by Ann Kessler
The Edmund Burke School, which has occupied the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Upton Street for more than 40 years, wasn’t the first school at that spot. It wasn’t even the second, or third.
First there was the Army and Navy Preparatory School (later known as the Swavely School) from 1906 to 1924. Then came the Devitt School, which was there from 1928 to 1951. When the Devitt School moved to Montgomery County, one of its buildings, Todd Hall (2955 Upton Street), was leased by the National Bureau of Standards from 1951-1961. In 1958, while it was still leased to the federal government, the Academy of the Holy Cross purchased Todd Hall. That school, too, eventually moved out to Montgomery County. In 1973, the Burke School was moved in. And in 2004 it erected a new building on the site of a previous Army and Navy Preparatory School classroom building at 4101 Connecticut Avenue, NW.
The Army and Navy Preparatory School
Eli Swavely, a graduate of Lafayette College in 1896, founded the Army and Navy Preparatory School in 1901. First located at 2926 14th St. NW, Professor Swavely’s school specialized in preparing young men for the vigorous programs at the Naval Academy and West Point and for direct commissions into the armed services. In 1903, the school’s enrollment had doubled in one year and the Army and Navy Preparatory School was forced to move temporarily to 1247 Roanoke St. NW.
As enrollment continued to grow, Swavely again looked for a new location. And he found one in an area then called Fernwood Heights. It promised to be a new growth area for DC suburbs since the National Bureau of Standards had just established its new facilities across Connecticut Avenue on Van Ness Street (previously Pierce Mill Road). Situated on one of the highest points in the city and on a Capital Traction streetcar line, Fernwood Heights was a new desirable residential subdivision created by the Chevy Chase Land Co.
Senator Francis G. Newlands (D-Nevada), founder of the Chevy Chase Land Co., had built three houses on the corner of Randolph St. NW (later Upton St. NW) and Connecticut Ave. NW in 1905. The buildings were designed in the Georgian style by Leon E. Dessez, the chief architect of the Chevy Chase Land Co. and architect of the firehouse at 4300 Wisconsin Avenue and the vice president’s mansion.
Swavely bought the center building, 4101 Connecticut, in 1906 from the Thomas J. Fisher & Co. real estate firm. Subsequently he rented, then bought in 1910, the two adjoining stone buildings at 4107 and 4109 for $20,000. At the same time, Swavely purchased two lots on Upton Street near the Connecticut Ave. campus. On these lots he planned to construct an additional school building for his growing school. This new structure would cost $30,000. Upon completion, the Army and Navy Preparatory School would have facilities for 100 day and boarding students and a faculty of seven teachers, plus Professor Swavely.
The Army and Navy Preparatory School was divided into two departments. One was called the academic department and its object was to prepare its students for entry into the best colleges as well as the military academies. The other division was called the special department and it educated its boys with the intent that they directly seek commissions into the armed forces. The school prided itself on its sports teams, offering competitive teams in football, baseball and track.
In 1909, the newly completed main building, presumably Todd Hall on Upton Street, consisted of three floors. On the ground floor was the library, dining hall, classrooms, and Swavely’s office. The second floor contained the matron’s suite and residences for the instructor and the school’s principal. In 1910, the matron was Miss Katherine K. Zerbe. Her job was to supervise the boarding students who lived on the third floor. Behind the building was a large athletic field, with outstanding facilities for the time.
Nearby on Connecticut Avenue were three stone buildings with wide verandas which housed the academic students heading to the Naval Academy or West Point. Inside, the students lived in a dormitory-style arrangement, complete with private rooms and baths, lounge areas and reading rooms. An additional building constructed in 1910 contained the school’s class rooms, gymnasium, laboratories, and billiard and recreation rooms.
Professor Swavely took an active interest in the development of the nearby neighborhood. In 1912, he was among the organizers of the first citizens association in the area, the Connecticut Avenue Citizens’ Association. He not only served on the constitution and bylaws committee, he offered the use of the school’s assembly hall for association meetings.
In 1921, the Army and Navy Preparatory School changed its name to the Swavely School. And in 1924, Swavely moved his school to Manassas, Virginia. The school closed in 1940, just before the U.S. entry into World War II where so many of the Army and Navy Preparatory graduates would serve. Among the outstanding graduates were General Carl A. Spaatz, World War II general and first Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and General Lucius Clay, who served as military governor of occupied Germany after the war and oversaw the Berlin Airlift.
After closing his school, Prof. Swavely moved back into the District and became a tutor. He died in January 1952.
Tomorrow: The Devitt School for boys.
Do you have memories to share about this or the other schools at the site? We’d appreciate your comments.
“Army and Navy School Resumes its Sessions,” Washington Times, Oct. 2, 1903.
“Boys Prep. School: Fits Students to Enter Army and Naval Academies,” Washington Herald, Southern Progress Section, Aug. 1, 1909, p. 1.
“Dr. Eli Swavely Dies; Founded Army, Navy Preparatory School,” Evening Star, Jan. 12, 1952, p. 6.
“Eli Swavely; Founded Prep School Here,” Washington Post, Jan. 13, 1952, p. M12.
“Fernwood Heights A Pretty Suburb,” Washington Times, Metropolitan Section, Aug. 5, 1906, p. 8.
“Form New Association: Organization of Citizens Along Connecticut Avenue Extended,” Evening Star, Jan. 18, 1912, p. 22.
“Office of ‘Prep’ School Brings Out Individuality and Develops Character,” Sunday Star, Part 8, August, 21, 1910.
“To Enlarge “Prep” School: Army and Navy Institution to Have New Building,” Washington Post, March 6, 1910, p. R2.