Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Washington Lost: The Federal style townhouses in the 1900 Block of Pennsylvania Ave, NW, built in 1796

The 1900 block of Pennsylvania Avenue on the southern side of Square 118 was one of the oldest residential developments in Washington, DC, evidence of which remains in two preserved front facades at 1909 and 1911 Pennsylvania Avenue incorporated into the Mexican Embassy complex in the mid 1980s.  In addition, four houses that were built along Eye Street in 1887 remarkable remain to this day in much the same format as when they were built.  

Seven large and impressive Federal styled houses were built in 1796 along Pennsylvania Avenue from 1901 to 1911 as part of a speculative real estate development by the Morris and Nicholson syndicate.  Built before the government was moved to Washington from Philadelphia in 1800, the houses each featured fine brickwork and lintels over the front doors carved into a feminine head.  They were built by Georgetown builder John Archer, and while the original plans exist, the architect remains unknown. 

The most significant house in the development was the corner mansion at 1901 Pennsylvania.  It housed the entire State Department when the capitol moved to Washington in 1800, which had a total of twelve employees at the time.  In 1814, it was the residence of Vice President Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, President and Mrs. James Madison from 1815 to 1817 while the White House was being rebuilt, and Vice President Martin Van Buren in 1834.

During the Civil War, the corner house at 1901 Pennsylvania Avenue became the headquarters of both Maj. General George B. McClellan and Maj. General M. D. Hardin, as photographed by Mathew Brady in April of 1865 (seen in the background to the right is the side of the 19th Street Baptist Church).[1]  By 1890, many of the houses in the row were deteriorated significantly, and were used for a variety of office and retail space.  The first location of People’s Drug store opened in the corner house at 1901 Pennsylvania shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, which later grew into a large chain across the entire Mid Atlantic.  All but 1909 and 1911 were razed in 1959 for the construction of a office building, with the remaining two facades incorporated into an office building on the western portion of the site today.      

Copyright Paul K. Williams    

[1] Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division for architectural drawing and Brady photograph. 

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