Monday, December 28, 2009

It's cold outside

Central dome of the old main conservatory in the late 19th or early 20th century

As Washington sets into it's annual deep freeze, it seems like as good a time as any to start highlighting some beautiful building interiors. If you are looking for a place to visit in the cold, the United States Botanic Garden has the added benefit of high tech temperature controls to make every visit a trip to the equator. The building itself, located at the east end of the National Mall near the Capitol Building, was built in 1933 with a nod to the palm house conservatory architecture made famous in Victorian England. The soaring glass structure of the palm house - now referred to as the Jungle - was one of the first large buildings in the country to use aluminum for its structural supports.

The garden's collections date back as far as 1816, when the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences in Washington DC proposed the creation of a botanic garden, "to collect, grow, and distribute plants of this and other countries that might contribute to the welfare of the American people." In 1820 Congress passed legislation allowing for the Institute's garden to be planted to the west of the Capitol Grounds, approximately where the Capitol reflecting pool is located today. This garden existed until 1837 when the Columbian Institute disbanded. In 1838, American naval officer and explorer Charles Wilkes was commissioned by Congress to circumnavigate the globe and explore the Pacific as part of the United States Exploring Expedition. While abroad Wilkes carefully amassed live and dried plant specimens, returning in 1842 with an impressive collection of plants previously unknown in the US. News of his findings reestablished interest in a national botanic garden, and his collections were displayed in a specially constructed greenhouse behind the Old Patent Office Building. A new structure was built in place of the Columbian Institute's garden in front of the Capitol in 1850, and the collections were developed and maintained there until moving to their present location in 1933.


The 1933 building was designed by Architect of the Capitol David Lynn. The 56,000 ft conservatory was originally conceived of as as a complex of glass greenhouses connected by brick galleries. The austere limestone facade was typical of government building during the New Deal, but the airy glass greenhouses were a novelty and a delight. By 1997 the collections had outgrown the aging structure, and the building underwent a four year multi-million dollar restoration. While the glass greenhouses were modernized to accept state of the art climate control systems, many of the building's details (including the exterior limestone, fountains, and exterior windows and doors) were restored or recreated to match the original designs.


Sources:
http://www.usbg.gov/
http://www.hort.wisc.edu/mastergardener/Features/botgardens/USBG/USBG.htm


Photo source:
http://www.usbg.gov/

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Teens Crash White House Dinner

The gossip blogs are afire this week with posts about the White House Crashers. More relevant to TMS rather than TMZ, Henry Morgenthau III (son of FDR's Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau) contributed an Op-Ed to today's International Herald Tribune found here. In it he recalls a time in 1938 when two teens crashed a White House party on a dare to get President Roosevelt's autograph.

Morgenthau concludes with the point, "In this time for change, some things have not changed very much." The Op-Ed has a nice link to an online collection of Eleanor Roosevelt's My Day column, which is hosted by George Washington University--some good reading to do in your free time.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Better Homes and Gardens

She may not be the first of the First Ladies to start a garden or open the White House up to the public, but I have learned that I owe gratitude to Pat Nixon. It was she who first opened the White House to the public twice a year for the Spring and Fall Garden Tours; it is because of her (and a friend who had tickets) that the Secret Service opened their wrought iron gates and let me in to see the garden a few weekends ago.

As Richard Nixon noted in his memoirs when Pat Nixon entered the White House she did so without “breaking stride.” Mrs. Nixon committed herself immediately to the building and its grounds, adding more antique American furnishings than any other First Lady—it was she who had the Gilbert Stuart copy of John Quincy Adams replaced by the real McCoy.

Mrs. Nixon first opened the White House up for the garden tours in 1972. Over 10,000 people attended, the event was a success. Despite the initial confusion over why there was a Rose Garden that in fact had no roses, over the years the popularity of the garden tour expanded. This autumn, attendance peaked at 25,000. However, attendance was particularly high this year due to Michelle Obama’s “Victory Garden” aka the White House Kitchen Garden. Though she never had the appeal of a Kennedy (Jacqueline Kennedy garden above left), Mrs. Nixon preferred to work quietly behind the scenes. She added the exterior lights to the White House, so it could be seen glowing at night on Pennsylvania Avenue. She changed the White House Tours, adding speakers while people stood in line so that visitors might learn the history of the house while waiting.

Having never attended a tour of the White House, this is the closest I’ve been to the Oval Office. I was surprised to see how high the land sits. From the backyard you can see the Jefferson Monument clearly, something you can’t do from Constitution Avenue, which sits below the South lawn and the Ellipse (see below center). Also, the Andrew Jackson Magnolia!!!!! Planted in 1830 and dedicated to his deceased wife Rachel!!!! It’s still there (see above right to the left of the portico)! Amazing! Yes, I did have thoughts of taking a leaf from it. No, I did not take a leaf because I feared crossing the Secret Service and National Park Service. I made the right choice.

Sources: Bonnie Angelo, Time Magazine, “Pat Nixon: The Woman in the Cloth Coat,” July 5 , 1993.

Jonathan Movroydis,
Pat Nixon and America’s White House, 2009.

White House Historical Association. “The White House Gardens and Grounds” (Fall 2009).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Under the city

Talk about creepy. Just in time for Halloween, the Washington Post Answer Man reported recently on rumors of buildings in DC that had underground doors leading into the dark and swirling remains of Washington's old Tiber Creek. Naturally, many of these are unfounded claims, but it prompted me to do a little investigating of my own.

The creek was originally known as Goose Creek before it became part of the territory of Washington DC and was renamed in honor of Rome's Tiber River. Early maps show that its course ran south from around the intersection of today's 1st St NE and North Capitol Street down towards the Capitol building before turning west and following today's Constitution Avenue and meeting the Potomac near the Washington Monument.


Historic image of the city showing Tiber Creek, and present day Washington

In his master plan for the city L'Enfant actually proposed using the Tiber as a canal to the Potomac, and in 1815 the part of the creek that ran along Constitution Avenue was added to the Washington City Canal system. Unfortunately, without sufficient infrastructure, by the 1870s the Washington Canal had become little other than a giant sewer and was eventually paved over as part of a city improvement project. Board of Public Works lead architect Adolf Cluss was responsible for the construction of the giant brick tunnel which housed the river and allowed for the construction of the roadway above it. Parts of the tunnel still exist in deteriorated form today, and the Old Post Offce building does indeed have a manhole cover in the basement which reveals the much diminished creek trickling by when opened. There are also the remains of an historic C&O canal lock keeper's house at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 17th Street, which is where the mouth of the Tiber Creek once opened into the Tidal Basin.


Because of the instability of the old creek bed, many of the buildings on or near Constitution avenue, including the IRS building, The National Archives, and the Warner Theater had to be built with deep pier like foundations. The Warner Theater was actually supposed to be named the "Cosmopolitan Theater", but after its owners spent so much money on the construction of the foundation, they ended up having to seek investors and named it the Earle Theater after one of their investors instead. It was later renamed the Warner after being bought by Harry Warner. Engineers working on the construction of the massive Ronald Reagan Building in the 1990s appeared to have finally found a way to successfully divert the water, but their methods actually reduced the water level so significantly that the IRS building's foundation lost stability and began to sink.

Today the creek is mostly a silent, hidden piece of Washington's past, but every now and again it rears its head. Before being diverted underground, in 1804 the creek caused one of the most significant floods in Washington's history, sending sewage, livestock, and people racing down Pennsylvania Avenue. More recently, the remains of the riverbed became saturated during heavy rains in June of 2006, and caused terrible flooding in the downtown area, threatening among other things, the copy of the Constitution kept at the National Archives. Thankfully, nothing major was lost.

Sources:
Kelly, John. Answer Man, Washington Post.Sunday, November 1, 2009. http://www.washingt onpost.com/ wp-dyn/content/ article/2009/ 10/31/AR20091031 01607_2.html

Tiber Creek, Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiber_Creek


Image Source: Tiber Creek, Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiber_Creek

Evidence of the Capital's Pernicious Past

It’s often difficult to find evidence of slavery in a modern urban landscape. After the 14th Amendment which abolished slavery, the need for slave quarters and shanties in the back allies of streets disappeared. Often lacking architectural flourish, slave quarters were the first buildings torn down to make way for the new architecture. As Washington shifted from a rural town to a bustling metropolis, evidence of slavery within the District all but disappeared. Yet, in 1860 there were 3,185 slaves (4.2% of the total population of the city) living in the Capital. You could be walking by an old slave quarters on your way to work every day and not even recognize it. Fortunately, there are some telltale signs in recognizing an old slave quarter --and what follows is a guide to help you.

Location relative to the master’s house: Unlike plantations, where slave quarters were set apart from the Big House, lack of space in urban areas meant that slaves were located closer to their masters. A typical urban slave quarter could often be found in back of the master’s house or at a right angle to the house. For quarters that were perpendicular and attached to the main house, the idea was to create a confining space for slaves, essentially keeping their view of the outside world limited.

Construction: Architectural design and layout was more crucial in urban areas than on the plantations—a slave quarter could not be an eyesore that could be hid from the Big House as on plantations. In the city the quarters would be seen, and were therefore constructed out of brick and stucco rather than the mud and logs found in the Deep South. Quarters in the City came with glass windows and shutters.

Size: The quarters typically housed no more than 15 slaves at a time. The structures were usually one to two stories and often long and narrow. On a two-story structure the idea was to create a sense of a compound around the slaves who worked in the backyard. The height of the quarters made it difficult for slaves to see the outside world, a further means of control for the slave owner.

Doors: In order to keep slaves confined there were no doors leading to the street. If the quarters were attached to the master’s house, a slave would have to walk through the Master’s house before leaving for the market or entering the outside world. This was done to give slaves the feeling that their actions were constantly under the surveillance of their masters and mistresses.

Interior: In a two story building, the ground floor held the kitchen and household laundry. The top floor contained the living space which could be one large open room, or small bedrooms meant to provide family space.

The overall theme to take away from the design of an urban slave quarter is that of control. The quarters were meant to be confining, meant to limit contact with others outside of the master’s household, and intended to emphasize the degree to which a master was in control of his slave. The urban slave quarter to some extent reveals the fear felt by a white slave-holding society as well. The masters' need for control came from an ever-increasing sense of fear that their slaves would seak freedom, or worse, revolt. Unlike on an isolated plantation, the city provided a chance for free and enslaved blacks to mix and mingle at markets and at church; white owners did not want their slaves to take to the notion that freedom was possible.

Before you go looking around DC for these slave quarters, I’ll point out that there is only one remaining in the District. It’s located at 1610 H Street, NW and is a part of the Decatur House Museum (seen at left now standing admidst cars rathers than carriages). As far as slave quarters go it is a perfect example of what I have just described—right angle from the main house, two stories, stucco, no door to the street (one has been added in modern times due to fire codes), long and narrow.

The slave quarter at the Decatur House is believed to date back to the 1820s, where it started as a single story structure. The second story was added in the 1830s by house owner John Gadsby. The kitchen was located on the first floor, with slave families living above it. In 1844, there were 17 people living on the top floor, which is about 900 square feet, about the size of a single apartment. The preservation of this structure-- one of only a scant handful left in American cities-- serves as a reminder that slavery did exist in Washington and it existed within sight of one of our greatest symbols of democracy, the White House.

Sources: The Decatur House Museum.
Peter Kolchin, American Slavery.
Richard C. Wade, Slavery in the Cities.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Going Green!

Last week the Annual Solar Decathlon on the National Mall came to a close, with the innovative entry from Team Germany taking the top prize. I had a chance to pass through the competition and was very impressed with the line up of well designed "green homes." It also got me thinking about one of Washington's first "green" buildings (and my favorite place in the city, hands down) the Old US Pension Building, better known today as the National Building Museum.

Built between 1882 and 1887, the structure was designed by US Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, who was commissioned by the government to create a fireproof structure to hold the US Pension Bureau's offices and important records. Following several major city fires (The 1871 Great Chicago Fire being perhaps the most memorable), fireproofing was of utmost concern to architects and engineers in the 1880s. The use of terracotta, brick, and steel rather than wood became prevalent during the time period. At the same time, following the Industrial Revolution, many citizens and politicians became concerned about the quality of health and living in cities, and the first US "green" movement was started.

Despite it's relatively small budget, the Pension Bureau was also designed to serve as a grand space for Washington's social and political events. To achieve this Meigs modeled his building after two Roman palaces, Michaelangelo's Palazzo Farnese and Palazzo della Cancelleria, but used brick as his primary building material. To keep up the building's status Meigs used only expert brick layers and a high quality pressed red brick. The exterior frieze, which depicts Civil war soldiers, is made of inexpensive terra cotta, and other decorative elements use painted plaster on brick surfaces rather than stone or marble.

The impressive Great Hall, which has seen many a Presidential inauguration gala, mimics the courtyard of Palazzo della Cancelleria. The enormous interior space is 316 feet by 116 feet, and is 159 feet at the peak of the roof. Four colossal Corinthian columns divide the space, and are modeled after columns in Michelangelo's church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The central fountain is 28 feet across and still has its original terracotta trim.

The Great Hall served it's purpose well as a grand entertainment venue, but many of it's decorative elements also served to provide the large space with natural light and air. After connections were established between disease rates and the crowded and squalid living conditions that industry and immigration the had brought to US cities, new efforts were made to make buildings more open. The roof's system of windows, vents and open archways allowed for natural ventilation through the space and the water in the fountain kept cool air on the lower levels. Since the Great Hall is open from floor to ceiling, all offices were pushed to the perimeter and therefore had air flow from both the Hall and the exterior. The building was a model of clean, natural, healthy engineering - very "green" for it's day!

The Pension Building was used as office space by various government offices until the 1960s when it became apparent that the building was badly in need of repairs. The space was not ideal for government offices, the Great Hall was no longer needed as a natural ventilating system with the advent of central air, and this "wasted space" was filled in with drop ceilings and standard office cubicles. (The horror!) In 1969, the Pension Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and under pressure from the preservation community who saw the beauty and ingenuity of the aging structure, the government commissioned architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith to rethink it's use. It was under her suggestion that the structure was converted into a museum for the building arts, and a 1980 Act of Congress mandated the creation of the National Building Museum as a private, non profit educational institution. The building was officially renamed in 1997, and is today a fantastic addition to the DC cultural landscape.


Source: National Building Museum Web site: http://www.nbm.org/about-us/historic-building/
Photos taken by the author

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Jury Duty Week

United States Tax Court

So I've been stuck in Jury Duty all week in the oh so typical DC Superior Courthouse. I've decided there are only two good things about Jury Duty - being close enough to the National Mall to eat lunch there and having random spots of down time to write blog entries. Perhaps it’s just the boredom, but we’re going to shake things up here by going modern - mid century modern! A neighboring building to the DC Courthouse, the U.S. Tax Court Building was built by architect Victor Lundy in 1965 (dead smack Mad Men era). Government construction in the 1960s was heavily influenced by the 1962 "Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture"; created for President Kennedy by the Ad Hoc Committee on Federal Office Space in an attempt to improve the quality of federal buildings. This was a significant step for the government to take as the committee correctly assessed that citizens would take more pride in their government and employees would take more pride in their jobs if their buildings were attractive.

The original Tax Court was located in the Internal Revenue Service Building that was built in the 1930s. By 1962 the need for the Court to have it’s own space was great, and the U.S. General Services Administration allocated $450,000 for the design of a new building. Architect Victor Lundy was so well respected in the field for his modernist sensibilities and inventive engineering that he was awarded the contract without competition. Lundy’s Modern design is best expressed in the striking cantilevered courtroom, which made use of technological advances in construction to achieve its dramatic appearance. The 4,000-ton courtroom block, which projects over the entrance, is supported by compression and post-tensioned bridges and steel cables located within the building’s walls. This innovative engineering is conveyed on the building’s interior as the compression and tension bridges are also used as interior circulation bridges.

In 1967, New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable described the plans for the U.S. Tax Court Building as "a progressive, sensitive, contemporary solution fully responsive to Washington's classical tradition and yet fully part of the mid-20th century--a period of exceptional vigor and beauty in the history of structure and design." Today the Tax Court is still regarded as one of the most sophisticated examples of Modernism in Washington.


Photo by Carol Highsmith for GSA


Sources:

GSA Building Overview, U.S. Tax Court http://www.gsa.gov/Portal/gsa/ep/buildingView.do?pageTypeId=17109&bid=1264&channelPage=%2Fep%2Fchannel%2FgsaOverview.jsp&channelId=-25241&reason=bldgNameNos


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Other White House

I recently took a trip south of Washington to visit the other Capital with the other White House. Strange to think the Confederates chose their capital to be only 98 miles from Washington, but early in the Civil War the iron mills and factories of Richmond, Virginia were of tremendous strategic importance to the South. So it came to be that the Confederate capital was situated on a bluff overlooking the James River, and the executive mansion on 12th and Clay Streets became known as the White House of the Confederacy. Not to be picky, but the Confederate White House is actually pale grey (pictured at left as seen now and below right during the Civil War).

Originally constructed in 1818 for a prominent physician, the third story of the federal period house was added when it was purchased by the Crenshaw family in 1857. When the war commenced the Confederate government purchased the home and furnishings for $42,000, and CSA President Jefferson Davis and family moved in shortly thereafter.

Davis’s wife and first lady Varina became the official hostess of Richmond society, and the home was used for entertainment. At first the levees and balls were lavish, as the Southerners had many early victories to cheer on. Nonetheless, Varina Davis preferred to keep a “Quiet Set” and tended to keep gatherings small and intimate. She feared Richmond to be full of dreadful gossip.

As the war progressed, Richmond began to feel the strain of tough economic times. The price of a gallon of eggnog was over $100 at Christmas in 1863. “Starvation Parties” soon became the talk of the town, where the only expense was hiring the band and attendees refreshed themselves with a glass of water from the James River. Despite this privation, Mary Chesnut—the wife of General James Chesnut—noted that she attended one of Varina’s “Luncheons for Ladies Only” where they were served “gumbo, ducks and olives, lettuce salad, chocolate cream and jelly cake, claret cup, champagne, etc.” But on the whole, social gatherings at the Confederate White House became fewer and far between.

By 1864 the Confederate First Lady confessed to Mrs. Chesnut that the Davises could no longer live on the income provided by the Confederate government, and had begun selling off the horses and carriages kept in the carriage house at their White House.

Most of us know how the Civil War ended. The Union Army seized Richmond burning about 10% of it. Jeff Davis and Varina fled for their lives. The southern White House became the headquarters for the occupying army, with Lincoln personally visiting the mansion on April 4, 1865. He sat in Davis’s chair and helped himself to some of the wine left by the Rebel First Family.

It’s interesting to consider the lives of these two presidents living in their own “White Houses.” Aside from the struggles of the War, both as heads of state used their homes to entertain. Both had wives who presided over the local society and were frequently the subject of gossip. My image of Jefferson Davis has always been that of a slave holding villain. I had not considered him to be a family man, so visiting the house he briefly resided in humanized him. Like Lincoln, Davis suffered tragedy in his White House as well. In Washington, Lincoln’s son Willie died in 1862 of disease at age 12. Perhaps more horrifying was the death of five year old Joseph Davis, who fell from the East Portico of the Davis's White House.

2 Presidents. 2 First Ladies. 2 Capitals. 2 White Houses. The Confederate house is currently in the care of the Museum of the Confederacy; an interesting place where you can learn about the “Second American Revolution,” States Rights, the valor of the Confederate troops, and the vast superiority of their cavalry. I guess there are 2 ways of looking at things.

Sources: Mary Chesnut, Diary from Dixie.

Nelson Lankford,
Richmond Burning.

Museum of the Confederacy.

Emory M. Thomas,
The Confederate State of Richmond.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Fight for Ol' DC!

The beloved Redskins currently stand at 1-2 after a defeat to the abysmal Lions…. Oh the Humanity! How can it be that a once dominant team has fallen so far? For me there is just one team and that is the Chicago Bears because they are the greatest and T formation and 1985 and Ditka and Monsters of the Midway. I need no elaboration. With that caveat, if there is one thing a Bears fan respects it is tradition—something that struggling Skins have aplenty.



Owner George Preston Marshall moved the team to Washington in 1937 after failing to draw fans in Boston. Head coach Ray Flaherty set out for Texas to recruit a young rookie quarterback out of TCU, Sammy Baugh for $8,000. In a time when the forward pass was used infrequently, Baugh was an odd choice for a quarterback, but his arm would change the way football was played, and he became known as Slingin’ Sammy. When the Redskins attended their first practice in Fairlawn Park in Anacostia, over a 1,000 fans showed up to cheer on their powerful linesmen. By August of 1937, the Redskins had their own volunteer marching band and even a fight song, “Hail to the Redskins” written by Marshall’s second wife and silent film star Corinne Griffith. Yet, Flaherty knew that the Redskin’s welcome would soon ware thin if they could not deliver out on the gridiron. Before the first game he told his team that if they wanted to keep their jobs they had to go out there and win.

And win they did, earning their first championship that season defeating the Bears at Wrigley Field 28-21. George “Papa Bear” Halas’s team did not take well to losing at home, and before long one the first NFL rivalries ignited. For the Redskins the success ’37 meant that Flaherty and his team had found a home.

As for the rivalry, payback came the following year later, when the Bears smashed the Redskins 31-7. After the game Halas commented to the Redskins, “That’s too bad, girlies…What say we all go down to the corner for a double banana split and a fistful of chocolate éclairs?” Ouch. That’s harsh, Papa Bear.

The Redskins let their hatred simmer until they teams met again in 1940. Both teams struggled back and forth, when finally the Redskins claimed a 7-3 victory, won by an ankle tackle by running back Dick Todd, stopping the Bears at the one yard line. It was three weeks until the Championship game. Marshall predicted that should the Bears play the Redskins for the championship, they’d have to win big or not win at all. As if fated, the teams would indeed meet for the championship at Griffith Stadium (at Georgia Ave and W Street, NW). Taking Marshall’s words to heart the Bears unleashed a fury, ending the game with a 73-0 victory over the Redskins (who unlike the current Lions, were playing in the championship—the Redskins were no shabby team). The score still stands as the largest margin of victory in NFL history.

Admittedly, this has turned out to be biased posting on the prowess of the Chicago Bears, but I find myself incapable of singing the praises of another team. But cheer up Redskins fans you still have: 5 championships, 3 Superbowl titles, the NFL first marching band, and the first NFL fight song. So when times get tough, think about Slingin’ Sammy and the championship in 1937, and the later days with Coach Gibbs. You have tradition! Now get out there and beat your current rival the Cowboys, whom you play in seven weeks!

Sources: Redskins: A History of Washington’s Team.

Redskin’s Homepage.

Sports Encyclopedia.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Alcott's Brief, but Impressionistic Stay in Georgetown

"Beds to the front of them,
Beds to the right of them,
Beds to the left of them,
Nobody blundered.
Beamed at by hungry souls,
Screamed at with brimming bowls,
Steamed at by army rolls,
Buttered and sundered.
With coffee not cannon plied,
Each must be satisfied,
Whether they lived or died;
All the men wondered."

It was to this song that matrons and nurses at the Union Hospital in Georgetown (at right) marched to. Among them was Louisa May Alcott, authoress of Little Women. When the hackney coach carrying Alcott to the northeast corner of M and 30th, NW arrived, the driver announced it as the “Hurley-Burley House.” The Union Hospital was a converted hotel, built originally in 1796. A three story building, with two parallel wings running in to the block, with a slave quarter and stable in the rear, the Hotel was one of the larger establishments in Georgetown. The building functioned as a hotel briefly in the Civil War, when nearby battles in Virginia created an influx of wounded soldiers in to Washington.

Arriving December 12, 1863 Louisa saw action a just three days later, when the first casualties from the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia arrived by ambulance. Over 40 ambulances arrived and, the Union Hotel had 80 beds made up for the wounded. The worst cases were treated in the hotel ballroom. By Christmas there were over 1,000 wounded Union troops convalescing in Georgetown. Alcott noted that it was not uncommon to see them hobbling on the muddy streets on crutches and peg-legs. At the makeshift hospital Alcott worked as a night nurse, where she cleaned wounds, administered medicine, changed beds, and fed soldiers. The saddest sight she saw “was the spectacle of a grey-haired father, sitting hour after hour by his son, dying from the poison of his wound. The old father, hale and hearty; the young son, past all help…I saw the son's eyes fix upon his face, with a look of mingled resignation and regret, as if endeavoring to teach himself to say cheerfully the long good bye.”

Working as a nurse in the Civil War was arduous work. Apart from long hours, in poorly ventilated conditions, nurses ate the same rations as the soldiers. Alcott dryly noted that the beef at dinner was, “evidently put down for the men of ’76.” When food was scarce, nurses at the Union Hospital often passed their rations on to the wounded men. Louisa May Alcott lasted just six weeks that winter before succumbing to typhoid fever. When she was well enough, he father collected her and brought her back to Massachusetts, her nursing days at an end.

For more on Louisa May Alcott: http://civilwarwomen.blogspot.com/2008/01/louisa-may-alcott.html.

Sources: Louisa May Alcott, Hospital Sketches (1869).

Mary Mitchell, Divided Town: A Study of Georgetown, DC During the Civil War, Massachusetts: Barre Publishers, 1968.
Picture Source: The Whitman Archive.

Monday, August 24, 2009

You too can sleep like a President, at the Hay Adams hotel

Looking for a place to stay in DC? The Hay Adams hotel, directly across Lafayette Square from the White House, is one of the premier addresses in the Nation’s Capitol. The hotel is used today as a swanky site for weddings, a nice place to put up visiting diplomats, and was briefly the residence of the Obama's before the inauguration. Built in 1927 by famed DC developer Harry Wardman and his architect Mihran Mesrobian, the hotel actually sits on the site of two neighboring houses owned by statesmen John Hay and Henry Adams. (Hence – The Hay Adams hotel.)


The original Hay and Adam’s houses were commissioned by the two long time friends from famous American architect Henry Hobson Richardson, a former Harvard classmate of Adams. John Hay and Henry Adams had become close friends in 1880, and together with their wives, Marion ‘Clover’ Adams and Clara Hay, as well as their friend and director of the US Geological Survey, Clarence King, the group formed the so called ‘Five of Hearts’ club. The ‘Hearts’ were a literary society of sorts, and even went so far as to create and correspond on stationery with five playing card hearts across the top. The five were always involved in the political circle, writing anonymous political histories and satires, and in 1883 Adams convinced Hay that they should buy adjoining lots at 16th and H Streets facing Lafayette square.


Henry Hobson Richardson, who became famous for the “Richardson Romanesque” style of architecture he created, was well known for his heavy use of masonry, deep arches, steep pitched roofs, and turreted towers. In order to ensure that their homes took on characteristics of Richardson’s style without being too elaborate for a downtown DC neighborhood (Lafayette Square was entirely residential at the time) Adams, who was a good friend of Richardson’s asked that while the houses be unique, they should still remain generally within the confines of a plain square box with a flat roof. The final house cost $60,000 dollars to complete, and was, in form, a square brick building on the side of the lot at the center of H Street. The uniqueness came from some typically Richardsonian elements on the facade, including heavy arched entranceways, a beautiful arched central window at the third floor, and a series of nine small finial type windows at the fourth floor. So that the two facades would match along H Street, the houses were constructed with the same materials; red brick accented with Ohio buff sandstone around the doors and first floor windows.

Houses of John Hay and Henry Adams, circa 1884


After Adams death in 1918, his house was bought by Senator James Wadsworth and his wife Alice, who had acquired the Hay house after Clara Hay died in 1914. The Wadsworth’s leased the building to the Brazilian embassy, and in 1927 it was sold to DC developer Harry Wardman. Wardman was widely considered the most important real estate developer of the twenties, and he bought the property with intentions to raze the Richardson buildings and replace them with a Beaux Arts style apartment hotel. The city of Washington was going through an apartment house boom during the period of “Coolidge Prosperity” and the expansion of the federal government during preparations for World War I. Harry Wardman was at the forefront of this building craze, and during the 1910s and 20s he was responsible for building 4,000 houses, 12 office buildings, two clubs, two hospital annexes, two embassies, one parking garage, 400 apartment buildings, and eight hotels.


Wardman’s primary architect Mihran Mesrobian was a Turkish born architect who emigrated to American in 1921. Mesrobian had been trained in Turkey at the Academie des Beaux Arts in Istanbul, and he brought this classical building mentality to his work in Washington. Although apartment hotels at the time were favoring Tudor and Second Empire styles, as found with Washington’s famous Willard Hotel, Mesrobian felt that the Beaux Arts principles were well suited to D.C.’s tight lot sizes and height restrictions. Mesrobian also believed that the Beaux Arts association with the Italian Palazzo styles gave the residents a feeling of, “presiding in an elegant and stately building.”


Architect H.H. Richardson was himself trained at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, and because Richardson employed Beaux Arts methods in his design, there were aspects of the original Hay and Adams façades and interiors that Mesrobian was able to emulate in his own work. Some of the artistic iron grilles Richardson had used in the original exteriors were saved and then added to replicas used in flanking the hotel’s entrance. The entrance and curved driveway off of 16th street were built in imitation of Richardson’s original plans. The homes were also designed to have a heavily rusticated base on the façade, a technique typical of Beaux Arts design done in an imitation of Italian renaissance palazzos, and Mesrobian followed suit by rusticating the hotel façade at the street level. This method of deeply cutting and distressing the stone helped Mesrobian to give the illusion of walking alongside a renaissance palace, and also helped to bring back some of the memory of the original homes.

Photo source: Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians

Sources: O’Toole, Patricia, “What they had in common was wit and friendship” Smithsonian, 21(June 1990 pg. 132-138)

Mesrobian, Caroline Isabelle, A selection of the architectural oeuvre of Mihran Mesrobian, beaux arts architect Washington DC (New Orleans, Louisiana: Tulane University, 1978, 47-58

Goode, James M, Best Addresses: a century of Washington’s distinguished apartment houses(Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, c1988)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Speaking of Georgetown...

Potomac River and C&O canal in Georgetown circa 1862

Now that DC tourist season is in full swing, one of the places in the city most certain to be teeming with visitors is chic, glamorous Georgetown. Home now to elite DC residents, charming old houses, expensive restaurants, and of course – Banana Republic, the Georgetown of today is a symbol of Washington old money and power. It is however, amusing, to imagine the thoughts of the port city’s original inhabitants if they knew that their modest dwellings and butcher shops were now home to upscale boutiques and outrageously priced frozen yogurt shops. I am of course embellishing, to a point. There always were large houses on the hillside that led up from the Potomac river basin into Maryland, but the areas closest to the river – today’s K and M streets – were originally filled with the simple structures of a working port city and Washington’s only claim at a manufacturing history.


British settlers arrived in the area in 1696 and immediately drove away all of the Nacotchanke Indians who maintained a small village in the area. Perfectly situated on the river to receive and send off the shipments of Maryland and Virginia tobacco headed for the homeland (Europe), Georgetown eventually became one of the largest tobacco ports in the colonies. The town was incorporated in 1751 as part of the British colony of Maryland, and contrary to popular belief, named not for soon to be first president George Washington, but for King George II of Great Britain. (Although there is some speculation that it was possibly named for land-owners George Gordon and George Beall). The Old Stone House, the oldest house in the District of Columbia, was built during this period of Georgetown’s history, and is maintained today by the National Park Service as a rare survivor of colonial Washington.


After the American Revolution, the city was incorporated into the District of Columbia in 1791 in a deal reached at the well-known Suter’s Tavern, a frequent haunt of George Washington. The location of Suter’s Tavern is today unknown, but the most likely location is thought to be on K Street, underneath what is now the AMC movie theater. (Perhaps why they can get away with charging $20.00 for a movie and popcorn?) Shortly after, Georgetown reached an early heyday, with money pouring in from the ports and high profile DC residents like Thomas Jefferson and Francis Scott Key purchasing properties in the area. Water powered mills, producing mainly flour and other processed grain, also brought money and work into the area, including droves of slaves, who are a long forgotten part of Georgetown’s past.


The heyday was unfortunately a little short lived, as the Potomac River began to silt up (some speculate because of the increased traffic and manufacturing in the area) and merchant boats were no longer able to make it all the way up to Georgetown. The early solution to the problem was the construction of the C&O Canal, which connected the District with Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia. The success of the canal kept Georgetown afloat through most of the 19th century, but by the 1880s the problems with the river were again severe, and in 1890 a massive flood virtually destroyed all travel along the canal.


As the trade and manufacturing left, Georgetown became what can only be called a slum, with a large portion of its population consisting of the poverty stricken African American workers who had no place to go once their jobs were gone. They continued to live in cramped housing on K and M streets, and much of the structures that still remain there today - in what is now the heart of historic Georgetown – survived simply because there was no money to do anything else with them.


Meanwhile, in upper Georgetown near Rock Creek Park, luxury apartment buildings began to go up in the 1920’s and construction slowly made it’s way down towards the Potomac. In the 1930’s the area was given a new cache when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt purchased a home there. In the 1950’s a historic neighborhood association was formed to protect the area’s wealth of historic properties, and in the 1960’s Georgetown was effectively saved when John F. Kennedy, who owned a home there while serving as a Congressman, was elected President. Today the magnificent homes in Georgetown remain populated by the DC elite, and the port city-turned slum town-turned new Apple store location of K and M streets continues to attract the trade and commerce of visitors from around the world.



Photo Source: National Archives and Records Administration


Sources:

Ecker, Grace Dunlop (1933). A Portrait of Old Georgetown. Garrett & Massie, Inc..


Mitchell, Alexander D (2000). Washington DC Then and Now. Thunder Bay

Press.


http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/14/AR2006071401398.html


Friday, August 7, 2009

Everyone Blogs About Julia Child

Returning from Sri Lanka after World War II, you never would have pegged Julia Child as a spy. Clandestine isn’t a word I’d use to describe someone so loud…and tall. But she was indeed employed by the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, as a secretary. In Southeast Asia, Julia was responsible for cataloging and registering highly classified information. It was there that she met her husband Paul Child, a mapmaker and war room designer.

The couple moved to Washington, where Paul worked as an exhibits officer for the State Department and Julia as a file clerk. The two bought a three story, white clapboard house in Georgetown. In My Life in France, Julia gives her Georgetown address as 2706 Olive Street, and as you can see from the yellow building at right it is still there. Success! I found it! The two lived in the house for two years, before heading to France—a move that would lead Julia to her destiny.

Paul and Julia returned to their Olive Street house 8 years later with several coq au vins and bourguignons under their belts. The 150 year old house was in need of some serious repair, which the Child’s took up with gusto. The kitchen, of course, was expanded to include a dishwasher. From her clapboard house, Julia conducted research on the habits of American cooks—what products they ate, where they shopped, and how measurements differed. This information would be useful for what would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In the spring of 1957, Julia began to teach cooking to a group of housewives in her Olive Street kitchen. She used her house as a base, from which she could travel to New York and Boston to push for the publication of her masterpiece. In 1962 Paul retired from the State Department. The two decided that while they liked Washington, they didn’t love it enough to want to live out the rest of their lives here. I imagine Paul Child’s questioning by the McCarthy Commission a few years earlier, might have tainted their opinion of this bureaucratic town. They moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Sadly for us Washingtonians, Julia’s Georgetown days were over. Ah well, at least we have her kitchen in the Smithsonian.

Sources: Julia Child, My Life in France, Anchor Books, June 2009.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Jailed for Freedom: Silent Sentinels

Alice Paul grew up in a Quaker and was likely influenced by the early Quaker suffragists including Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott. But it was during her years in England that she learned tactics to draw attention to the Votes for Women cause. At the time, British suffragists had become a militant movement. They organized mass demonstrations, threw rocks at windows, and participated in hunger strikes. Paul took all of this in and took part in these events. In 1912 Paul moved back to the United States, where she was appointed to the position of Chairmen of the Congressional Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Prior to this time the suffrage movement had been largely based in New York meeting halls, but Paul was a supporter of “Deeds not Words.” The time had come to get Women’s Rights back on the national agenda. To accomplish that she needed to move to Washington.

In 1913, the women of NAWSA organized a mass parade down Pennsylvania Avenue which coincided with Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. The parade was led by Inez Milholland, a suffragist and labor attorney, dressed a Grecian goddess astride a white horse. It was a grand scene that stole the show from Wilson. Though the parade garnered front page media attention put the movement on the national scene, Paul left the organization to form the National Women’s Party(NWP). While NAWSA was focused on achieving suffrage on a state level, NWP believe change could only come with a constitutional amendment. Paul and her supporters engaged in a series of pickets at the White House, with signs (like the one above, left) calling the president “Kaiser Wilson” among other things. The picketers known as “Silent Sentinels” were frequently arrested and charged with “obstructing traffic.” Sentences varied from 60 days, with Paul herself receiving 7 months in the Occoquan Workhouse.

At the Occoquan Workhouse in Fairfax County, Virginia the detained women engaged in hunger strikes. The strikes led to their mistreatment and in to being force fed three times a day for three weeks. Insubordinate women were beaten by the guards; Lucy Burns, a fellow suffragist and friend of Alice Paul’s, was handcuffed to her bed with her arms above her head for a whole night. Public outrage at the prison conditions and at the treatment of the women grew. It is one thing if poor and impoverished women are imprisoned, but many of the suffragists were educated upper middle-class ladies, who (in some opinions) may have been out of their senses, did not deserve harsh treatment. Across the country women took part in the strike as a show of solidarity. In January 1918, President Wilson finally declared his support for the Right to Vote Amendment. With public support growing, the NWP (with new headquarters at 14 Jackson Place) continued its parades, pickets, and took to starting fires around Washington, DC. Frequently, the women were attacked by suffrage opponents, as well as the police. However, the tide was turning. In August 1920, Tennessee became the 36th and final state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment.

Things quieted after that. The NWP took up residency at the “Old Brick Capitol.” From their they drafted the “Equal Rights Amendment Bill,” which to this day has yet to be ratified. Known as the Sewall-Belmont house (front door at seen right), Alice Paul contintued to live and work there. The house became famous for its tea parties. The house now serves as a museum dedicated to the suffrage movement, and features artifacts from NWP’s campaign for the passage of the 19th Amendment and NWP’s feminist founder Alice Paul.

Sources: Library of Congress, American Memory: Photographs from the Records of the National Women's Party.
Tour of the Sewall-Belmont House on July 2009, http://www.sewallbelmont.org/




Through the years: The Sewall-Belmont House



Tucked away near the Hart Senate Office Building lies a DC gem with significance to both the 19th and 20th centuries. Built by the Sewalls, a prominent Maryland family, in 1799 the Sewall-Belmont house is one of the earliest buildings in the capital. The home’s first resident was Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin. Secretary Gallatin was the chief negotiator for the Louisiana Purchase as well as the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812. In fact, it was during the War of 1812 that the house was set afire by British troops as they invaded the Capital City in 1814. Story has it that Americans from inside the house shot British General Ross’s horse out from under him as he passed by. The British set fire to the house in retaliation; it was the only private residence burnt in Washington during the invasion. While the Sewall family sought reimbursement from Congress for damages during the battle, no payment was ever granted.

The house, eventually repaired, passed through the rest of the 19th century as a popular residence for Congressman and cabinet members. In 1929 the house came under the ownership of the National Women’s Party, the militant suffragist group. The house now serves as a museum dedicated to the suffrage movement, and features artifacts from NWP’s campaign for the passage of the 19th Amendment and NWP’s feminist founder Alice Paul. More on the suffragists later...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Church-going Presidents Part II


First Baptist Church (1328 16th Street)
-Harry S Truman
-Jimmy Carter

Foundry United Methodist Church (16th and Church Streets)
-Bill Clinton

House of Representatives (Capitol Hill)
I find it amusing that Jefferson, who was a big proponent of the separation of church and state, authorized worship services in the Capitol.
-Thomas Jefferson

Immanuel-on-the-Hill (3606 Seminary Road, Alexandria)
-Gerald Ford

National City Christian Church (Thomas Circle)
-Lyndon B. Johnson

National Presbyterian Church (Connecticut Avenue and 18th, near N Street)
-James K. Polk

St. John’s Episcopal Church (Lafayette Square, pictured above)

-Martin Van Buren
-George Bush
-George W. Bush

St. Patrick Catholic Church (G Street, between 9th and 10th Streets)
Though Andrew Johnson had no religious affiliation, he was often seen at Roman Catholic services at this parish. Church pastor, Father Jacob Walter, was outspoken in his defense of Mary Surratt, a parishioner who was charged as an accomplice in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. After she was found guilty, Father Walters stood by her at her execution
-Andrew Johnson

White House (white building on Lafayette Square)
Nixon opted to hold Sunday services at the White House. The services were frequently led by Rev. Billy Graham.
-Richard Nixon

So that leaves us with 2nd President John Adams. I have not been able to come up with a worship location for Adams, and this could have several explanations. For one, Adams was a Unitarian. As a new religion, there were not many locations for worship in the new Capitol. This brings us to the second point that Adams being the first president to live in the White House in a newly created city, found his worshipping options greatly limited (Alexandria and Georgetown were more developed as trading centers).

Thanks to Ian, for helping with the research!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Help find Tom

WaPo writer John Kelly picked up a story about a Burning Quest to Find a Monument to Tom. As America transitioned to the automobile, the need for horse drawn fire-brigades were no longer necessary. In the 1930s the DC Fire Department commissioned a sculpture in honor of the last horse to serve in the Fire Department. The trouble is no one knows where the sculpture is today. Read the article, and learn about the quest to find this missing monument.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Church-going Presidents

While St. John’s Episcopal Church might carry the title “Church of the Presidents,” there have been several other houses of worship frequented by presidents over the years. Following a suggestion from a TMS reader, I have found a list of the Presidents’ churches around town. Co-editor Ian suggested that I write a joke for each entry. The best I came up with was: Herbert Hoover was a Quaker; he needed all the Friends he could get. [insert copious laughter and applause] Thank you very much. I’ll be here all night.

On second thought, I may be better off sticking to the facts. Below is the list, and I’ve selected a few to say something about. Not all the churches still survive, such as The National Presbyterian Church, but there is still a good amount. If you are visiting DC, stop by St. John’s as it is newly restored. Lincoln’s church is not far off from Ford’s Theatre, so check that out too!

All Soul’s Church (16th and Harvard Streets)
-John Quincy Adams
-Millard Fillmore
-William Howard Taft

Calvary Baptist Church (8th and H Streets)
-Warren G. Harding

Central Presbyterian Church (16th and Irving Streets)
-Woodrow Wilson

Christ Church (North Washington Street, Alexandria)
-George Washington

First Baptist Church (16th and O Streets)

-Harry Truman

First Congregational Church (10th and G Streets)
-Calvin Coolidge

Foundry Methodist Church (16th and Church Streets)
This congregation was originally located in Georgetown. After the British attacked Washington, a resident Henry Foxall donated the land which contained an iron foundry that survived the attack to the congregation. It later moved to 14th and G Streets before finding a home on 16th Street. (At left)
-Rutherford B. Hayes

Friends Meeting (2111 Florida Avenue)
-Herbert Hoover

Grace Reformed Church (15th and O Streets)
-Theodore Roosevelt

Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church (36th Street between N and O Streets)
-John F. Kennedy

Metropolitan Memorial Methodist Church (Nebraska and New Mexico Avenues)
-William McKinley
-Ulysses S. Grant

National City Christian Church (Thomas Circle)
This congregation formed in 1819 with 7 people. The initial location was on M Street between 8th and 9th. By the time President Garfield began worshipping there, the church had moved to a larger location on Vermont Avenue. The current church on Thomas Circle was built in 1929 in order to accommodate a growing congregation. (At right)
-James A. Garfield

The National Presbyterian Church (Connecticut Avenue and 18th, near N Street)
-Andrew Jackson
-James Buchanan
-Grover Cleveland
-Benjamin Harrison
-Dwight Eisenhower

New York Avenue Presbyterian Church (New York Avenue and H Street)
Built in 1859, this church was the favorite place of worship for Abraham Lincoln, who would stroll from the White House down H Street to pray and reflect silently in the Lincoln Pew. The congregation’s legers and records include a sad note from the president saying that he had donated $5 to the church’s Sunday School. It was the amount found on Willie, Lincoln’s son, when he died of typhoid fever.
-Abraham Lincoln

St. John’s Episcopal Church (Lafayette Square, near the Hay Adams Hotel)
-James Madison
-James Monroe
-William Henry Harrison
-John Tyler
-Zachary Taylor
-Franklin Pierce
-Chester A. Arthur

St. Thomas Episcopal Church (18th and Church Streets)
Built in 1899, all that remains of this gothic style church is the skeleton of the stone structure and some ruins. The church catered to high society until after World War II, when white families left the city. During the Vietnam Protests, St. Thomas served as a shelter for protester and a sanctuary from the tear gas on Dupont Circle. The original church was burnt in an act of arson in 1970. The parish turned the surviving walls of the church in to a memorial park, and built a new church off the back of it. (At left)
-Franklin D. Roosevelt

You’ll notice that this is an incomplete list. It excludes more recent presidents, and where is Thomas Jefferson? Rumor has it he attended a church in SE Washington. I’m looking in to it and will report back.

Sources: Anna Olga Jones, Churches of the Presidents in Washington, Exposition Press, 1961.

Foundry United Methodist Church.

National City Christian Church.

St. Thomas' Parish.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Frank Like Alice

“If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me.” –Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from the sitting room of her Dupont Circle home

In a time when women were just finding their voices, Alice Roosevelt proved to be one outspoken, dashing, limelight-seeking, stubborn woman. (Alice at left in 1902, in one of her signature hats)

Learning of President McKinley’s assassination, Alice and the other Roosevelt children danced a wild jig. The White House was theirs! Alice was at home in Washington right away, taking up a bedroom in the Northwest corner of the White House looking out at the affluent Lafayette Square. She had moved in just as she was about to cast childhood aside and take on her role as a woman in late Victorian society. One of the first big events at for the Roosevelt family was her debutante ball in 1901. Alice was ready for a party, yet was crushed when she realized that being the First Daughter was not all fun and games. Perhaps to assuage a growing temperance movement, Alice’s stepmother Edith chose to serve punch instead champagne at the ball, much to Alice’s mortification. But despite this hurdle for poor Alice, there was plenty of other fun to be had around town.

I confess that when I started reading about Alice, I was hoping to learn about a strong woman ahead of her time, who broke through gender barriers at every turn. In some ways she was just that. She drove around town in a $2500 “red devil” sports car in an age where women were not to be driving. She bet money on horses and played poker, when most women played bridge.

I had hoped that Alice would be a diplomat, working behind the scenes, like her cousin Eleanor Roosevelt. But in fact, she was more concerned about the publicity. When Kaiser Wilhelm II visited DC, she practiced smashing champagne bottles in the backyard of the White House, for she had been invited to christen the Kaiser’s new ship.

Frankly, I find her shallow. She fretted terribly over the parties she would attend and resented the White House secretary for handling her correspondence, a major hindrance to her youthful flirtations. She often stared at herself in the mirror, comparing herself to the Gibson Girl pictures of her in the press. She married Congressman Nick Longworth (for which Longworth HOB is named), publicly criticized him when he supported the Taft presidency, and cheated on him with Senator William Borah’s son (with whom she had a child, Paulina).

In her defense, when Senator Joseph McCarthy greeted her in the 1950s with, “How are you, Alice?” she famously looked him dead in the eye and replied, “No, Senator McCarthy, you are not going to call me Alice. The truckman, the trashman, and the policeman on the block may call me Alice but you may not.” Okay, so maybe I admire her a little…

Sources: Stacy A. Cordery, Alice.

Carol Felsenthal, Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Major majorly loses it...and with good reason


You’re standing outside 8 Jackson Place, when suddenly you hear footsteps and Wait! Was that a woman’s voice? How can it be, there’s no one standing around you? You, the tourist, quickly consult your DC guide book. Aha there it is! 8 Jackson Place—the Rathbone House—former home of Major Henry Rathbone, who shot his wife and stabbed himself. They say the place is haunted!

Major Rathbone is most famous for having been in the box at Ford’s Theatre the fateful night President Lincoln was shot. Rathbone’s fiancée Clara Harris was a close friend of the Mary Todd, and after General Grant could not make it to the play, Harris and Rathbone accompanied the Lincoln’s to the viewing of Our American Cousin. It was Rathbone who witnessed Booth entering the box, and it was he who made a grab at Booth, suffering a slash across the chest from Booth’s knife. Clara Harris soon found her dress covered in Rathbone’s blood.

Though our favorite president met this end, Rathbone recovered. The couple married in 1867 and eventually had children. Recovered in body Major Rathbone, never fully recovered in spirit. He blamed himself for failing to prevent Lincoln’s assassination. He suffered headaches and grew paranoid that his wife and children would leave them. His condition forced him to resign his commission in the army and take his family to Europe in search for a cure.

Early on Christmas Eve morning in 1883, Rathbone entered his wife’s bedroom fully dressed in a suit. He asked for the children. Clara pointed out the early hour. Rathbone took out a revolver and shot his wife. He then stabbed himself with a knife six times. His wife quickly died and was buried in Hanover, but the tortured Henry survived yet again. He was placed in an asylum in Germany and spent the rest of his days shouting about people in the conspiring to get him. The US Consul in Germany declared him “hopelessly insane.” Rathbone died in 1911, and was buried next to Clara with little fanfare. Incidentally, his son went on to become a member of the House of Representatives representing the great state of Illinois.

As to whether or not the Rathbone house is haunted, I’ll leave it to you to decide. Personally though, I find it difficult to believe that the ghosts of the Rathbones would cross the Atlantic Ocean and take residency there. It would be a chilly swim… even for a ghost.

Sources: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals.

Michael E. Ruane, “A Tragedy’s Second Act,” The Washington Post, page W14 (April 5, 2009).

Gene Smith, “The Haunted Major,” American Heritage, February/ March 1994, Vol 45 Issue 1.