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What Once Was

The Force School: Alma Mater to Presidents’ Son, a Count, and a World-Famous Aviator

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By Stephen A. Hansen*

Every neighborhood needs a school, and what was once referred to as the “Fashionable West End” (now the Dupont Circle area) was no exception. In 1880, the 12-room Force Elementary School was erected on the south side of Massachusetts Avenue between 17th and 18th Streets, NW and was named for renowned soldier, journalist, politician, and book collector Peter Force.

When it was torn down in 1962, only two other schools that were still in use —- Thaddeus Stevens and Peabody Elementary — were older. Its distinguished alumni included, among others, the sons of two presidents, a young count, and Charles Lindbergh.

Force School at 1740 Massachusetts Avenue, circa 1960.  photo—courtesy Historical Society of Washington, DC (www.historydc.org).

Force School at 1740 Massachusetts Avenue, circa 1960. photo—courtesy Historical Society of Washington, DC (www.historydc.org).

The school was named for Peter Force. A descendant of French Huguenots, he was born near the Passaic Falls in New Jersey in 1790 and grew up in New Paltz in Ulster County, New York, and afterward moved to New York City and learned the printing trade.

During the War of 1812, Force served in the army as a lieutenant. Three years after the war, Force moved to Washington, DC and served as editor of the National Journal until 1841. As a member of the Whig Party, he served as a city councilman and alderman, and was elected mayor of Washington twice. Peter Force died in 1868.

1865 Mathew Brady photographic portrait of Peter Force.  )photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

1865 Mathew Brady photographic portrait of Peter Force. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Over his life, Force assembled what was probably the largest private collection of printed and manuscript sources on American history in the United States. In 1867, a year before he died, the Library of Congress purchased his collection for $100,000; it is still called the Peter Force Library.

The Force School’s district covered a wide swath from I Street and Pennsylvania Avenue to Corcoran Street, and from 14th Street to Rock Creek. By 1896, the school had 600 students enrolled in its relatively small building.

Perhaps due to the large number of children, the school was never very popular with its neighbors along Massachusetts Avenue. School buildings were generally considered a detriment to adjoining properties, especially in residential sections of the city. Massachusetts Avenue neighbors complained it was impossible to keep the children from running over lawns, keeping the area in shabby condition. A playground was later added to the rear of the school that helped appease some of the neighbors.

One neighbor who was not so easily appeased by the addition of the playground was Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. In 1896, Lodge, who lived across the street from the school at 1765 Massachusetts Avenue, introduced an amendment to the District appropriation bill to transfer Force School to another section of the city and sell the land for fashionable residences. The action was pushed vigorously by his neighbors. But, the bill was strongly opposed by the District Commissioners and was defeated.

Lodge must have eventually come to terms with the school in his neighborhood, as it was later attended by Archie and Quentin, the sons of his closest friend, Theodore Roosevelt. Archie Roosevelt attended the Force School in 1902 for a year, but was withdrawn to study with a private tutor and later attended Sidwell Friends School.

Quentin Roosevelt was enrolled in Force the following year and remained there until 1908 when he started attending Episcopal High School in Alexandria. Theodore wanted Quentin to attend public school for a time, as he said it was the true school of democracy. One day at school when the teacher asked the class to state the occupations of their fathers, Quentin’s nonchalant reply was simply, “My father is just it.”

William Howard Taft’s son, Charles Phelps Taft II, or “Charlie” was the same age as Quentin, a close friend, and classmate at the ForceSchool when his father was serving as the Secretary of War under Theodore Roosevelt.  He was then sent to private school when the Tafts moved to the White House.

Led by Quentin, Charlie Taft and a number of other boys from the ForceSchool formed a group that Theodore Roosevelt dubbed the “White House Gang.”  The gang would hold its meetings in the attic of the White House every day after school let out.  President Roosevelt, an honorary gang member, often would cut meetings short to join the boys for hide-and-seek, historical reenactments, and other games.  The gang basically had free reign of the entire White House, until one day, Theodore discovered that the boys had been shooting spitballs at the presidential portraits.  The president gave them a serious talking to and banished the gang from the White House for a week.

Col. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Ass’t. Sec’y. of the Navy, addressing the midyear graduating class of the Force School in front of the tree planted in honor of his brother, Quentin.  photo==Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Col. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Ass’t. Sec’y. of the Navy, addressing the midyear graduating class of the Force School in front of the tree planted in honor of his brother, Quentin. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Archie, Quentin and Charlie Taft all served in World War I. Quentin was shot down behind German lines in France during World War I, and was the only graduate of the school to die during the war. On Armistice Day in 1919, the graduating class planted a tree in the school yard in his honor.

Charles Lindbergh attended the school as well as the Sidwell Friends School while living in Washington with his father, Minnesota Congressman Charles Lindbergh, Sr. In 1911, eight-year-old Count Guy de Buisseret, the son of former Belgian minister to Washington and at the time to the imperial court in St. Petersburg, Russia was sent back to DC to attend Force School.

Pilgrim Day at Force School, 1920.  photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Pilgrim Day at Force School, 1920. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The building was abandoned as a school in 1939, and after that it became home to a series of organizations.  Force School was razed in 1962 to make way for the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced Studies. Although some efforts were made to save it, the Quentin Roosevelt memorial tree fell along with the building.

Recent view of 1740 Massachusetts Avenue showing the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced Studies building. photo--Google Maps.

Recent view of 1740 Massachusetts Avenue showing the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced Studies building. photo–Google Maps.

Editor’s note: For more on the Force School, as well as other historic Dupont Circle schools, be sure to keep an eye out for the author’s upcoming book, A History of Dupont Circle: Center of High Society in the Capital. Expected publication is September 2014.

*Stephen A. Hansen is an historic preservation specialist, Washington DC historian, author of several books and of the Virtual Architectural Archaeology blog.

© 2014 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Stephen A. Hansen. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.