Greater Greater Washington

Visit an abandoned Catholic school in Anacostia

Since June 2007, a three-story Catholic school in Historic Anacostia has sat quietly, unused and largely unnoticed. Last week, staff from the Archdiocese of Washington took me on a tour of the abandoned building, last known as the Our Lady of Perpetual Help School, with a small group of architects and contractors.


"Schools [sic] out." All photos by the author unless noted.

The school opened on V Street SE in the first decade of the 20th century for children of the nearby parish of Saint Teresa of Avila. It's one block over from the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site and its cramped visitor's center. With capital, vision, and proper management, this vacant school house could complement the Douglass site as a true visitor's center, capable of capturing out-of-town dollars from the more than 50,000 annual visitors to the neighborhood destination.


The old Saint Teresa School at 1409 V Street SE in Historic Anacostia. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.


The boarded-up school was last used during the 2006-2007 academic year and awaits a rebirth and reuse.

But until then, let's take a tour of the school as it is today. Perched on a knoll above V Street, the brick exterior of the school is painted white and green and is in good condition.


The vacant multi-purpose room in the rear of the school.

I enter the rear of the school with the group through the multi-purpose room. The basketball backboards remain, without the rims. On a door hangs an activity calendar from March 2006. According to neighborhood sources, the school also served as a community center in the evenings during the 1980s and 1990s.


A dark hallway.

The school still has electricity, but many of the lights are out as I walk into the hallway. To enter the school, a facilities manager had to disarm the alarm. A member of the group remarks, "Kind of eerie."

Other than peeled paint, cracked floor tiles, and bathrooms with destroyed sinks and toilets, the interior of the building is sound, but there is probably a lot of asbestos in the building. Any possible renovation would require removing asbestos or lead-based paint.


"Choppa City" was here.

Inside one of the classrooms, it appears that neighborhood children at some time gained access to the school. Across a blackboard someone wrote "V-BLOCK" with "Choppa City," the name of a local street crew, written in cursive inside of the "O."


Classroom adorned with Warner Brothers characters.

You can see how the classrooms once looked when school was in session. Above one blank chalkboard, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, Speedy Gonzales, Bugs Bunny, the Roadrunner, and Yosemite Sam with two pistols drawn look out on the spirits of former pupils. Casper the Friendly Ghost adorns the walls of another room. Underneath one of the apparitions is a road sign that reads "Ghost Town." Being a former Catholic school, in this room and other parts of the building are signs and drawings of Jesus.


A plaque in the library.

In the second-floor library, no books remain on the wood shelves that line the perimeter of the room. Three of the room's four windows are boarded up. A plaque on the wall states, "Library Established by Sr. Mary Dolorine 1955 Sponsored By The Mother's Club."

On a chalkboard in a 3rd floor classroom, "Taylor Tucker," remains alongside a note reading, "Schools [sic] out -> So Ugly." In the upper left-hand corner is the date of the last day of school, June 4, 2007. As I pick up a loose piece of chalk to write my name on the board, I hear someone call out, "The roof's open!"

I ascend the stairwell and walk on to the roof. Everyone in my cavalcade has their cell phone out, snapping unobscured panoramic photos of the city's skyline: the Washington Monument and the Capitol Dome the most noticeable, the Washington Cathedral further off in the distance.


A panorama of Washington's skyline from the roof.

Someone points to the Douglass house. "What's that?" They ask.

I respond, "The home of Fred Douglass, resident of Anacostia from fall 1877 to his death in late February 1895." I snap a few photos of Douglass's mansion through the southside canopy.


View of Frederick Douglass's home from the roof.

"This would make a great rooftop restaurant, don't you think?" someone asks.

"Yeah, but they would have to go through zoning and [Historic Preservation Review Board] first," replies another visitor, a contractor. "But it sure would be one of the coolest restaurants in the city. You can look at the Douglass house or you can look at the Capitol."

After ten minutes of marveling at the views, we make our way back through the empty school. Two young architects ask the facilities manager if the school has a basement. It doesn't he replies, it has a boiler room which he shows the two visitors.

Once we are all back out on V Street, we thank the staff of the Archdiocese for the tour and promise to be in touch. In the meanwhile the old Saint Teresa School sits and awaits a rebirth and productive reuse. With recent news that the city wants to get tourists off the National Mall and brand its neighborhood attractions as "cool," the old Saint Teresa School might be the perfect place to launch the campaign.

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John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia

Comments

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The opportunity to read Mr. Muller's Anacostia posts is the very best reason to keep tabs on what's new on this website

by Kolohe on Sep 26, 2013 12:49 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the look at the school. But what about the real story? Young architects prowling the streets of Anacostia and dreaming up rooftop restaurants. Must every neighborhood become another U Street? Does every building need to be repurposed? Seems like an ideal place for a school to me.

by Anna Kostya on Sep 26, 2013 2:23 pm • linkreport

Great story showing how much wonderful history is hidden in our area. This story on St. Theresa's school reminds us of the true beauty of this neighborhood and how the presence of such a facility which had helped the community grow in SE can now help this same community develop a visionary project. Thanks to the Archdiocese, this property can now be utilized for the whole community and not simple remain as a future eye sore for the neighborhood.

by John Wintermyer on Sep 26, 2013 2:44 pm • linkreport

Great story showing how much wonderful history is hidden in our area. This story on St. Theresa's school reminds us of the true beauty of this neighborhood and how the presence of such a facility which had helped the community grow in SE can now help this same community develop a visionary project. Thanks to the Archdiocese, this property can now be utilized for the whole community and not simply become a future eye sore for the neighborhood.

by John Wintermyer on Sep 26, 2013 2:46 pm • linkreport

I look at the rooftop panorama of Washington, and then I think how that would change if OP were to have its way on the height limit and based on the models put forth. This posting has cemented it -- leave the height limit substantially alone.

by Sally on Sep 26, 2013 4:04 pm • linkreport

Thanks for the tour and updates.

While the building is in decent condition, it is a little ominous since it is a large empty building (and lot) and has a nasty fence. Plus it is absurd that they still have the no parking during school days signs up when it hasn't been an active school in years.

by h st ll on Sep 26, 2013 5:41 pm • linkreport

BTW looked through your Flickr and saw the photo of 2010 14th st se. I have seen several groups (with various "restoration" tags on their vehicles) looking at it. It looked nicer on the inside than you would've thought. Not sure if they are gonna tear it down or renovate it, though.

And work continues on AWS. Can't wait til they finish that!

by h st ll on Sep 26, 2013 5:44 pm • linkreport

Doesn't the Archdiocese of Washington still own the building? In other words, is it "abandoned?" I seem to recall hearing fairly recently that the Archdiocese maybe asking for a lot of $$ for the site. As anyone checked on that recently?

by gayle on Sep 26, 2013 6:38 pm • linkreport

@h st II : why should the archdioese allow parking on their property ? it opens the door for trouble. what if carsparked there are broken into or robbed of catalytic converters or stolen.

by lilkunta on Sep 28, 2013 8:47 pm • linkreport

I was talking bout the on street parking. Any parking near schools is like that. I

by h st ll on Sep 28, 2013 9:21 pm • linkreport

It's nice to see the inside again! I went through 6th grade here at St Teresa's. My mother taught 2nd grade for many years. Back then, 1st and 2nd grade were on the first floor. 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th were on the 2nd floor and the library, 7th grade, the Principle's office (Sister Elisabeth) and her 8th grade classroom on the 3rd floor. It was a wonderful place to be from 1960-1967.

by Beth Freund on Nov 27, 2013 4:50 pm • linkreport

It was great to have taught there from 1969-1986. It was then Our Lady of Perpetual Help Lower School. The two schools merged in the 1972. We had double grades from kindergarten to the fourth grade as many as 35 children in each class.It was sad to hear it was going to close. And the parishioner didn't know about it until it was too late. The Archdiocese didn't give us a chance to try to save it.
It's true the enrollment was very low. it was the saddest day in the life of those of us who went there. As a child I was at OLPH on the hill were the real view of DC is breath taking from 1951-1959

by M C Stew on Apr 10, 2014 10:06 pm • linkreport

I taught at St. Teresa of Avila the school years of 1966-68. Those years were troubling for the community and the school stood by the community. I was the first Black teacher to teach at St. Theresa. The school used to be segregated until Archbishop O'Boyle demanded desegregation of all Catholic schools in 1951. My brother was the first Black male student to attend St. Teresa in 1951. There is a rich historic history connected with this school and it would be a shame to see it used for any purpose other than education. The irony of it sitting just a couple of blocks away from the Frederick Douglas Mansion should be melded into a pathway of knowledge for everyone.

by Sherrill Adams on Apr 11, 2014 8:17 pm • linkreport

So what are they going to do with the building? Is it up for sale? Is the archdiocese willing to reopen OLPH?

by Raymond LaMount Davis on Apr 12, 2014 1:14 am • linkreport

Sherrill Adams,

Thank you for sharing.

I'm currently working on a history of the neighborhood for a forthcoming book. It would be great to speak with you / interview you and include some of your experiences and insights.

Look forward to being in touch.

John Muller
jmuller@ggwash.org
202.236.3413

by John Muller on Apr 12, 2014 3:47 am • linkreport

Mr. Muller OLPH has an alumni page on Facebook just full of stories and love for this school. I attended the school from 79-88 and confirm how much of a difference that school made in a lot of a lives. Kickball at recess with kids all over the front playground until the sound of the bell...#OLPH

by Fleetwood on May 6, 2014 7:35 am • linkreport

I taught Kindergarten here in the late 70'S. It was one of the most wonderful experiences I've had: energetic kids, a real community of parents, truly passionate teachers. I wonder if any of the mural done by our artist-in-residence survived.
I'm working in a Catholic school in NYC now, but it makes me terribly sad to see one more of our schools that truly served the community closed.

by Kathy Hotaling-Bollinger on Jun 15, 2014 8:11 pm • linkreport

GREAT to see the inside of my grade school! I had Mrs. Freund in second grade, she was s really good teacher. So nice to read her daughter's comment.

by Anne Herrity on Jun 19, 2014 10:19 pm • linkreport

Please don't destroy that school. Some folks did grow up in Anacostia and attended that school. I am one of them!
Once I cross the "Anacostia" bridge, I already don't recognize my city anymore. It's as if my whole childhood is being destroyed. Why not use it for a school. WE COULD SURE USE A FEW MORE SCHOOLS THAN RESTUARANTS, DON'T YOU THINK.???

by Gayle on Aug 26, 2014 12:18 pm • linkreport

To Sherrill Adams

I lived right next door to St Theresa's and graduated in 1957. Your brother Nathan was in my class. We were taught by nuns and only an occasional non-religious teacher would be hired to teach there. Anacostia was a wonderful, multi-ethnic neighborhood. So many good memories of growing up there. What a wonderful gift it would be to return the property to a learning facility. It would be good for the community and offer children of the neighborhood an opportunity to experience some of what are now our (me and my brothers and sisters) fondest memories.

by Joy Owens on Oct 7, 2014 8:43 am • linkreport

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