Sunday, January 25, 2015

Hollywood Oscar Winner in Georgetown: The Myrna Loy House

3522 P Street in May of 1968, Library of Congress
Many owners of the smaller, wood frame houses in Georgtown often believe their house has a litany of prominent owners, politicians, and wealthy individuals - and they are usually wrong.  Those houses were mostly occupied by government workers, food stall owners, domestics, and journeymen.  So, I thought the case might be the same when I was asked to research the small house at 3522 P Street, NW.  I headed to the Peabody Room at the Georgetown Library, where librarian extraordinaire Jerry McCoy informed me that it was once the home of Hollywood Actress and Oscar winner Myra Loy from 1950 to 1951.  Now we had an interesting house history!        

The house at 3522 P Street, N.W. was constructed between 1821 and 1832 by George Mahoney, a bricklayer.  Because building permits were not required in the District of Columbia until 1877, this estimated construction date is based on tax assessments and an early advertisement for sale of the property.  Mahoney acquired the site in 1821 from John Threlkeld, a prominent citizen of Georgetown..

On March 22, 1943 the house was purchased by Roxana Doran for $,3500.  At the time, the house was occupied by Florence Vinston, a widowed maid who was paying $20.50 per month rent.  Doran, a real estate agent, renovated the house, as Americans began to express interest in their most historic neighborhoods following the opening of Williamsburg in Virginia.  Ms. Doran’s most well-known tenant was actress Myrna Loy, who lived at 3522 P Street in 1951-52 with her husband, Howland H. Sargent.

Myrna Loy was born Myrna Williams in Radersburg, Montana in 1905.  When she was 13 her father died and her family moved to Los Angeles, where she spent the remainder of her childhood.  She began acting in local stage productions when she was 15, and played her first film roles when she was 20.  She was one of the few stars to begin in silent films but successfully transition to sound.  In silent films she played exotic, seductive women, but later in sound films she played more refined characters. 

She played mostly small roles until 1933, when she signed with MGM and got two substantial parts, one of which was playing Nora Charles in “The Thin Man”, the role for which she has been best known since.  She played Nora in five more Thin Man films over the years.  In 1936, she was named Queen of the Movies (Clark Gable was king) in a nationwide poll.  In the 1940s and 1950s she continued acting, but parts were fewer and further between.  Among them was a starring role in 1946 in “The Best Years of our Lives, which won seven Academy Awards, though none for Ms. Loy.  She never win an Oscar for a performance, but she did receive an Honorary Academy Award in 1991.  She died in New York two years later.

Ms. Loy was the first Hollywood star to serve as a member of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO in 1948, and later was Chair of the Hollywood Committee for UNESCO.  She also was a film advisor for UNESCO.   She met Howland Sargent, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, at a UNESCO meeting in Paris.  They were married from 1951 to 1960 (the first of Ms. Loy’s four marriages).

The Georgetowner, November 4, 1954
A July 1948 Evening Star article, headlined “Georgetown Taking Myrna Loy in Stride”, says that Ms. Loy drew crowds at first when she ventured out, but that she later became such a frequent sight on the Georgetown streets that she was hardly noticed.  Martin’s Tavern boasted that she was a regular customer.

An item in the Washington Post on February 10, 1952 said that Ms. Loy and her husband finally had acquired a guest room, by moving to a new apartment on R Street that was part of the former “Friendship” estate.  The article said that they would be moving from “their present ‘thimble of a house’ on P Street, which has only one bedroom.”  The article does not say who the “thimble” characterization is a quote from – perhaps Ms. Loy? 

Copyright Paul K. Williams.  Researched and written by Kenneth G. Peters and Paul K. Williams.  

Monday, December 22, 2014

Dupont Circle's Nautical Buildings - Why there is a six foot anchor at Conn Ave & Q Street

The Anchorage at Conn Ave & Q Street, NW

While few pedestrians tend to look skyward during a brisk walk up Connecticut Avenue, those that do at the corner of Q Street are likely to spot a variety of architectural details with a nautical theme on what was originally two apartment buildings, the Anchorage at 1900 Q Street, and the Moorings at 1901 Q Street.  They are the surviving set of what had originally been four apartment buildings at the intersection, owned and managed by a wealthy socialite, Marie Hewitt Williams, the widow of Colonel John R. Williams.

Williams’ daughter, Juliette Leiter, resided in a vast mansion between New Hampshire and 19th Street, facing Dupont Circle, where the Hotel Dupont is located today, and just south of the Anchorage apartment building. She started her foray into providing apartments for single and distinguished residents in 1919 by converting two large mansions on Connecticut Avenue north of Q Street that would eventually become the Galleon and the Caravel. The five-story Galleon on the northeast corner of Connecticut and Q was built in 1899 as a residence and office for Dr. Henry D. Fry. The Caravel was built about the same time to the north.

Williams hired architect Jules H. de Sibour to design the whimsical Anchorage apartment building in 1924, with a six-foot anchor on the fa├žade, nautical sconces and balcony railings, and working fireplaces in each of the 16 units. Three years later, she hired architect Horace Peaslee to design the eight unit Moorings across the street, with rope trim on the ground floor doorways and a lighthouse-shaped cupola atop the roof that remains to this day.

Q Street Facade of the Anchorage
Williams took out a fullpage ad in the 1925 Book of Washington, published by the Washington Board of Trade, that included a description of the building’s operation and a peek into its interior furnishings. It read:

 ‘The “Anchorage,” the “Moorings,” and the “Galleon,” –- three prominent, convenient, and modern apartment houses, whose nomenclature is reminiscent of the sea, but which provide safe, comfortable, and pleasant havens for the transient or permanent dweller, the seafarer or the landsman.

This triad of fine apartment dwellings, in keeping with the dignity and best living conditions of the national Capital, maintains the home atmosphere and efficiency of service so important to the tranquility of the permanent resident and visitor alike. Carrying out the allusion to maritime life found in the names of the three buildings, the walls of the apartments are adorned with pictures of clipper ships. Open fire places in the sitting rooms, where meals may be served from the private kitchen, add a suggestion of cheerfulness and warmth, enhanced by the draperies of quaint chintz.

The ANCHORAGE is divided into apartments of two rooms and bath or three rooms and two baths, charmingly furnished in maple. The MOORINGS is provided with the same unusual furnishings in apartments of two rooms, bath, and galley. A number of them have winding iron art stairways to the bedrooms above. The GALLEON is divided into similar apartments of two and three rooms, bath, and galley. On the first floor of the building, however, is located Rauscher’s famous restaurant, catering to the residents of the three buildings and the surrounding neighborhood. Long and short leases may be arranged in all three buildings. Rentals include complete care of rooms, linens, wood, and valet service.”

The Moorings at 19th and Q Streets
For many years, the Anchorage housed a French restaurant on the ground floor called Pierre’s that delivered meals to residents of all four buildings, including Williams herself. More than three dozen members of Congress called the Anchorage home while in Washington, the most famous of which would be Sam Rayburn of Texas, who lived there from 1936 to his death in 1961. Others included Robert F. Kennedy, Charles A. Lindbergh, and even Tallulah Bankhead.

In 1962, the Williams estate sold all four buildings to Clifford Hynning for $680,000. The Caravel and Galleon were both demolished in 1969 and replaced by a nondescript office building, and the Anchorage and Moorings were converted to office buildings, although much of the original nautical motifs remain
on the interior rooms.

Copyright Paul Kelsey Williams

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The McMillian Sand Filtration Reservoir


The McMillan Reservoir Sand Filtration Site, bounded by Michigan Avenue, North Capitol, Channing and First Streets, NW has been a curiosity with residents and visitors alike ever since its completion in 1905. The 25-acre site consists of regulator houses, sand bins, washers, and massive underground sand filtration beds that treated and cleaned water held at the McMillan Reservoir before delivering it to individual homes in the city. Its innovative system of water purification led to the elimination of typhoid epidemics and the reduction of many other communicable diseases during its 80-year existence.

            Early residents of the city were dependent upon local springs for their water needs, with three downtown sections of the city utilizing the City Spring on the north side of C Street, NW, between 4th and 6th Streets; Caffery’s Spring (also known as the Hotel Spring) at the northwest corner of 9th and F Streets, NW; one located on the public space property located at 13th Street, NW, north of I Street; and another further west, near the center of Franklin Park, (now Judiciary Square); and the Smith Spring, now the McMillan Reservoir itself.

            In fact, the earliest documented instance of water being piped throughout the District’s streets for public use was in 1808, when the city permitted residents living in the 600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, to “convey” water from the city spring to their neighborhood via pipes fashioned from hollowed out trees that were sealed end to end and buried under the street. In 1850, the Potomac River was identified as the District’s principal water source in a congressionally funded engineering study to determine the most available mode of supplying water to the expanding city.

            The study was overseen by Lieutenant Montgomery C. Meigs, who later served as Quartermaster General of the Union Army; he is credited with planning and building the structures and facilities that would eventually become the Washington Aqueduct, which first became operational on January 3, 1859.  The Washington Aqueduct system was believed to be sufficient for the future water needs of the city, but by 1902, it was no longer adequate due to population growth and the need for a filtration system to treat the heavy sediment found in the Potomac water.
  A site was chosen for a massive sand filtration plant next to the Washington City (later McMillan) Reservoir, and construction began in the spring of 1903. The plant itself was designed by Lieutenant Col. Alexander M. Miller, who had begun to experiment with various types of slow sand and mechanical filters to purify the water supply being delivered to thousands of city homes. He had recommended mechanical filters, which was met by resistance by the Washington medical community, and a compromise was reached in which slow sand filters would be used, to which a coagulant was added during times of high turbidity in the water.

            The complex, eventually renamed the McMillan Reservoir and Slow Sand Filter Plant, consists of a pumping station for raising water from the reservoir to the 29 massive underground, natural sand filter beds--each consisting of about an acre of surface area, a 15 million-gallon filtered water reservoir, a pumping station with three centrifugal pumps, various boilers, and a power plant. Each of the sand filters consists of about 40 inches of sand supported on 12 inches of gravel through which the water flows. The combined capacity of the filters produced about 80 million gallons of purified water each day.

            The plant was completed and began operation by October, 1905, resulting in a vast improvement of the quality of water being delivered to residents. Its bacterial content was reduced by over 99 percent, and diseases such as typhoid fever were reduced from 47 to just eight residents out of every 100,000 during the period from 1909 to 1919. The water was also starkly clear, such a change from the previous muddy condition that one woman went on record as saying, “It was almost immodest to take a bath in clear water.”

            One of the challenges that emerged, however, was the cleaning of the sand filters.  The first two inches of sand in each filter had to be shoveled and removed by hand, and then flushed clean by a reversal system of water, discharging mud into the city sewer system. The cleaned sand was processed in the large cylindrical concrete structures seen today above the surface of the sand beds. The cleaning structures are often mistaken for the sand filters themselves. Over 20,000 tons of sand were washed every year, and was eventually returned to the sand beds via subterranean carts pulled by donkeys.

            The sand washing process continued until mechanized washing machines were introduced in the 1920s. Earlier, in 1913, a McMillan memorial fountain was dedicated alongside the reservoir, both named for Michigan Senator James McMillan. It remained there until 1941, when excavation for a new clear water basin was required to serve the needs of a growing city population. It also served as the site of a battery of anti-aircraft guns throughout World War II.

            The complex continued to serve its original purpose until 1986; ownership was transferred to the city a year later, and the site has been abandoned ever since. The overall McMillan Reservoir site was designated a DC Historic Landmark in 1991. Due to its continuing deterioration, the DC Preservation League placed it on its “Most Endangered” list in 2000, and only recently have plans been discussed for its redevelopment.

Copyright Paul K. Williams 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Other Octagon House in Washington DC

Today considered a rare site, octagonal houses in the United States have dotted the landscape since the 1600s, reaching their zenith of popularity in the mid 1800s.  Washington, DC had five, one of which was built at 1830 Phelps Place on land that is today known as the Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood.  It was constructed in 1865 by two brothers, William and Edward Bebb, and it stood at that site until 1950.
The brothers then worked at the Patent Office, but William had once served as the Governor of Ohio, from 1846 to 1849.  He had been born on December 8, 1802, in the small town of Paddy's Run (later Shandon), Ohio.  Their father, Edward Bebb, was a Welsh immigrant. 

Many book published in the mid 1880s told the virtues and uniqueness of living in an eight sided house, but it was one in particular that perhaps best explained the many advantages of storage, closets, ventilation, and economy of construction: A Home For All by Orson S. Fowler.  His book was printed with eight editions, and included plans, drawings, and suggestions for construction, and was responsible for more than 500 such buildings constructed along the eastern seaboard. 

Shortly after it was built, the Bebb brothers sold the house to Leroy R. Tuttle, who served as the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury from 1866 to 1876, during Reconstruction.  He later made a fortune in real estate speculation in the city, and had the noted New York architect Stanford White design a new house for him close by at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and Leroy Place (razed in 1955 for a hotel).  Tuttle continued to own the octagon house, however, and rented it to various families over the next several decades. 
Tuttle recounted one rather unusual story that took place during his tenure at the Treasury Department.  At the onset of the nationwide financial panic of 1873, his college at the New York City branch of the Treasury Department telegrammed that $10 million dollars in cash was needed with no time to spare.  Concerned about theft, Tuttle dressed down, packed the cash in large carpetbags, and made the nine hour train ride to New York overnight to avoid suspicion.

The octagon house was eventually sold by the Tuttle family to the Holton Arms School in 1948.  It was razed two years later for an addition to the school that never materialized, and the lot remained vacant until a series of new townhouses were built there in 1976.  Before it was torn down, the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) carefully recorded the house with measured drawings of many of its details, elevations, and sectionals, all seen here and housed at the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.

Copyright Paul K. Williams