By James Croggon, The Evening Star, June 17, 1906 [pt. 7, p. 8]
What in the early part of the last century was known as the President’s Square was then, and for many years afterward, a common, with a graveyard on a small portion, which, during the thirties, after the visit of Lafayette, became known and recognized by his name.
It was for some years a bone of contention. The ground was, on the laying out of the city in 1791, included in the Samuel Davidson tract, and in the map of Major Charles L’Enfant what are now 16th street and Vermont and Connecticut avenues were deflected south of H street. This was according to L’Enfant, and four squares would have resulted had not there been a change of plan.
Differences having arisen concerning Major L’Enfant’s plans, in January, 1792, he was dismissed, and his assistant, Major Ellicott, directed to proceed with the work. Major Ellicott, with the assistance of his brothers, proceeded with the work, and by March following had finished it, and there were some few alterations, including the making of this square, and copies were placed in the hands of engravers for publication.
The Davidson Purchase
The commissioners had made a donation to the Queen of Portugal, which had been ratified by the President. In 1799, when the Attorney General, Charles Lee, gave an opinion that without an act of Congress this donation passed no title and should be canceled. This gave color to M. Davidson’s contention, and through Presidents Adams and Jefferson continued to urge his case, and memorialized President Adams for the preparation of a complete and accurate plan, properly authenticated and established. Attorney General Lee advised he President that such a plan had already been established, having received the formal and solemn approbation of the President, and it was not supposed to be incomplete in any respect except as to rights appurtenant to water lots; and it was irrevocable, never to be altered.
He further advised that a parcel, and held by the United States for its use, may be converted to another party, and a purchaser of adjacent property does not buy under promise that it will not be converted to another use. It would be no breach of the public faith if the President did not dwell on President’s Square or that Congress did not hold its sessions in Capitol Square. The President has expended his power when he approved the plan, and it was binding on his successors and Congress itself.
During Mr. Jefferson’s regime the disposition of this square was undetermined – indeed, there was a question whether it should be a square or a circle, a continuation of the half circle on the President’s portico.
Persistence of Davidson
"He (President Washington) has determined the plan. He had the exclusive power to do so. He has comletely expended that power and it is unalterable, not only by his successors, but by Congress itself."
The ground was therefore for a number of years an open common, with a few trees upon it, and it is said that after clothes lines lade with linen sometimes appeared in the northern part. While there was a semblance of streets on the sides, they were scarcely country roads, so light was the travel upon them. Before the war of 1812 a few buildings faced the square, but it was not inclosed until in the 30's, when it was surrounded by a wooden fence, and a few trees were planted. That Mr. Davidson's contenton had some effect on the building up of that section would seem to be apparent from the fact that the squares fronting Lafayette Square until the forties had less than a dozen residences upon them and the President, though living midway of residential streets, had no near neighbors. The square north of H, between Vermont avenue and 16th street, was the scene of a few transfers prior to 1800, in which Samuel Blodgett, John Templeman, James Hoban, Piece Purcell and Walter Stewart figured. Near the corner of Vermont avenue, fronting P street, as a few old residents remember there was what was in its day a fine old house owned and occupied in the beginning of the last century by Mrs. Ann Cazanave, the widowed daughter of Notley Young, one of the original proprietors, Mrs. Cazenave returning to South Washington, this place was in 1811 bought by John D. Barclay, and for some years it was taxed for $1,400 improvements, and 16 cents per foot on ground which ranged down to 8 cents in other portions of the square. This house was for many years occupied by Fielder R. Dorsett, a well-known carpenter. James Spellman, Benjamin Gilpin owned the lot adjoining in 1818, but in a few years it passed into the hands of George Hay, a prominent lawyer, who lived there some years with his brother, Charles Hay of the Navy Department. This house was valued at $1,000 in the twenties. This house passed in the forties into the hands of Matthew St. Clair Clarke, clerk of the House of Representatives, and was rebuilt by John C. Harkness. This fine residence was used by him for some years and then by Sir Henry Bulwer and later was the home of Mrs. Col. Freeman.
St. John’s Church Site
Old Female Academy
In 1850 W.W. Corcoran owned much of the property in the northern and eastern portion of the square, and on I street erected a row of half a dozen fine three-story residences. Before that there was some frame residences on Vermont avenue in which there lived at different periods Mr. Petery, Elijah Ourand, a well-known employe of the treasury, Z.M.P. King and J. Harrison Knot. In the fifties William H. Phillip of the well-known book house of Phillip & Soloman lived on H street east of St. John’s Church.
East of Lafayette Square
On the northwest corner of the square there was erected in 1811 the house now the Cosmos Club house. This property, in 1826, passed into the hands of ex-President Madison, and was held by his family for some years, but n 1851 Commodore Wilkes of Antarctic fame, became its owner and resident. In 1818 Col. John Tayloe bought four lots, including the southeast corner of the square, on which he erected the building long used for banking purposes. A fine residence was built adjoining on the west. The bank building was used by the United States Bank, which bought the property of Col. Tayloe in 1823, till its forced suspension in 1837, and the dwelling was occupied by the cashier, Richard Smith, for many years. This property was assessed at $16,000 for improvements. After the suspension of the bank the building went into possession of Corcoran and Riggs and has continued a money mart to the present day.
Old Tayloe Property
The H street front, in 1818, found Alexander Kerr, the cashier of the Bank of the Metropolis, in possession of three lots, and two years after Mrs. Rebecca Newall bought an adjoining lot. Each of these erected dwellings, that of Mr. Kerr serving as the family home for two or three generations.
After them lived on this front of the square Rev. S.P. Hill, George W. Riggs, Wm. M. Meredith, Secretary of the Treasury, and Lieut. T.J. Page, U.S.N.
In 1821 S.H. Smith bought a lot on 15th street north of the banking house, on which he erected a house valued at $2,100. Here J. Bayard H. Smith, a well-known lawyer lived, having his office near by, and Col. W.L. Hodge, once assistant secretary of the treasury, lived here many years. In the latter part of the war the office was used by Col. W.E. Doster, who was counsel to Payne, one of the Lincoln conspirators hung at the arsenal in July, 1865.
In 1829 Commodore John Rodgers, then president of the navy commissioners, bought the lot on which the Belasco Theater stands, and in 1831 erected a large double brick three-storied residence. This house, outside of its interest as Commodore Rogers’ home, has a history. It has served as the residence of Chief Justice Taney, Secretary of the Navy J.K. Paulding, and as the boarding house of Mrs. Latimer; before the civil war, it sheltered many senators and representatives. Then it became famous as the Washington Club house, and near its door Philip Barton Key was shot. During the war of 1861-65 Secretary W.H. Seward lived there, and in April ’65, was attacked by an assassin simultaneously with the shooting of Lincoln.
About 1831 Dr. James S. Gunnell bought the lot on the southwest corner of the square, now for many years vacant, and erected a three-storied and basement dwelling, where he resided for a number of years. Dr. Gunnell was one of Washington’s leading dentists. In the thirties the house was assessed at $5,000. In 1851 Dr. L. Maynard, who had a reputation as an ordnance expert, bought the property, and lived there a number of years.
Big Jump in Values
The first improvement of a permanent character appears to have been made by George Graham, who in 1820 bought three lots at the southeast corner of 15th and H streets, on which he erected a fine residence, where he died shortly afterward. The family lived there for many years, and until a few years ago it was standing. It was taxed for $4,500 in the twenties, and two other buildings on H street near 14th street for $800 each, and the ground value was 8 to 18 cents.
About 1821 James McClery bought two lots on New York avenue west of 14th street and erected a school house as well as dwelling upon it, having a well-kept flower garden in front of his home. A school was taught here for some years, and in 1838 Miss Milligan bought the house and continued the school for a time. The rest of the square was a dumping ground, with the exception of the corner of 15th street, where was Jeremiah Sullivan’s marble yard and near by the carpenter shop of Mr. James Pilling.
Caleb Cushing as a Fireman
About this period Mr. Zalmon Richards built on the northwest corner of 14th street and New York avenue a two-storied school building and opened the Union Academy, a school of note. Maj. A.C. Richards, afterward superintendent of police, became associated with his brother, and there were other assistants in addition to Mrs. Z. Richards, who had charge of the female department. Later Dr. W.P. Johnson built a home on H street, east of 14th street, and Mrs. Rogers erected a house near by.
The ground east of the Arlington, between H, I and 15th streets, was in the early days valued at 3 and 4 cents per foot. In this square Francis Mercer, in 1800, owned a lot, and shortly after A. Dindo, G. Andrews and Nicholas King were interested. By 1810 lots has passed into the hands of Col. W.P. Randolph, surgeon general, and others, and improvements had been made by Robert M. Harrison, a well-known carpenter, who paid on a house opposite the Arlington, and which is yet standing, $600. He later erected a similar house. William Denman was assessed on $500 near by; Samuel Brereton, grocer, was assessed $2,000 in 15th street, and J. and S. Slott $300 nearby. W.W. Corcoran, in the 40’s bought lot 4 on H street, near Vermont avenue, where for some years anterior to the erection of his palatial residence at the corner of Connecticut avenue, he lived. At the corner of Vermont avenue and H street Rev. Dr. Smith Pyne of St. John’s Church and Commodore C.W. Morris of the United States navy lived some years. Col. W.L. Hodge and Maj. W.L. Nutt, both treasury officials, were owners of lots in this square.
North of I street and east of 16th street were the building lots in 1802 valued at three cents per foot, and that was doubled in twenty years. Naturally the growth was slower than to the southward.
A Sleep of Twenty Years
Between Franklin Park and Farragut square Benjamin Bacon, Charles Carter, Gen. James M. Henry, secretary of war; Dr. W. Thornton, a commissioner about 1800, took up nearly the whole square when the valuation was less than two cents per foot. About 1820 there was a row of two-storied frames in the I street front of the square, known as Brereton’s row, and in 1829 the trustees of the First Colored Presbyterian Church purchased the site and established the church on 15th street. This was the result of the efforts of Rev. John F. Cook, who gathered a number of colored children and started a Sunday school in his schoolhouse, on the north side of H street, east of 16th street.
Square 220, north of H street and west of 14th street, was owned to a large extent about 1800 By H.H. Chapman, and some of the lots stood in that name till recent years. Thomas Snowden was the owner of several lots after 1803, and it is believed that he erected the brick house which stood on the northwest corner of H and 14th streets, and which, early in the last century, belonged to Henry Whitecraft, and before 1820 was bought by E.C. Dyer of the city post office, who lived there with his family many years. The northeast corner of the square was owned by the Chapman family for many years, one of whom became a Walker by marriage. For some years before the civil war there was then a grocery here, which afterward became well known by the opposition of neighbors to the issuance to it of a liquor license.
In 1839 the corner of 15th and H streets was purchased for St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, and that was erected, with a residence for Father Donelan, the pastor. For years the church buildings, the Dyre and Walker residences and a few frames on 14th street were the only improvements. About 1800 the ground was valued at 3 cents and by 1820 9 cents was reached, and the house at 14th and H streets was valued at $2,400.
The Davy Burns Tract
John Taylor, owned a frame house with a lot on New York avenue, which was assessed in the twenties at $250. This house was standing till the seventies and it figured as “Old Mother Mulligan’s” in a congressional investigation some thirty years ago.
The lot adjoining Mr. Taylor’s house on G street was owned by R. Harrison before 1820, when with a frame house, it was sold to Isaac Randolph and taxed for $250. In 1827 this was bought by David A. Gardner, who erected a brick residence of two stories. Long afterward Mr. Gardner built a home on New York avenue in the rear of his old home.
In the forties, Frances Datcher, long a colored messenger, owned and lived on G street.
In 1843 John Douglass, the florist, built a fine brick house on G street, with green houses fronting 15th street, where he laid the foundation of a business followed by many houses today.
The late J. W. Nairn bought the corner of New York avenue and 15th street in 1851 erecting several houses and establishing himself in the drug business, in which he made a competency.
One would suppose that this section bordering on the sites for the public offices would have been improved by the grading of streets, the laying of footwalks before other less important portions. The valuation of the land was at such a figure as to prevent much general improvement by the city, and the cost of foot pavements being chargeable to the butting property, there was little effort made for such improvement, a ridge of gravel to many being satisfactory.
By the twenties there were brick pavements about the public offices and on the avenues and streets adjacent to them, but as New York avenue had only the south side improved by a brick footway till late in the forties, some idea of the primitive Washington may be had.
Though there was but little doing in building in the forties about this section the fact that W.H. Champitt’s and James Pilling’s carpenter shops, on the north side of New York avenue, and David A. Gardner’s, on the south side, were at least in the summer months in full operation, indicated that some parts of Washington were progressing. Indeed, by 1840 there had been some spreading out.
From 1820 to 1840
This will show that something was doing and the city growing, albeit as compared with the progress of the present day with a snail’s pace.