“It’s so rich in history. The architecture is very eclectic,” says Judith Lanius, an architectural historian who lived in the neighborhood for years and wrote a chapter on the area for the book “Washington at Home.”
Like many parts of the region, residents say, Kent is seeing its distinctive character increasingly threatened by development. Yet unlike residents of several other communities, the people of Kent have rallied support leading to a zoning change that has slowed the destruction of trees and open land for large new houses.
Kent is nestled between MacArthur Boulevard and Battery Kemble Park. For years, the area was considered part of Palisades, the long, narrow community to the south, but the two have very different flavors and histories.
In fact, Kent can almost be viewed as two neighborhoods. To the west is a hilly area characterized by long strings of large center-hall Colonials that was developed in the 1930s and ’40s. The eastern swath, meanwhile, is made up of a handful of meandering streets, including Chain Bridge Road and University Terrace, that could almost be taken for country lanes.
The eastern section has a deep history that parallels the District’s. Chain Bridge Road, lying at the community’s eastern border and leading to the site of the first bridge across the Potomac, is one of the city’s oldest arteries, and the neighborhood’s early habitations developed along it. They swelled during the Civil War, when Battery Kemble — one in a ring of forts guarding the region — was established just east of the road; gradually, settlements of freed and escaped slaves sprang up around the fort.
After the Civil War, says Lanius, “African Americans settled there; they were given or sold land by some of the large landowners there.” The area developed a lively community, and still includes a small cemetery established in 1868 and an old schoolhouse, both of which catered solely to African Americans.
Unlike the western part of the neighborhood, the eastern area remained in the hands of individual landowners for decades. As a result, the lots, when they were finally subdivided, came in a variety of shapes that hewed to the land’s contours and maintained a heavy tree canopy. Lacking restrictive covenants barring minorities, the community became a welcoming spot for educated African Americans and Jews, many of whom employed distinguished local and international architects. In 1952, the Hechinger family built a pair of homes on Chain Bridge Road designed by noted modernist Walter Gropius; they and other modern homes mixed with the 18th-century farmhouses and 19th-century bungalows.