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When Dupont West Was the Center of Equestrian Pursuits

By Paul Kelsey Williams*

Images accompanying this feature can be viewed in the current issue PDF

For nearly 50 years, the Washington Riding Academy stood on the south side of the 2200 block of P Street. NW, at the foot of the P Street bridge, offering easy access to horse riders into Rock Creek Park. Built in 1887, the massive building housed stables, a riding ring, and hay loft. It was demolished in 1936 to make way for a Gulf Oil gas and service station that is known today as the Embassy Service Station.

Architect George S. Cooper provided the plans for the Academy building, which measured 100 feet by 130 feet and cost an estimated $20,000 to build. Construction started in June of 1887. The owner on the building permit was listed as a J.D. Brown, and the builder was listed as Chaz Federline.

The stable was located in the basement, and the enormous riding ring was at street level, open to the clearstory windows on the second floor. Horses entered from P Street through a vast arch, with a club office located through the arch on 21st Street. The second floor offered club rooms, a kitchen, reception rooms, and bathing rooms.

The Academy opened in 1888, and Brown advertised that it contained a stock of 20 well-trained, thoroughbred saddle horses, with space for boarding an additional 130 horses for owners residing nearby. The building also contained 13,000 square feet available for the storage of carriages.

Classes lasting six months in duration included those for tandem riding and driving, and four-in-hand driving for both men and women, beginning in the riding ring located on street level. Couples could also be instructed in “music riding,” added by whistles and music orchestrated to change tempos and the stride of horses.

European groomers maintained horses, and services included shoeing horses and a veterinarian on site daily. For decades, the Academy was a mandatory social and recreation club for Washington’s elite.

Early prominent members included President Grover Cleveland and members of his cabinet. In 1916, Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose Preece, natives of England, were lured to the club from New York City to take over horsemanship and etiquette. They eventually started their own riding club called the Preece Riding School near Massachusetts Avenue and 30th Street.

Like many other riding clubs in the city, the Washington Riding Academy closed its doors during the Great Depression in the 1930s. The facility was razed in 1936 and replaced by the office building (converted into apartments) on 21st Street and, just to the north, the gas and service station fronting on P Street that exists on the site today.

*The writer, an historic preservation specialist and historian, is the president of Kelsey & Associates in Washington, DC and Baltimore.