The Peter Bug Shoe Academy at 1320 E Street, SE. In the background, the former Buchanan School, now the Buchanan Condos. The large stele on the left – a public art project – is the last of three sculptures remaining on the site after the renovation of the school’s plaza and playground in 1968.
This 15 foot concrete public art stele created by sculptor William Tarr is one of three pieces commissioned for the site. The piece is patterned with geometrical shapes and symbols and is slowly disintegrating from abrasions of weather and time.
A former sunken basketball court was part of the renovation of Buchanan’s Plaza/Playground in 1968. Today it’s overseen by the Peter Bug Academy and used for local performances and community festivals.
Lady Bird Johnson, Buchanan School & Peter Bug Matthews
by Larry Janezich
Posted November 12, 2022
After the 1968 reality of Lady Bird Johnson’s beautification of the playground at Buchanan School faltered in the 1970s, Capitol Hill resident Peter Bug Matthews picked up the pieces and founded the Peter Bug Shoe Academy. Now it’s on the way to being designated as a DC Historic Landmark.
Last Tuesday night, ANC6B voted unanimously to support the designation of the Peter Bug Shoe Academy as a DC Historic Landmark. Earlier this month, Todd Jones of the DC Historic Preservation Office presented the nomination to the ANC’s Planning and Zoning Committee which recommended the nomination to the full ANC. Mr. Matthews initiated the proceedings for the designation, filing a petition and application with the Historic Preservation Office. (For more on the process, see below.)
The site’s history dates to the mid-1960s and Lady Bird Johnson’s Beautification Project which had made addressing urban decay part of its mission. DC became a “template city” according to Jones in his remarks to the Committee.
Buchanan School was built in 1895 but by the 1960’s the school, playground and plaza had become dilapidated and rundown. Under the First Lady’s Beautification Project, federal assistance provided $300,000 and the Vincent Astor Foundation (owing to the interest in the project of NYC socialite, philanthropist and LBJ friend Brooke Astor) kicked in another $428,940 to create a new play area for the school, including a sunken basketball court, chess tables, climbing equipment, a water feature, public art, and a building with restrooms, snacks, and an office.
Post LBJ Beautification renovation project, the playground was one of the best in the city. It was meant to be a 24 hour community living space without fences. Photo: LBJ Presidential Library
The First Lady spoke at the opening of the new facility in May of 1968 attended by future first home-rule mayor Walter Washington and Brooke Astor. Photo: LBJ Presidential Library
In her remarks, the First Lady said, “School yards must not be locked at 3:00 pm. They must not have forbidding fences that shut the community out and shut the children in. Outdoor time is learning time, just as much as the hours spent in the classroom. Play facilities must offer wide variety, and lots of challenges, so that young people stretch and grow – emotionally, as well as physically. They must be attuned to the tempo of our times – and how fortunate we are to have the people who see this need and are filling it. This kind of round-the-clock community playground is a new and constructive answer to the urban problem.” See LBJ Library video here.: The section on Buchanan School starts at 8:50:00 minutes into the video: http://bit.ly/3fYDAQJ
As soon as the early 1970s, however, the renovated playground and building again fell into disrepair. Maintenance was the responsibility of the Department of Parks and Recreation which did not have the resources to provide the necessary upkeep. It was then, according to Jones, Capitol Hill resident John Matthews (known by his nickname of “Peter Bug” after the customized souped-up gold Volkswagen he drove) sold the idea of opening a shoe repair shop in the now closed play area building to the Department of Parks and Recreation. Matthews’ training was in education and his specialty was shoes – and he founded the Peter Bug Shoe Academy there which opened in 1977. Jones told the committee, “He established a safe place to learn job skills and continues doing that today.” The sunken basketball court became a venue for local performances and community festivals. Jones said, “The nomination recognizes and remembers the long legacy of community engagement and public service the Academy represents for the Capitol Hill Community.”
Regarding the vehicle from which Peter Bug got his nickname, Mr. Matthews told the committee he is in the process of restoring the 1966 Volkswagen and he hopes to park it in front of the Peter Bug Academy by Thanksgiving as an attraction and legacy marker in its own right. He says, “It’s not gold anymore – it’s maroon. And we’ve renamed the Volkswagen. It’s now called Bugszilla.”
In the spring of 2016, Insight Development purchased the school site began the conversion of Buchanan School and the nearby townhouses into luxury residences – Buchanan School Condos and Buchanan Park Town Houses. The project did not incorporate the southwest corner of the site comprised of the remnants of the playground, the sunken basketball court, and the Peter Bug Academy.
DC property owners and community groups can help to preserve local history through historic designation. Getting a property or area recognized as historic requires a successful application to the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB). The Board designates historic landmarks and districts for listing in the DC Inventory of Historic Sites, working with the staff of the Historic Preservation Office (HPO).
When HPRB evaluates an application for listing in the DC Inventory, it also decides whether to recommend the property for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. This advice is forwarded to the District’s State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), who nominates properties for National Register listing. See here: http://bit.ly/3hA1TVN
Peter Bug Matthews’ oral history interview with the Ruth Ann Overbeck Capitol Hill History Project can be found here: http://bit.ly/3GfnXPA
For more on what happened in the aftermath of the 1968 dedication, see article by Jim Myers here: http://bit.ly/3UwwNgf