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Then and Now: Georgetown's Forrest Hall

Today, it's a Gap clothing store. But almost 150 years ago, the large Greek Revival building at 1258 Wisconsin Avenue NW in Georgetown was Forrest Hall, an assembly hall where Mark Twain gave a lecture.


1258 Wisconsin Avenue NW. Photo by the author.

Named for its owner, wealthy Georgetown resident Bladen Forrest, the building opened in 1851. According to local author Tim Krepp, Forrest Hall's meeting rooms hosted groups like the Masons and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, who discussed issues like retroceding Georgetown back to Maryland.

During the Civil War, the building became Forrest Hall Military Prison, an improvised jail for deserters where 3 people died, according to government records.

Mark Twain delivered a handful of lectures in Washington City during the winter of 1867-1868, while serving as a secretary to Nevada Senator William Stewart and composing correspondence for newspapers primarily in New York and the west. The last lecture he gave was on Saturday, February 22, 1868 at Forrest Hall.

On February 22, 1868, the Georgetown Courier ran a notice that "Mark Twain, the genial, witty and humorous Californian" would be "volunteering his services" for "the benefit of the Ladies' Union Benevolent Society" later that evening. Founded in 1868, the organization exists today as the Aged Woman's Home of Georgetown, located across the street at 1255 Wisconsin Avenue NW.


Photo of Forrest Hall circa 1921 from the collection of the DC Public Library's Peabody Room.

According to the Daily Morning Chronicle, an "appreciative audience, including many of the most prominent persons of Georgetown" packed Forrest Hall that night:

"[Twain] selected as his topic 'The Sandwich Islands,' and for an hour or more kept the audience in almost continuous roars of laughter. Upon stepping forward to the desk in his usual cautious and deliberate manner, he was received with applause. He apologized for his appearance without an introduction by stating that the young man who had promised to present him to the audience has been disabled.

He fell down and broke his heart or neck, Mark didn't know which, not being particularly interested in the young man. The chief reason for his intrusion upon their attention was a request, made by several ladies, that he should deliver a lecture for the poor. He always had a grudge against the poor, and therefore embraced the opportunity to inflict a lecture on them."

This post is excerpted from the forthcoming book, "Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: Adventures of a Capital Correspondent."
John Muller is a local journalist and historian. His first book, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC: The Lion of Anacostia, was selected as the 2013 DC Reads winner. His newest book is Mark Twain in Washington, DC

Comments

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How did Mark Twain get to be known of as a Californian? I always though of him as distinctly Southern.

by Alan B. on Jul 25, 2013 1:56 pm • linkreport

Great work as usual, John.

@Alan B
1868 was before any of Twain's novels were published. It was towards the beginning of his career as a writer - and his first big publication was from his time in California:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Celebrated_Jumping_Frog_of_Calaveras_County

by MLD on Jul 25, 2013 2:02 pm • linkreport

Thanks, MLD. Makes sense. I guess his only California connection to my knowledge is the infamous and likely apocraphal description of summer in San Francisco.

by Alan B. on Jul 25, 2013 2:08 pm • linkreport

Very nice. I think the original was better but cool to know we had the great Mark Twain amongst us.

by Thayer-D on Jul 25, 2013 2:11 pm • linkreport

@ Alan B & MLD
Thank you for your comments. When Twain was in Washington he continued his correspondence for the "Alta California." He focused on the Congress and Senate but also local affairs such as street crime.

Before coming to Washington Twain wrote for California-based magazines and newspapers.

@MLD
Very true! Washington bookstores advertised "The Jumping Frog" while he was here.

by John Muller on Jul 25, 2013 2:20 pm • linkreport

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