Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

Thomas Kenning – Interview with a Washington DC History Author

Abandoned Washington DC
Thomas Kenning

America Through Time/Arcadia Press/Fonthill Media.

October, 2018


  1. Tell us about the book.

Abandoned Washington, DC is a collection of twelve essays and about 350 photographs documenting the District’s forgotten, disused, reused, and underused spaces.  The book features Forest Haven Mental Health Center, Forest Glenn Seminary, McMillan Sand Filtration Site, the dissembled bits of the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol Building – this piece of national treasure that is just growing moss in Rock Creek Park.  It’s history, it’s urban exploration, it’s photography, it’s adventure – it’s these stories of DC that deserve to be better known.  Hopefully, it is all of those things in some equal measure – thoughtful and meditative without seeming stuffy.

I hope that when people pick this book up, they get a chance to see their city in a different light. In the book, I talk about the bridges we cross over every day on our commute – across the Potomac, over Rock Creek Park.  Most people only ever experience those bridges from above, but there’s a totally different perspective to be had when you look up at them from underneath – you appreciate the scale of the undertaking that is a city like Washington, DC.

  1. What’s your thesis? Story arc?

I’m a transplant to DC, like many of the city’s residents are.  DC is like this big college town, and there’s a tension between the natives and those who have made it there adoptive home.  There is a tendency to move to a place and sort of behave like its story started on the day you unpacked your bags, like this is a giant movie set and not a real city with a history that started way before you arrived.

Anyway, I moved to DC to start work on my MA in history at American University.  I knew pretty much no one, and I was living in a basement apartment in Friendship Heights next to my landlady’s washing machine.  It was pretty bleak.  On school breaks, I found myself with a lot of free time and a beat up mountain bike that I’d picked up on Craig’s List for twenty dollars.  The challenge was to spend as much time outside of that apartment as possible, so I grabbed my little Nikon camera and started cycling to all of these places, after work, on the weekends.  I either stumbled onto these places in my exploration, or I caught wisps and rumors of them online.  Back in 2011 when I started doing this, there wasn’t much information online about abandoned places or urban exploration in DC.  That’s how my website DCinruins.wordpress.com was born, as an extension of those early trips.  And Abandoned Washington, DC is sort of the maturation and fullest realization of that arc – as definitive a documentation as you’re going to get of abandoned places a city that is undergoing such a real estate boom.  Nothing stays untouched or unnoticed forever here.

  1. What are the most important influences?

One of the historians I admire most is Karl Jacoby, and in particular, his book Shadows at Dawn.  In it, he tells the story of the story of this fairly obscure massacre of Apaches.  He tells the story several times over from the perspective of all of the players – the American settlers, the Mexicans, the Apache themselves – and the same events with the exact same facts end up sounding like three alternate realities.  It is one of the most powerful works of historical scholarship I have ever read, the way he interrogates these varied and sometimes nontraditional sources.

I would not dream of comparing my work to his, but I would say that that book opened my eyes – it helped me look at these places around DC, which are often decried as eyesores if they’re noticed at all.  It helped me see the beauty in these crumbling structures, to appreciate the flavor and character they bring to the city.

  1. What are the myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about this subject?

Some people might tell you that Metro Center or Chinatown are where it’s at – just look at the glass and steel, and there’s a Panera Bread around the corner…  And that’s a fair perspective, but as I watch certain parts of DC, developers there seem to be in a perpetual arms race to redefine luxury living.  Literally, some buildings are offering weekly puppy petting sessions.  I just got to thinking about the kind of ineffable, untamed cool that comes from having something like McMillan Sand Filtration Site around the corner from your house – can you really say you’ll like that space better as a luxury shopping destination?  When they’ve turned these huge underground chambers into parking?  Maybe I’m in the minority here, maybe I’m some kind of Luddite, but I happen to like a neighborhood that isn’t groomed and homogeneous to the point that there is no flavor left.

  1. What are the classics in field (if any)?

I like to think that Abandoned Washington, DC sits comfortably alongside the work of someone like Sarah Vowell, who is writing popular history in a conversational tone.  This book isn’t academic – there aren’t footnotes, though it has been researched.  These are essays and stories that speak in the vernacular of history and urban exploration.

  1. What challenges did you face in this research?

The challenge of Abandoned Washington, DC is that there was very little archival research – this was all in the field.  Scrambling through the woods, climbing through broken out windows, walking carefully across treacherous floors, going into dark places with nothing but a flashlight and a camera and wondering – “Is there someone else already in there?”  The challenge was to get the best photos, to get the full picture, to have the most fun – and still come back to tell the tale.

  1. What were the most important resources you found (and where)?

A huge shout out to sites like http://www.streetsofwashington.com/ and your own [matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com].  These sites and the books you’ve done were a tremendous help in understanding DC’s past.  Many of the locations covered in Abandoned Washington, DC have only been abandoned in the last fifty years or less, so the archives of the The Washington Post were useful.  I read some chilling things about the closure of Forest Haven Mental Health Center there – stories of neglect and abuse and just awful things.  And actually, the ruins of the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol Building would never have been on my radar if I hadn’t heard about them on an early episode of the fantastic podcast 99% Invisible by Roman Mars. (https://99percentinvisible.org/episode/episode-24-the-two-fates-of-the-old-east-portico/) That was a big a moment for me – hearing that episode and thinking, “I live ten minutes by bike from the places he’s talking about.  Half of the city does, and yet nobody knows!”

  1. Are there sources you wish existed but don’t?

I think about all of the buildings that once existed that have been destroyed – what Southwest used to be, before the 1950s, or the buildings that used to stand where Federal Triangle is now.  All the phases of this city that just no longer exist.

But the tragedy of missing sources – sources I wish existed, but don’t – is that I had a front row seat to the destruction of sources.  Even as I was working on this book, some of these buildings were town down.

I think about all of the sections of the city under such furious redevelopment now – some of the locations in my book are already unrecognizable.  Like, the Ontario Theater.  Fair enough, it hasn’t been a theatre in years, but this place had a storied past – not just major Hollywood pictures, but plenty of Mexican films as the Adams Morgan neighborhood changed during the 60s and 70s.  And in the 1980s, it was ground zero for punk rock in DC – U2, Motorhead, the Clash, but to me, more importantly, it was an early home to DC bands like the Bad Brains and Minor Threat.  The theatre had been vacant for some time, but by the time I finished the book, it was torn to the ground and replaced with another set of luxury condos.  All that is left is the marquee.  They’re calling that historic, but I’ve got to say – it really doesn’t have much to do with what was there.  It is hard to say what a condo that sells for $300,000 has to do with punk rock or anything else that happened there.

It is a nod to the old timers, but increasingly, the old timers are being priced out.  The lucky ones are being bought out, I guess, but they can’t afford to stay in the neighborhood they’ve called their own.  Times change, and I don’t want to sound cranky – but working on Abandoned Washington, DC made me think a lot about what we ask from our neighborhoods.  People move to Adams Morgan because it is hip and cool and quirky, it is “off the beaten path” but what’s the tipping point where it’s no longer any of those things?  How many fresh coats of paint before you can’t see what you loved about the neighborhood in the first place?

  1. Who’s your audience?

Anyone who is interested in Washington, DC can hopefully find something to like in this book.  People who are interested in urban exploration should love it – I’m proud of the photography in this book.  It is full of really arresting images.  There is a real thrill in staring hard at something that is crumbling.  It is like contemplating your own mortality.  Buildings usually feel like they last forever, so when you see them in ruin, it is like seeing something you’re not supposed to see.  It’s dangerous.  It’s a little subversive.

  1. Tell us about you.

I’m a teacher by day.  I’ve taught at pretty much every level from preschool to university, from DC to China.  I currently teach middle school history in Florida, where my wife and I moved after the birth of our daughter.  I still get back to DC pretty frequently.  Most recently, I was working with Ubisoft, consulting on their upcoming video game The Division 2 – serving as a tour guide, doing some documentary work, and some writing and research. The game is set in a sort of ruined, strife-ridden version of DC, so my work on Abandoned Washington, DC dovetailed with their interests nicely.  That has been a tremendously rewarding experience.

  1. What inspired you to write this book?

At the end of the day, Abandoned Washington, DC is a love letter to the city I will always consider my adopted home.  It is a snapshot of a moment in the dynamic life of this city.  I have a lot of complex thoughts and feeling about DC, but I think that’s a sign that you’re in love.  Love is complicated.

  1. What’s unique about your perspective?

Everybody knows that when you visit Washington, DC, you’ve got to see the National Mall, the White House, the Smithsonian.  You should do those things.  But Abandoned Washington, DC argues that there’s more to DC than just that.  And there’s more to DC than just the nice neighborhoods, too, the farm-to-table restaurants and the luxury condos.  When I did the website, DCinruins.wordpress.com, I was approached on a number of occasions by folks who wanted to hire me as a personal tour guide – to take them to out for a walk in the parts of DC that have gone to seed.  I always declined for a number of reasons.  But now there’s Abandoned Washington, DC – it is like taking that tour of the city with me.

  1. What’s your favorite DC history book?

I recently read Spoke: Images and Stories from the 1980s Washington, DC Punk Scene by Scott Crawford.  It’s full of photos and profiles of all of these really colorful local bands, each with something unique to say.  It’s a great jumping off point for anyone interested in the punk subculture that sprung up in DC during the 1980s.

  1. What’s next for you? What are you working on?

I’m working on Openendedsocialstudies.org.  It’s a website designed to supplement middle and high school social studies classrooms, full of free content – lesson plans, open source texts, and travel writing designed to foster a sense of wonder about the world and our place in it.  Believe it or not, I think most of our country’s challenges at the moment stem back to a poor historical and civic education.  So this website is one small attempt at a course correction – to give teachers and students easy to use tools that expand our sense of global connection at a moment when everything else is telling them to just look out for number one.

One comment on “Thomas Kenning – Interview with a Washington DC History Author

  1. Pingback: Thomas Kenning – Interview with a Washington DC History Author | DCinruins.

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