Greater Greater Washington

Posts by John DeFerrari

John DeFerrari is a native Washingtonian with a lifelong passion for local history and writes about it for his blog, Streets Of Washington. His first book about DC history, Lost Washington, DC, was recently published by History Press. John is also a trustee of the DC Preservation League. The views expressed here are his own. 

Little-known quarry played a big role in DC's rise

The city's historic structures were built from materials as unique to their age and as varied as the architectural styles used to mold them into buildings. Those materials often have their own rich stories to tell, as Garrett Peck ably demonstrates in his lively new book, The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry.

Seneca sandstone has a lot going for it. In addition to its rich, dignified color, it also has the unique property that it is relatively soft and easy to cut when it is taken out of the ground but hardens after the cut stone is set in place, making for an excellent building material. It's a wonder that more DC buildings are not made from it.

The first quarry to be used heavily in constructing early Washington was the Aquia Creek quarry near Stafford, Virginia. Peter L'Enfant purchased that quarry on behalf of the government to supply stone for the Capitol and White House, but the pale Aquia Creek sandstone discolored easily (one reason why the White House was painted white in 1798), and better sources of stone were sought out. The cliffs along the Maryland side of the Potomac at what is now the small village of Seneca offered superior stone.

Robert Peter (1726-1806), a Scottish immigrant who became a prosperous Georgetown tobacco merchant, purchased a large tract of land in Maryland, including the sandstone cliffs, in 1781. The first small amounts of stone were quarried there some time in the late 18th century. Peter's son Thomas built the regal Tudor Place mansion that still stands today in Georgetown as one of the city's best house museums. Thomas also built a distinguished country house on the land at Seneca, but it was not until Thomas's son, John Parke Custis Peter (1799-1848), inherited the property that the Seneca Quarry started to figure prominently in DC construction.

South side of the Castle. Photo by the author.

John P.C. Peter made a daring lowball bid in 1846 to supply the stone for the new Smithsonian Building to be constructed on the Mall. The iconic structure could have been made of pale Aquia Creek sandstone, white New York marble, or gray granite, but at a below-market 25 cents per square foot, Peter's Seneca red sandstone got the nod from the building committee.

The eccentric Romanesque Revival building, designed by James Renwick, set the stage for the Victorian era of red Washington architecture. While many red Victorian buildings would be made primarily of brick, Seneca sandstone was prominent as well, often used in water tables because it was considered waterproof.

The water table and belt courses on the old Agriculture Building are of Seneca sandstone. Image from the author's collection.

Renwick used the stone as trim for the original Corcoran Gallery of Art building (now the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery) as well as the chapel at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. Just to the west of the Castle, the original Agriculture Department building, designed by Adolf Cluss and completed in 1868, had a Seneca sandstone water table and belt courses.

Other Seneca buildings past and present, as cataloged by Peck, include a number of C&O Canal locks and houses, the McClellan Gate at Arlington National Cemetery, the Luther Place Memorial Church facing Thomas Circle, and many private houses. Although he hasn't found evidence to confirm it, Peck tells me he suspects the trim and belt courses on the striking National Security & Trust building at 15th Street and New York Avenue NW may be Seneca sandstone as well.

It's possible that the trim on this building is Seneca sandstone. Photo by the author.

But Peck's book goes beyond the buildings to delve into the fascinating stories of the people behind the stones. John P.C. Peter died unexpectedly in 1848 after scratching his thumb on a rusty nail and contracting tetanus, but the quarry continued to prosper without him. It was the site of a skirmish during the Civil War and a scandal afterward, when it fell into the hands of robber barons during the corrupt years of the Grant administration. Peck fills in all the details of these episodes and paints a vivid picture of quarry life, including the role of African-Americans who did much of the stone-cutting.

Ruins of the stonecutting mill. Photo by the author.

The quarry shut down around 1901, having exhausted the best of the redstone that was readily available. By that time Washingtonians had decided the city's old red architecture was bad-bad-bad and should be replaced by the imperial white marble and limestone piles envisioned by the McMillan Commission.

The forgotten quarry site gradually fell into ruins. Today it lies in densely overgrown parkland just east of the C&O Canal at Seneca. In winter months, when the undergrowth is dormant, Peck leads tours of the site.

Though the quarry and its various related structures stand on parkland, none are marked with interpretive signs, and there is no marked trail through the site, so Peck's extensive knowledge of the old quarry is essential. The ghostly ruins of the old stonecutting mill, with initials carved in the sandstone by workers of yore, are particularly poignant.

Quarry master's Seneca sandstone house. Photo by the author.

It would be a great addition to the cultural resources of the Washington area if the Seneca Quarry site could be turned into an historical park, as Peck envisions. He closes his book with an engaging discussion of the individuals who have saved parts of old Seneca, like the Kiplingers, who own Thomas Peter's country mansion Montevideo, and the Albiols, who have restored the old quarry master's house.

Peck argues for a modest investment to clear the brush from the stonecutting mill site and other key spots, lay out a marked trail through the park, and install a few key interpretive signs. It would make for a unique memorial to a distinctive aspect of 19th-century culture. With publication of The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry and fresh interest in the site, perhaps the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission might take action.

Get your fill of DC history this fall

With 2 annual conferences that recognize, analyze, share, and discuss our city's recorded and built history, October is a de facto DC History Month. Come November, the Washington Historical Society will turn a page in its own history as it re-opens in the old Carnegie Library.

Old Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square. Photo by the author.

The DC Preservation League's Citywide Preservation Conference is on Friday, October 12th at the Charles Sumner School at 17th & M Streets, NW. Here, city officials, neighborhood activists, architects, and developers will discuss zoning, Union Station, streetscapes, the planned Capitol Crossing development, and historic districts.

A second conference, which DC historians wait for all year, is the 39th Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies. Events will be held October 18th through October 21st at the old Carnegie Library (home of the Historical Society of Washington), the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, and at George Washington University.

This conference combines lectures, discussions, and tours, giving you an opportunity to immerse yourself in DC history for a couple of days.

Historical Society re-opens November 5

Closed since the summer of 2011, the Historical Society of Washington will reopen its Kiplinger Library on a twice-weekly basis starting November 5th. Mondays will be available for appointments, while on Wednesdays, public hours will resume with a new library director.

The nearly 130-year-old organization has been shuttered since last summer. Under a new agreement reached in January, the society has retained the 2nd floor galleries, the library, and collection storage space of the Mt. Vernon Square Carnegie Library. While Literary Hall, the McKinley Theatre, and L'Enfant Map room have been operative with event rentals, plans for a visitor center attracting foot traffic to activate Mount Vernon Square have yet to be realized.

DC will get its own history museum

No update about DC history is complete without mentioning the recent donation of Albert H. Small's collection of Washingtoniana to George Washington University. GWU plans to make it digitally accessible and put on permanent display as part of a new DC History Museum. It'll open in 2014 in a renovated Max Woodhull House, at 20th & G Streets NW on their Foggy Bottom campus.

With all these events, and the excitement of a future dedicated museum, now seems like no better or easier time to plunge into the study and preservation of all sides, stories, facts, and dimensions of Washington's history. If you learn something interesting, consider contributing it as a guest post to Greater Greater Washington—we're always interested in articles about DC's rich history.

New book chronicles Frederick Douglass in DC

A statue of Frederick Douglass (c. 1818-1895), the most famous African-American of the 19th century, will soon be added to or near Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol to represent the District of Columbia. It's a notable and long overdue recognition for both Douglass and the District.

John Muller, a journalist and Greater Greater Washington contributor, has meticulously researched the great man's comings and goings in our fair city for his new book, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC: The Lion of Anacostia.

Douglass was born a slave in Talbot County, Maryland, escaped as a young man in 1838, and fled to New York, where he became passionately involved in the abolitionist movement. When his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was published in 1845 it became a bestseller. White people marveled that a black man and former slave could write so eloquently, and they were even more astonished when they heard him speak.

Douglass became a powerful civil rights advocate and the embodiment of all that African-Americans could achieve in the face of truly daunting adversity. In later life, once he was famous and successful, he moved to the District and became a prominent city official, settling in to a charming 21-room country house atop a hill in Anacostia with a commanding view of the city.

Muller assumes that his readers know who Douglass was and, after a quick glimpse of his childhood, jumps quickly into the whirlwind of his life in DC. Douglass visited Washington during the Civil War to advise President Lincoln on the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union Army but did not settle here until 1872, following a fire that destroyed his house in Rochester, New York. Originally living in a spacious townhouse on Capitol Hill, Douglass acquired his mansion in Anacostia, called Cedar Hill, in 1877.

Postcard view of Cedar Hill, c. 1905 from the author's collection.

By that time, he was much embroiled in the city's Reconstruction-era politics. Muller provides a wealth of information about several pivotal moments, including his near election in 1871—even before he had moved to the city—as a non-voting delegate to Congress and his subsequent brief appointment as a member of the legislative council of what was then the Territory of Columbia.

Douglass' prominence was due not just to his lectures and writings but to the newspaper he helmed, the New National Era, which had begun publication in 1870. Douglass by this time was an experienced newspaperman and he foresaw the financial challenge of starting up a newspaper for blacks in Reconstruction times, and, in fact, the New National Era lasted only a few years. Nevertheless it left an important mark on the city and on African American journalism in the years to come.

"Colored citizens paying their respects to Marshal Frederick Douglass" from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, April 7, 1877. Image from the Library of Congress.

Though he lost money on the newspaper venture, Douglass had plenty of other irons in the fire, including his appointment by President Hayes as US Marshal for the District of Columbia. Muller points out the irony of this position, given that Douglass had spent much of his early life evading the law, first as a fugitive slave and later as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Though his appointment was opposed by conservative Democrats, Douglass was confirmed by the Senate and served from 1877 to 1881, a tumultuous time for race relations in the nation's capital. Douglass subsequently also served as the DC Recorder of Deeds for several years.

Douglass was in great demand for speaking engagements in addition to his official duties and had other important commitments as well, including serving as the last president of the federally-chartered Freedman's Savings Bank, which closed in 1874. Despite his many commitments, Douglass was also on the Board of Trustees of Howard University, an institution he staunchly supported.

Equally important as his many public commitments was his family life in old Anacostia, then known as Uniontown. Muller fills in telling details about this thriving little community on the other side of the Anacostia River from the Navy Yard.

Clearly the most tumultuous event to occur in Douglass' life on Cedar Hill was the death of his wife, Anna Murray Douglass, in 1882. The loss for Douglass was heart-breaking, but two years later he married Helen Pitts, a white woman who had been his secretary when he was recorder of deeds. Muller describes how family, friends, and others in the black community were offended by this move, but the bonds of affection between Douglass and Pitts seem to have been genuine. The two were together until Douglass passed away 11 years later.

Cedar Hill in 1977. Photo from the Historic American Buildings Survey.

They called him the Sage of Anacostia. He was a celebrity, well off and widely respected. Yet Douglass's story during his Washington DC years is one of ambivalence about his prominence, even occasional discomfort. There's no doubt that he sought positions of influence and, as Muller points out, was sometimes criticized for his political ambitions.

Yet he was prone to doubting his own abilities—or maybe he just wanted to avoid being drawn too far into the system. He turned down an opportunity to run for the US Senate, as he did an offer of the presidency of Howard University. How could a man who never had any formal education be president of a university, he reasoned?

It's also striking to see his apparent perplexity about the backlash over his marriage to Helen Pitts.—Had he not realized that his life was no longer his own at that point, that he was obliged to embrace the constraints of his public image rather than make his own personal choices? For a man who had so famously overcome slavery, the subtler bonds of his successful later years must have presented very real challenges of a different sort.

Cedar Hill is now a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service, and it is well worth a visit. John Muller's book, published by History Press, will be available on October 2.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.

An attempted murder kindled DC's first race riot in 1835

The 1830s are not a well-known period in Washington's history. Too late for L'Enfant and too early for Lincoln, they are a mystery to most residents. But hiding beneath the quiet surface were rising racial tensions, as vividly described in Jefferson Morley's new book, Snow-Storm in August.

Morley brings the 1830s to life with an account of dramatic events that would ultimately contribute to the Civil War.

The book's title derives from the so-called "Snow Riot" of August 1835, when a mob of angry young white laborers vandalized a restaurant at 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW that was operated by Beverly Snow, a free black.

Compared to the large race riots of 1919 or 1968, the mayhem and destruction in 1835 was almost negligible. Nevertheless, it was a shocking event for many Washington residents, and the underlying tensions were as strong as at any time in the city's history.

It all began when Arthur Bowen, a slave belonging to Mrs. Anna Maria Thornton, got drunk one night and seemed to be contemplating murder. He came home late that evening and entered the widowed Mrs. Thornton's bedroom carrying an ax. Maria Bowen, Arthur's mother, was also asleep in the room. She awoke and quickly restrained her son, pushing him out of the house through a back door.

Mrs. Thornton awoke as well and needless to say was terrified. She ran for help from neighbors, who returned to the house with her and heard, through the locked back door, the rantings of the inebriated young slave.

"I'll have my freedom," Arther shouted. "I'll have my freedom, you hear me? I have as much right to freedom as you do."

These were dangerous words for a slave in Washington in the 1830s.

Anxiety was running high in those days among slaveholders and white society in general. Just 4 years earlier the infamous Nat Turner slave rebellion had taken place in nearby Southampton, Virginia. Under Nat Turner's mesmerizing leadership, slaves rose up and killed some 50 or 60 whites before their insurrection was brutally repressed by the authorities.

Even more troubling for many whites was the seeming flood of anti-slavery literature arriving on a daily basis from the staunchly abolitionist cities farther north. William Lloyd Garrison's influential weekly anti-slavery newspaper, The Liberator, had begun publication in 1831 and was soon being sent south to win over hearts and minds.

It was against this backdrop that the young ax-wielding slave, Arthur Bowen, had threatened Anna Maria Thornton. Mrs Thornton wasn't just anyone. She was the well-known and highly-respected widow of William Thornton, architect of the US Capitol.

It was plain to see, or at least so The National Intelligencer thought, that "incendiary publications" from the north were responsible for the "most ferocious threats" and "tissue of jargon" that Bowen had uttered. Bowen had initially fled in the night, but he was soon arrested. Crowds of angry laborers then gathered at the city jail demanding vengeance. It was these young white ruffians who attacked Beverly Snow's restaurant, smashing dishes and furniture. They later burned a black boardinghouse and several schoolhouses.

Morley's book evokes not just the tragedy of the Snow Riots themselves, but the complex stories of its key players, including Arthur and Maria Bowen, Anna Maria Thornton, and Reuben Crandall, a Georgetown resident with links to northern abolitionists who was swept up in the hysteria and accused of inciting insurrection.

It also brings to life Francis Scott Key, author of the national anthem. Key was district attorney for Washington in 1835, and was responsible for arresting both Crandall and Bowen. The prosperous scion of a wealthy slave-holding Maryland family, Key seems to have been torn between conflicting values. Though temperamentally disposed to ending slavery, he vigorously prosecuted both Crandall and Bowen.

It would be up to the juries and ultimately the president of the United States to determine the fate of the two men.

Perhaps the most entertaining character in this entire drama is Beverly Snow himself, the namesake of the Snow Riot. Morley begins his book with a vivid and remarkably detailed portrait of the young black entrepreneur, who opened one of Washington's first true restaurants in the early 1830s.

Snow had been born a slave in Lynchburg, Virginia and was granted his freedom when he came of age. He had learned the culinary arts at an early age but clearly had more extraordinary skills, including social dexterity, entrepreneurial drive, and ambition. He came to Washington to go into business for himself, and his Epicurean Eating House on Pennsylvania Avenue was highly successful.

Snow, of course, had no idea he'd be caught up in the fear-mongering that ensued from the Bowen incident. He fled the city after his restaurant was trashed and soon moved to Canada, where he started all over again in Toronto, with another restaurant that was as popular as his Washington eatery.

Snow's story seems at once tragic and hopeful. It's a shame that he was treated so badly in Washington, but inspiring in that he didn't let the experience ruin his ambitions. The vividly portrayed struggles of Snow, Bowen, Crandall, Key, and Mrs. Thornton (who never believed Bowen really wanted to kill her and fought to have him released from jail) all make for a powerful portrait of a lost era in Washington history.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.

Last of K Street's great mansions is threatened

On the northeast corner of 11th and K Streets NW stands the last dilapi­dated vestiges of what K Street was once all about—large, elegant Victorian mansions that were the homes of the city's most powerful and influential citizens. For the last 7 years, the mansion at 1017 K has been quietly crumbling behind the humiliating wrap of a massive fabric billboard.

Photo by the author.

It's a mystery why the city allowed such an obnoxious misuse of the structure, but saner actions have been taken more recently. According to Washington City Paper's Lydia DePillis, after she contacted the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in March, the city raised the tax rate on the property in consideration of its blighted condition.

Rather than undertaking repairs that would remove it from blighted status, owner Douglas Development Corporation recently filed for a raze permit.

The building's interior is apparently in poor condition, having been neglected for many years, and some floors are reported to be partially collapsed. Reclaiming it won't be easy. Yet however much the structure has suffered, we owe it to ourselves to save this fine old mansion.

It seems odd to encounter a residential building like this on K Street, the avenue of "trophy" office buildings, and it's even odder that the building has languished for so long. Many see it every day and wish that it would be restored after such profound neglect. Its woes have been written up on Peter Sefton's engaging Victorian Secrets web site and noted in blogs such The Other 35 Percent.

Many were shocked to learn of the recent plans to tear it down. After the filing of the raze permit was first publicized on the H-DC History Net, local blogs quickly reported the alarming news, including The Location, Prince of Petworth, and the City Paper.

But the house is not yet doomed. The DC Preservation League filed an historic landmark nomination for the property in 2008, and thus the city's Historic Preservation Review Board will be required to review the case before a raze permit can be issued. If the property is designated a landmark, the raze permit will be denied, although the owner will still have the right to appeal the decision.

Detail of the adjoining townhouse, included in the historic landmark nomination. photo by the author).

Architectural historian James Goode has called K Street between 9th and 20th streets the "Park Avenue of Washington" in the late 19th century because of its distinguished mansions and their prominent owners. "In the 80's and 90s K street was the most exclusive residential section of Washington and the center of social life of the city," wrote The Washington Post in 1929. "In those days all entertaining was at home and diplomats from foreign countries mingled with Government officials, statesmen, and ranking Army and Navy officers in the big, handsome houses set far back, fronted with deep lawns, hedges and trees, that lined the street."

Among the most opulent were the Childs House at 1527 K, built by a wealthy Philadelphia widow in 1894. Designed purely for socializing, the mansion was in the French Renaissance style of Parisian townhouses. Nearby, wealthy Senator Stephen Elkins (1841-1911) built a massive Georgian Revival house at 1626 K in 1892. Elkins had made millions from land speculation in the west and mining in West Virginia. The mansion's ballroom could accomodate 200 guests, was approached by a grand walnut staircase, and was decorated with gilt Louis XV furniture.

The fine house at the corner of 11th and K was not at the center of K Street's gilded age excesses (which is one reason it has survived), but it has many of the key elements of the street's lost residential format, including a spacious front lawn, officially called "parking" because it was reserved by city regulation for park-like features.

The distinguished building and adjoining structures were constructed in 1878 in the then-prevailing Second-Empire style by successful Washington builder Michael Talty (1812-1890), an Irish immigrant. An early resident of the house was William H. Burr (1819-1908), a former Senate stenographer who had become a well-known proponent of philosophical skepticism.

Peter Sefton has called Burr "one of Washington's most notorious curmudgeons, iconoclasts, and disturbers of the cultural status quo." After raising eyebrows with such incendiary tracts as Self-Contradictions of the Bible (1860) and Revelations of Antichrist (1879), Burr settled in at 1017 K as a kind of genteel retirement home in his later life.

Col. Harrison Allen during the Civil War. Image from the Library of Congress).

Another well-known resident was General Harrison Allen (1835-1904), who came to Washington in 1901 to be second deputy auditor of the Post Office department. During the Civil War, Allen had been commander of the 151st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, which he led at the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

During an artillery bombardment shortly before Chancellorsville, a shell passed only a few feet over his head. Just before the Battle of Gettysburg, Allen was given leave, causing him to miss most of that big event. He was nevertheless retroactively promoted to Brigadier General in 1865 for "faithful and meritorious services."

After the war Allen entered politics, serving as a delegate to the 1868 Republican Convention, as state senator, and as Pennsylvania's auditor general. In 1882 he was appointed United States Marshal for the Dakota Territory, where he pursued stage coach robbers and horse thieves until getting his Washington appointment from President McKinley.

On September 22, 1904, he spent the evening playing cards with his wife and friends in the downstairs parlor at 1017 K and appeared to be in perfect health. However, the next morning he was found dead in his upstairs bedroom, the apparent victim of a heart attack. I'll leave it to others to speculate whether his ghost still haunts the old house.

After Allen's death, the inexorable process of change for 1017 K—and all of downtown Washington—slowly took shape. The wealthy began moving to the trendier, northwestern "suburban" neighborhoods of Dupont Circle and Kalorama and ultimately out of the city altogether. Many of the large buildings they left behind were subdivided for boarders or converted for commercial uses before eventually being torn down.

A photo from the Library of Congress of a K Street row near 14th Street, circa 1915, shows the transition taking place: A large Department of Justice building rises between two elegant Second Empire houses, looking ready to push them out. They'd all be gone before long.

Department of Justice Building on K Street c. 1915. Im agefrom the Library of Congress.

The mansion at 1017 K had a notable second life when it became the headquarters of the DC Statehood Party, organized in 1969. As described by Cultural Tourism DC, the DC Statehood Party gained prominence in 1971 when Julius Hobson (1919-1977), a noted civil rights activist, ran for the non-voting delegate seat in Congress now held by Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Hobson was a civil rights pioneer who between 1960 and 1964 had led more than 80 pickets of downtown retail stores, successfully gaining jobs for thousands of African-Americans who had previously been barred from or severely limited in working at these establishments. Hobson's campaign for delegate, though unsuccessful, raised the profile of the Statehood Party and helped establish it as a viable third party in the District. The party continues to this day as the DC Statehood Green Party.

It's been many years now since 1017 K has been occupied by the Statehood Party or any other organization, despite its unique status as the last of its breed. Striking parallels can be drawn with a legendary historic preservation case from the past, the Rhodes Tavern at 15th and F Streets NW. In the late 1970s and early 1980s an extraordinary effort was mounted by concerned local preservationists to save the tavern, which had been built in 1801 and was a polling place in the first DC municipal elections held in 1802.

There were many very good reasons to save that rare building, but one of the most compelling was that it was one of the last reminders we had left of the type of building that used to line Washington's central business district in the the city's earliest days. As Nelson Rimensnyder has pointed out, Washington's first building regulations, decreed by George Washington himself in 1791, specified that "the wall of no house be higher than forty feet to the roof" and that "the outer and party walls of all of brick or stone." The result was uniform rows of simple but elegant Federal-style townhouses along the city's few main thoroughfares, including Pennsylvania Avenue and F Street.

The strategically located Rhodes Tavern, a prominent example of this type, witnessed every Presidential inauguration from Thomas Jefferson to Ronald Reagan. It was devastating when the fight to save the humble building ended in 1984 with its complete destruction. Not only was this particular jewel of early Washington gone, but all traces of the original building type specified by George Washington were lost forever from the inaugural parade route.

Rhodes Tavern before its destruction. Image from the Library of Congress).

The K Street mansions of the late 19th century were another major defining element of the city's built environment that are now—almost—all gone. If 1017 K is torn down, we will have no reference point left on K Street to recall this part of our shared past. There will be nothing but office boxes, and we'll never be able to undo the loss of this last reminder of the genteel residences that once lined this busy office canyon.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.

A great afternoon newspaper and its great building

It was a sad day in Washington in August 1981, when The Washington Star ceased publication after more than 128 years of service.

Photo by the author.

The Star's tenure had stretched back before the Civil War, an amazing run that witnessed the historic sweep of the city's development from small town to sophisticated metropolis. "The Rock of Gibraltar in Washington journalism is The Washington Star, one of the world's really great newspapers," historian Fred A. Emery wrote in 1935.

The rise and fall of this bygone institution has its own grand sweep, with its greatest achievements occurring when it was quartered in the majestic marble building at 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, that still bears its name today.

The Star began inauspiciously enough in December 1852, one of dozens of newspapers that sprang up for limited runs in 19th century Washington City. In fact, two other DC newspapers had already used the Star name, the Columbian Star from 1822 to 1827, and the first Washington Star in 1841.

The third Star, the one that would matter, began as a four-page broadsheet with a run of 250 copies, printed on a hand press in a small office at 8th and D Streets, NW. The paper's first owner, Captain Joseph Borrows Tate, sought to distinguish the Star from all the other rags published throughout the city by striking a tone of impartiality: "The Star is to be free from party trammels or sectarian influences...devoted in an especial manner to the local interests of the beautiful city which bears the honored name of Washington."

The paper's neutral stance and focus on local news became its trademark and, in time, gave it broad appeal and commercial success. It also led at times to overly innocuous reportage, as in this oft-quoted remark by reporter William Tucker that appeared in the paper's first edition: "Our courts are sitting, but the business with which they are engaged is not of a very interesting character."

Tate sold the paper within a year to William Wallach (1812-1871), an aggressive Texan who worked hard to build up the business, moving its office to the southwest corner of 11th and Pennsylvania in 1854.

Wallach hired a promising young reporter, Crosby S. Noyes (1825-1908), in 1853, and Noyes quickly became the Star's star. One of his many assignments was to report on the hanging of John Brown at Harper's Ferry, WV, in 1859, which he did in flowery, dramatic prose. The Star maintained an anti-slavery stance in those days and, once the Civil War began, was decidedly pro-Union, despite the strong Southern sentiments then common in Washington.

Crosby S. Noyes. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The paper grew in prestige during the war years, aided by its exclusive connections with an early incarnation of the Associated Press. Through the AP, the Star's vivid coverage of the war's impact on Washington was relayed across the country. The New York Times often reprinted war reports from the pages of the Star, and the paper's prestige increased. Supposedly, as soon as Abraham Lincoln finished delivering his second inaugural address, he handed the text to Crosby Noyes so that it could be printed in the Star.

In 1867, Wallach retired and the paper was bought by Noyes and four other investors: Samuel H. Kauffmann (1829-1906), Alexander "Boss" Shepherd (1835-1902), Clarence D. Baker, and George W. Adams. Shepherd, who would become governor of DC in 1873, sold his share of the enterprise within a few years, as did Baker, and Adams remained a behind-the-scenes investor. That left Noyes and Kauffmann to establish a family dynasty that would preside over the Star for another 100 years. Noyes exercised editorial control, while Kauffmann served as publisher and handled the business side.

The Star's new home in 1881. Image from the Library of Congress.

In 1881, the Star was forced to move from its quarters on the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue to make way for construction of the grand Post Office Department building, so well-known now for its iconic clock tower. Kauffmann and Noyes decided to move directly across the street to a narrow, four-story building on the northwest corner of 11th and Pennsylvania.

The paper was steadily growing during these years, and the new building was almost immediately too small. The company gradually acquired adjacent properties on Pennsylvania and 11th until it had a large enough plot to build a monumental skyscraper of a building.

The project began in 1897 with many of the leading architects of the day participating in a competition to design the Star's new home. James G. Hill, architect of such prominent buildings as the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the Stoneleigh Court Apartments, submitted a proposal, as did the firm of Hornblower & Marshall, designers of the Smithsonian's Natural History Building, and Glenn Brown (1854-1932), an influential secretary of the American Institute of Architects and author of the landmark History of the United States Capitol.

The winner, however, was William J. Marsh (1864-1926). Marsh had just started an independent practice with Walter G. Peter (1868-1945), whom he had met while they were both working at Hornblower & Marshall. Marsh may have had the inside track on this competition since he had previously designed homes for Crosby Noyes and two of his sons.

The Evening Star Building prior to 1918.
The tall building to the left is the Raleigh Hotel.
Image from DC Public Library Commons.

Marsh designed an ostentatious, marble-faced office tower in the then-fashionable Beaux-Arts style. The shining white structure was a powerful statement of the Star's position of power and pre-eminence. In comparison, the Washington Post's smaller grey-granite building up the street, done in the Romanesque-Revival style, looked out-of-date. A postcard of the new building unabashedly proclaims, "The Evening Star Building of white marble is the most beautiful newspaper building in the world."

The Star's business office, circa 1921. Image from the Library of Congress.

The building was completed and opened for business in June 1900. As described in great detail in the rival Washington Times, its interior held many wonders. Inside the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance, one passed through a marble-clad lobby to the richly-decorated business office.

The walls were clad in exquisite white Paonazzo marble from the famous Carrara quarries of Italy and carved into elegant Renaissance Revival arches and pilasters. Frederick Dielman (1847-1935), a celebrated painter who had recently produced murals for the new Library of Congress building, was commissioned to prepare seven great allegorical paintings of the newspaper industry for the lunettes in the upper portions of the walls. The effect was of being in a Renaissance church or grand library rather than the business office of a newspaper.

Postcard of Dielman's "News Gathering" from the author's collection.

Postcard of Dielman's "The Diffusion of Intelligence" from the author's collection.

Editorial offices were on the seventh floor, with a commanding view of the city from the windows to the west and south. Editors (the news editor, city editor, telegraph editor) had their desks along the windows, all equipped with telephones, electric bells, and pneumatic tubes for sending messages around the building.

The open space in the middle of the room was filled with roll-top reporters' desks, a typewriter on each. On the other side, a row of telephones stood at the ready, providing instant communications with the Senate, House of Representatives, City Hall, and District Building. It was the height of modern journalistic efficiency.

On the eighth floor was the composing room, in a double space that extended through the ninth floor to provide a cavernous, skylit working space. It was outfitted with 18 of the latest Morgenthaler linotype machines, sophisticated devices that set lines of type in cast bars of lead for use on the two enormous printing presses down in the basement. The equally large basement printing plant included not just the presses but also electric generating equipment capable of independently supporting all of the building's needs.

Management of the paper passed to a new generation with the deaths of Samuel Kauffmann in 1906 and Crosby Noyes in 1908. Two of Noyes' sons took over, Frank taking Kauffmann's place as president in 1906 and his brother Theodore becoming editor in 1908. Under the Noyes brothers, the Star's greatest period of expansion took place, and it became one of the most profitable newspapers in the business. It continued to focus on local news and printed only the safest of opinions on its editorial pages, thus ensuring that none of its many advertisers were offended.

Meanwhile, its competitors languished. The Post had sullied its reputation by seeming to incite the race riots of 1919. According to Constance McLaughlin Green, "Newspapermen despised the Washington Post, a 'poison sheet' without moral integrity." Of the other two major papers, the Times had "swung far to the right," according to Green, thus marginalizing itself, while the Herald "offered a bland diet only occasionally spiced with biting, politically loaded comments." With such anemic competition, the Star could afford to be arrogant.

The Star Building circa 1921, after construction of the 1918 annex.
Image from the Library of Congress.

In 1918, the company built a large annex next to the original building along 11th Street, and it became the industrial heart of the expanded business. The new space was equipped with no less than 34 Morgenthaler linotype machines and four presses in the basement.

On an average day, 890 4-pound ingots of lead were melted down to make the day's press plates. (The metal was melted down and re-used each day.) A typical print run in 1927 was 100,000 copies of a 32-page paper, requiring 38 massive rolls of newsprint, or 596 miles of paper. The finished papers were loaded on to 17 trucks for distribution across the city each weekday afternoon and Sunday morning.

Everyone seems to agree that the real turning point for the newspaper—from rising star to falling star, as it were—came in 1954, when the Post absorbed the Times-Herald. (The Times and the Herald had merged in 1939.) The Times-Herald had had a slightly higher circulation than the Star, although the Star's advertising volume far outpaced any of its competitors. But the acquisition of the Times-Herald put the Post well ahead of the Star in circulation for the first time—over 380,000 by 1955 compared to the Star's 250,000.

By 1959, the Post pulled ahead in advertising volume as well, and the Star never caught up. While the Post had taken over the spot as the city's newspaper of record, having come a long way from its "poison sheet" days of the 1920s, top management of the Star seemed oblivious to the sea-changes. Insular and used to longstanding success, they thought their paper was invulnerable. Instead, it was doomed.

As if to symbolically punctuate the Star's decline, the company decided in the late 1950s to abandon its venerable home on Pennsylvania Avenue and construct a new building at 225 Virginia Avenue, SE. The move gained key logistical advantages for the paper's printing operations; the soon-to-be-constructed I-395 freeway would provide direct access for speedy afternoon distribution, and a railroad spur offered equally direct access to newsprint and other raw materials.

In addition, the new building boasted roughly three times the floor space of the old one. Nevertheless, the company had traded an elegant structure at a prestigious address for a hulking, utilitarian box in an out-of-the-way, run-down area.

Postcard rendering of the new building from the author's collection.

The demise of the Star was a long and drawn-out affair. Circulation actually continued to increase throughout the 1960s, although advertising revenue steadily dropped off. The afternoon format became more and more of a liability, no longer fitting the daily routines of a changing culture and also posing distribution challenges.

"Realistically, it was probably hopeless by '65 or '66," a former executive was quoted as saying in the Star's final edition. As the paper relentlessly lost money, the Kauffmann and Noyes families began to look for an outside buyer. In 1974, a wealthy Texas banker, Joe L. Allbritton, took control of the paper, eventually buying out the shares owned by the Kauffmann and Noyes families.

Allbritton wanted to turn the paper around, but he faced insurmountable odds. A key part of his strategy was to leverage the income from the company's profitable WMAL broadcasting stations to cover the paper's losses while fixes were being planned. However, the Federal Communications Commission balked at Allbritton holding on to two different mass media outlets in the same market.

Tense times at the paper ensued, with staff accepting pay cuts and a reduced work week to keep the business alive. In 1978, four years after taking over, Allbritton sold the Star to Time Inc. The media giant made more changes, bringing in new editorial leadership, changing the physical design of the paper, and switching to morning delivery. It didn't help. After just three more years, Time closed the Star for good in 1981.

Meanwhile, the old Evening Star Building endured quietly on Pennsylvania Avenue. Initial plans, after its namesake had moved out, were to convert it to a 330-room hotel. Instead, it was converted to generic office space, and much of it was rented to the federal government. As various "modernizations" were undertaken, nothing of the original interior decoration was preserved—the Carrara marble, the mahogany trim, the Dielman murals—all vanished.

In 1981, the owners proposed a massive renovation and enlargement of the building, a project that was finally carried out 9 years later. The 1918 addition on 11th Street was torn down in 1987, as were smaller structures abutting the building on Pennsylvania Avenue, and a large new addition, designed in a style sympathetic with the original, was put up in their place. The Evening Star Building is now one of the most valuable properties in downtown Washington.

The 1959 building in Southeast was sold to the Post, which used it as a printing plant for many years. The DC government leased the building in 2007 with the intention of using it as a new police headquarters but subsequently determined that that option would be too expensive. The city bought the building outright in 2009, and it is currently being extensively renovated to house several other DC government agencies.

Thanks to Kim Williams, DC Historic Preservation Office, for her assistance with this article. Sources included Fred A. Emery, "Washington Newspapers" in Records of the Columbia Historical Society (Vol. 37-38, 1937); Merrill E. Gates, Men of Mark in America (1906); Constance McLaughlin Green, Washington: A History of the Capital, 1800-1950 (1962); John Clagett Proctor, Washington Past and Present: A History (1930); Pamela Scott and Antoinette Lee, Buildings of the District of Columbia (1993); Washington Board of Trade, The Book of Washington (1927); a draft National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Evening Star building from 1990; and, of course, numerous newspaper articles from the Star as well as its chief rivals.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.

Can the Ontario Theatre be saved?

The Ontario Theatre at 17th Street and Columbia Road NW has been neglected, abused even, for many years, and it hasn't functioned as a movie theater in more than two decades. Although it takes some imagination to see what its possibilities are, one thing is certain: the theater has a long cultural legacy that will be lost if the building is demolished.

Photo by the author.

As I recently detailed in a post on Streets of Washington, the Ontario has lived many different lives in a neighborhood that also changed dramatically over the second half of the 20th century.

It was one of only two movie theaters built in DC during the 1950s, and, according to Robert Headley's Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, DC, it was the first neighborhood theater to show first-run movies. Classics like Lawrence of Arabia and The Sound of Music were first seen by Washingtonians at the Ontario, and premieres like these were gala events.

By the 1960s, the neighborhood was changing. After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968 and the ensuing riots, the theater's old clientele were virtually gone. The following year, the theater switched to a Spanish-language format, the first theater in DC to cater to the burgeoning Latino community.

By the early 1970s, Sunday afternoons at the Ontario became the social center of the Latino community. Extended families would show up every week; for recent immigrants, spending Sunday at the Ontario represented a chance to attend an enjoyable, affordable social event on the one day of the week they had free.

This stability was threatened in 1977 when new owners took over and tried to convert the theater back to its former first-run format, on the theory that Adams Morgan had been taken over by yuppies. "There is no Spanish Community here any more," one of the new owners was quoted as saying. In response, Latinos picketed the theater, issuing a statement asking, "Who says we don't exist?" The Spanish-language films were soon restored to the all-important Sunday afternoon time slot.

Photo by the author.

Throughout the rest of the week, the Ontario took on a new life as the venue for some of the leading rock and punk bands of the era, including The Clash, Blondie, U2, and the Police. The promoter who booked these and other artists would go on to organize the celebrated 930 Club downtown in the mid 1980s. At that time, the Ontario was sold yet again, and the new owners tried to re-establish a first-run movie format.

The attempt didn't work this time either, and the theater closed in 1987. The building was then divided up for various retail businesses, including a drug store, discount store, and other shops. The theater has been vacant for the last several years.

The Historic Preservation Review Board is scheduled to consider a landmark nomination for the Ontario at its November meeting. The current owners are reportedly considering redeveloping the property as condominiums.

It would certainly be a shame if nothing can be saved of the Ontario. Besides its rich cultural history, the theater is also unique architecturally, representing a mid-century modern aesthetic as expressed by one the leading movie theater architects of the 20th century, John J. Zink, who also designed the Uptown Theatre.

The Ontario, of course, isn't nearly as beloved as the Uptown, and it has several potential strikes against it. Many people just don't care for the mid-century style, which has far fewer followers than does the art deco design of the Uptown. Additionally it's been decades since it was actually in use as a theater. An entire generation hasn't had the chance to see a movie there. Furthermore, it's run-down and simply looks ratty.

There have been other occasions when historic buildings were destroyed because they were decaying and dilapidated. Perhaps the most notable was Rhodes Tavern, one of the most historic buildings in the city at the time, which was torn down in 1984 despite a citywide referendum endorsing the need to preserve it.

Built around 1800, the little tavern at 15th and F Streets NW, had been one of the first meeting places of the young city's new government. Designated an historic landmark, it was the subject of an intense effort at preservation. But it was in bad shape. Part of it had been torn down in the 1930s, and the remainder looked out-of-place and even "ugly," in many critics' view. So in the end it came down and was replaced by a large, respectable-looking office building.

Will the Ontario share this same fate? Should it? Isn't there some way to develop this underused property without completely obliterating the old theater?

Dumbarton House, a Georgetown gem

The Heights of Georgetown, along Q Street and above, are filled with the elegant homes of well-to-do Washingtonians. Most are still in private hands, but several beautiful public museums stand out.

Photo by the author.

Dumbarton Oaks, owned by Harvard University and famous for its gardens and art collections, is a sprawling research and museum complex with a Federal-style house embedded in its core. Tudor Place, a grand residence designed by Dr. William Thornton (1759-1828), today illustrates the history of Georgetown and Washington through the lives of its many residents.

Dumbarton House, at 2715 Q Street, NW (and not connected with Dumbarton Oaks in any way) is perhaps less well-known than Dumbarton Oaks and Tudor Place, but it is probably the best at showing what life was like around 1800, when all three were originally constructed.

In those days, Washington City was largely a field of dreams. The Capitol and President's Mansion were under construction, and a scattering of other buildings, none very remarkable, demonstrated the desire that a town grow here.

Georgetown, at the time a separate entity in the District of Columbia, was better established. It had been established in 1747 as a tobacco inspection site, being located at the highest navigable spot on the Potomac River. Maryland farmers, who grew highly-prized "sweet-scented" tobacco, rolled great hogsheads of it down to the wharf at Georgetown to be exported to Scotland.

The Georgetown waterfront, circa 1795. Photo from Library of Congress.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the high ridge above the port of Georgetown became the site for a number of "great houses," removed as it was from the hurly-burly waterfront and offering commanding views of the river and the new city emerging just to the east.

The land had originally been part of a 795-acre patent obtained in 1703 by Col. Ninian Beall (1625-1717). Beall called his property "Rock of Dumbarton" after a famous site in his homeland of Scotland, and the Dumbarton name survives today in many area place names.

Dumbarton House was constructed on this ridge in about 1799 by Samuel Jackson (1755-1836), a Philadelphia merchant and land speculator who lived in the new mansion with his family for about two years. One of his daughters may have been born in the house.

It's not clear why he built such an elegant house and then left it as soon as he did, but, as David White points out, Jackson was a creature of his times. He was involved in complex business deals involving extensive land holdings in Tennessee, where he eventually settled his family. Jackson would gain passing notoriety in 1807 when he was wounded by President-to-be Andrew Jackson (no relation), who stabbed him with a sword-cane, perhaps over a dispute about a horse race.

The house Jackson built is one of the best examples of the emerging Federal style in architecture in the District. The Federal style often brings to mind plain brick townhouses, two or three stories tall, with gabled roofs; Washington once had blocks and blocks of them.

This is one of a much smaller number of Federal great-houses, laid out in careful Palladian symmetry with wings on each side of a stately central block. At first glance, the building might seem little different from the brick Georgian mansions of the 18th century, but it was actually markedly new and stylish in 1800. The Flemish-bond brick walls no longer seem as heavy and squat as on many Georgian mansions (the James River plantations in Virginia come to mind), and the interior is no longer dim.

When you enter Dumbarton House you are welcomed with bright light from a large Palladian window gracing the stairway landing at the rear of the central passage. Upstairs, the south-facing front windows rise dramatically from the floor, flooding the front rooms with light. No longer content with boxy spaces, Dumbarton House's designer added a pair of great rounded bow walls to the rear of the house, extending the back rooms with gracious, curved spaces.

The rear of Dumbarton House, circa 1998. Photo from Historic American Buildings Survey, via Library of Congress.

The first residents after the Jacksons left were Joseph Nourse (1754-1841) and his wife Maria (1765-1850), who moved in in 1804 and purchased the house shortly thereafter for $7,500. The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America (NSCDA), which owns Dumbarton House, has chosen to focus on the Nourse residency for the historic museum portion of the structure and has a long-term project underway to restore the first floor of the house as closely as possible to its appearance when the Nourses lived there.

The son of a successful merchant, Joseph Nourse was a skilled bookkeeper. When serving as a military secretary for General Charles Lee during the Revolution, he was noticed by George Washington. After independence, he was chosen the first Register of the Treasury and kept that position until the Jackson administration. Much of the early Continental currency issued by the new government bears Nourse's signature.

Nourse was an unassuming individual, a family man with a curious intellect. His Georgetown property eventually included 8 acres of land, enough for a modest subsistence farm where wheat, rye, and hay were grown. Outbuildings included a carriage house, stables, barn, icehouse, and dairy. To keep all this running, the Nourses kept about 10 servants at any given time, some free and some enslaved.

The wheat and rye produced on the estate could be easily carried a short distance down the hill to Rock Creek, where it could be ground into flour at Lyons' Mill. Joseph likely spent little time overseeing these activities, however. In addition to being "America's first civil servant," as he was dubbed in an exhibition in the 1990s, Nourse could just as aptly be considered Washington's first suburban commuter, traveling daily from his house on Cedar Hill, as it was then called, to his Treasury Department office on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington City.

Joseph Nourse as a young man. Image courtesy of Dumbarton House.

In 1813, the Nourses sold the house, and within a few years they moved to the current site of the National Cathedral on upper Wisconsin Avenue. The Nourses' son, Charles, built his mansion, The Highlands, just north of that, and it now serves as the administration building of the Sidwell Friends School.

The Georgetown house was sold to Charles Carroll (1767-1823), a prominent landowner from the powerful Carroll family of Maryland, which included one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Carroll, who was one of the owners of a paper mill on Rock Creek and also had extensive real estate investments in New York, called the property Belle Vue.

Being friends with President James Madison (1751-1836) and Dolley Madison (1768-1849), Carroll played a key role in aiding the Madisons when the British attacked and burned Washington in 1814. After the Battle of Bladensburg went badly for the Americans on the morning of August 24, President Madison knew the British were going to occupy the city, and he asked Carroll to assist Dolley in escaping.

As to what happened next, Dolley later gave biographers the following description, which she said was from a letter she wrote to her sister that day:

Three O'clock. Will you believe it, my Sister? We have had a battle or skirmish near Bladensburg, and I am still here within sound of the cannon! Mr. Madison comes not; may God protect him! Two messengers covered with dust, come to bid me fly; but I wait for him.... Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and is in a very bad humor with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall.... It is done.... And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it, by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!!

The burnt-out White House in 1814. Image from Library of Congress.

Carroll safely spirited Dolley to Belle Vue, where she stopped briefly on her way to sanctuary in Virginia. If she were still at Belle Vue that evening, she could have seen the fires in the distance from the Capitol, White House, and Navy Yard burning.

Carroll lived at Belle Vue only a few years before moving to New York, after which he rented the house out. One of his first tenants, beginning in 1815, was Commodore John Rodgers (1773-1838) a naval hero who had been honored by the citizens of Baltimore for helping defend their city from the British in 1814. His daughter Elizabeth was likely the second child born at the Georgetown house.

Rodgers eventually built his own mansion on Lafayette Square, the same house where Secretary of State William H. Seward (1801-1872) was attacked in April 1865 as part of the conspiracy to kill Abraham Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, and Seward.

The property was leased for many years to Samuel Whitall, a New Jersey Quaker, and his family. Whitall's son bought the house from Carroll's heirs, passing it to his sister Sarah (1824-1892), who married banker Charles E. Rittenhouse (1814-1880) in 1855.

In the Civil War years and afterwards, the house was known as Rittenhouse Place. Though the house itself seems to have changed very little, Georgetown changed all around it.

The war brought many unruly (and largely unwelcome) Union soldiers who seemed to have little respect for local residents, many of whom sympathized with the South. Troops camped at the Lyons Mill complex on Rock Creek, for example, would occasionally take potshots at the stained glass windows of the chapel in Oak Hill Cemetery, just to the north of Rittenhouse Place. To the south was an encampment of former slaves who had fled across the Potomac from the plantations of Virginia.

Postcard view of Dumbarton House, circa 1940s (author's collection).

Meanwhile, lower Georgetown, along the waterfront, had become a rather seedy industrial zone. Massive amounts of silt had filled the harbor, making it nearly useless as a shipping port. Once seafaring trade had diminished, business activity shifted to the assorted mills and factories lining the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. It was a place for gentlefolk to avoid.

After Sarah Rittenhouse died, the old house on the ridge was sold to Howard Hinckley, who around 1900 made a number of renovations, such as adding decorative Georgian-style "quoins" on the exterior corners of the house and removing an interior wall on the first floor to create a large entertainment room.

Hinckley sold the property in 1912 to John L. Newbold (1871-1931), a prominent local businessman and founder of the Merchants Transfer & Storage Company. Newbold made the purchase knowing that he was acquiring a house with a serious problem; it stood directly in the path of a planned extension of Q Street.

Dumbarton House in 1913, before it was moved. Note there.are steps up to the front entrance (author's collection)

The Q Street extension was part of a scheme to link the Heights of Georgetown with the well-to-do Sheridan Circle neighborhood via an elegant new bridge (which would become known as the Dumbarton Bridge) spanning the valley of Rock Creek.

Wealthy Washingtonians had been building extravagant mansions along Massachusetts Avenue for several decades, turning the neighborhood into a posh enclave. Isolated on the other side of Rock Creek were the homes of the wealthy Georgetowners, who didn't have a convenient option for crossing over to the main city.

Excerpt form a 1903 Baist insurance map, showing Dumbarton House blocking the route of Q Street across the center of the view.

To extend Q Street, the District planned to tear down Newbold's mansion, but he got a court order holding them off until he could get it moved. Newbold hired Washington architect Thomas J.D. Fuller (1870-1946) to plan the move and "restoration" of the house, which included dismantling the two wings and then reconstructing them at the house's new location.

The move of the main house was undertaken by Caleb L. Saers, a Civil War veteran who had run a business of raising and moving houses in the Washington area since at least the 1880s. He found the Newbold mansion particularly challenging. It took three weeks and 200 jacks to raise the old house a half-inch off the ground and probably several months after that to drag it into its new resting place, a spot that had been dug out of the hillside some 60 feet to the north. Regretfully, no pictures have been located that show how this complicated engineering feat was accomplished.

Dumbarton House as it appeared before being restored. Photo courtesy of Dumbarton House.

The mansion's modern-day history began in 1928, when the NSCDA bought it to serve as their National Headquarters and gave it the name "Dumbarton House." This time, a thorough and historically-sensitive restoration was undertaken under the leadership of two distinguished architects, Fiske Kimball (1888-1955) of Philadelphia, who had spearheaded the restoration of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, and local architect Horace Peaslee (1884-1959), the primary designer of Meridian Hill Park.

Various alterations, mostly done by Hinckley, were reversed, bringing the house back to something close to its original appearance. Many fine details, such as the decorative plaster cornice in the main parlor and dining room, were restored to their original beauty. Decorated with exceptional early American furnishings, many of them donated by state societies associated with the NSCDA, the restored Dumbarton House was opened as a museum in 1932.

The dining room, as it appeared circa 1998. Photo from Historic American Buildings Survey, via Library of Congress.

Renovations were undertaken again in 1991, modernizing the building's systems, adding an elevator to enhance accessibility, and increasing office and meeting space apart from the historic core. This unique museum is now open to the public Tuesdays through Sundays, 11 am to 3 pm.

The staff and volunteers at Dumbarton House have done much extensive research into the house's history, which was very helpful in preparing this post. Frances White and Scott Scholz were particularly helpful in providing advice and correcting factual errors. Additional sources included Deering Davis, Stephen Dorsey, and Ralph Hall, Georgetown Houses of the Federal Period (1944); Harold Eberlein and Cortlandt Hubbard, Historic Houses of George-town & Washington City (1958); Oscar P. Fitzgerald, In Search of Joseph Nourse 1754-1841 (The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, 1994); Mary Mitchell, Divided Town (1968); Kathryn Schneider Smith, Port Town to Urban Neighborhood: The Georgetown Waterfront of Washington, D.C. 1880-1920 (1989); David D. White, Samuel Jackson: The First Occupant of Dumbarton House (unpublished, 2010); The National Register of Historic Places nomination for Dumbarton House (Dec. 14, 1990); as well as numerous newspaper articles.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington

Sherman Building at Soldiers' Home damaged in earthquake

The Armed Forces Retirement Home, known for many years as the Soldiers' Home, is tucked away on a beautiful campus near North Capitol Street in upper northwest Washington.

This past week's earthquake did substantial damage—millions of dollars worth—to one of the most distinctive and iconic buildings on the entire campus, Scott Hall (now known as the Sherman Building), originally opened in 1857.

A damaged pinnacle on the roof of the Sherman Building. Photo by Carrie Barton, EHT Traceries, Inc.

For 150 years, the AFRH has offered veterans a restful retreat amidst a cluster of striking historical buildings. Most well-known nowadays among Soldiers' Home buildings is the once-endangered Lincoln Cottage, a Gothic Revival country house built by banker George W. Riggs (1813-1881) in 1842 and used by President Abraham Lincoln as a summer retreat.

It has been named a national monument, restored, and made into a fascinating museum by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But the attention given to the Lincoln Cottage seems to have pushed the rest of the Soldiers' Home buildings into undeserved obscurity.

To appreciate the Sherman Building, one has to start at the beginning of the story, with the founding of the Soldiers' Home. As Matthew Pinsker has explained, the institution was a long time coming. There had been talk in Congress as early as the 1820s of establishing a facility to care for disabled veterans who were unable to support themselves, but little came of it.

In the 1840s, Maj. Robert Anderson (1805-1871)—best known as the commander of the besieged Union forces at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in the opening days of the Civil War—mounted a determined effort to establish a soldiers' retreat. At his urging a bill to create a military asylum to aid such unfortunates was introduced in 1841, and much debate was held on the subject in the early 1840s, but again no asylum was actually established.

Early 1900s view of Scott Hall. Image from the Library of Congress.

The turning point came as a result of the invasion of Mexico City in 1847 by American forces led by Gen. Winfield Scott (1786-1866). True to historical form, the conquering army extracted a tribute ($150,000) from the good people of Mexico City to spare their fine city from being looted and destroyed.

Rather than turning the money over to the War Department, Scott then took the extraordinary step of putting $100,000 of it into a bank account to be reserved for establishing an Army asylum, "subject to the order of Congress." The War Department tried to get the money back but was blocked by Senator Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) of Mississippi—later to become president of the Confederacy—who shepherded a bill through Congress that finally established the asylum in 1851.

The law establishing the military asylum designated two other locations, in Mississippi and Louisiana, but the one in Washington was the only one that lasted. Using the Mexican tribute money, Congress bought the 200-acre country estate of banker Riggs, including his Gothic Revival cottage, and later purchased additional properties, including the adjoining Harewood estate of Riggs' partner, William W. Corcoran (1798-1888), ultimately creating a 500-acre bucolic, wooded reservation. As originally established, the Soldiers' Home welcomed veterans of the regular army with 20 or more years of service as well as disabled veterans with any amount or type of service.

The first inmates of the military asylum lived in the old Riggs cottage beginning in 1852, but clearly more room was needed. The asylum's board authorized construction of a new main hall to accommodate up to 250 residents as well as two other large cottages, all to be clustered around the Riggs cottage near the northwest corner of the huge property. Lt. Barton S. Alexander (1819-1878), an experienced Army engineer who would later have a key role in the Civil War defenses of Washington, was chosen to oversee the construction.

Scott Hall as it originally appeared, from 1857 to 1869. Source: Harper's Weekly, Jan. 5, 1867, via the Library of Congress.

The new main hall would later be named Scott Hall, after Gen. Winfield Scott, and it has remained the centerpiece of the Soldiers' Home until this day. Construction began in 1852 and continued for five years. For its design, Lt. Alexander imitated James Renwick's Smithsonian Institution building, now known as the Smithsonian Castle, a triumph of the "picturesque" mode of architecture promoted by Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852).

Picturesque buildings aimed to use eclectic designs based on historical architectural styles to blend in with their natural settings. The picturesque precedent fit the new Soldiers' Home building perfectly, situated as it was on top of an idyllic wooded hilltop with sublime views of the capital city. Its Romanesque-arched windows, wistfully reminiscent of a medieval abbey nestled in the remote countryside, gave dignity and architectural flair to what could have been a drab government dormitory.

While the Castle was made of red sandstone, Scott Hall used white New York marble. Its construction was overseen by Gilbert Cameron, a master builder and stonemason from New York whom Renwick had  brought to Washington in 1847 to work on the Smithsonian project. As completed in 1857, the building was two stories tall with cast-iron balconies, a large clock tower rising up at its center, and a stately, arched front porch.

Once Scott Hall and the other two new cottages were complete, Soldiers' Home found itself—temporarily—with more than enough room. The commissioners decided to build goodwill by offering to provide accommodations to President Buchanan in the summertime as a retreat from the stifling heat and humidity of downtown Washington. Buchanan stayed in one of the new cottages rather than the original Riggs house, where the Home's superintendent lived.

When the Lincolns arrived, they wanted the Riggs house. One suspects that Mary Todd Lincoln was behind this decision. Abraham Lincoln enjoyed staying at the cottage and was said to have drafted the Emancipation Proclamation there. Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur summered there as well. James and Lucretia Garfield had been planning to spend the summer of 1881 at Soldiers Home, but they never got the chance; Garfield was felled by an assassin's bullet at the Baltimore & Potomac train station on the Mall in July 1881.

Stereoview photo of Scott Hall as it appeared from 1869 to 1887. Image from the author's collection).

As originally built, Scott Hall quickly proved to be too small, and the building was remodeled in 1869 by adding a third floor under a fashionable, Second-Empire style mansard roof. The building was then remodeled again in 1887 after a large annex had been constructed behind it. The resulting structure, completed in 1890, is even more castle-like than before, with crenellated parapets and a truly monumental Richardson-Romanesque clock tower.

Scott Hall after its final 1890 renovation. Image from the author's collection.

At 320 feet, Scott Hall boasts the third highest elevation in Washington, DC. The vast grounds of the Soldiers' Home surrounding it were kept open to the public after it was built, and a network of scenic roads was constructed that made the property a great destination for a Sunday outing, especially before the roads and amenities of Rock Creek Park were developed. As described in Joseph West Moore's Picturesque Washington (1887):

A short distance from Washington, on the Rock Creek road, is the Soldiers' Home, a most beautiful sylvan retreat where the aged and invalid soldiers of the regular army can pass their days in peace and comfort. There are few finer rural estates in the land, and it is often called "the Central Park of Washington," as it is constantly open to the public, and over its five hundred acres of beautifully diversified hill and dale, every one can wander at will, enjoying the charming views and attractive surroundings.

Within the grounds there are seven miles of drives on broad, well-made roads, shaded in summer by gigantic oaks with luxuriant leafage; and there are lakes with swans, long stretches of meadow-lands, handsome arbors perched on hills, whence can be obtained delightful prospects of the country for several miles; ornate villas, statuary, and various adornments. It is, indeed, a pleasant spot, with plentiful means for peaceful enjoyment, and, doubtless, many a "weary pilgrim on life's devious course," as he strolls through these grounds almost envies the superannuated warriors their privilege of residing here.

Soldiers' Home has undergone many changes in the intervening years. Many buildings have been added; much land has been lost. When large new buildings, a dormitory and hospital, were completed in 1954, the Scott Hall name was transferred to the new dormitory, and the historic Scott Hall became the Sherman Building. Safety concerns then led to the closing of the grounds to the public in 1968.

The complex used to include a large and productive dairy farm, worked, in part, by some of the residents. The dairy farm and other land located to the south of the property—40 percent of the Home's acreage—was lost in the 1960s when it was appropriated for development of a large hospital complex that now includes the Washington Hospital Center, Children's National Medical Center, the National Rehabilitation Hospital, and the local Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The land grab also included acreage for the extension of North Capitol Street and Irving Street.

Renamed the Armed Forces Retirement Home in 2001, the now-venerable institution receives no taxpayer money to fund its operations, relying instead on a 50-cent weekly payroll deduction contributed by all active enlisted military personnel. To earn more income, the home developed a master plan, approved in 2008, that calls for development of some of its underutilized property. An early version of the plan was scaled back in response to concerns about density and historic preservation.

A stone from the parapet crashed through the ceiling of this room in the Sherman Building. No one was injured. Photo by Carrie Barton, EHT Traceries, Inc.

Last Tuesday's earthquake only added to the Home's financial challenges. According to Carrie Barton, an historic preservation specialist with EHT Traceries, Inc., a number of carved stone pieces from the Sherman Building's pinnacles and crenellated parapets fell off, either inward through ceilings or outward to the ground. Stone masons were marking and cataloging the pieces for eventual repair.

Sherman Building parapet damage. Photo by Carrie Barton, EHT Traceries, Inc.

More seriously, the building's iconic tower was severely compromised. It sustained major cracks and was leaning toward one side. An emergency effort was undertaken on Saturday to stabilize it as Hurricane Irene approached, but engineers were uncertain whether it could be repaired or would need to be entirely rebuilt.

This coming week, engineers expect to develop a plan for how to proceed with the building's restoration. Additional photos of the earthquake damage can be found on the DC Preservation League's Facebook page.

Sources for this article included Kent C. Boese, Park View (2011); H. Paul Caemmerer, A Manual on the Origin and Development of Washington (1939); EHT Traceries, Inc., The AFRH Historic Preservation Plan (Vol. II, 2006); James M. Goode, Capital Losses (2003); Joseph West Moore, Picturesque Washington (1887); Matthew Pinsker, "The Soldiers' Home: A Long Road to Sanctuary" in Washington History (Vol. 18, 2006); Pamela Scott and Antoinette Lee, Buildings of the District of Columbia (1993); and the National Register of Historic Places listing for the Soldiers Home.

Cross-posted at Streets of Washington.

Lost Washington: Hammel's Restaurant

Restaurants come and go by the dozens in Washington. Only a few survive through the years as bona fide local institutions. One that did was Hammel's, a German restaurant that stood for decades on 10th Street downtown, across from where the FBI Building now menacingly looms.

Hammel's Restaurant, photographed in 1981 for the Historic American Buildings Survey.

It was hidden within a drab, not-particularly-inviting storefront, but perhaps the nondescript fašade added to its character. And character it certainly had.

The restaurant was founded by Carl Hammel (1870-1952), a native of Baden, Germany, who emigrated to America in 1894 and settled in Washington a few years later. Hammel started out as a department store clerk, and saved up to open his first tavern in 1904 at 25th and G Streets in Foggy Bottom.

Hammel's initial tavern wasn't much more than a lunch counter, offering German beer and deviled crabs to local workers. At the time Foggy Bottom was a fairly grim, semi-industrial neighborhood. Across the street from Hammel's tavern was the Abner and Drury brewery. Giant gas tanks loomed to the north.

In 1912 Hammel moved his lunchroom to 922 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, occupying the same space that had previously hosted Henry King's millinery store. Hammel's Buffet kept its casual atmosphere but started offering a more full menu, including the planked rock bass which would become the restaurant's signature dish.

Like Bassin's Restaurant, Hammel's was quietly successful in its early lunchroom years. Carl Hammel became a fixture of the local community, active in German-American affairs and a member of the Board of Trade.

Carl and wife Emma, from his 1922 passport application in the National Archives. Photo from

It wasn't easy running a German restaurant in Washington in those days. The onset of World War I brought anti-German sentiment. Even more significantly, the temperance movement was gaining traction. The noose began to tighten with passage of a law in 1913 restricting the number of restaurants that could sell alcohol. Hammel's was lucky to retain its permit for a few years, until prohibition came to DC on November 1, 1917 with passage of the Sheppard Act.

As Garrett Peck engagingly describes in his new book, Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren't, Washington never stopped drinking alcohol, and lots of people never stopped buying it at restaurants and speakeasys. Enforcing the ban became an overwhelming task. Hammel's was just one of many DC establishments raided by authorities trying to stem the illicit trade. According to The Evening Star, prohibition enforcement officers found 1,200 gallons of beer and red wine in the cellar of Hammel's on April 25, 1923. Hammel and his clerk were arrested.

Officers raiding Hammel's on April 25, 1923. The headquarters of the Department of Justice is now located on this site. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Carl Hammel retired from the business in 1929. He left the restaurant to his son, Louis J. Hammel (1899-1990), and his son-in-law, Harry G. Kopel (1887-1964), a native of Austria who had previously served as the headwaiter at the Willard Hotel. In 1931, after their old building was acquired by the government for the Federal Triangle project, Hammel and Kopel moved the restaurant a short distance to its final location on 10th Street. It was here that Hammel's enjoyed its greatest success.

Phyllis Richman, writing her first review as restaurant critic for The Washington Post in early 1977, had this to say about the Hammel's of that era: the Thirties and Forties, if you were downtown at night, which was the fashionable place to be—social Washington took evening strolls around the Ellipse—you dined at Hammel's.

This was a restaurant the national guidebooks touted as one of Washington's finest. It was noted for its German food, its deviled crabs and especially its beef. But eventually its fame rested on Hammel's invention born of Depression thrift: Roast Beef Bones Diablo. It was a hangout of tax court judges and bureaucrats, a lively restaurant with waiters in white aprons...
However good the Roast Beef Bones Diablo was, or the planked rock bass, food was probably not the only reason to visit Hammel's during the Depression. There was also "near beer," which was supposed to lack the alcohol content of real beer, but that often was more "real" than "near".

In August 1932, less than 2 years before Prohibition was repealed, the police conducted a major raid on Hammel's. This time they meant business. As reported in the Post, they brought a chemist along to test the alcohol content of 70 gallons of "alleged beer" that were found on the premises. They then proceeded to remove not only the restaurant's beverages but also virtually all of its fixtures, from the massive bar to the collection of autographed photos of celebrities that had adorned its walls. Hammel, Kopel, and two other staff were arrested. Hammel's was out of business.

1930s/1940s-era postcard of Hammel's from the collection of Jerry A. McCoy.

About a month later, a trial was held in police court, and the restaurant men were all acquitted. It seems that an undercover prohibition agent had drunk a near beer at Hammel's and reported that it gave him a "glow". The raid was then conducted on his word. The jury found that the agent had no sound basis to conclude that the beverage exceeded the allowable amount of alcohol. Although the chemist's on-site tests indicated alcoholic content varying from 2.5% to 9% in drinks at Hammel's, the police had lacked the proper authority to conduct the raid in the first place. Further, the jury also concluded that the police exceeded their authority in confiscating the restaurant's fixtures.

However, despite their legal victory, Hammel and Kopek were still stuck with paying the storage company that held their fixtures, both for storing them and for transporting them to and from the restaurant. All told, they estimated their expenses at $1,200. But at least they got the autographed photos back.

The end of prohibition in March 1934 didn't mean the end of legal hassles for Hammel's. The World War II years brought strict rationing for both businesses and individuals, and many DC restaurants, including Hammel's, ran afoul of the strict rules. More problematic was a 1949 campaign by US Attorney George Morris Fay against illegal gambling.

In March, Fay's agents (pointedly without any involvement by local police) raided 8 sites around the city and arrested 40 men. While some of the sites had equipment and furnishings that clearly suggested they were involved in gambling rackets, it was surprising that Hammel's, a popular and respected establishment, was also hit.

Harry Kopel and a young waiter named Danny Plummer were arrested. It was alleged that Plummer had accepted bets on horse races from Wilfred Barrett and "pretty" Edith Wildrick when serving them at Hammel's. Barrett was a law student moonlighting as an undercover agent, and Wildrick was a stenographer in the US Attorney's office. When the raid came, Kopel was found with a numbers slip in his possession.

Like the earlier prohibition case, this one also fell apart in the courts. As reported in the Post, Kopel argued that he didn't know anything about gambling and had no idea what the slip of paper was about. He claimed not to know what an Armstrong scratch sheet was, and that the numbers found printed on a card in his wallet were the serial numbers of his two Army sons. He was soon acquitted. Young Danny Plummer, on the other hand, admitted taking bets from the undercover agents but argued he was just passing them on to bookies as a favor and that he had been entrapped. He was initially convicted, but the conviction was overturned on appeal.

1960s-era postcard of Hammel's interior. Photo by J. Waring Stinchcomb.

Meanwhile, Hammel's continued its thriving business. The restaurant settled in for several more decades without any reported harassment by government agents. A Post review in 1968 called it a "handsome, comfortable restaurant with an air of graceful middle age." By then Hammel's carried an extensive menu of mostly seafood and steaks, offering large portions with filling sides, such as potato pancakes and dumplings. Donald Dresden reviewed the restaurant in 1970, finding the waiters gracious but the food rather poor, except for several outstanding desserts.

The site of Hammel's as it appears today. Photo by the author.

By the time Phyllis Richman arrived in the late 70s Hammel's was clearly in decline. "A little of the old world is left in Washington at Hammel's," she wrote in a summary review, noting the "enormous array of German dishes, seafoods, organ meats, stews, grills, and international dishes" at lunch time "in a club-like room crowded with gilt-framed paintings and beer steins, even an electric organ." Still highly recommended were the desserts, especially the authentic German pastries.

Hammel's downtown neighborhood had gone into serious decline by the 1970s, of course. Around the end of the decade the restaurant moved from 10th Street to a new location in Georgetown, but the change didn't help. Within a few years, the venerable eatery closed for good.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.

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