Arcadia Publishing’s neighborhood series — which encompasses more than 7,500 books — imposes strict guidelines on its authors, who dig through archives and records to uncover a comprehensive history of their residential surroundings. Each book must be exactly 128 pages. Each photo caption must be 140 words, or 180 if the photo is alone on a page. Photographs must be rigorously sourced and carefully sized. Pictures culled from newspaper articles aren’t permitted.
Three years ago, when Arcadia contacted historian Ross Schipper, a 28-year Burleith resident, about adding a Burleith edition to the sprawling “Images of America” collection, he was excited. Little did he know how much work it would take. “Getting images was a lot more difficult than expected,” he said.
But Schipper said the end result, “Burleith,” was worth the effort. The book — which he co-wrote with licensed D.C. tour guide and 18-year Burleith resident Dwane Starlin — provides an overview of the neighborhood’s rich history, which begins in the 18th century with a European colonial prospector and ends with the neighborhood’s modern reputation as a separate entity from adjacent areas. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been talking to people from Glover Park or Georgetown, and they’ve never heard of Burleith,” Schipper said at a book event March 25 at the Georgetown Library.
As the book details, Burleith got its start in the 1600s as the name of a small “hamlet” in Scotland, albeit with several different spellings, which also included “Berleith” and “Barleith.” Landowner Matthew Hopkins immigrated to Maryland in the 1730s and established Berleith, a tract of land that includes modern-day Burleith as well as what is now Georgetown University and Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School. When Hopkins died, his widow married farmer Henry Threlkeld; their son went on to become the first mayor of Georgetown.
During the American Revolution, the original Burleith was burned to the ground. The rebuilt neighborhood — renamed at some point to its current spelling — was subdivided over several generations of landowners. The book delves into the property’s evolution in great detail, including actual land maps depicting the neighborhood’s evolving layout. More than half of the 500-plus houses that now constitute
Burleith — bounded by 39th and 35th streets NW to the north and south, and Whitehaven Parkway and Reservoir Road to the north and south — were built in the 1920s. Current residents of the quiet residential neighborhood would be surprised to learn that Burleith, while never a commercial hub by any means, had a store within its current boundaries as recently as the 1960s: the Burleith Market, a small mom-and-pop venture at the corner of 35th and T. In general, though, Burleith serves as a refuge from the more commercial areas nearby.
The book also makes passing reference to legends that have often tantalized Burleith residents. One such story places Thomas Jefferson in a meeting with Meriwether Lewis near 35th and S streets NW in 1803, shortly before the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition.
“We don’t know if it’s true. We haven’t found anything that indicates it,” Schipper said. “But it’s certainly a nice rumor.”
Some gaps in the book could only be filled by speculation.
One resident at the book talk asked Schipper if there’s more to be discovered about the wives of the various mentioned landowners. Schipper said documentation detailing their pursuits is scarce. “History might or might not have been different if women had been able to inherit land,” he said.
Schipper also continues to wonder about a 1954 map that describes a spot near Whitehaven Park west of 37th Street as “horse heaven.” Rumor has it that the spot served as a burial ground for horses at one time, but Schipper couldn’t find any concrete proof.
Other sections of the book detail the experiences of the Western High School Cadets, which earned recognition and a visit from President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, and trace the evolution of the neighborhood’s fire and police call boxes, which now boast public art.
In addition to educating readers about Burleith’s past, the book also serves as a compendium of contributions from current residents, who shared pieces of history with Schipper and Starlin to form a sort of neighborhood collage. Between 60 and 70 percent of the book’s photos come from current and past residents, Schipper said, and the rest were drawn from archives in the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., George Washington University’s Gelman Library, the Library of Congress, the Georgetown Library’s Peabody Room and even the Library of Scotland.
Though Burleith history gets a wide showcase in this book, debate over the possibility of designating the neighborhood as a historic district continues. The Burleith Citizens Association, which formed in 1926, held meetings last year to discuss the process for pursuing such designation from the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board. But some neighbors objected to restrictions that historic designation could place on local renovations or redevelopment. Those discussions remain on hold as residents continue to hash out differences, according to Lenore Rubino, a citizens association member who co-chaired the group’s Historic Designation Committee in 2016.
For now, though, the neighborhood appears united around Schipper and Starlin’s achievement. Schipper teamed up with Starlin at a Burleith History Group meeting after Schipper presented the Arcadia project. The two collaborated on finding photos and writing copy; Starlin is now helping develop sales opportunities for the book, Schipper told The Current.
Residents met Schipper’s talk with several bursts of applause, and one asked him if he uncovered enough material during the research process for another Burleith book.
“It took three years to put all this together,” Schipper said. “I don’t know what my next project will be. We’ll see.”
The book marks only the sixth neighborhood out of 26 west of Rock Creek Park to earn the Arcadia treatment; the others are the Palisades, Woodley Park, Forest Hills, Dupont Circle and Cleveland Park.
“Burleith” by Ross Schipper and Dwane Starlin is available in paperback for $21.99 from Arcadia Publishing.