Early History of Section North of the White House
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, May 27, 1906 [pt. 4, p. 8]
It is hard at this day to realize that the portion of the city northwest of the executive grounds, say between 16th and 17th streets, especially along Connecticut avenue, was, in ante-bellum days about as slow of development as any portion of the District, the physical condition of which did not preclude the erection of human habitation. Indeed, there are many not very old men who can recall the rural aspects of that locality, and, strange to say, when an old colonial frame house, the residence of Mrs. Peter Cazenave, daughter of one of the original proprietors, stood near the corner of Vermont avenue and H streets, the ground now occupied by the Arlington. Much of the property was owned by people who were satisfied to let it lay and pay taxes upon it. While near the avenue there had been some building in the early part of the century north of H street, so little had been done in that line that in the forties scarcely half a dozen homes could be counted.
When it is remembered that up to that period the general and municipal governments had done little in the way of public improvements, the avenue being but little more than a country road with brick pavement on the sides, and Lafayette square having cast in grading and fencing but a few hundred dollars, little surprise may be expressed that there was country scenery all about. As to buildings there was no suggestion of the village prior to 1820, and distances between houses were considerable looking to the northwest.
North of K, near 17th street, there was a frame house of some pretensions occupied by William Simmons, built on ground which in the first quarter of the century was held at 2 cents per foot. Eastward could be seen the home of Alfred Bouldin, near 15th and L streets.
On the square west of Farragut square there were few houses when Gen. Macomb settled there over seventy years ago. It is true that some of Washington’s most influential people owned land there in the early part of the last century, but improvement was slow.
Among the land owners were Peter Cazenave, T.L. Skippon, Henry Carroll, William Pierce and Jacob Welch. Samuel D. King, in 1809 owned the southeast corner of the square. A subdivision was made, and in 1826 he sold the corner to William Williamson, a well-known treasury clerk. This property was assessed in 1830 at $5,000 for improvements. Gen. Macomb in 1831 acquired the property and made considerable improvement, converting the building into a fine mansion, laying off the front lots into a garden and using the rear lots to K street for fruits, vegetables and pasturage purposes.
Gen. Macomb, who had won fame at the battle of Plattsburg in the war of 1812 had succeeded to the command of the army on the death of Gen. Jacob Brown in 1828, and, having married here a Miss Wilson of Georgetown, he had already become by his genial manners as much a “fellow citizen” with the people of the District as he was a favorite in society circles. At his home, for about ten years, some of the finest entertainments were given. The general made his last official appearance as the chief marshal at the funeral of Gen. Harrison, in April, 1841, for he died the following summer. His funeral was one of the most imposing ever seen in this part of the country, thousands of people following the cortege to the Congressional cemetery, where his remains rest.
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The space east of Gen. Macomb’s residence embracing the present Farragut and McPherson squares was in the general’s day and afterward an open common and when custom required artillery salutes near the executive mansion, it was quite as often they were fired there as on the south grounds of the White House.
One of the first improvements on this square was that of John Broadbeck who in 1814, built on part of lot 10 on I street near 18th street. Six years after his property was assessed for $300. He subsequently acquired the corner of 18th and streets and in 1829 John C. Roemele appears there as a grocer, paying taxes on $1,000 improvements. This family was there for many years after.
The ground between 16th street and Farragut square north of H street, in which Morris & Nicholson were interested prior to 1800, was shortly after in the hands of William Markwood, Samuel Lewis, Walter Hellen, William Simmons and others. In 1817 Col. Bomford became the owner of some of it, as did also Capt. John Woodside, in trust for James L. Cathcart and others. Col. Bomford, well known for his connection with the ordnance department of the army, had his residence on I street west of 16th, and the assessed value was $3,200 John Wells had a $900 house on this square. Capt. Woodside was a well-known survivor of the continental army, who, with Capt. Cathcart, a youthful officer of the navy of the revolution and consul to Algiers, resided in the first ward.
The ground north of H street between 16th street and Connecticut avenue eighty years since was valued at 16 cents on the front and on the other streets as low as 5 cents. In 1840 the valuation was from 12-1/2 to 20 cents. In the early days it was owned by the Davidsons, and later, in 1816, by Gen. John Breckinridge, Thomas Swann and Henry Hurt. There were no improvements on it for nearly forty years. In 1844, however, Daniel Webster, who had been Secretary of State in the Harrison-Tyler regime, bought about two-thirds of the square, including the corners of H and I streets on Connecticut avenue, and Mr. W.W. Corcoran, the well-known millionaire, bought a few lots, subsequently adding to his holdings. Fine houses were erected by both Mr. Webster and Mr. Corcoran, they being the sole owners of the square, and the latter lived there continuously afterward, while Mr. Webster occupied his home here in the fifties.
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It was in the Webster house that the Ashburton treaty was signed, and more than one foreign minister has lived there. In 1854 the house erected by Mr. Corcoran was purchased by Thomas Ritchie – “Father Richie” – the nestor of the press, who lived there some years. It need not be said that Mr. Corcoran spent the latter part of his life in the house known by his name, occupied in recent years by Senator Depew. The square west of Mr. Corcoran’s residence for many years was a common.
West of Lafayette square was another Davidson piece of property which was not subject to many transfers. In 1820 it was assessed at 20 cents per foot. Nearly the entire square, in 1818, became the property of Commodore Stephen Decatur, and the commodious house at the northeast corner of the square, assessed at $10,000, became his residence, which, unhappily, was for but a short time, owing to Decatur’s fatal duel with Commodore Barron in 1820. Dr. Joseph Lovell, surgeon general of the army, purchased of Mrs. Decatur in the twenties a lot on the avenue facing the War Department and erected what became known as the Blair House, which was assessed at $5,000. Here lived Smith Thompson for a few years. After the death of Dr. Lovell, Gen Nathan Towson, as executor, sold this property to Francis P. Blair. In 1848, W.H. Phillip purchased the southwest corner of the square and three years after Alexander Ray the southeast corner building thereon. H.M. Rice and afterward Adj. Gen. Townsend lived there for some years. Peter Parker, once commissioner to China, bought this property just before the civil war. The western portion of the square was the site of the original Gallery of Art, the building and lot, with a handsome endowment, being the gift of Mr. W.W. Corcoran, in 1859. During the civil war the building was pressed into service by the government for an army clothing depot, which required the erection of a number of frame storage buildings. Some years after the war it was restored to the Corcoran Gallery, and since the removal of the gallery to 17th street and New York avenue it has been used by the government.