Sunday, February 12, 2017

59 Rooms: The Spectacular Firenze Mansion in Cleveland Park, built in 1927

One of the largest, if not the largest, private homes in Washington is nestled behind a dense row of trees between north Cleveland Park and Forest Hills, at the intersection of Broad Branch Road and Albemarle Street.  Known as Firenze House since 1941, it was constructed between 1925 and 1927 for Mrs. Blanche Estebrook O’Brien with a total of fifty-nine rooms.  Its address today is 2800 Albemarle Street.   

            O’Brien was the widow of Paul Roebling, a member of a New Jersey family that had been responsible for financing and building the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883.  When the house was begun in 1925, O’Brien was married to Colonel Arthur O’Brien.  She choose architect Russell O. Kluge for its design, and former Army Corps of Engineers General Richard Marshall as the contractor.  Upon its completion in 1927, the house was coined ‘Estebrook.”

            Like many homes of the era, the Tudor styled residence featured rather dark interior rooms, furnished with Jacobean style furniture.  O’Brien purchased fine paneling and mantels designed by noted architect Sir Christopher Wren in London, and had them incorporated into the house during its construction.  The house itself, set among 22 acres, was constructed of gray fieldstone, quarried on the site, and limestone trim.  A variegated slate roof, green shutters, and leaded glass windows completed the design. 

            Several outbuildings also graced the estate, including a large gatehouse on Broad Branch Road, garage with servant’s quarters, ninety foot swimming pool, tennis courts, and an art studio.  It was estimated that over ten thousand trees originally existed on the grounds. 

            The home’s interiors reflected a variety of styles, dominated by an enormous three story grand hall with carved oak beams and stairway.  Following the Great Depression, the property was leased to the Minister of Hungary until it was sold in 1941.  The buyers that year were Colonel and Mrs. Meyer Robert Guggenheim, who had been residing on their yacht ‘Firenze’ before it was lent to the government for wartime use.  The renamed their new estate ‘Firenze’ in its honor, a name that has remained to this day.

The Guggenheim fortune stemmed from the M. Guggenheim and Son Mining and Smelting Company in 1925, and later from the Guggenheim Exploration Company.  He retired from business in 1929.

            The Guggenheim’s changed much of the dark interiors into a lighter shade, by pickling the oak staircase, for example.  They installed two Waterford chandeliers in the drawing room, and filled the house with priceless art, including Jacomo Victor’s “Barnyard Scene,” dated 1672, Van Dyck’s “Earl of Arundel,” and Murillo’s “Salvatori Mundi.”  They also furnished the mansion with period American and European furniture of the utmost quality, mostly in Queen Anne and Hepplewhite styles.  They entertained up to 600 guests at a time!

            Unfortunately, a fire in 1946, destroyed two Titian portraits, and a large amount of original paneling.  Interior decorator Michael Rosenaur was hired that year to restore the interiors of the house.   M. Robert Guggenheim died in 1959, and his widow later married John A. Logan, and together they resided at the estate until the mid 1970s.           

               Since 1976, Firenze House has been owned by the Government of Italy and used as their Ambassadors residence.  Its rumored to be valued at nearly $50 million.

Copyright Paul K. Williams

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Mysterious Wrought Iron Gates at 11th and Florida Ave NW Revealed!

            Washingtonians traveling today along Florida Avenue between 10th and 11th Street might take notice of the elaborate stone and wrought iron fence below that surrounds the entire square, now occupied by an elementary school and high rise housing project coined Garfield Terrace.  It was once the site of a large complex known as Garfield Memorial Hospital, one of many institutions and public building named after the assassinated President.  However, even though it was built as early as 1884, the hospital was not the first structure on the Square that prompted the elaborate fencing that remains to this day. 

            To the founders of Garfield Hospital, who incorporated the institution on May 18, 1882, it seemed appropriate to name it after President James Garfield, “whose long and patient suffering from the wounds that caused his death should be commemorated by a hospital, which, though located in Washington, should possess a national character” stated Mr. Justice Miller at its inaugural address on May 30, 1884.  Funds for the facility had been raised by an appeal to the “wives and daughters” of Congressional members, 150 of whom first met at the parlor of the Ebbitt House in the spring of 1882. 

            The seven-acre site along Florida Avenue between 10th and 11th Street, which extended nearly two full blocks to Euclid Street, was purchased in 1883 for $37,500.  Developer and patron Henry A. Willard held a $22,000 mortgage on the property.  The property apparently contained two mansions, one of which was the “Schneider mansion,” once the summer home of Dr. J. C. Hall, and the large “Haw mansion” facing Florida Avenue, which received a $12,000 addition and alteration to create the first building of Garfield hospital beginning in late 1883.  Its grand iron fence was also altered to include an arched sign for the new hospital at its entrance from Florida Avenue near 11th Street, opening to a long winding drive into hospital grounds. 

            Unlike Children’s Hospital, located just two blocks to the west and featured in the February Scenes of the Past, Garfield Hospital was incorporated to serve those in need of medical assistance that could not afford other institutions in the city.  Opening day was staged on May 30, 1884, and largely organized by Mrs. John A. Logan.  The day was recorded as a beautiful balmy spring day, and the opening and dedication consisted of a series tents set on the vast lawn for refreshments, supper, and confections.  Chinese lanterns hung from trees throughout the grounds of the former estate while patrons danced in the mansion’s ballroom.  Incredibly, funding for the hospital was raised in numerous foreign countries including France, Great Britain, Japan, India, Brazil, Haiti, China, and Russia, even with King George from Tonga committing $239.50.      

            The first patient at the Hospital was admitted on June 18, 1884, a female government clerk, during a time when the resident physician earned just $50 per month.  Dr. Swan M. Burnett performed the first surgery at the facility on June 28th of that year, on an African American Civil War veteran.  In all, the hospital treated 178 patients the first year, 119 of whom received their medical treatment free of charge.  Soon after, the hospital began to experience financial strains and over crowding, prompting Congressional intervention and funding.  Meanwhile, the Ladies Aid Association collected $168.79 in 1885 from a collection box placed near the Garfield assassination spot in the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station on Capitol Hill.

            The following two decades witnessed an expansion of the hospital grounds and buildings under the supervision of architect Appleton P. Clark.  In 1888, local resident Alexander Graham Bell donated an ambulance, and an anonymous donor had an ice house built on the property in 1890.  All races and ages were admitted to the hospital throughout its tenure.  In 1889, the average cost per patient per day was $1.54!

            The number of buildings steadily increased, as a 100-bed facility was added in 1892, a new administration building was added in 1894, along with several laboratories, a caretaker’s cottage, and a Willard memorial fountain.  By 1898, the hospital consisted of six large buildings worth an estimated $250,000.  A large annex was added in 1899, and in 1907 the remainder of the Schneider tract on 11th Street was purchased, on which a very large central building with 78 individual rooms for patients was constructed in 1923 at a time when 96 nurses lived on the property.   

            In 1924, the hospital had grown to be able to admit 4,397 patients in that year alone.  A huge expansion plan was scraped due to the efforts of World War two, but the facility was one of the first hospitals in the city to receive air conditioning, in 1954.  Just four years later, the complex was closed for good.  Demolition began in November of 1960, and the site remained vacant for several years until an elementary school was built along 11th Street and a high rise housing building constructed along Sherman Avenue (10th Street) that both remain to this day.     

Copyright Paul K. Williams


Saturday, November 12, 2016

Architect John Fraser

British Legation, Connecticut Ave at N Street, NW. 

            Architect John Fraser was first listed in Washington’s City Directory in 1872, when he maintained an office at 515 7th Street, N.W.  In 1874, he moved his operation to 1509 Pennsylvania Avenue, where he would remain through 1876.  He was first listed as an architect beginning with the 1877 Directory, when he designed the houses at 1433 to 1439 Q Street for developer George Truesdall.  He was listed at 1333 F Street in 1890, when he indicated that he had his son join the business that year. 

            Fraser was a native of Scotland and had first practiced architecture in Philadelphia before coming to Washington in 1871.  He first appeared in the Philadelphia City Directories in the 1850s, and had formed a partnership with civil engineer Andrew Palles coined ‘Fraser and Palles’ in that city in 1857. 

            Interestingly, Fraser attracted two architects into his office that would go on to enjoy major success in their own careers; Frank Furness (1839-1912) learned draftsmanship in the office, as did Louis H. Sullivan.  Eventually, Fraser and architect George W. Hewitt entered into a partnership with Fraser, coined ‘Fraser, Furness, and Hewitt.’  The firm lasted until 1871 when Fraser moved to Washington to serve as the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury.      

Fraser designed several residences and store buildings while in Washington, including the row of houses at 914 to 926 French Street, N.W.  In addition to 1433-1439 Q Street in 1877, he designed the house at 1313 R Street in 1877, 1500 Rhode Island Avenue in 1879, and 1407 15th Street in 1881.  In 1884, Fraser provided the plans for the first portion of the Kahn’s Department Store at Pennsylvania Avenue and 7th Street (destroyed by fire in 1979).  Fraser was also the architect for the British Legation, built in 1872 at the corner of Connecticut Avenue and N Street, illustrated above.  It was torn down in 1931.  

Fraser’s plans for the house at 1500 Rhode Island Avenue were completed in 1879 for owners John T and Jessie Willis Brodhead, pictured at right about 1925.  It was purchased in 1882 by Gardiner Hubbard fro his daughter Mabel, who was married to Alexander Graham Bell.  In 1889, it was purchased by Levi P. Morton, who hired architect John Russell Pope in 1912 to turn the turreted Victorian into a classic revival house at a cost of $20,000.  It remains on the site at Scott Circle in its vastly altered form today. 

Fraser returned to Philadelphia in 1890 along with his son Archibald Alexander Fraser and practiced architecture until his son’s death in 1895, at which time Fraser retired to Riverton, New Jersey.  

Copyright Paul K. Williams

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Washington, DC House History Map Updated!

Well, it took us three years due to a house and office move of late, but its here!  We've updated the Google Maps that chart the locations, along with a wee bit of history, of each house and building we have researched.  Check it out, and discover the history of a house near you!

There were so many that Google used to have a limit, so we have two maps:

Houses and Buildings in NW DC

Houses and Buildings in SE, SW, and NE DC

 As you can see, we've been busy of late.  Enjoy! 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Unusual Origin of Howard University By One of Its Founders, Charles Boynton

Boynton Mansion at N Street and Vermont Avenue, NW

The first President of Howard University, Charles B. Boynton, took office on March 19, 1867, marking the official beginning of the esteemed institution that had been conceived in his house near the intersection of N Street and Vermont Avenue earlier that year.  His contemporaries called him “President of the Board of Trustees,” and his tenure would be short; he resigned on August 27, 1867 over a dispute with namesake Otis O. Howard stemming from their differing racial policies.       

Charles Brandon Boynton (left, via NARA) had been born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, on June 12, 1806.  He entered Williams College in the class of 1827, but, owing to illness, was obliged to leave during his senior year.  He took up the study of law, and, after filling one or two local offices, was elected to the Massachusetts legislature.  While studying law he became interested in religion, qualified himself for the ministry, and was ordained pastor of the Presbyterian Church at Housatonic, Connecticut, in 1840.

After a stay of three years, he moved to churches in Lansingburg and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and in 1846 to Cincinnati, Ohio where he remained until 1877; with the exception of his terms of service as chaplain of the House of Representatives in the 39th and 40th congresses (1867-1869), while he resided at N Street and Vermont Avenue. Boynton had earlier ventured to Washington to serve as the first pastor of the First Congregational Church upon its founding in 1865. 
On November 20, 1866, ten members, including Howard, of various socially concerned groups of the time met in Washington, D.C., to discuss plans for a theological seminary to train colored ministers. Interest was sufficient, however, in creating an educational institute for areas other than the ministry. The result was the Howard Normal Institute for the Education of Preachers and Teachers. On January 8, 1867, the Board of Trustees met at Boynton’s house and voted to change the name of the institution to Howard University.

Boynton bore an important part in the anti-slavery controversy, which was fiercely waged in Cincinnati during the early years of his pastorate.  His published books include Journey through Kansas, with Sketch of Nebraska (Cincinnati, 1855); The Russian Empire (1856), The Four Great Powers--England, France, Russia, and America; their Policy, Resources, and Probable Future (1866); and History of the Navy during the Rebellion (New York, 1868).

A strict abolitionist, Boynton and Major General Otis O. Howard (1830-1909) had differing views of the very early forms of segregation immediately following the Civil War, despite their common goal of providing affordable education for black citizens at the collegiate level.  On November 17, 1867, Boynton preached a sermon on race relations in which he advocated that blacks be allowed to enter churches of white congregations and become members, but where existing black churches were located he encouraged them to remain and strengthen their own religious institutions, advocating voluntary segregation.  Howard, on the other hand, mandated integration at every society level.   

Boynton also advocated the self reliant “city within a city” theory of advancement, opportunity, and business patronage that black leaders lectured in the 1920s along U Street.  In 1867, Boynton preached that “every one taken thus from the number of the black, diminishes to that extent, their strength and their power of progress and elevation.  We can afford to receive the Colored people, but their own race can not afford to lose them.” (From Walter Dyson’s Howard University: A History, 1941)
Howard and his followers continued to publicly push for racial integration in all aspects of private and public life, and Boynton left the position as both pastor of the First Congregational Church September 6, 1867, and as the first President of Howard University, a month earlier on August 27, 1867.  He was replaced by Byron Sunderland until Otis O. Howard became President a year later, in 1868.        

Boynton’s son, Henry Van Ness Boynton, below, was a well known newspaper correspondent that built the house at 1321 R Street between 1875 and 1879, where he and his father lived in 1880, according to the federal census (left, in 2007).  Henry Boynton charged Otis Howard with misappropriating funds from the Freedman’s Bureau which he controlled, and a federal investigation ensued in 1870 to determine if Howard directed funds donated to public institutions such as Howard University to promote his own namesake. As commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau, Howard was known for promoting the welfare and education of former slaves, freedmen, and war refugees.

By 1870, an astonishing $529,000 from the Bureau’s coffers had been donated to Howard University, where twenty other black schools such as Lincoln University had only received $15,000.  The issue softened, and Howard himself served as the University’s President from 1868 to 1874.    

Charles Boynton died in Cincinnati, Ohio, on April, 27, 1883; his son, Henry Van Ness Boynton died at 1321 R Street in 1905.  Mordecai Wyatt Johnson (1890-1976) later served as Howard University’s first black president, and its thirteenth, from 1926 until 1960.

Copyright Paul K. Williams