Theresa F. Brown Dies at 86; Advocate for Preserving Historic D.C. Neighborhood

Theresa F. Brown poses with a child in her beloved LeDroit Park, a neighborhood filled with history.
Theresa F. Brown poses with a child in her beloved LeDroit Park, a neighborhood filled with history. (By James Kenah)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Theresa F. Brown, 86, who died March 14 of cardiovascular disease at Specialty Hospital of Washington, knew she had found something special when she moved into the District's LeDroit Park neighborhood 50 years ago.

The small neighborhood, just southeast of Howard University, had large, expensive homes built in the 1870s. Originally a gated, whites-only community, it had become home to many accomplished African Americans by the turn of the 20th century. Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar lived there, as did Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr., Mayor Walter Washington, and educator and suffragist Mary Church Terrell and her husband, Robert Terrell, the District's first African American municipal court judge. Duke Ellington briefly lived there, as did the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche. Griffith Stadium was also part of the neighborhood.

By the late 1960s, a decade after Mrs. Brown moved from her home town of Baltimore into the 300 block of U Street, the area had fallen on hard times. Hammered by the 1968 riots and the flight of both residents and businesses, LeDroit Park took on a shabby appearance. Homes were left vacant, drug dealers moved in, and Howard University's expansion ate away at the edges of the area.

Mrs. Brown, who worked for the old Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. and was one of the first black women hired for its Baltimore office, told whoever asked that although she couldn't afford to live in the best neighborhood, she could work to make her own neighborhood the best. So she set to it.

She formed the LeDroit Park Preservation Society and began educating residents about their area's history. The tree-lined streets and landscaped traffic circles remained, as did 50 of the original 64 large homes, featuring beautiful tile roofs and gingerbread trim, expansive chimneys, iron grillwork, solid wood porch columns, bay windows and high ceilings.

In 1974, the neighborhood became an officially registered historic district. Some of her neighbors thought it silly, Mrs. Brown told The Washington Post in 2001. "I didn't care what the neighbors thought," she said. "There weren't enough of them to get in my way. I just kept going."

Under her leadership, Fourth Street NW was narrowed and its sidewalks widened. The bluestone curbs were saved, and an original traffic circle was restored. In the late 1980s, she led walking tours of the area using a bullhorn, but lowered it to say hello to neighbors and to make sure they were keeping up their yards, said Margaret Welsh, a membership official with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Mrs. Brown also fought to save the home of Howard University's founder, Gen. Oliver O. Howard. The home, restored in 1997, is used in university publicity.

An early believer in the idea of a city historical museum, Mrs. Brown and other activists started the original museum of the District in a school in Northeast in the 1980s. The Historical Society of Washington, D.C., revived it several years ago in the renovated Carnegie Library building near Mount Vernon Square although that museum, too, has closed.

She was on the board of the D.C. Preservation League, the Woodrow Wilson House and the United Planning Organization, and was a former advisory neighborhood commissioner. She served on the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and was an adviser to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Historical Society of Washington D.C. gave her its Renchard Prize in 1992 as "a watchdog of the community, preventing disastrous incursions, incompatible development and encouraging the rehabilitation of buildings in need of help."

Mrs. Brown also became a pinup girl that year, when she was featured in the annual calendar by the Black Women in Sisterhood for Action. The Southeast Regional African American Preservation Alliance in 1999 gave her its Triangle of Service Award for saving places of importance to African Americans.

Her husband, Roland Brown, died in 2000.

Survivors include a sister, Shirley E. Taylor of Baltimore.

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