he remembered that when the stays of the derrick used for hoisting the stone were removed the hole was filled up with oyster shells, which were carried from the restaurants to the dump near New Jersey and Indiana avenues, about 1822.