This isn’t the site of some lost penal colony. But you’d be forgiven for not knowing. There’s no plaque to clue you in and no historical marker. And maybe that’s the most confounding thing about it – this is a registered historical site located within a well-funded park. As such, nothing suggests America’s casual indifference to the past quite like the shambling remains of the United Brick Corporation.
This former industrial site is an anomaly on the grounds of the carefully manicured National Arboretum. Dating back to the late nineteenth century, the United Brick Corporation was among the largest of numerous brick manufacturing concerns in Washington, many of which were literally operated out of the backyards of District residents. In a former life, those distinctive domes that first grabbed your attention were beehive furnaces used for firing carefully stacked bricks, a process that, depending on the weather, could take a full week.
The workers who did the spine-crushing labor of carting ton after ton of brick one load at a time, back and forth between the drying sheds and the domed furnaces a hundred feet away played an integral part in shaping twentieth century DC. The resulting bricks are today found in Lafayette Square, the National Cathedral, and the Broadmoor on Connecticut Avenue. In a way, the forgotten United Brick Corporation, which drew its raw clay from the banks of the nearby Anacostia, has insinuated itself quite tangibly into the city’s DNA, helping to transform the bucolic District of the nineteenth century into the urban landscape we know today.
In the years following World War II, construction techniques turned away from brick to favor the clean lines and economy of concrete, and in 1972, the faltering United Brick Corporation was shuttered. In 1976 the already crumbling factory was transferred to the auspices of the United States Department of Agriculture and incorporated into the grounds of the National Arboretum.
Actually, from my perspective standing on the far side of a locked gate, the word “incorporated” is perhaps too strong. The brickyard is set apart quite distinctly from the rest of the campus. The administrators seem uncertain what to do with this windfall of idled industry. The Department of Agriculture is not in the business of preservation or presentation of history; rather, its mission here is the cultivation and presentation of various types of flora. No doubt its lawyers advised the high fencing around the site, as well as the wide open space between the fence line and the structures within – all the better to spot potential explorers. In addition, the adjacent parking lot near the Arboretum’s New York Avenue entrance seems to be a favorite spot for cops winding down the final hours of their shift. On four visits, there has been at least one cop car present each time – sometimes several – a situation not exactly conducive to hopping the fence in flagrant disregard of the multiple U.S. government “No Trespassing” signs posted around the perimeter. They may as well be in bubble wrap.
There were once eight smokestacks standing some forty feet tall, including six older rectangular structures, but now the only trace of those are the cracked foundations scattered around the grounds. Closest to New York Avenue, you’ll find a long, low drying shed once used for storing unfired bricks before they made their way to the nearby beehive furnaces. Each of its 38 tunnels – just like the entryways to those distinctive domed beehives furnaces – has been shuttered with thick, wrought iron bars designed to protect any would-be explorers from the questionable structural integrity of this century old site.
The rest of the site is used to store mulch and gravel. I guess I don’t know for sure, but I have a feeling that this is hardly what those who sought to preserve these grounds had in mind when they applied to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
But it’s what happens when you leave the bureaucrats and lawyers in charge.
What a waste of good ruins.
The National Arboretum
DCinruins: A Guide to Urban Exploration in Washington, DC published by Insignificant Press.