Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ June 2016

History Corner(s)

Three Schools, Camps, and a Meadow:  A History of the New Soccer Field Site in North Four Corners Park

By David S. Rotenstein

History works in mysterious ways.  Sometimes the past is easy to read in the buildings and spaces that make up our world.  Other times, it is bulldozed away and replaced with carefully designed spaces meant to force people to look forward instead of reflect on the past.  The newly expanded North Four Corners Park is one such space.

For much of its history, the original park’s neighbors included two schools:  Four Corners Elementary School and a private nursery school and summer camp.  The former was redeveloped as The Oaks senior housing and the latter became sprawling soccer field and multiuse path Montgomery County officials formally opened earlier this year.  Many North Four Corners residents only remember the fallow field briefly called “Rachel Carson Meadow.”  Others can remember the property’s last private owner, the Yeshiva school.

The six-acre University Blvd. West property was one of the last remaining large former farm tracts in Four Corners in 1942 when it was acquired by Hilda Hatton.  She bought it from the heirs of John J. Oberlin, who died in 1939.  Hatton founded the Benjamin Acres School and Camp.  Her institution got its name from “The Benjamin,” a nineteenth century name attached to the farm of an early owner.

Benjamin Acres opened at a time when Four Corners was experiencing growing pains brought on by rapid suburbanization.  During the 1930s, developers carved up former Four Corners farms into residential subdivisions, creating places with such familiar names as Woodmoor and Northwood Park.

Ernest Kendall teaching history at the Capitol Page School.  Library of Congress photo.

Anticipating even more families after the federal authorities built the Fairway Houses in South Four Corners for wartime workers (see the April 2016 issue of the News), Montgomery County officials and the private sector created essential infrastructure, including schools, churches, and recreational facilities.

Hatton operated the school and camp until 1947 when she moved the business to Annapolis.  She sold the property to Ernest L. Kendall (1906-1990), an Oklahoma native and educational entrepreneur who had just resigned from his position as principal of the Capitol Page School in Washington.

Kendall arrived in Washington in early 1931.  He was a graduate of Southwestern Oklahoma State University.  After graduating, he began working in public education and, by 1930, he was the superintendent of schools in Granite, a small Oklahoma town south of his birthplace, Weatherford.  Kendall worked briefly in sales while he acquired his District of Columbia teaching credentials while studying part-time at George Washington University.

Kendall’s granddaughter, Kaye Giuliani, remembered that he had a very strict and religious upbringing.  “He told us one time that if he had done anything wrong, he was actually shut in a closet and asked to pray,” she explained in an interview.  “He had extremely high values and standards — of himself, of his staff.  Expected a lot from his students.”

Desperate for full-time employment, Kendall approached Oklahoma Representative James McClintic.  The congressman didn’t have any immediate solutions for Kendall.  Finally, in late 1931, McClintic was instrumental in working with Kendall to found a private school for Capitol Pages and housed on Capitol Hill.  The District of Columbia School Board accredited Kendall and the school, where he developed a rigorous curriculum and extracurricular activities, including sports teams.

In 1946, Congress assumed control over Page education and transferred administration of the Page School to the District of Columbia.  Kendall received a contract to continue as the school’s principal through June 1947.  At the end of that term, Kendall and all of the other staff were dismissed.  Four months later, he bought Hatton’s Benjamin Acres School, renamed it the “Alexander School” — to get a top listing in telephone directories — and set about navigating Montgomery County’s tortuous regulatory mazes to transfer the existing school license and to embark on an ambitious construction program to enlarge the school’s facilities.

Building a Wonderland

“He had a vision of what he wanted to have as school.  So he wanted [it] to be a wonderland type of place,” recalled Kendall’s son Fred, who was the Alexander School’s principal.  “It was exciting because there was a swimming pool there.  Beautiful, beautiful grounds with old trees and things.”

Alexander School and Camp, c. 1955.  Photo courtesy of Kaye Giuliani.

Kendall built age-specific playgrounds and added an auditorium wing to the existing building.  “He added a merry-go-round.  He added a boat ride, like you see at carnivals and stuff, smaller version.  And a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel, small [in] nature,” explained Fred Kendall.

The Kendalls believed that their students needed a well-rounded education that included rigorous coursework, lots of healthy play, and exposure to the performing arts.  The auditorium Ernest Kendall built was outfitted with professional lighting and sound systems.

Alexander School students and campers and many Four Corners residents recall an unparalleled recreational facility.  Students got a quality education and exposure to the arts.  Parents found a safe place for their children during the workday.  And Four Corners children used the school grounds after hours as an unofficial park.

“The school was not so much elitist as it was working parents,” explained Fred Kendall.  “His idea was that he had customers or clients who had to go to work.  And if they had to go to work, they had to have childcare.”  A 10-bus fleet outfitted with radios provided transportation to the school.  Kendall remembers that the school opened very day, even in bad winter weather:  “If you had to go to work, we were going to send the bus.”

The Kendalls offered early drop-off and late pick-up for working parents.  Students could get breakfast at the school and enjoy supervised play after classes.  “We did something called ‘early comers’ and ‘late stayers,’” said Kaye Giuliani.  “This is when parents were working and had to drop the kids off before class so they’d have playground time or television time.”

During the 1950s, the Alexander Camp offered pony rides using horses stabled onsite. Photo courtesy of Kaye Giuliani.

Former student Kathleen Galinat attended the school and camp.  She and her brother were among the early comers whose parents dropped them off at the school on the way to work each morning.  She fondly recalls the cinnamon toast she and her brother got each morning.

The Show Must Go On

Each school year the school staged elaborate performances in the auditorium Ernest Kendall built.  The auditorium had a stage, professional lighting, and a soundboard.  The performances were a Kendall family affair:  Ernest Kendall’s second wife and daughter-in-law sewed the costumes and son Fred ran the lights and sound during the shows.  “I remember my mom helping with costumes but my grandmother was — she was my step-grandmother — she was a showgirl back in the day,” said Giuliani.

Summers at the Alexander School included swimming, archery, track and field competitions, and overnight jamborees with bonfires and ghost stories.  Most of the campers came from students enrolled in the Alexander School.  However, the camp also included older children, up to age 10.

The property’s pool and playground equipment tempted Four Corners children to use them after hours.  There are many Facebook posts by folks who grew up in Four Corners about after-hours swimming.  A concrete teepee on the property provided teens cover for romantic encounters.  “I have been told on the site that many people lost their innocence in that teepee,” mused Giuliani.

In the 1980s, after expanding his enterprise to multiple satellite locations in lower Montgomery County, including sites in White Oak, Kensington, and the Tumble Inn on Georgia Avenue at Dennis, Ernest Kendall grew restless.  Family members suggest he grew tired of dealing with Montgomery County’s bureaucracy.

Alexander School and Camp site plan, c. 1958. Photo Courtesy of Sue Wrenn Dotson.

One day Ernest Kendall announced he was selling the properties and moving back to Oklahoma to open a motel.  The move created a rift in the family and the move ultimately hurt Kendall financially.  He left Oklahoma for southern California where he died in 1990 from cancer-related complications.

In 1985, Kendall sold the Alexander School site to the Yeshiva High School of Greater Washington.  The Jewish school held the property during a decade in which it struggled to effectively rehabilitate and modernize the property.  Yeshiva High School’s ownership was further complicated in 1988 when a 10-year-old boy attending camp there drowned in the pool.

After a dozen years at the site, in 1997 the Yeshiva High School sold the property to the Maryland National Capital Planning Commission.  The agency had plans to expand the neighboring Four Corners Local Park.  Those plans, which included constructing a large soccer field, stalled for more than a decade as neighborhood activists opposed the agency’s plans.  During that time, the vacant lot became a fallow field that neighborhood residents used as a playground and popular dog walking location.

For a brief period, the former school site informally was dubbed “Rachel Carson Meadow” and the Northwood-Four Corners Civic Association sponsored an annual “Rachel Carson Meadow Festival” there.  Construction on the new park began in 2013 and was completed in 2015 (read about the park’s history in the April 2015 News online).   ■

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