Penrose, located approximately three miles from Washington, DC, is a residential neighborhood in central Arlington County. It is bounded by Arlington Boulevard to the north, Columbia Pike to the south, Washington Boulevard to the east, and South Fillmore Street/South Walter Reed Drive to the west. Penrose was first platted and subdivided in 1882 by William H. Butler and Henry Louis Holmes, prominent leaders in the African American community. Because of its close proximity to Freedman's Village and the lack of restrictive covenants, Penrose was initially home to a vast number of African Americans including renowned medical researcher Dr. Charles Drew. Penrose, also once known as Central Arlington, experienced significant growth after the turn of the 20th century with the arrival of the commuter railways, the advent of the automobile and the need for housing to support the burgeoning population flocking to the nation's capital. This population surge overwhelmed the largely rural neighborhood of Penrose, altering the demographic make-up and transforming it into a commuting suburb of Washington, D.C.
Early Local History
Arlington history begins with Native American Indian history and may date back as far as 13,500 years. Various nomadic clans established villages, raised crops and quarried stone along Four Mile Run. More than a dozen village sites have been found within the boundaries of Arlington County; eight along the shore of the Potomac River and three in the upper valley of Four Mile Run. In July 1608, Captain John Smith and fourteen other Englishmen sailed up the Potomac River from James Fort to where the present day railroad bridge and the spans for US Route 1 and Interstate 395 touch Virginia soil. There, just one mile east of Penrose's southeast boundary of Washington Boulevard and Columbia Pike, they found a Native American village of long houses made of grass mats.
In 1649, England's King Charles II, exiled in Scotland, granted 5,282,000 acres of Virginia land to Thomas, Lord Culpeper. This charter was confirmed after the Restoration, and when Culpeper died in 1689, his daughter Catherine inherited five-sixths of the property. In 1690 Catherine married Thomas, 5th Lord Fairfax. In 1724, Lord Fairfax granted 432 acres to James Robertson. According to a landgrant map of 1669 to 1796, this parcel of land spanned from North Arlington to South 6th Street in Penrose. In 1730, an additional 629 acres was granted to Robertson. This parcel began at South 6th Street and led south through Penrose to south of Columbia Pike.
It is difficult to decipher who owned the various parcels within Penrose once Robertson sold the land. An 1878 map shows land holdings by Ellen Crocker, Maggie Crocker (both sides of Wayne Street), S.E. Corbett, J. Bartlett, Truman Hall (between Walter Reed Drive and South Wayne Street, and William Reed and Henry Austin (east of South Courthouse Road).
Proximity to the District of Columbia
In 1791, President George Washington determined that the ten-mile-square to become the new Federal District should begin at Jones Point, south of Alexandria, and proceed northwestward toward the Falls Church. While the District of Columbia was not organized until 1801, the part of Fairfax County ceded by Virginia to federal jurisdiction was organized as Alexandria County, including Alexandria City. All of present-day Arlington County, including Penrose, was included in the original proposed Ten Mile Square of the District of Columbia.
The Columbia Turnpike
In 1808, the merchants of Washington commissioned the construction of the Long Bridge in the present location of the railroad bridge over the Potomac River. From the Long Bridge, the District of Columbia Turnpike (now Columbia Pike Route 244) was built westward to intercept the Leesburg Turnpike (Route 7) and the Little River Turnpike (Route 236). The Penrose portion of the Columbia Turnpike was completed in 1812 and allowed local farmers to transport their produce to Washington.
In 1802 George Washington Parke Custis began construction of a mansion on the high land located directly east of Penrose. Only a natural dividing line created by Long Branch Creek, which today weaves alongside Washington Boulevard, separated the Custis lands and Penrose. The 1,100-acre site, which he had inherited from his father, overlooked the Potomac River and the city of Washington. When the mansion was completed in 1817 it was named Mount Washington, though it was later renamed Arlington House, after the original Custis estate in Northhampton County, Virginia. Arlington County derives its name from the mansion Custis built on this estate.
Arlington's first house of worship was located just east of Penrose's boundaries at Columbia Pike and South Orme Street. It was built around 1825 by Custis for his family, neighbors and servants. Services were conducted by students from the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Alexandria.
By the time Alexandria County was retroceded to Virginia in 1846 by the U.S. Congress because of jurisdictional and payment issues for the Alexandria Canal, the Columbia Turnpike corridor showed signs of increasing development. In 1850, the Columbia Schoolhouse, a one-story wood frame building, was constructed on the corner of South Wayne Street and Columbia Turnpike in Penrose as a private schoolhouse. In 1871, the school was chartered as the first public school (PS 1) in the Arlington School District. The schoolhouse also served as a place of worship for the congregation of Hunter Chapel (later Arlington United Methodist Church on Glebe Road), which was destroyed during the Civil War.
The 1850 Columbia Schoolhouse, at the corner of South Wayne Street and Columbia Turnpike�modern day site of Trinity Episcopal Church. (Photo from Images of America: Arlington, reprinted with permission of the Arlington Historical Society.)
The Civil War
In May 1861, Arlington was occupied by federal troops and the Arlington Heights were seized. The troops immediately began the construction of what came to be known as the Arlington Line - comprising Fort Runyon, Fort Corcoran, Fort Albany and Fort Scott. In July 1861, after a federal loss at Bull Run, work was also begun on Fort Ethan Allen, Fort Richardson, and a line of breastworks and lunettes. In August 1861, Fort Craig was constructed at the current Penrose location of South Courthouse Road and South 4th Street and became a part of the Arlington Line. It had a perimeter of 324 yards and emplacements for 11 guns. While the Arlington Line was never attacked, it supported a garrison of troops numbering 10,000 (compared to the local residential population of 1,400).
Forests, fields, produce and buildings were confiscated by the troops. By the end of the civil war, timber and wood had become scarce. The Arlington area had lost almost all of its woodland of elms, chestnut, walnut, birch, maple and oak trees. Farms had lost all their animal stock and many barns and outbuildings had been burned or destroyed for military uses. The grounds near the Arlington Mansion became a burial ground for soldiers - the start of Arlington Cemetery. Today, Penrose is separated from Arlington Cemetery only by Fort Myer.
Arlington Chapel, also known as the Chapel of Ease, was burned by Union soldiers at the start of the war. The congregation was reestablished after the war when it met in abandoned Federal barracks in this vicinity (perhaps on the grounds of the Navy Annex). Trinity Episcopal Church, now located at South Wayne Street and Columbia Pike in Penrose, is the successor congregation to Arlington Chapel.
In the1860s, the United States Congress and the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands began to establish settlements to ease the transitions from servitude to freedom and from wartime to peace. Beyond the provision of assistance to African Americans, the Bureau maintained a number of settlements throughout the South and bordering states to provide freed people with housing and opportunities for work, training and education. These settlements began under the wartime supervision of the Union Army and were managed by the Quartermaster's Department.
In May 1863, a settlement site was selected just south of the Custis Arlington Estate. There, Freedman's Village was built and formally dedicated on December 4, 1863. It would become the most famous of all the settlements. There were over 10 frame houses, 50 two-story duplex houses, two chapels, a school with five teachers, a meeting hall, a hospital and a home for the aged and infirm. At one time the population exceeded 1,000. Though intended to be temporary, Freedman's Village remained functioning until the 1890's after which time its residents moved to other areas of Arlington County; most notably to the Butler Holmes Subdivision (now Penrose), Nauck, Hall's Hill, Johnson's Hill, East Arlington, Queen City and South Washington.
Evolution of a Name: Butler Holmes Becomes Central Arlington Becomes Penrose
The Butler Holmes Subdivision
In 1879, two farmers and laborers who were community leaders in Freedman's Village, William H. Butler and Henry Louis Holmes, purchased parcels of land west of Fort Myer in what is today Penrose. They built their own homes here, relocating with their families around 1879, and improved the area with substantial construction of freestanding dwellings. In 1882, the neighborhood was ultimately platted as the Butler-Holmes subdivision. This was the first impetus for growth in Penrose from its rural farming setting.
Today's Arlington Boulevard Route 50 bound the Butler Holmes subdivision to the north, Wise Street to the east, South Second Street to the south and South Fillmore Street to the west. Because of its proximity to Freedman's Village and the lack of restrictive covenants, the Butler Holmes subdivision became home to many African Americans. The most famous resident was Dr. Charles Drew, an African American who gained international acclaim for his scientific advances in the field of blood plasma transfusion research. He was the first African American to receive a Doctor of Science in Medicine and he became Head of the Surgery Department at Howard University. His 1910 era home, where he resided until 1939, is located at 2505 South 1st Street. It has been designated a National Historic Landmark and remains occupied by the Drew family today.
The Charles Drew house in 1920 and in 1977. An old family photo shows that the Drew family raised chickens at their home in Arlington in the 1920s.
Both Butler and Holmes held public office in Arlington County prior to their real estate development ventures. William Butler served as Commissioner of Roads in 1879 and later as Surveyor of Roads throughout the 1880s, as well as Superintendent of the Poor. In 1879, Butler constructed a wood frame Queen-Anne style home at 2407 South 2nd Street that is still owned by the Butler family. Henry Holmes served as commissioner of Revenue between 1876 and 1903 and was one of the first officers of St. John's Baptist church, located at the intersection of Columbia Pike and South Scott Street. An annex to the now demolished Arlington County courthouse was named in his honor. Holmes passed away in 1905 and his widow occupied the second Holmes family house at 2803 S. 2nd St. until her death in the 1960s.
The Butler family home (left) and the Holmes house (right) in 2003.
Arlington County named a public park for Butler and Holmes in recognition of their community services. The park is located within the original subdivision at 101 South Barton Street. The Butler Holmes subdivision was the first of several subdivisions that would together become modern-day Penrose and many descendants of original residents still live here.
Maps from 1900 show 15 parcels of land, together referred to as The Arlington Heights, roughly located between the Butler Holmes subdivision and Columbia Pike. Occupants included Bertha Bradley (28.94 acres), Emma and Truman Hall (23.17 acres), Sam Potter, Julia Smith (B.M. Smith), P.P. Lewis, J.P. Lewis, Emma McConville, and Emma Cothern (10.36 acres). In the 1960s the Arlington Heights subdivision and the Butler Holmes subdivision were merged to form a neighborhood called Central Arlington.
Penrose and the Commuter Rail System
From the 1890s into the first part of the 20th century, this neighborhood saw a substantial population increase as a result of the introduction of the Fort Meyer Branch of the Washington-Alexandria and Falls Church commuter railway that connected the community to Rosslyn, Georgetown and the District of Columbia. The neighborhood grew into a working-class community with laborers and workers who supported North Arlington and Washington, D.C. Trolley cars cut through Penrose along South Fillmore Street and South Second Street and connected with the Washington-Virginia line at Hunter Station (still standing as a private residence) near the intersection of South 2nd Street and South Wayne Street within the Butler Holmes subdivision. This particular station, which gave residents a direct connection to Washington, D.C., was located just south of where the Washington, Arlington and Fairfax Electric Railway lines intersected with the trolley line.
This private residence was formerly the Hunter Station, with an adjacent General Store.
The Columbia Station located at Columbia Pike and Walter Reed Drive was also located in modern day Penrose. Penrose Station was one of the stops on the Nauck Line between Hunter and Columbia. Street name and grid changes, as well as inconclusive maps, have made it difficult to pinpoint the exact location of the stop. It was somewhere within the modern day quadrant of South 2nd Street, South 6th Street, South Barton Street, and South Cleveland Street.
A Washington-Virginia Railway Company trolley on the Nauck Line (circa 1909).
Interior view of a typical Penrose trolley car. (Trolley photos from Old Dominion Trolley Too: A History of the Mount Vernon Line, by John E. Merriken, used with permission of the National Capital Trolley Museum.)
In 1995, a citizens' initiative spearheaded the neighborhood name change from Central Arlington to Penrose to both distinguish the community from an oblivious reference on a map and to recall the neighborhood's great history. The name Penrose is derived from one of the historical trolley stops on the old Georgetown-Nauck line. Since the name change, the trolley has become our neighborhood symbol and can be found on our neighborhood identification signs at four gateway locations. As this effort proves, citizen initiative, neighborliness and a sense of history all remain strong in Penrose.
Early Telecommunications Born in Penrose
In 1913, three towers were erected by the U.S. Navy on South Courthouse Road and South 8th Street in Penrose as part of an effort to establish a worldwide communication network. The official name of the facility was the Arlington Radio Station, introducing the use of the word "radio" to describe the new wireless communication. The three towers, also known as the three sisters, stood on a site with an elevation of 300 feet and were constructed at heights of 600 feet and 450 feet. In 1915, engineers from American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) used the Arlington radio towers to complete the first successful trans-oceanic voice communication. They used 300 vacuum tubes to generate and modify the high frequency current in a wireless transmission spanning three thousand miles from Penrose, Arlington to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.
During the same tests, a voice message was carried all the way to Pearl Harbor, in the Hawaiian Islands for a distance of almost five thousand miles. The U.S. public once set its clocks by the Arlington Radio time signal and listened for its broadcast weather reports. The towers were dismantled in 1941 because they were considered a menace to aircraft approaching the new Washington National Airport. An AT&T Central Office is still located nearby at Walter Reed Drive and South 9th Street. The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) currently occupies the Penrose site where the towers stood.
Radio Station Arlington, in 1913, on South Courthouse Road and South 8th Street. (Photo from Images of America: Arlington, used with permission of the Arlington Historical Society.)
Mid-20th Century Growth
In 1926, there were approximately 70 houses in Penrose. Following the opening of Arlington Boulevard Route 50 in the 1930s and the growth of federal government agencies in Washington and nearby military establishments, the neighborhood grew to 175 buildings and several churches. During the early part of the community's development, homes included a number of vernacular, Queen Anne and Italianate-style dwellings constructed primarily of wood frame. During the 1910s and 1920s, homes consisted of mainly wood-frame bungalows and vernacular dwellings. A common practice at this time in Arlington County was the kit house or mail-order house. The rail line facilitated the building of many kit homes in Penrose since it allowed for easy shipping of materials.
With the birth of the Pentagon in the 1940s, expansion of local housing became a primary concern. Several garden style apartment communities were built to accommodate the influx of federal workers. Fillmore Gardens and Fort Craig Apartments (now the Executive Suites Hotel) are primary examples. Fillmore Gardens, which received an award for architectural merit in 1943 from the Washington Board of Trade, was built on a twenty-acre tract of land, but also led to the demolition of the Sewell Corbett/Bradbury House and the Arlington M.E. Church.
Many commercial buildings lie along the southern edge of the neighborhood along or just north of Columbia Pike. These were primarily constructed during the mid-to-late 20th century, fueled by the increased population growth between the wars. The main commercial corridor stretches along the southern boundary and beyond and includes restaurants, grocery stores and other retail establishments that serve Penrose and automobile traffic along Columbia Pike. Several of the original storefront buildings remain standing today, including the building historically associated with Fillmore Garden on the north side of Columbia Pike at South Walter Reed Drive.