virtual \architectural \archaeology

vir·tu·al \ ar·ch i·tect·ur·al \ ar·chae·ol·o·gy. n 1: the use of documentation, photographs, drawings, and artifacts combined with the latest in computer technologies to virtually model the lost built environment.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Old Brick Capitol and the Old Capitol Prison


Old Capitol Prison, circa 1864
Original Brick Capitol building, circa 1815

Bird's eye views of the prison yard
Birdseye view looking north into the prison.
View towards the gallows and the soldier barracks.
View of the kitchen, laundry, and guard house (first floor) with sentry platform above.

View towards the mess hall and hospital.

A Brief, Brief History

In August 1814, when British forces invaded Washington, they set fire to the United States Capitol building. Suddenly in need of temporary quarters, Congress tore down Stelle's Hotel, a tavern and inn located at 1st and A streets N.E., and quickly erected a brick building to serve as a temporary place in which to convene. Congress occupied the building until 1819, while the original U.S. Capitol Building was being rebuilt.
Library of Congress photo

The building acquired the name “Old Brick Capitol” when Congress and the Supreme Court returned to the restored U.S. Capitol Building. Immediately afterwards, the building was used as a private school, then as a boarding house. John C. Calhoun died in the boarding house in 1850.

With the start of the Civil War, the Union Army acquired the building for use as a prison for captured Confederate soldiers, political prisoners, Union officers convicted of insubordination, as well as a holding pen for local prostitutes.  
The hanging of Henry Wirz in the prison yard. (LOC) 

Many of those arrested following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln were held in the prison, included Dr. Samuel Mudd, Mary Surratt, Louis Weichmann, and the owner of Ford's Theater, John T. Ford. Other famous inmates included Rose Greenhow, Belle Boyd, John Mosby.  

Another infamous inmate of the prison was Henry Wirz, commander of Camp Sumter, the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp near Andersonville, Georgia.  He was tried for conspiracy and murder relating to his command of the camp and was hanged in the prison yard.
Trumbull's Row, circa 1920 (LOC).

The government sold the Old Capitol Prison in 1867 to George T. Brown, then sergeant-at-arms of the U.S. Senate.  Trumbull erected three  row houses on the site of the Old Capitol Building that became known as "Trumbull's Row."   


Trumbull's Row later became the headquarters of the National Woman's Party. In 1929, the site was razed to clear the way for the U.S. Supreme Court building.

An 1860s map provided enough information
to be able to recreate the entire prison

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Blodget's Hotel (1793-1836)


Blodget’s Hotel as it appeared when completed in 1810.
Blodget's Hotel once stood on the block bounded by E and F, 7th and 8th Streets NW, now occupied by the old General Post Office building that was converted into the Hotel Monaco in 2002.  The original hotel was built on the "F Street Ridge," the high ground above Pennsylvania Avenue that served as the main route between the White House and the Capitol building at the time, as Pennsylvania Avenue was prone to seasonal flooding from the Tiber River.  Construction of the hotel began in 1793, but was not completed until 1810 when the federal government purchased it to house the Patent and Post Offices.  It was destroyed by fire in 1836.



Samuel Blodgett Jr. was a native of New Hampshire and a Revolutionary War officer, who had made a fortune in the East India trade and hoped to increase it in Washington real estate.  Blodget sold George Washington and the city commissioners on the idea of a lottery to attract investors to the fledgling city.   He proposed a lottery scheme to sell fifty thousand tickets at $7 apiece, with a top cash prize of $25,000, and a grand prize of “1 superb hotel with baths, out houses, etc. to cost $50,000.”  With a planned frontage of 120 feet, it would far exceed the size of any building at the time in America and would be the largest privately-owned building in Washington.



Lottery ticket for the Blodget's Hotel raffle
James Hoban, the architect of the White House, won the competition to design the hotel, further increasing its attractiveness as the big lottery prize.  Hoban’s design, very similar in proportions and detailing to several other of his buildings at that time (see Similar Hoban Buildings, below), was for a three story building, one hundred and twenty feet long, and sixty feet wide, ornamented with a pediment, and six Ionic pilasters on the north and south faces of the building.

Blodget’s lottery scheme was a complete failure.  Ticket sales did not meet expectation and many thought Blodget was postponing the drawing to continue selling more tickets.  When the drawing actually occurred and someone finally won the $25,000 prize, Blodget had only $4,000 on hand to pay out.

Library of Congress.  Prints and Photographs Division
A reported 1,500 people attended the ground breaking for the construction of the hotel, more than four times the population of the city at the time. But the groundbreaking was mostly for show. Blodget did not have the resources to finish the construction of the hotel, and for several years the “Grand Hotel” stood only as an empty shell.  In 1796, the Washington Gazette printed a comment by a stage coach passenger: “In riding through your city this morning, my eye was struck at a great distance with the word “HOTEL” inscribed in red letters upon the front of magnificent building, half finished.”

Washington, D.C., ca. 1803, showing a pastoral view of Washington with the President's House, Gales' House, and Blodget's Hotel to the right.  (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
That same year, Isaac Weld, an English traveler who was visiting Washington City noted that the “the public buildings so far are the President’s House, the Capitol, and a large Hotel, the latter being a large brick building ornamented with free-stone and stands between the other two.”

In 1800, the still unfinished hotel opened as the United States Theater, the first theater in the new capital.  The floors were temporarily laid with rough boards and with rough boards serving as benches for seating.  In Early Recollections of Washington City, Christian Hines recalled that as a boy, he and others would sneak into the building through the basement rooms, hoist themselves up on a bench and remove one of the temporary floor boards in order to secretly watch the play.  He also recalled that several of the basement rooms at the time were occupied by the families of Irish laborers. 


In 1810, Congress authorized the purchase of the still unfinished hotel to house the Post and Patent offices.  The patent office was relocated from the upper floors of the old War Department building to two large and two small rooms in the west wing of the second floor of the hotel.  The General Post Office occupied the first floor of the building, and the city post office was located in the basement.

In August of 1814, former Architect of the Capital and then Superintendent of Patents Dr. William Thornton, arguing that the models in the patent office were private property, convinced the invading British troops not to burn the building and leave it standing after which they went onto burn the rest of the city. As a result, the Patent Office was the only Government building in Washington left untorched by the British. 

The next month, with the Capitol building in ruins, President Madison arranged for Congress to temporarily convene in Blodget’s Hotel.  It was not until December of the following year that Congress moved to a new temporary building, referred to as the “Brick Capitol,” on the site of today's Supreme Court Building where they were to stay for another four years. In 1829, the Patent Office moved into a newly constructed addition to the building that faced Seventh Street.

In December 1836, a servant accidentally dumped hot fireplace ashes into a wooden refuse box, setting the building on fire. It burned to the ground, destroying thousands of patent models and records.  At the time, the fire department was located very near the building, but the fire hose was sixteen years old and in such bad shape that it was useless, but no one found out until they had to use it the night of the fire. 

Similar Hoban Buildings

Charleston County Courthouse, Charleston, SC (1790-92)
Old Treasury Building (1801)

Renderings of Blodgett's Hotel on this page are copyrighted (c) DC Historic Designs, LLC, 2013. Please request permission before using for any purposes..

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Gen. John Mason House (Analostan)

General John Mason House (Analostan) after it was completed in the 1790s (north face).

The 70-acre Theodore Roosevelt Island, resting in the Potomac River between Washington, DC and Virginia, was known as My Lord's Island and then Barbadoes in the 17th century. It was purchased in 1717 by George Mason, the father of George Mason of Gunstan Hall, from which time it became commonly known as Mason's Island.

After the fire of 1866 (HABS)
In 1792, George Mason bequeathed the island to his fourth son, General John Mason (1766-1849). John Mason referred to the island as Analostan Island, and he himself was often referred to as "John Mason of Analostan Island." 

John Mason was one of the most prominent businessmen in Georgetown at the turn of the 19th century. He served as a brigadier general of the District of Columbia militia, was a founder of the first bank in Washington, the Bank of Columbia in 1793 and later served as its president. He became president of the "Potowmack" (Potomac) Company, the predecessor to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company (George Washington was its first president). And in 1815, he purchased the Columbia Foundry, the largest business in Washington at the time.

A romanticized view of Analostan, probably done sometime
after the 1806 fire as the east wing is missing in this
depiction. (HABS)
During the 1790s, John began constructing his summer home on Analostan Island.  During the winter months, the Masons would return to their house in Georgetown. Prominent visitors to Analostan in the summers included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Louis Phillipe, Duc d'Orleans- later King of the French.

South face of the house when it was completed.

South elevation of west wing after the 1906 fire. (HABS)
Archaeological and photographic evidence reveal that the house was one story, with a full basement.  The main floor included a drawing and dining rooms, and bed chambers, while the kitchen and storage rooms were located in the basement. There was a large brick terrace along the south front of the house and the small entrance portico on the north front faced Georgetown. 
To date, it has been assumed that Analostan was never finished, with only the center and west wing completed.  But, archaeological evidence and a letter from Thomas Jefferson suggest otherwise.  In 1806, the east wing was destroyed by a fire while the Masons were at their Georgetown home. Never one to miss a fire, in a letter to to Anne Cary Randolph, Thomas Jefferson described the damage and its aftermath: "one wing was burnt down and the middle nearly so. They saved their furniture. Suspicions arising that it was done by one of his house servants who wished the family to go back to Georgetown, he was arrested and on his way to prison with the constable, he jumped out of the boat and drowned himself. I understand the family will continue through the summer in the remaining wing."  The west wing was never rebuilt. 
Mason's Claremont plantation.

Due to financial problems, Mason was forced to abandon his island paradise as well as sell his Georgetown house in 1833 when he moved to his Clermont (Claremont) plantation in Fairfax, Virginia. 
Of note is one of Mason's sons born on the island, James Murray Mason.  James Murray served both as a United States Senator and Representative from Virginia. He was appointed commissioner of the Confederacy to the United Kingdom and France between 1861 and 1865 during the Civil War.

James Murray Mason
Mason's Island was bought by former Washington mayor William A. Bradley and the house was used as a public resort and then as an army camp during the Civil War.  The interior of the house was destroyed by fire in 1866. After Bradley died in in 1867, the island became home to the Columbian Athletic Club and the Analostan Boat Club.  The remaining roof and several walls collapsed in a second fire in 1906. In 1913, the house was bought by Washington Gas Light Company. In 1931, the island was acquired by the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association, which donated it to the federal government for a park. In 1935, the remaining walls of the house were finally pulled down.

The virtual reconstruction of Analostan was based on the1936 Historic American Buildings (HABS) Survey (HABS DC-28).

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A Tenant House in Anne Arundel County, MD





















This circa 1918 tenant house is located in Hanover, Anne Arundel County, Maryland, and is an example of the modest dwellings found in the mid-Atlantic states built for the occupancy of tenant farmers.   Tenant farmers, who were often African American, rented parcels of land to farm for themselves and the farm owner often provided housing similar to this house.  This house was occupied until 1965 when the last tenant farmer left.

Photo: Sherri Marsh Johns
The two story, side-gable, frame dwelling measures only 30’ x 13’ 1” and rests on poured-concrete piers. The roof features overhanging eaves and exposed rafter ends with a narrow stove chimney in the center.  The exterior walls are only 5 in. thick, inclusive of the exterior lapboard siding.  The two front doors give the impression that the building was constructed as a duplex, but it was conceived of and always used as a single family dwelling. 

The first floor consists of two roughly equal-sized rooms, separated by a narrow partition wall.   An enclosed staircase leads to the second story, which is divided into three rooms.   The lack of stove flue on the second floor indicates that it lacked a direct heat source.  The house was not electrified until about 1940 and never had interior plumbing.

First floor plan

Second floor plan

Photo: Sherri Marsh Johns
The house now is in badly deteriorated condition.  Large sections of the standing seam metal roof have been lost to storm damage, leaving rafters and nailer boards exposed and the building open to the elements.  Due to water damage, large sections of the second floor have collapsed into the lower level a leaving much of the building inaccessible due to instability and debris.  

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Holt House: Going, going...

...almost gone.
Holt House as it originally appeared circa 1812.

North face of Holt House as it appears today.  The portico
porch was filled in and further extended in the 19th century.
The National Zoo excavated down around and in the
basement to create a full height floor for use as offices.
(Photo: Hansen).
Holt House, located on the grounds of the National Zoo and completed some time before 1812, was one of the larger houses in Washington when it was built. It has belonged to the Zoo since 1889, but has been vacant since the 1980s. It was listed in the DC Inventory of Historic Sites in 1964 and and on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.  But with each passing day, it is getting closer and closer to completely collapsing from neglect.

Holt House is intimately linked to the early history of Washington, DC by its association with such significant figures as Thomas Johnson (first governor of Maryland, close friend of George Washington and first Supreme Court Judge), Benjamin Stoddert (first Secretary of the Navy), as well as presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson.

The southern face of Holt House as it originally appeared.  Its large, columned porch overlooked a ravine and what is now Walter Pierce Park.  This side of the house can be seen from the park when the leaves are off the trees.
It is a mystery as to who built Holt House and when. The chain of ownership and the backgrounds of the owners of the land on which the house sits suggest its construction could have begun as early as the 1790s and completed probably no later than 1812.

The south side of the house as it appears today.  The large
columned porch was also filled in in the 19th century to
create more space in a what was a relatively small
house. (Photo: Hansen)
The land on which Holt House sits was originally part of a tract of land acquired from the Beall family in 1793 by Benjamin Stoddert (builder of Halcyon House in Georgetown). Stoddert served as a Captain in the Revolutionary Army, Secretary of the Board of War (1779-1781), co-founder and president of the Bank of Columbia (1794), and first Secretary of the Navy. It was probably Stoddert who built the Columbia Mills on the property in the 1790's. Despite his prominent position, Stoddert's land speculations in the new capital city left him land rich and cash poor. Perhaps to help increase his cash flow, he constructed a flour mill on this parcel of land.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Kalorama Mansion

The Kalorama mansion as it appeared circa 1825
The Kalorama mansion in Washington, DC once stood at what is now the intersection of S and 23rd Streets, NW on the present day location of the Myanmar Embassy.  The original part of the house dated from about 1750 and was built by early Washington proprietor Anthony Holmead.  In 1795, Holmead built a new house, Rock Hill, and sold the first house to City Commissioner Gustavus Scott who named it Belair.


The original house built by Anthony Holmead around 1750.
Upon Scott's death in 1800, the house was sold to William Augustine Washington (the president's nephew).  Washington added a dining and drawing room onto the east side of the original house. In 1807, Washington sold the estate to poet, statesman, and friend of Thomas Jefferson, Joel Barlow.  Washington moved to Charleston, S.C. where he died a short time later.


Barlow changed the name of the estate from Belair to Kalorama, Greek for “fine view,” as he felt the name Belair had been already given to many places in Maryland and Virginia. Barlow engaged the services of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and added the large east wing to house, a gatehouse once located near the intersection of what is now Florida and R Streets, a family mausoleum at Massachusetts and 22nd Streets, and stables at Massachusetts and Decatur Place [click here for a map of the estate].

The large east wing was added by Joel Barlow and may have been designed by architect Benjamin Latrobe.
Upon the resignation of the American minister to France, president Madison persuaded Barlow to travel to France to arrange a commercial treaty with the Napoleonic government. Tragically, Barlow died of exposure on Christmas Eve 1812 while following Napoleon over the frozen fields of Poland. His widow Ruth returned to Kalorama where she was joined there by her sister Clara and her husband Col. George Bomford.  Ruth Barlow died at Kalorama in 1818 at the age of 62. 

The conservatory added onto the original house by George
Bomford.
In 1822, Bomford acquired title to Kalorama. Bomford added the conservatory onto the front of the original house and amassed the size of the estate to 91 acres, a large part of which later became the Kalorama and Belair Heights subdivisions.  Bomford was forced to sacrifice ownership of Kalorama in 1846 when it was acquired by George Lovett for his mother, Mrs. Charles Fletcher.

Due to its isolated location, the mansion was confiscated during the Civil War by a regiment from Illinois for use as a smallpox hospital. The Lovetts temporarily moved to Philadelphia. Hospital tents were struck and out buildings were demolished when the army was disbanded in the fall of 1865. But during a farewell ball for the remaining hospital staff on Christmas Eve of 1865 in the mansion, a defective stove pipe caught fire and completely gutted the east wing.  Years would pass before the government settled on the rent and damages to Kalorama during the war. 

Kalorama after the 1865 Christmas Eve fire.

The Lovetts eventually rebuilt Kalorama and continued to occupy the house until 1889 when it was razed to make room for the extension and grading of S Street.


Click here for a full, annotated history of Kalorama, but please return to this blog to share your thoughts, comments, or insights.