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Under the French Influence of Jules de Sibour
Donna Evers • June 18, 2013
In the 6th arrondissement in Paris, where the rue des Beaux-Arts meets rue Bonaparte, stands a venerable building which was more influential on architecture in Washington than any other institution, present or past. The Ecole des Beaux-Arts was the training ground for so many great American architects in the Gilded Era of Washington, including the charming maestro of Beaux Arts architecture, Jules Henri de Sibour.
Jules de Sibour had an American mother and a French father, who was a direct descendent of France’s King Louis XVI. He grew up between France and the U.S., going to prep school in New Hampshire, then on to Yale, and following in his father’s footsteps, married an American, a Washingtonian named Margaret Claggett.
De Sibour joined his older brother at the renowned architectural firm of Ernest Flagg and Bruce Price, who designed one of the best-known Beaux Arts buildings in the world, the Hotel Frontenac in Quebec. Price convinced de Sibour to go to Paris and get the proper training at the Ecole. He studied there for 18 months. When he came back to New York, he quickly gained a name for himself, and since he began to get more commissions in Washington, moved here in 1910, to make his mark on the city just at a time when merchant princes from all over the country wanted a grand mansion in the nation’s capital.
His interpretations of the Beaux Arts design have never been equaled, especially in the way he fit the buildings to the District’s angular corners, an inheritance from one of de Sibour’s French predecessors, Pierre L’Enfant, also a student of the Ecole. A fine example of de Sibour’s genius is his design of the McCormick Apartment Building, which seems to flow around the corner at 1785 Massachusetts Avenue NW. The perfectly balanced and designed exterior is the best of Classic design with the decoration of Beaux Arts flawlessly incorporated. Now it is home to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a group uniquely suited to appreciate its workplace.
De Sibour’s accomplishments go on and on, including the Thomas Gaff House (Columbian residence), the Wilkins house (Peruvian Embassy), the Jefferson Hotel, the French Embassy, the original Folger Theater Building and the Clarence Moore house at 1746 Massachusetts Avenue, NW (now the Uzbekistan Embassy). De Sibour became friends with Clarence Moore, who was also Master of Hounds at the Chevy Chase Club, and who commissioned de Sibour to design the main building for the club. Moore famously met an early demise, when he went to England to buy hunting hounds and decided to come back on the R.M.S. Titanic.
De Sibour went on to be a regular at the club. The descendent of Louis XVI became its star baseball player and — between designing buildings — spent many happy summer days enjoying the ultimate American pastime.
Donna Evers, email@example.com is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman owned and run real estate firm in the Washington Metro area; the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia; and a devoted student of Washington history. [gallery ids="100457,115459" nav="thumbs"]
The Iconic Obelisk
Donna Evers •
The Washington Monument is the single most recognized icon in our cityscape, yet its creation had a turbulent beginning, middle and end. And it’s not over, as the federal government has just committed over $7 million to repair the cracks caused by the 2011 earthquake.
To start at the beginning, in 1783, Congress decreed that an equestrian statue should be built to honor the father of our country. So in 1791, Pierre L’Enfant chose the perfect triangulated site in relation to the rest of the National Mall to honor George Washington’s initial career as a surveyor.
Fundraising discussions ensued in 1799, and in 1836 a contest was held to choose a design for the monument. Architect Robert Mills won with a design of a simple obelisk surrounded by a fancy rotunda, topped off by Washington at the helm of a chariot led by a team of charging horses. The fundraising goal of $1 million was slow getting off the ground, with only $30,000 collected by 1836, but construction started
anyway in 1848. It stopped six years later when they ran out of money.
The whole city made fun of the 153-foot stump that dominated the Mall until 1876, when construction resumed, but with a different color of stone (just in case Washingtonians needed a reminder of what happens when Congress starts a project).
The obelisk was completed in 1884, but not without controversy. For one thing, it was built on a completely different spot than L’Enfant had chosen. It turned out that the Mall was so swampy, the cornerstone Jefferson originally laid sunk and disappeared into the mire. So, a more solid site had to be found.
Then there was the incident involving Pope Pius IX, who donated a stone to the monument that was subsequently stolen by the infamous Know-Nothing Party in a wave of anti-Catholicism. At the same time,
two new variations of design were proposed. One involved creating an Italian bell tower at the top of the
obelisk and the other idea was to make it into a copy of “one of the better Hindu pagodas”, to quote a
local newspaper article.
The plans for pagodas, bell towers and rearing horses were scrapped and the simple monument stands as one of the best in the city. At 555 feet and 5 1/8 inches high – give or take a fraction after the earthquake – it remains one of the tallest masonry structure in the world, perhaps an inadvertent tribute to George Washington, who was a devoted Freemason.
Donna Evers, DEvers@EversCo.com, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman owned and run real estate firm in the Washington Metro area; the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia; and a devoted student of Washington area history. [gallery ids="100517,119152" nav="thumbs"]
At 100, the Cherry Trees: Enduring and Fragile Sign of Spring
Donna Evers •
This spring marks the 100-year anniversary of Japan’s gift of cherry trees to beautify the Tidal basin and National Mall. This was one of the better years of perfect weather for the blossoms, though they came too early for most. They are the official sign of spring and also the beginning of the tourist season in Washington. Their clouds of pink blossoms offer a brilliant picture that is quite different from the project that faltered many times along the way.
The plan to have cherry trees in and around the Mall came from a Washington socialite who worked hand-in-hand with President Taft’s wife — First Lady Helen “Nellie” Taft — to get the trees here from Japan, both as a symbol of our two countries’ friendship and as a way to beautify the swampy, derelict Mall area. But the sacred trees, called Sakura in Japan, went through a series of mishaps which very nearly killed all these ambitious plans. When the first shipment of 90 trees arrived and were planted, they turned out to be the wrong variety and had to be dug up. Then a shipment of 2,000 trees arrived as a gift from the government of Japan, but when the Department of Agriculture inspected the trees, they were found to be diseased, so President Taft himself ordered them to be burned in huge pyres. The governments exchanged letters, and the deeply embarrassing incident was fixed diplomatically.
Two years later, 3,000 disease-resistant cherry trees arrived and with great ceremony, were planted and thrived to the delight of the whole city. Fifty years after that, when Lady Bird Johnson beautified the city with her pocket parks, the government of Japan sent 3,800 more to be planted around the Washington Monument.
These trees have always brought an emotional response from Washingtonians. In 1938, during construction of the Jefferson Memorial, workers started to clear some of the cherry trees for the construction site, and an angry group of women protestors chained themselves to the endangered trees to stop them from being cut down. The government intervened and promised to replace any trees that had to come down.
While the blossoming trees look tranquil, they are very high-maintenance. They last a maximum of 30 to 50 years, so the government is constantly replacing dying trees. The heavy limbs are susceptible to wind, hail and snow storms, and these damaged trees also have to be periodically replaced.
In 1912, during the ceremony of the tree planting, the Japanese ambassador predicted, “Almost all the world is at peace today, and there will be peace for thousands of tomorrows. War has had its day.” Of course, that’s not how things turned out, and during World War II, Washingtonians took to calling the cherry trees “Oriental” instead of “Japanese.”
Each spring, Washingtonians wait and worry, because they can remember years when the buds and blossoms froze or were decimated in wind and sleet storms. In Japan, and for the last 100 years in Washington, the clouds of blossoming trees which appear magically almost overnight, symbolize the precariousness of nature and of our own existence, all the things that are most important and over which we have the least control.
Donna Evers is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman-owned and -run real estate firm in the Washington area, the proprietor of historic Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Va., and a devoted student of Washington history. E-mail her at Devers@Eversco.com
Riding through Washington
Captured in bronze, forever surveying the field of action and gearing up for battle, the Civil War generals are with still us. They are, of course, all Union generals. The brilliant Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson are not here because “to the victor goes the spoils”. Also, to the sculptor goes the spoils, since many of these
projects were competitions with good pay for the winning artist.
One of the most dramatic statues is of Philip Sheridan, whose action pose dominates Sheridan Circle on Massachusetts Avenue. “Little Phil” as he was known to his troops was indeed short and had long arms, which prompted President Lincoln to remark that Sheridan’s arms were so long that if his ankles itched, he wouldn’t even have to bend down to scratch them. Cast in bronze by Gutzon Borglum in 1908, Sheridan sits astride his faithful horse, Rienzi, who took him through 85 battles, including the one portrayed here. Sheridan had left his men in the Shenandoah Valley to attend to matters in Winchester, when Early attacked and almost won the day. Sheridan rode hard for twenty miles to get to his troops, saying, “if I had been with you this morning, boys, this would not have happened.” In the statue, he is shown bending down and waving his hat at his men, urging them on in battle. His success in the Valley campaign, coupled with Sherman’s success in Georgia, is credited with turning the tide for the Union’s victory.
Another diminutive general, George McClellan, was the Commander of the Army of the Potomac from the beginning of the war in 1861 to November 1862. Many historians argue that he should have been removed a lot sooner, because of his recurrent reluctance to send his soldiers into battle. Lincoln said he had a case of “the slows,” but kept him on for almost two years, because he was a great strategist and an even better recruiter. The reluctant general, however, thought a lot of himself, as evidenced in his letters to his wife, where he frequently describes himself as the savior of the nation. This is also clear in his equestrian statue by sculptor Frederick MacMonnies, at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and Columbia Road, where McClellan sits squarely on his horse, chin up and right hand placed confidently on his hip.
At Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventh Street, the tall majestic statue of General Winfield Scott Hancock pays tribute to his victory at the Battle of Gettysburg, where he continued to lead his men successfully against a gigantic Confederate assault, even after being shot off his horse. On Thomas Circle, the beautiful statue of General George H. Thomas shows him sitting at ease, pulling the reins with on hand, holding his horse’s head high and surveying the field of battle, probably also capturing him in one of his finest moments, at the Battle of Chickamauga.
The leader of the infamous march to the sea, William Tecumseh Sherman, is found on the elaborate monument at the intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Fifteenth Street. The bold general has one hand on the reins and the other holding his field glasses. He has probably just looked toward his goal of reaching the sea, ready to destroy everything in his path if it would bring the Union victory. Dominating McPherson Square, and portrayed also with binoculars in hand and uniform scruffy from his and Sherman’s long march, is the statue of General James Birdseye McPherson. His statue was cast from Confederate cannons captured in Atlanta.
At Logan Circle, the statue of John A. Logan sits on horseback with his sword in hand, commanding a view of the beautiful residential circle where he himself lived for so many years, and where he got the idea of preserving one day a year to honor the war dead, the special day we call Memorial Day.
Finally, there is the largest and most important Civil War monument of all on the east end of the Mall honoring Ulysses S. Grant, the general who was able to bring the Union to victory and the war to a close. In a greatcoat and broad brimmed hat that perpetually keeps his eyes in shadow, Grant sits calmly and impassively on his horse, Cincinnatus, among the two sets of massive statuary honoring the cavalry and artillery soldiers. This ambitious project was the work of a little-known sculptor, Henry M. Shrady. As James M. Goode says in his book, “Washington Sculpture”, in 1902, when Shrady won the competition over 23 other well-known artists for the $250,000 project, his competitors demanded an investigation. Nevertheless, he ended up with the job and devoted the next twenty years of his life to the creating the monument, which was brilliantly executed with exquisite and painstaking attention to detail. But, when the dedication of the monument took place in 1922, Shrady was not there to take a bow. He died two weeks earlier from the strain and exhaustion of having to complete a project of such astounding magnitude.
Donna Evers, firstname.lastname@example.org, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman-owned and run real estate firm in the Washington area; the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Va.; and a devoted student of Washington history.
Donna Evers •
Like the cathedrals of Europe, many of our monuments in Washington are rich with symbolism, and can be “read,” especially the great favorite of both residents and tourists, the Lincoln Memorial. This majestic monument took nearly 50 years from its inception to its dedication, and one of the biggest problems was site selection. For much of its early history, the National Mall was nearly empty and fairly swampy. In fact, the actual site for the Lincoln Memorial was under water up until shortly before it was chosen. It was only after the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the river to deepen it and deposited the silt on the shore, that the area where the memorial now stands was created. When this location was first proposed, the then Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon said that he would never let the memorial be erected in that “g—d— swamp”. However, after the area was planted and landscaped, it began to look like a real possibility. It lined up beautifully across the Mall from Congress, just as Pierre l’Enfant would have wished it.
The architect Henry Bacon was chosen to build the memorial and his friend, Daniel Chester French was selected to create the stature of Lincoln. Bacon designed the building with the Parthenon in mind and the 36 columns of the structure represent the 36 states that made up the newly reunited Union at the end of the Civil War. The states’ names are inscribed over the tops of the columns and above them are all the states added up to the time of the memorial’s dedication in 1922. The three-chambered monument is embellished with eagles and wreaths, symbolizing bravery and victory, as well as cypress trees, which stand for eternity and it is decorated with marble from Colorado, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, limestone from Indiana and granite from Massachusetts, incorporated into the monument to symbolize the union of states.
The statue of Abraham Lincoln is 19-feet tall and 19-feet wide, which creates the overwhelming impression of the solid resolution President Lincoln maintained to preserve the Union above all. French spent years studying photos of Lincoln, so he could depict him as he looked during the Civil War. His large head is bent slightly forward and his sunken eyes seem to look down at the people parading in front of the statue, and at the same time, they look out over the Mall toward Congress. His large hands rest on the square arms of the massive ceremonial chair decorated with ancient Roman emblems of authority and draped with the flag, another reminder of the union. Lincoln’s one hand is clenched to show strength, and the other is open to show compassion.
Legend has it that the back of Lincoln’s head is actually a profile of Robert E Lee, looking backward at his former home, the Custis-Lee mansion in Arlington Cemetery. The National Park Service discredits that story as well as the much more believable tale that Lincoln’s left hand is finger spelling an “A” and his right hand an “L”. This is credible because Daniel French had already designed the statue in front of Gallaudet University which shows teacher Thomas Gallaudet signing the letter “A” for student Alice Cogswell. Furthermore, it was Lincoln who approved the bill that made Gallaudet the first college for deaf people, and finally, French knew sign language and used it often since his own son was deaf.
It is appropriate that there should be mystery surrounding the statue of Lincoln, because it is one of the most inspirational in the city. The memorial is one large homage to the union of the states and one of its beautiful murals celebrates the Emancipation Proclamation. However, the memorial dedication ceremony in 1922 was presented to a racially segregated audience. The eternally patient expression that French managed to carve into Lincoln’s face conveys the feeling that he understood all too well the irony of the situation. After all, here was a man who was able to convey the necessity of the terrible sacrifices of war to save the union of our country in the ten sentences that make up the Gettysburg Address, whose words carved in stone share the sanctuary with him.
Donna Evers, email@example.com, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman owned and run real estate firm in the Washington Metro area; the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Va.; and a devoted student of Washington area history.
One Hero’s Sad Fate
Donna Evers •
Unfortunately, we live in an era where heroes are suspect. Larger-than-life figures like Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln have been deconstructed and put in their place by professors and writers, and it doesn’t look like this trend will be over anytime soon.
There are also heroes who do themselves in, with no help from their audience.
One doesn’t have to wait until they’re dead and gone to hear about their sins and mistakes, because their fall from glory takes place during their own lifetimes. Such was the case of Charles Lindbergh.
In 1927, Charles Lindbergh was the first person to fly non-stop and solo across the Atlantic Ocean. The 27’ plane he flew can be seen at the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport, where it seems much too small to have made the 3600 mile journey. The flight lasted 33 1/2 hours and during that time, the 25-year old Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris with a few bottles of water and some sandwiches. He had to fight to stay awake and there were times, he wrote later, when his plane was barely 10’ above the waves of the Atlantic. When he landed at the Le Bourget airport outside of Paris, the cheering crowds nearly trampled the skinny young man as he climbed out of his airplane.
He won a $25,000 prize for his historic feat, which at that time, was enough money to make him rich. He married a woman he loved and he was adored everywhere he went, with ticker tape parades, postage stamps in his honor, and endless awards. Then, the young couple endured a terrible tragedy. Their baby son was kidnapped from their home and murdered. The “crime of the century” as it was called, meant that now the grieving Lindberghs were in a limelight that was unendurable for them.
They moved to England to escape and have some privacy. During their stay abroad, Lindbergh became an isolationist, opposing any U.S. involvement in the growing storm that became World War II. He made several visits to Nazi Germany, and was enamored with their military and air force. He seemed to admire Hitler, who took it upon himself to award Lindbergh an Iron Cross complete with decorative swastikas. Lindbergh gave speeches that were anti-Semitic, and by 1940, appeared to be an apologist for the whole Nazi regime. Soon, he was criticized and ridiculed in the U.S.. Even Lindbergh’s home town in Minnesota took his name off the water tower. When Lindbergh returned from abroad, there was no hero’s welcome awaiting him.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh changed his mind. He volunteered in the military and flew 50 combat missions in the Pacific. Although he threw himself into the war effort, he never recovered his reputation or regained his status with the American public.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” One of the most published photo’s of Lindbergh shows the thin young man with the shy smile after he had just completed the record-breaking flight that would change people’s perceptions about what a single individual could accomplish. With his luminous and inspiring flight succeeded by his spectacular fall from grace, Lindbergh wrote his own tragedy.
Donna Evers, firstname.lastname@example.org, is the broker and owner of Evers & Co. Real Estate Inc., and a devoted student of Washington area history.[gallery ids="102483,120319" nav="thumbs"]
Alice Blue Gown
Donna Evers •
Lucky the girl who has a best-selling song named after her! In this case, the girl was one of the most talked about people of her era, who remained the talk of this town for over seven decades.
“Alice Blue Gown” was written for President Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, a beautiful young girl who was the American equivalent of a princess and whose style signature was her azure blue gowns. The pretty lyrics suggest a demure young woman, but young Alice was quite the opposite, in fact, a perfect terror. The press followed her around to record her much-publicized escapades. She smoked in public (a no-no at that time), jumped fully-clothed into a swimming pool, wore a boa constrictor around her neck and shot at telegraph poles from a moving train. Word of her adventures got back to her father, the President, who said, “I can run the country, or I can control my daughter. I cannot do both.”
Alice’s marriage to the wealthy, handsome congressman from Ohio, Nicholas Longworth III, had a fairy tale quality, at least in the beginning. They had a large imposing townhouse at 2009 Massachusetts Ave. NW, where they threw lavish dinner parties attended by senators, journalists and society ladies. Alice, who was not one to keep her opinions to herself, had devoted friends and fierce enemies, and she is often associated with the saying embroidered on a pillow in her much-visited salon,” If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit by me”
She and Cissy Patterson, a rival for her husband Nick’s affections, were competing hostesses for the top spot in Washington society. Cissy lived just down the street at 15 Dupont Circle NW, now the Washington Club; her brother owned the New York Daily News, so she often put her cutting remarks about Alice in the newspaper. Alice shot back at every opportunity, and to get even with her husband for his infidelities, caused a major scandal by having a well-known affair with Senator Borah, which earned her the moniker “Aurora Borah Alice.”
She could and did verbally slay presidents with one-liners. She said Calvin Coolidge looked like he had been “weaned on a pickle” and dismissed Thomas Dewey as looking like “the little man on the wedding cake,” a comment that many said was so devastating it lost him the presidential election. She told Lyndon Johnson that she wore wide brim hats to his receptions so he couldn’t get close enough to kiss her, and dubbed him “an engaging rogue elephant of a man.” She even took a swipe at her cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, who she described as “two-thirds mush and one-third Eleanor.”
Alice lived to the age of 96, much longer than most of her friends and enemies. People who once vied for invitations to her parties stopped coming to visit. Her granddaughter, who lived with her, would get on the phone and call Alice’s old friends to urge them to come by, because “Gammy” was lonely. As Alice got older, her house fell into such a state of disrepair that the few visitors there were had to pick their way through the poison ivy to get into the house. The salon was full of clutter and torn upholstery, and the living room ceiling looked as if it could fall at any minute. Her granddaughter painted the window sills red and decorated the walls haphazardly with poetry. Every inch of Alice’s bedroom was covered with books, newspapers and knick-knacks, so much so that when she returned home one day and the maid announced that the bedroom had been ransacked by a burglar, Alice said, “How can you tell?”
Alice reigned as a maven of Washington society through eighteen administrations, from the beautiful, wild young girl in the azure blue gowns to the elegant old lady with a sharp tongue and the signature wide-brimmed hat. While she was still alive, she was referred to as “the other Washington monument” and when she died, “Meet the Press” host Larry Spivak said, “It is extraordinary to become almost mythological in a city of this kind, just by being yourself.”
Donna Evers, email@example.com, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman owned and run residential real estate firm in the Washington metro area; the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia; and a devoted fan of Washington history. [gallery ids="100412,113366" nav="thumbs"]
HISTORIC D.C.: A Tribute to the Duke
Donna Evers •
Edward Kennedy Ellington, one of the most accomplished American musicians, composers and performers of all time, was born and raised in Washington, D.C. He got his nickname “Duke” in high school, because of his reputation for being a sharp dresser with elegant manners. Born in 1899 on 22nd Street, Duke grew up in Shaw at 1212 T St., NW, of parents who both played the piano. He dropped out of high school to take piano lessons and soon was playing in the jazz clubs, which were then prevalent in Shaw. In fact, Washington in the early 1900s was a top city for African-American culture and music, and the U Street corridor was its mecca.
When Duke was 21, he and his band the Washingtonians headed for New York, where musical and African American culture was booming in Harlem. As his popularity grew, he played at the Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater. But he also came back and played often in theaters on the “Great Black Way” on U Street, where stars like Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne and Harry Belafonte frequently performed.
During his 50-year career, Duke wrote more than 1,000 compositions and entertained everyone from presidents to European royalty. He often broke the color barrier by playing for both white and black audiences, which was otherwise unheard of at that time. He is largely responsible for helping raise the prestige of jazz to a high art form, even though he had to start modestly; his first gig was at the famous Howard Theater on T Street, where he was paid a grand total of 75 cents.
When he died in 1974, his funeral in New York City was attended by more than 15,000 people. Ella Fitzgerald sang “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” and Judy Collins later wrote a song about the funeral. The awards and accolades kept coming after his death, culminating in a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1999. He had a school, a building, a park and a major bridge named after him in his hometown of Washington, D.C., as well as a street and a circle in New York City. He was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Nixon at an extravagant musical event in his honor at the White House in 1969. He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1966 and the Legion of Honor from the French government in 1973.
Duke Ellington kept his band and his love of music in the forefront of American culture through two World Wars and a recession. He was a brilliant pianist, incredibly prolific composer, recording artist, bandleader and entrepreneur. His whole life was completely dedicated to the art of jazz. Once in an interview, he was asked when he was born, and he replied that he “was born in July of 1956 at the Newport Jazz Festival.” When he died in 1974, his last words were, “Music is how I live.” The next time you hear “Mood Indigo” or “Take the A Train,” remember the Duke and his overflowing talent that gave the world an unprecedented appreciation for jazz, or as he liked to call it, “American music.” ?
Donna Evers, firstname.lastname@example.org is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman owned and run real estate firm in the Washington metro area; she is also the proprietor of Twin oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia, and a devoted student of Washington area history.
The Queen and her Castle
Donna Evers •
Washington’s Gilded Era between 1880 and 1929 had its share of characters, and Mary Foote Henderson was one of them. She was a woman with big dreams, who saw some of them come true, including the genuine medieval castle she built for herself just above Florida and 16th Street at a time when her only other neighbors were herds of sheep.
Mary was a real estate speculator as well as a visionary, and her husband made enough money to finance her grandiose projects. She bought up a lot of land along 16th Street, with the hopes of converting the street into “The Avenue of the Presidents,” to be lined with busts of all the presidents, a project which was roundly rejected by Congress. She then tried to turn it into Embassy Row, and gave the plan a head start by hiring her friend and architect, George Oakley Totten Jr. to build several mansions which she planned to sell to embassies. But, Embassy Row continued to flourish along Massachusetts Avenue, which already had numerous grand houses just right to be converted into embassies. Undaunted by her failures with these projects, she went on to lobby for re-locating the Presidential mansion to her neighborhood. That didn’t work either.
In relentless pursuit of promoting the value of her real estate holdings, she convinced Congress to buy the 50 acre tract known as Meridian Hill. Hundreds of years earlier, the place had been a sacred Indian burial ground, and because of its commanding elevation, Thomas Jefferson had originally planned to mark the prime meridian from its hilltop vantage point. Mary succeeded this time, and in 1910, Congress paid $460,000 for the huge plot of ground, which is still one of the prettiest parks in the city.
Among her other passions, Mary was a suffragette and a fierce opponent of alcoholic beverages. When her husband died, she inherited his priceless wine cellar, which was forty years in the making. When Prohibition came, she held a huge party, and the Evening Star reported that Mary and her teetotaling friends emptied the fabulous wine collection into the gutters of 16th Street.
Her dreams of glory died with her in 1931 and her castle became a shoddy rooming house. Then it was a school for a while and finally, in 1976, developer Larry Brandt bought it and turned it into the Beekman Place Condominiums.
Washington is a wealthier city now and the current sensibility and laws favor preserving historic sites, so the castle would probably not have been torn down today. Some entrepreneur, as passionate and enterprising in his or her beliefs as Mrs. Henderson, would make it into an inn with a three-star restaurant, and in place of John Brooks Henderson’s illustrious wine cellar, a glamorous wine bar.
Instead, you can drive along 16th street, above Florida Avenue, and still see a few remnants of stone wall with a hint of crenellations that are a faint reminder of the castle we can only wish was still there.
Donna Evers, email@example.com, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman-owned and run real estate firm in the Washington Metro area, the proprietor of Twin oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia, and a devoted fan of Washington history