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The American Way?

The Webster School once taught immigrants how to be Americans. Now, it may become an object lesson in how America treats its history.

It was 1936, and the clouds of war were beginning to gather over Europe. Hitler was a threatening, provocative presence, ever on the rise. In far-off America, which was working through the Great Depression, new whiffs of xenophobia were hanging in the air. Or so it seemed, anyway, to 23-year-old Naomi Litoff, the just-married daughter of a Polish-Jewish grocer in Southwest D.C.

“There were different things in the paper; there was talk of sending people back to where they came from,” recalls Litoff, now an 87-year-old widow living in a senior-citizen high-rise in Rockville.

Today, the shock is still palpable in Litoff’s sad gray eyes. Here was a woman who had come to America from Poland when she was 7 years old, who attended Bowen Elementary, Jefferson Junior High, and Roosevelt High School in Washington, who spoke perfect English, whose husband was American, and who knew every road and alleyway in D.C.

But Litoff was not, in fact, an American citizen. “I thought I was a citizen, but I was told I had to get citizenship papers,” she says. Suffice it to say that although she had cried the day she last saw her grandparents in Poland in 1921, by the mid-1930s, the old country no longer beckoned. To make her life in America official, though, she still had some bureaucratic hoops to jump.

Litoff’s journey to American citizenship—like thousands of others’ in Washington—took her through a red brick schoolhouse at 10th and H Streets NW, near what was then downtown Washington, a place that now affects the moniker “East End.” The Daniel Webster School, built in 1882 as a neighborhood educational institution, served between 1918 and 1949 as an “Americanization School” for new arrivals from Germany, Italy, Greece, Poland, and other countries around the world. Sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), Webster helped immigrants bone up on the American history and culture they’d need to know when the immigration authorities quizzed them for citizenship.

There was nothing really exceptional about the school building. A three-story pressed-brick edifice with a slate roof and a small courtyard, Webster remains a fairly typical representation of the schools constructed by D.C.’s municipal government in the late 19th century. Webster School is, in fact, a classic example of the sort of austere, boxy, Romanesque Revival-style schoolhouse that went out of fashion with the turn of the century.

But to Litoff, the school represented a way to ward off a one-way ticket back to Poland—which was on the verge of being gobbled up by either the Germans, the Russians, or both. Webster wasn’t Ellis Island, but it was Washington’s primary institution of assimilation: a place where immigrants learned the rudiments of English and citizenship, and the difference between General Washington and general merchandise.

And, yes, there would be a test.

Today, many of Webster’s alumni are long gone, or, like Litoff, hanging on in far-flung senior centers in suburbs like Rockville. Like the immigrants and their families, much of downtown has also been supplanted by a new commercial Washington of glass, concrete, and steel. Now the question is whether the old schoolhouse that is such a piece of Washington immigration history will indeed become history itself.

The lights started to dim on Webster in the late 1990s, when it appeared on a list of “surplus schools” mandated for sale by Congress and the D.C. financial control board. Pressured by litigation from constituent groups like Parents United, school officials were trying to replenish a $2 billion hole in their capital-improvement fund—money that could be used to provide heat, lights, and safe surroundings to public schoolchildren across the city. The upshot was a $100 million fire sale of overstock public school bricks and mortar.

Vacant and neglected, Webster was appraised in 1997 at about $2.5 million, mostly for the value of the downtown real estate underneath it. The appraisal report said that its “highest and best use” resided in tearing it down and building anew. Although school officials had noted that Webster’s “historic nature” might make demolition problematic, the school had never been included in any inventory of historically significant structures.

Nine groups bid on Webster School, including the Secret Service, whose brand-new headquarters building was carefully designed to wrap around two sides of the old schoolhouse. Now they wanted the whole block. The feds, however, were outbid by former Washington Redskins right tackle George Starke of 1980s Hogs fame. Starke, better known today as a restaurateur and purveyor of fine barbecue, is a principal of the Culinary Arts Group, which wants to open a cooking and hospitality industry school for inner-city youths. His group plunked down $2 million, according to school documents.

The deal was finalized Dec. 7, 1998. An application to raze the building was filed on Dec. 11.

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It didn’t take long for the D.C. Preservation League to sound the alarm. On Dec. 22, just 11 days after Starke’s group applied for the demolition permit, the League’s Jerry Maronek was scrambling downtown to file the necessary papers to designate Webster a historic landmark.

The proposed demolition has been tied up before the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board ever since. In a Byzantine review process marked by endless hearings, reviews, and appeals, each side has drawn blood. Round One went to the preservationists, who won landmark designation in February 1999.

Starke’s group opened Round Two by assigning all rights and selling the property to the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), which plans to build new offices on the site and lease a space to the culinary institute. Last fall, the NTEU challenged the landmark designation on procedural grounds, relying on new regulatory reform legislation that was supposed to streamline preservation disputes in the District. The appeal prompted a new round of hearings this winter before the Historic Preservation Review Board, which is expected to issue a final ruling within the next month.

Meanwhile, the NTEU got a structural engineer’s opinion that part of the building was in imminent danger of collapse. By their estimates, it would cost more than $3.3 million to repair the school. On March 30, inspectors from the Building and Land Regulation Administration (BLRA) issued a “violation notice” for the school, noting cracks in and bowing of the south wall, roof leaks, and collapsed interior flooring. Their order required the new owners to either stabilize or “remove” the southeast wing of the school—a directive that startled preservationists who thought the battle to save the building was being fought before the Historic Preservation Review Board, not the BLRA.

Preservation attorney Andrea Ferster fired off a letter to city officials April 4 seeking clarification of the order and accusing the owners of “demolition-by-neglect.” Attorney Richard Nettler, representing Starke and the NTEU, replied the same day, noting that the building’s condition “pre-dated its purchase from the D.C. Public School [system].”

As the fight grinds on, Maronek makes it his business to inspect the school daily, just to make sure it’s still there. “There have been cases where buildings have come down in the middle of the night,” he says.

The logic behind the move to raze Webster—that it’s time to leave behind the old and embrace the new—would have been easy for the school’s immigrant students to grasp. “It was just a thrill to go up the steps of the school and know that I was going to become a citizen of this country,” says Litoff, reminiscing about her days at Webster. “It was an old building even then, but I was happy to be there. I wanted to become an American citizen. I loved this country.”

Litoff remembers the small classrooms and even-smaller wooden desks. Few of her fellow students spoke English as well as Litoff, who was practically a native Washingtonian, after all. In fact, as a graduate of D.C.’s 1920’s public education system, she had covered most of the material before.

“You had to learn about how Congress is run, how many states there are, the Constitution, the Pledge of Allegiance, the Gettysburg Address, and Abraham Lincoln,” she says. “I knew all this. You learned all that in school. It was history. I don’t know if they teach that anymore.”

For others, Webster was a more rigorous experience. Some couldn’t read or write in their native languages, let alone English. And although they were drawn together by a common purpose, the students arrived every day from different jobs and very different pursuits of the American Dream. “We all came to class after work,” Litoff says. “We were all tired. It was just something we had to do.”

Litoff persevered for several months, attending classes two or three nights a week. Her husband, Sam Litoff, helped her prepare for the citizenship exam: “He would call off questions; I would answer them.”

Litoff passed the test and got her papers. They’re still in a safe-deposit box, along with her passport. “I was so excited when I got those papers, I can’t tell you,” she says. Perhaps Webster saved her from the fate of her Jewish relatives back in Poland. “They were all killed,” Litoff says in a tone flattened from years of telling and retelling. “Soldiers made them dig their own graves, and shot them.”

Today, Litoff thinks Webster should be a museum, just like Ellis Island: “Why would anybody want to knock it down? It’s been there for umpteen years. It’s a part of our history.”

Wanda Bubriski, an architectural historian who has testified to save Webster, says Litoff’s recollections are a testament to what she calls “power of place memory,” a link between history and the physical places that enshrine it.

But Webster’s social history as a school for American citizenship also has its detractors. Peter Smith, an architectural historian who testified for the demolition, stressed that the Americanization Movement that peaked between the two World Wars was not necessarily benign. He says that some histories of the movement focus on its implicit xenophobia and paternalism—its desire to “standardize” the unwashed masses, physically and intellectually, and indoctrinate them into the American Way.

Nettler, for his part, questions whether both sides of the Americanization legacy have been examined, and whether it’s really a history that’s worth preserving. Then again, the answer may depend on whether one has a stake in potentially pricey downtown real estate.

Marcia Dreisbach, a DAR member who still speaks at the monthly swearing-in ceremonies for new citizens in Washington’s federal courthouse, says Webster was a needed—and welcome—charity. “A lot of these people who came over had no idea what in the world they were getting into,” she says. “All they knew was it was a wonderful new world where the streets were paved with gold and all that.”

For those who wanted it, the school provided such innocuous services as nurseries, instruction in English and music, even a bit of practical advice on getting along in Washington, all things that new immigrants normally have to figure out on their own, Dreisbach says.

And whether the Americanization Movement was noble or nasty, it was a real piece of American history. That apparently is what the Historic Preservation Review Board staff emphasized when it recommended the school be designated a historic landmark. Concluded David Maloney, the board’s staff reviewer: “[Webster’s] association with the Americanization School does not imply that the xenophobic views espoused by that movement were benign or benevolent, but simply that the school is a reflection of that history, for better or for worse.” CP