Richard Brownell

Richard Brownell is the author of numerous books for young audiences on historical and cultural topics. He also writes political commentary and has had his stage plays produced in several cities around the country. He currently resides in New York City, but his home is wherever history has been made. Richard has been an avid reader, researcher, and writer of American history much of his life, and he is always sure to soak up historical sites and stories wherever his travels take him.

Posts by Richard Brownell

The Election Day Riot of 1857

1850s sheet music dedicated to the Know Nothing party. (Source: Library of Congress)

Those who look at the sorry state of politics in modern America can take solace in the fact that we do not face the savagery that took place in the name of democracy in 1850s Washington, D.C. During those tumultuous days leading up to the Civil War, Washington, and much of the country was in the grip of heated debates over slavery and immigration that often turned violent.

Patent Office in 1855 after it was rebuilt. (Source:  Cliff - Flickr: The Patent Office, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17697085)

The Patent Office Fire of 1836

American commerce and invention suffered a terrible blow on December 15, 1836, when the U.S. Patent Office caught fire. The office, which was located in Blodget’s Hotel on E Street NW between 7th and 8th Streets, shared its space with the U.S. Post Office and a branch of the local fire department, of all things. Unfortunately, that volunteer fire department had disbanded and the only way to fight the flames was a bucket brigade. When the fire was finally doused, America lost an estimated 7,000 models and 9,000 drawings of pending and patented inventions.

Mary and Elizabeth Edmonson

The Edmonson Sisters of Alexandria: Legends in the Fight Against Slavery

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the debate over the future of slavery raged through the halls of Congress. Abolitionists in the North, however, had little faith that their fight could be won through political discourse. A quarter of Washington, D.C.’s black population was enslaved, and the slave trade in the District was one of the most lucrative markets in the country. Abolitionists reasoned that they needed to resort to other means to combat slavery in this socially hypocritical and politically entrenched environment. In the early months of 1848, a local cell of the Underground Railroad devised a plan to smuggle slaves out of the area and take them north to free territory.

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington’s Education at Frank Holliday's Pool Hall

In 1910, the Howard Theater was founded in the Washington's Shaw neighborhood, and it soon became the premier black theater in the country, helping launch the careers of many African American performers. But for Duke Ellington, who was a fixture in the neighborhood as a kid, the pool hall next door to the theatre did more to shape is musical sensibilities.

1980s photo of Old Ebbitt Grill interior from Historic American Buildings Survey. (Source: HABS DC-315, Library of Congress)

Old Ebbitt Grill was Saved by Its Beer Stein Collection

Washington's Old Ebbitt Grill has served presidents, royalty, Washington luminaries, movie and television stars, and military heroes, and touts itself as being "the oldest saloon in Washington." However, it almost didn't survive the 1960s when the owners racked up a huge tax bill with the IRS. When the building went up for auction, it was purchased by Stuart Davidson and John Laytham who owned Clyde's restaurant and hoped to add Old Ebbitt's collection of antique beer steins to their establishment.

A Plane for Every Garage

Ercoupe plane. (Source: The Peter M. Bowers Collection/The Museum of Flight)

In the early days of aviation, aircraft designers and manufacturers like Henry Berliner envisioned a future in which everyone would have the opportunity to own and operate their own planes. Berliner struck out on his own in 1930 and founded the Engineering and Research Corporation (ERCO). Headquartered in northwest Washington, D.C., the company’s intent was to build tools for the manufacture of airplanes. Berliner’s real dream, though, was to make air travel accessible to the masses. In 1937, Berliner purchased 50 acres of land near the airport in College Park, Maryland where he built an airstrip and a large factory to manufacture ERCO’s new plane, the Ercoupe. It was a machine that might have made George Jetson proud.

The Summer Movie Blockbuster Comes to D.C.

Uptown Theater, Washington, D.C. (Credit:  Highsmith, Carol M., photographer. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

Summer blockbusters are typically films driven by special effects and large set pieces with plots that involve major threats to America or the Earth in general. What better location to feature all these elements than Washington, D.C.? As the nation’s capital and one of the world’s most recognizable cities, Washington is tailor made to be a focal point in summer movie blockbusters.

Grace Slick (Source: Wikipedia)

That Time Grace Slick Tried to Slip LSD to President Nixon

Nixon, a career politician known for his rather stilted mannerisms and stoic demeanor, was seen as humorless and uncaring by the counterculture. As a result, he was the butt of many jokes. Some of the nation’s counterculture writers and artists mused what it would be like if Nixon ever took LSD. Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick took it upon herself to find out when Nixon's daughter, Tricia, invited her to a tea party at the White House in 1970.

The Alexandria Retrocession of 1846

1835 map of the District of Columbia.

We have the states of Maryland and Virginia to thank for the land that created the nation’s capital and the greater District of Columbia. It was through their cession of territory via the Residence Act of 1790 that Congress was able to establish a permanent home for a federal government that was up to that point rather itinerant. The 100-square-mile block called for by Congress that would constitute the District was made up of 69 square miles of territory from Maryland and another 31 square miles from Virginia. The District, which was organized by the District of Columbia Organic Act of 1801, organized the territory and officially placed it under the control of Congress. The bill was enacted on February 27, 1801, and almost from the moment of its passage, Virginia was looking for a way to get its territory back.

Baltimore & Pennsylvania Railroad station. (Source: National Gallery of Art archives)

The Short-Lived Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Station on the National Mall

It may be hard to picture now, but the National Mall was once home to a lot of commercial and industrial development. Perhaps the most notable -- if also maligned -- site was a railroad station belonging to the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad. The station itself embraced a Gothic architectural style, but the train shed that extended from the station was considered an eyesore. It proved to be one (of many) motivations behind the 1901 McMillan plan to beautify and renovate America's front yard.

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