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


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

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


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.