John Kelly: More stories of D.C.'s vanished creek

In 1865, architect Adolf Cluss urged dual sewer systems to keep human waste separate.
In 1865, architect Adolf Cluss urged dual sewer systems to keep human waste separate. (Smithsonian Institution)
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By John Kelly
Sunday, November 1, 2009

For something rarely seen over the past 140 years, Tiber Creek exerts a powerful pull on Washington. Answer Man heard from many readers after last week's column on the creek-turned-sewer that ran roughly where Constitution Avenue is today.

"I have always wondered where Tiber Creek really ran," wrote Henry Brylawski, whose family built the Warner Theatre at 13th and E streets NW in the 1920s. Construction ran into tremendous cost overruns because -- the developers were told -- Tiber Creek ran under the site. "Whether it was Tiber Creek or just the Potomac river bottom, they had to sink extensive piles under the foundation," Henry wrote.

This had a direct impact on the theater's name, of all things. The Brylawskis planned to name the theater the Cosmopolitan, a natural extension of the name of their flagship theater in the 900 block of Pennsylvania Avenue NW: the Cosmos. But after sinking so much money into those pylons, they were required to seek outside investors. One of those was George Howard Earle III, later to become governor of Pennsylvania. The theater was called the Earle, despite his having no connection to Washington.

Harry Warner later bought the theater and when being told the story of the name by Henry's father, Julian Brylawski, said: "Well I own it now. Change the name to Warner."

"So you see," Henry wrote, "the covering of Tiber Creek has had posthumous naming results."

Tim Fitzmaurice wrote to say: "As all good alums of Gonzaga College High School on North Capitol and Eye know, part of Tiber Creek runs underneath its old gym. In fact there is a hatch/manhole in the old gym that supposedly goes right down to the creek."

Thomas Clifford, the rector of the Jesuit community at Gonzaga (and a historian), poured cold water on that notion. Although the old gym has been known to flood -- and there is a sump pump underneath -- the main course of the Tiber was well to the east of the school.

Arnold Hauser of Silver Spring worked in the Old Post Office Building before it was restored. "In the basement of the building there existed a manhole which when removed revealed the running water of the Tiber Creek. At times it ran quite swiftly."

A worker at the Old Post Office confirmed that such a manhole exists but said the flow was more like a trickle than a torrent.

John Richardson of Arlington is working on a biography of the person he thinks Answer Man should have credited with covering the Tiber after it became a sewer: Alexander "Boss" Shepherd. Wrote John: "It is true that [architect Adolf] Cluss, who served in the last phase of the Board of Public Works as its designated engineer, would no doubt have been consulted, but it was Shepherd's personal commitment to see the canal filled in and converted to a bricked sewer that drove the equation."

Cluss historian Joseph Browne noted that the German-born architect pointed out in a 1865 report that Washington should have a dual sewer system, one for storm runoff and one for human waste. But Cluss "doubted that the city had the resources to build the more expensive system."

Natalie Zanin leads historic walking tours of Washington and is fond of Tiber stories. Her favorite involves a tremendous flood that overwhelmed the creek in 1804. "Hogs, cows and driftwood and furniture raced down the Tiber and poured over the little bridge at Seventh Street," she wrote. "Pennsylvania Avenue was under water."

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