Thursday, February 26, 2009

What the Francis Scott Key Happened to that House?

“Lost!? What do you mean lost? How big is this house, and who lost it?” I exclaimed, while sitting in my doctor’s office, discussing history’s mysteries. My doctor replied, “Francis Scott Key’s house was a two or three story brick house, and they were planning to relocate it. They dismantled it and lost it in the process. Nobody knows where it is now.” Huh, go figure. The house of an American hero and author of the “Star Spangled Banner” was lost. We concluded that the Key homestead must have been placed in an undisclosed government warehouse along with the Ark from Indiana Jones.

Weeks later, I was walking across the Key Bridge into Georgetown when I stumbled upon the small Francis Scott Key Memorial Park. A plaque in the park stated that this was the location of the original Key residence. The story my doctor told me resurfaced in my mind. We know the house was lost, but who lost it and why was it to be relocated in the first place?

Built in 1803, the house was located at 3516-18 M Street, NW. Key was residing at this house in 1814 when he headed to Baltimore to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes, a prisoner of the British. Taken prisoner himself, Key watched the Battle of Baltimore from the Chesapeake Bay. When the smoke cleared, Key was inspired to write the poem that would one day become the United States of America’s national anthem.

The Key family vacated the house in the 1830s due to the turbulence of the then operating C&O Canal. Time passed, and the house fell into disrepair. Admiral George Dewey, hero of the Civil and Spanish-American War, led the first effort to preserve the Key House in the early 1900s. The Francis Scott Key Memorial Association was a commercial operation dedicated to preserving the house. Revenue was generated through house tours and general donations. Certificates were granted to those making donations (see image). Demonstrating the popularity of the song in American culture, it’s worth noting that preservation efforts began prior to when the “Star Spangled Banner” was made the national anthem in 1931.

The Francis Scott Key Memorial Bridge was constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of engineers between 1917 and 1923. The government purchased the Key home in 1930. Little effort was made to restore it. Traffic congestion in Georgetown in the 1940s brought a push for the demolition of the Key House in order to make room for a clover entryway onto the Bridge. Though the Historical Society of Washington, DC fought hard to preserve the building, the home eventually fell victim to the ever-increasing freeways of the 1950s. Once dismantled, Congress passed a bill that would finance the reassembly of the house and give it to The Historical Society. However, this bill was vetoed by President Harry Truman for budgetary reasons. And so the house disappeared during roadway construction and was last seen in 1947. Personally, I’m still holding out for the undisclosed government warehouse theory.

Sources: The Historical Society of Washington, DC, “About Us,” 2008,

F. Regis Noel, “Preservation of the Residence of Francis Scott Key,” Washington, DC: Columbia Historical Society, January 1947.

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