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.

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.

Benjamin Stoddert
In 1800, Stoddert sold the property, referred to then as "Pretty Prospect" to his friend Walter Mackall. The deed included "the buildings, improvements, privileges, advantages and appurtenances." These "buildings" may be a reference to only the mill structures, but may also have included some form of a residence for a mill manager. Architectural evidence suggests that the west wing of Holt House may have been built earlier than the rest of the house and may have served as a small residence. If a house the present size of Holt House existed at this time, it probably would have been significant enough a structure to be mentioned separately in the deed.
The great room in its current condition.
(Photo: Hansen)

Walter Mackall came from Calvert County, Maryland, served in the Maryland House of Delegates, and was a wealthy land holder in both Maryland and Washington, DC. His brother, Benjamin Mackall, married Christina Beall, whose father Brooke Beall, was a wealthy shipping merchant in Georgetown, sending great quantities of grain and tobacco to England.
The great room as it appeared when the house was

Walter Mackall owned Pretty Prospect for only four years. He may have originally taken an interest in the mills due to his brother Benjamen's connection to the Beall family business. This was also a period of great land speculation in the new Federal City, and the time when large country-style houses were being constructed in Georgetown and on the outskirts of the City. Mackall may have built the present house or expanded a smaller, preexisting house on speculation of increased resale value.

In 1804, Mackall sold the property to Pennsylvania Quaker and miller, Jonathan Shoemaker. Shoemaker arrived with his family of five sons and one daughter to operate the mills. But, constant problems at Columbia Mills and a dispute with Thomas Jefferson forced the Shoemakers to sell the property and relocate to Shadwell, Virginia to help operate Jefferson's mills there.

In 1809, Jonathan Shoemaker sold the property to Roger Johnson, of Fredrick County, Maryland, the younger brother of Maryland’s first governor, Thomas Johnson. This was an investment on Roger's part, as he already owned two foundries, a glass works, and a plantation in Frederick County and remained at his home "Bloomsbury" in Frederick County, while sending his son George to manage Columbia Mills.

Original entrance doorway
George Johnson proved incapable of running a mill and of managing his own finances.  Beginning in 1812, George Johnson began borrowing large sums of money from the Bank of Columbia to rebuild the mills after they burned, employing a millwright to build "the best mill possible." The loans were underwritten by his father-in-law and Georgetown merchant James Dunlap. Johnson may have used some of the borrowed money to construct a new house or enlarge an existing one on the property as well. George's financial problems, beginning as early as 1814, suggest that he was not in a position to construct a large house after about 1812, due possibly in part to the financial impact of the British blockade of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac at that time and its effects on shipping mill goods from Washington.

In 1818, George Johnson was in serious debt. Roger Johnson attempted to intervene on his son's behalf. Writing to George's father-in-law, James Dunlop, he said that he hopes to sell his lot near the mill in the spring, then later to "sell the half of his Mil" (which he never did). Roger also asked  Dunlop to assume payment on half of George's debts, as he considered him partially responsible as the under signer of the loans.  Roger maintained possession of 13 3/4 acres of Pretty Prospect as well as the house, possibly to ensure his son and large family had a place to live. 
George Johnson's cousin
Louisa Johnson Adams

It is uncertain who was paying on the mortgage on the mills and the house between 1818 and 1823, but in fear of losing his home, in 1823 George approached his cousin Louisa Johnson Adams (wife of John Quincy Adams) in hopes that John Quincy would acquire the mortgage from the bank. Adams mortgaged his house in order to purchase the mill in 1823 for $20,000, and placed George on salary to continue to manage the mill, with the understanding that George would later repurchase back half the mills from Adams. Within months of purchasing the property, Adams became President.  
Adams had hoped that the mills would be able to provide him some income and security in his retirement years.  But, he was not totally independent in managing this endeavor, as in 1823 his father (John Adams) wagered that demand would soar, and increased production as John Quincy watched as prices fell, costing him $15,000. Although never a successful business, the mill remained in the possession of the Adams' family until about 1872.

John Quincy Adams bought
the mill from George Johnson.
In 1824, George's arrangement with Adams to manage the mills was terminated by Adams due to his inability to run them efficiently. In that same year, George once again approached Adams for assistance, soliciting a place as a Clerk in one of the Departments, to which John Quincy assured him he would "in no case recommend him." George may have continued to reside in the house until his brother finally sold the estate in 1835. Records show that by 1827, George was working as a clerk at 1st Comptroller's Office in Georgetown. There are no records to date to indicate another resident at Holt House between George's tenure there and the time it was old in 1835.

Amos Kendall rented Holt
House from 1838 to 1841.
In 1831, Roger Johnson died, leaving the disposal of the 13 3/4 acres of Pretty Prospect to his sons, Joseph A. and Charles Johnson, requesting that "the house" and lot of land adjoining the Columbia Mills be sold to cover outstanding debts. It was not until 1835 that they sold the property to Dr. Ashton Alexander, a prominent physician from Baltimore, for whose family Alexandria, Virginia is named.  Dr. Alexander never resided in Washington himself, and in 1838, rented the  house to Amos Kendall, postmaster general of the United States, a close confident of Andrew Jackson, and one of the founders of the modern Democratic Party.  Kendall dubbed the house ‘Jackson Hill’ in admiration of his friend, probably much to the chagrin of Jackson’s political rival and adjacent property owner, John Quincy Adams.

Amos Kendall must not have been the best of tenants, as in 1841, Dr. Alexander placed an advertisement in the National Intelligencer newspaper offering the property for lease or sale, declaring that “it has undergone three years of deterioration by the worst treatment by those who unfortunately tenanted. The proofs of which are grievously visible at a glance.  And for the whole three years not a dollar, so far, has been received for damages or rent.”    

Dr. Henry Holt sitting outside the south vestibule in 1889.
Notice the already dilapidated condition of the house then.
Dr. Henry Holt, a former US Army assistant surgeon from Oswego County, NY, purchased the property in December 1844.   Dr. Holt and his family finally sold the property to the Commissioners for the National Zoological Park in 1889 for $40,000. By the time the Zoo purchased the property in 1889, Holt House was very dilapidated and badly in need of extensive repair. In helping plan the new zoological park, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. advised the park’s planners to look to the graceful architecture of Holt House as a source of inspiration. The Zoo renovated the house for use as administrative offices. While the building is once again neglected, its purchase by the Zoo in 1889 probably helped ensure its survival over nearly 200 years. 


Sources used for the reconstruction of Holt House:

Holt House Documentation Project 2009. HABS/HAER (Historic Architectural and Building Survey/Historic Architectural and Engineering Record), National Park Service, Department of the Interior.

Smithsonian Institution National Zoological Park: A Historic Resource Analysis.
Prepared by Gavin Farrell at the Smithsonian Office of Architectural History and Historic Preservation. 2004.

Holt House and Surrounding Properties: A Documented History,  Smithsonian Dept of Archival History and Historic Preservation.
Denys Peter Myers. Report on Holt House: A Feasibility Study to Determine Restoration Goals. 1977.

Site visit conducted by DC Historic Designs in 2008.


  1. Great images and history of Holt House. We have lived on Calvert Street for years and have always wondered what the story was with that old house.


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