History of a Square
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, March 22, 1908 [pt. 4, p. 1]
A century ago square No. 250 on the present city plan was looked upon as part and parcel of what is now the next square to the north, and it was many years before there was even a semblance of a dividing line. The stream from Franklin Square on the east made a natural boundary on the line of 13th street, the much used road in 14th street bounded the block on the west, and from the twenties H street took on the appearance of a thoroughfare. By the thirties the square became somewhat of note through the erection of several imposing buildings on the H street front by Count Denemon, and a school for colored youth was also established in the block.
There were thirty lots plotted in this square, which, in 1796, were vested in the United States, and in 1800 several in the southwest portion were owned by Davidson's heirs. A cent per foot was the original valuation made in 1802. The first settlement in the square was made in 1809 on lot 10, at the corner of 14th and H streets, by Henry Smothers. He afterward opened the school for colored children and continued its management as late as 1824. John W. Prout succeeded to ownership of the school, and he held the property for the next ten years. Before 1820 Col. R. Cutts and Richard Smith owned many lots. In 1827 Lethe Tanner, a veteran of the Cook family, bought the corner lot, and for fifty years or more the Tanners and Cooks lived there. Their property was listed at a value of $1,400. There was a two-story frame dwelling on the corner, in which Mrs. Tanner conducted a variety store.
The schoolhouse was a small frame building, and in this holding Mr. Prout was succeeded by John F. Cook in 1834. Mr. Cook served as schoolmaster till his death in 1855. It was here that the Colored Presbyterian Church, which for many years afterward stood opposite McPherson Square, was first organized in May, 1842. The school teacher was the first pastor, and was as successful in the church as in the school. His sons, John F. and George F. Cook, both became teachers of note. The former taught his own school near 16th and K streets until the colored public schools were established in 1867. He later became collector of taxes and is now a member of the board of education. George F. Cook succeeded his father in the H street school, and was the first superintendent of the colored public schools. Among the families who were represented in Cook's school were the Lewises, Shorters, Thomases, Carrolls, Datchers, Poseys, and Dodsons. Those being the days of slavery and prejudice the pupils were taught under some difficulties, for at times incendiary remarks or publications and escapes of slaves by the underground railroad would excite the white neighbors of the school and boys would vent their spleen by stoning the schoolhouse and pupils.
Purchase by French Minister
There was a small house near the corner of 13th and I streets in which a colored woman, "Aunt Betty Pearl," lived. Andrew Twine married her daughter and later erected a small brick house. About 1835 the property of the count passed into the hands of R. Le Colt, and later the buildings were owned by Commodores B. W. Kenyon, Granville S. Cooper and S. S. Gouvenur, and Surgeon H. S. Haskill, U. S. N. The two last named and Rev. Dr. Smith Pyne of St. John's Episcopal Church were residents there in the forties, and Gen. Winfield Scott occupied one of the houses some time in the fifties.
In the meantime there had been some settlement in other portions of the square. Mrs. Mary E. E. Allen bought lot 14 and John McDuell 12 and 13 on 14th street; John Onsley, 27 on 13th street. In 1831 A. M. Laub had 15 and 16 on 14th street, which he sold to James W. Shields in 1834. In 1836 J. Watson had lot 17 and Thomas P. James lot 6 on H street. In the forties Mrs. A. K. Lowe had lot 12 on 14th street.
List of Early Residents
In the forties, other than those already named, the following were residents in the square: Robert Reeves, Martin Renehan, Mr. Gallagher and Thomas Odell on 13th street; Mrs. McArdle, John P. Helton, John Trenholm on 14th street, and Thomas Williamson on I street. Mr. Renehan, as his name indicates, was of Irish origin, and for years was a doorkeeper at the White House. Here he fully sustained the reputation of his nationality for wit, and his witticisms through the many distinguished people he met were given world-wide circulation. It is related that in President Tyler's day he averted threatened dismissal by asking the President if he intended "to drive the last martin from the box." On another occasion the President told him some complaints had been made of his conduct. "And do you believe them?" Renehan replied. "'Tis a very bad man no one finds fault with, and your excellency is a very good man, for I've heard hundreds say much worse things about you than any would dare say of me."
After his labors at the door of the White House ceased Mr. Renehan was in the grocery business. In private life his company was welcomed in all quarters, for brimful of fun and quick at repartee, he was apt to put all about him in good humor. It was often said that his greatest difficulty was to preserve a sober face on a solemn occasion.
Song of Lovelorn Youth A song had its origin in this section which for a few years was the favorite throughout the District and adjacent country. A young girl's charms had made a lad captive, and she smiled upon him. Her parents, mindful of her youth, sent her to a distant boarding school in the hope of breaking off any attachment which might exist; and in a few months she was taken ill and died. The youth was much affected, and his family and friends had some fears as to his mental and physical health. In a few weeks he evolved some verses expressing his feelings, commencing:
"I am thinking of thee, Annie,
These were set to music by a bandmaster and published. The young author never recovered from his grief, and lived a bachelor until his death at a ripe old age.
An enterprising collector once lived in this square, and he had the reputation of being able to collect bills from the most obstinate creditors. One time he stopped an avenue omnibus in which a delinquent creditor had taken passage, and, coolly handing the bill, asked when it would be paid. According to another story this collector learned that a non-resident clergyman, whom he had dunned, intended to officiate for a city pastor, and by some means he learned the subject which would be presented Sunday morning. Making a good guess as to the text, he went to the church before service, slipped the bill in the Bible where the text was to be found, and took his seat to see the denouement. The minister came in on time, conducted the preliminary exercises and turned the leaves of the Bible till he found the text and the bill staring him in the face. Early the next week, it is said, he made a satisfactory arrangement with his creditors.