Where We Live: Tenleytown, where old meets new

By Amy Reinink
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 11, 2011; 1:14 PM

Anyone visiting the 50-meter pool at the Wilson Aquatic Center, the brand-new Tenley-Friendship Library, or the row of restaurants and big-box stores on Wisconsin Avenue would be forgiven for thinking Tenleytown is definedby the shiny and new.

But a walking tour with Tenleytown Historical Society advisory board member Frank Haendler reveals a pocket of rich history for every new facility and tony shop.

There's Fort Reno, the highest point in the city at more than 400 feet, which guarded the city during the Civil War.

There's the old Methodist cemetery, whose tombstones date to the mid-1800s.

And there's Grant Road, a narrow lane lined with turn-of-the-century Victorian houses, where Haendler has lived since 1984.

"It's the last surviving country road in Northwest Washington, and it still has the feel of a country road," says Haendler, 80, a retired American Foreign Service employee. "It winds a bit, goes downhill and uphill, and has never been widened. In the spring, when the gardens are in bloom, it's hard to believe you're in the city."

Haendler and other residents say that comfortable coexistence of history and progress defines Tenleytown, south of Friendship Heights along Wisconsin Avenue.

In the 1780s, Tenleytown, the second-oldest settlement in Washington, was the last outpost for food and lodging for farmers rolling barrels of tobacco from Frederick to Georgetown, Haendler said.

The neighborhood grew when it housed troops at Fort Reno during the Civil War, and it saw a construction boom after the trolley connected it to downtown Washington in the late 1890s, Haendler said.

"Tenleytown has a fascinating history, and people who live here tend to appreciate that," said Paul J. Fekete, 53, an economist for the U.S. Agency for International Development, who has lived in Tenleytown since 1986.

Today, enclaves of early-20th-century Colonials and bungalows sit within walking distance from stores such as Best Buy, Whole Foods and Hudson Trail Outfitters, and chain stores exist alongside independently owned ethnic restaurants.

"It's a very walkable neighborhood, with an enormous amount of access to shops, restaurants, Metro and a broad range of retail," Fekete said.

The history and convenience come at a steep price. The lowest sale price for a single-family house in the past 12 months was $540,000, according to Julie Six with Long & Foster. Sale prices went as high as $1.25 million.

Longtime resident Greg Ferenbach, 51, an attorney who specializes in education law at Dow Lohnes law firm, said despite rising real-estate prices, Tenleytown retains "more of a middle-class heritage and family character than its more tony relatives, like Chevy Chase, Cleveland Park and Spring Valley."

Six said annual events including a summer block party, which includes a watermelon-eating contest and ping-pong tournaments, illustrate the neighborhood's down-to-earth character.

"It is truly a neighborhood," Six said. "On my block, almost all the houses have porches, and you'll frequently see people sitting out there. I often find kids running through my yard playing hide-and-seek."

The neighborhood's public schools, such as Wilson High, also attract young families, Fekete said.

In addition to the Wilson Aquatic Center, which opened in August 2009, public amenities include the new library, which opened in late January after years of debate. The library debate, which focused on whether the new building should include residential development, highlights tension between developers and preservationists in the neighborhood, residents said. The library ultimately was built without residential units, after residents complained that the mixed-use development would be a bad fit for the neighborhood.

"You do find tension between those looking to develop and increase the density and those who'd like to retain the neighborhood's current charm," Fekete said. "I think most residents believe there's a balance to be had between the two extremes."

The Tenleytown Neighbors Association and other community organizations stay active in planning-and-zoning issues and other matters that affect the neighborhood, residents said.

Residents said other downsides are minor, and mostly relate to traffic on Wisconsin Avenue and parking availability.

And for all the debate about new development, residents said the neighborhood retains much of what made it attractive historically.

"The streets are quiet, the gardens have a certain rural charm, and in the middle of the broiling summer, with Fort Reno at 400 feet up, if there's a refreshing breeze anywhere in the city, it's going to be here," Haendler said.

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