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A Historical Perspective of North Portal Estates

North Portal Estates is the unknown jewel of Washington, DC. Located in the northern most corner of the District of Columbia, it is exclusively a residential neighborhood bounded by North Portal Drive, East Beach Drive and the Maryland-DC Boundary.  It is also in close proximity to Rock Creek Park, the oldest urban national park in the United States, which has tremendously impacted neighborhood development.  North Portal Estates sits between the Fenwick Branch and the Blair/Portal Tributary of the creek that carved and feeds the park.


The area known as North Portal Estates was a part of the Fenwick Farmstead of Washington County in the early days of the District of Columbia.  Philip Fenwick, born in 1790 in what became Washington County, was a large area landowner and slaveholder in the District.[1] In 1862, Fenwick freed his slaves in accordance with the DC Emancipation Law approved April 16, 1862.[2] Fenwick died in 1863.


Pursuant to his will, Fenwick’s property, money and investments were liquidated and divided among his ten children between 1866 and 1872. Much of the liquidated land was purchased by John and Mary Van Riswick (Fenwick’s son-in-law and daughter), including the parcel upon which they built their residence, “Van View,” on13th Street in the Shepherd Park community. The federal government also acquired some of the liquidated real property towards the eventual establishment of Rock Creek Park, created by an Act of Congress in 1890.[3]


Rock Creek Park has posed several challenges to its adjacent neighborhoods, including park entrances, grading roads and trails, flooding, and sewer drainage.  However, the park has also presented constant preservation concerns since its inception, including preservation of the natural park scenery and ambiance.[4]


In 1926, developer Edson W. Briggs bought and subdivided 100 acres of the former Fenwick Farm for a new residential development, Rock Creek Park Estates.  Briggs was “resolved to preserve … not only the trees, but the brooks, hills, and dales throughout the property,” and had worked out “a plan of curving driveways along the streams and following the natural contours” in consultation with District engineers and the Commission of Fine Arts.[5]


The first homes of the current North Portal Estates area of Rock Creek Park Estates were built along North Portal and East Beach Drives between 1928 and 1931[6].  However, lots and houses of Rock Creek Park Estates, as with the amenities of Rock Creek Park[7], were not available to everyone.  Briggs established various covenants into deeds prohibiting sales to African Americans, Middle Easterners and Jews.[8]  “Section is Restricted” was a major selling point for the new community, as it was code for the prohibition of selling to “colored” or those of “Hebrew” persuasion.[9]


In its 1948 decision in Shelley v. Kraemer and its companion case Hurd v. Hodge in the District of Columbia, the Supreme Court ruled that racially based restrictive covenants on their face were invalid and would violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.  Based on these decisions, several Jewish families began to move into North Portal Estates.  In the 1950s, Jewish developer Leo Bernstein built much of today’s North Portal Estates, initially marketing the area to wealthy Jewish families as the “last, and one of the finest, exclusive subdivisions” in Washington.[10]  The homes were much larger than neighbors to the south and east with the definite look of an upper class residential enclave.  Residences featured driveways and garages, clearly marking the automobile era of their provenance.  Also typical of insular but fashionable 1950’s suburban residential development, the community contains no commercial area.


By the early 1960s, African Americans, regardless of middle- and upper-class status, began to move into North Portal Estates, and other more affluent neighborhoods, for better homes, schools, and services.  North Portal Estates became home to several upper and middle-income African American professional families of doctors, judges, attorneys, educators, and politicians.  As many of these new residents were also civic leaders, it was not long before they organized their strong sense of community spirit.  In 1967, the Civic League of North Portal Estates was officially established.


North Portal Estates embraces and rejoices in its diversity.



[1] “Rural Remnants of Washington County:  An Architectural Survey of Washington’s Historic Farms and Estates,” D.C. Historic Preservation Office, September 2013, Washington, DC.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Ward 4 Heritage Guide:  A Discussion of Ward Four Cultural and Heritage Resources,” DC Office of Planning, 2015.

[5] “E.W. Briggs, Real Estate Developer,” The Washington Post, February 2, 1962, p 84, DC Historic Preservation Survey, September 2013.

[6] Public Records, DC Recorder of Deeds.

[7] Ward 4 Heritage Guide.

[8] Public Records, DC Recorder of Deeds.

[9] Ward 4 Heritage Guide.

[10] Ibid.

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