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The History of American University’s Neighborhoods

Students at American University call the areas around campus home with a majority of them living in Spring Valley and Tenleytown. And each of these neighborhoods have their own vibrant and rich histories.   

Spring Valley

Spring Valley is one of the wealthiest and most expensive neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. 

Just over a hundred years ago, in 1917, AU owned most of the land in Spring Valley. During this time, the federal government leased land from AU to create a chemical weapon testing site. Shortly after World War I, the site was shut down and the land was sold to allow for development. 

Starting in 1928, W.C and A.N Miller Companies sold homes in this subdivision, writing deeds that restricted homes from being bought by those of Jewish, Syrian, Persian or African descent.

Jumping ahead to the 1990s, Spring Valley was abundant with families and businesses. While businesses and families were living comfortably, construction workers completing work nearby found rusted bombs underneath the ground. These bombs were ultimately identified as chemical mortar rounds and 75-millimeter shells, some of which were still live. These shells contained mustard gas, a very lethal chemical.

The army inspected and removed a lot of munition from underneath the houses and land in Spring Valley which resulted in some families needing to evacuate in order for inspections to take place safely. 

By 1995, the Army deemed the neighborhood safe, but in 2000, there were once again safety concerns. Scientists and engineers showed that the Army missed many pits that contained the lethal chemicals once deemed to have been removed. Upon further investigation, they unearthed twice as many munitions as the first investigation produced. 

Tenleytown

Tenleytown, once known as Tennallytown, has a rich history dating back to the Civil War. Coined in 1790 by the locals, the name Tennallytown was a reference to the infamous Tennally’s Tavern, owned by John Tennally.

Over time, the spelling of the town changed due to confusion between officials. It was settled that the neighborhood would be called Tenleytown instead. 

This area, once Fort Reno during the Civil War, is the highest point of elevation in Washington. This allowed troops to have the best lookout point. For this reason and many others, Tenleytown served as protection against enemy forces. 

Many Civil War forts were located on American University’s land, including Battery Kemble, Fort Reno and Fort Gaines. Fort Gaines has been traced back to where Ward Circle and Katzen Arts Center are located today.

Post Civil War, Tenleytown was a free Black community with 75% of the community being free Blacks and the remaining 25% of the population being white. Despite much of the community being unskilled labor workers, Tenleytown was an active community. 

With the building of new schools, parks and a water tower, the federal government ultimately caused the collapse of the Tenleytown community. Over the years, traces of Tenleytown’s vibrant history have been lost due to school closings and the forced evictions of residents. 

Education and advocacy for local history are important to each community. Residents should be able to learn and enjoy the history of their hometown through preserved landmarks and other educational materials.

The history we have today would not have been preserved without dedicated historians and volunteers in local communities advocating to keep this history alive. Tenleytown Historical Society is run by volunteers and strives to encourage the historical preservation of Washington. 

Sarah Metcalfe

American '24

Sarah is a Journalism major at American University. That have fell in love with writing and reporting since they were in middle school. It is a dream come true to still have a strong passion for writing. Learning and researching everyday is important and they hope HCAU and their articles can help everyone!