East of the Treasury
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, July 1, 1906 [pt. 4, p. 1]
There is no section of Washington so replete with interest as that locality immediately east of the treasury as is that building itself, whether in a national or local sense. The section has been the scene of occurrences in which world-wide as well as local celebrities were the actors, and some of the old buildings which remain, in whole or part, could they but talk, would afford much entertaining matter.
It is needless to describe the first building erected for the treasury, which by the way was the one first completed for the government offices, having been put in service in 1800 on the establishment of the government here. Its site was west of 16th street, its north front about on a line with the south side of F street, and it was a two-story and attic brick structure with cellar. The fire which took place here in 1801, and the manner in which the flames were confined to the rooms in which it originated, doubtless did much to cement the ties between the officials of the department and the citizens, and for many years thereafter the use of the fire engines of the government was granted to the volunteer companies organized in 1804. In a number of instances the early officials were connected with local organizations and the rolls of members were largely made up of government employees, and the militia companies, and fraternal and social organizations, including churches, were also represented in the diminutive blue book.
The building was burned by the British in August, 1814, but in a few years was restored, and in about 1818 the old State Department building was erected to the north of it, about the line of G street.
About this time, near where the north steps of the treasury are now located, a homicide took place. Some soldiers detailed for the mounted messenger service of the executive offices were quartered in barracks at this point and a man named Kelley was shot and killed by Lanham, a fellow trooper, who was afterward tried, convicted and sentenced to be hanged. The gallows upon which he was to be executed was erected on the north side of G street opposite the north door of the pension office, but a reprieve for six months was granted and the condemned man and his sentence was finally commuted to imprisonment.
The treasury building was also the birth-place of what became the F Street Presbyterian Church, so long served by Rev. James Laurie [R45 S171], and there is no telling how many of the old-time institutions for charitable; moral and other similar work had their origin within its walls.
Destroyed by Incendiary
It was while this work was progressing that there occurred a sad romance. The young wife of one of the stone cutters died rather suddenly, leaving an infant daughter, and after the bereaved husband had returned from the funeral of the wife, the question of how he could provide for his child and continue his work arose. A kind-hearted neighbor, though having a large family of children of her own, volunteered to care for the little one until the father could make better arrangements. The father soon after went south to work and was stricken with yellow fever. He died, but it was not till several months had passed that the foster mother was apprised of it. She took permanent charge of the infant and raised it as her own. The child grew up unconscious of the absence of blood ties and bore the name of her benefactors till a worthy young man, with the aid of a minister, gave her another name.
That the neighborhood was a favorite one for diplomats or that they felt a compulsion to obey the letter of their credentials by residing as near as possible to the State Department, through which negotiations were made, is plain by the number of such residents within the shadow of the executive buildings. Some time in the twenties the Austrian, Portuguese, Swedish and Spanish representatives were housed on F street, a little east of 15th street, and one morning the latter was found to have committed suicide by hanging, as was supposed, when he was laboring under aberration of the mind. The Prussian minister's home was on G street; the Danish and Scandinavian on the avenue near 15th street; the Belgium, Argentine and Netherlands were opposite the State Department, and while residing here Count De Menoir, the French minister, was purchasing some of the nearby property.
Lots in the square between 14th and 15th and F and G streets were plotted to the number of sixteen and most of them were sold in 1792; by 1802 improvements began to show. The ground was first listed at 10 cents per foot, but by 1829 it had doubled and the lot at the northeast corner of 15th and F streets was rated at 40 cents. Included among the original purchasers were David Burns, T.J. Beatty, Pierce Purcell and James Hoban. The latter, Irish by birth, had resided several years in South Carolina, where as an architect, he planned and built the state capitol and other buildings. He removed to this city in July of that year. Here he at once entered upon a career of usefulness, being at once employed on the public buildings, continuing for over twenty-five years.
Planned the President's House
Mr. Hoban was prominent in the infancy of Masonry here, having been the first master of Federal Lodge, and for a number of years its treasurer. He was the captain of an artillery company, a member of the city councils, an active volunteer fireman. In fact, there was nothing proposed for the advancement of the interests of the community in which he did not have a part.
As stated, Pierce Purcell was an early purchaser. In 1800, with Redmond Purcell, he owned the 14th street front and nearly that of F and G streets. In 1802 Mr. Knowles, a carpenter, bought a lot on 14th street about the center of the square. On this was a fine colon ial frame building which was assessed then for $1,200. There was also a small house on the corner of G and 14th streets, valued at $400, which twenty years afterward was in the name of Ann Welch, one of the Purcell heirs. In the twenties three or four lots were listed in the name of Count Julius de Mrenon, the French charge d'affaires and afterward minister, and these passed subsequently to the Bank of the United States. In 1827, however, two lots, half the 14th street front from G street, were bought by Mrs. Ann Stewart, who resided in the colonial house for many years.
Pierce Purcell, interested with Mr. Hoban in the purchase of lot four in 1794, was the owner of half the east front north of F street and one-third of the front on that street in 1800. No improvements appear to have been made on the corner lot for several years, but on the next lot to the west assessments upon $ 600 and $800 were made in 1802 to Redmund and Pierce Purcell, respectively, and the latter was taxed $1,200 on a lot there next west. The house there was a brick structure of two stories and gable fronting the street and it is said was the tavern of John Dumbleton for many years. Old residents have learned that its sign was a swinging board with a fair painting upon it of the church opposite. Doubtless at this day such a sign board on a tavern would give offense, but the landlord in this case was simply following an old English custom.
Mr. James McClery for a long time lived on part of the corner lot north of F street and in 1827 he bought this place and afterward took up his residence there. When the street was cut down the house was on an elevation and the grounds containing some trees were planted with flowers.
In the thirties Robert Cruit bought adjoining property and erected two brick buildings and some of his descendants yet reside there. Later some small frame buildings were erected on the corner of 14th and F streets, one used as a fruit store and dwelling by Mrs. A. Davy, in the forties or fifties, and the other as a lottery and exchange office in later years by F.R. May.
Sold to an Importer.
In 1797 Benton Fenwick owned lot 6 at the corner of F and 15th streets, which by 1802 he had improved at a cost of $8,000, and it was afterward in possession of W. Coglin. It was b ought in at marshal's sale in 1810 by Mrs. Fenwick, and it passed to the hands of J.G. Jackson, as did lot 7 adjoining on the north, which had been bought by Mrs. Fenwick. About this time Mrs. Barbara Suter kept a boarding house here, and shortly thereafter, in 1811, Gen. Van Ness and Thomas Munroe opened the banking business in the lower floor, and this was the germ of the Bank of Metropolis. When the British burned the public buildings they were attracted by the office-like appearance of the premises and were about to apply the torch when Capt. Hoban appealed to them, saying the building belonged to a poor widow and was private property. The officer replied: "She must be d---d poor to own such property." And withdrew his men.
The Bank of Metropolis bought this property in 1814, but in 1820 erected the banking building north, which was recently torn down. The old corner was used for a time for offices, Messrs. Clark & Quantrell, general claim agents, being there for many years. In 1839 Mr. W.W. Corcoran, who had been in business on the avenue above the City Hotel, now the New Willard, located in the old quarters of the Bank of metropolis, and in the following year he took in Mr. Riggs as a partner. That they were successful is well known, for by 1845 they purchased the old United States Bank building on the site now occupied by the American Security and Trust Company. The great stroke of the firm was in floating in 1848 a $12,000,000 United States loan, through Mr. Corcoran going to Europe and personally negotiating it, this being the first loan of magnitude made after the panic of 1837.
The old bank stand was sold in 1851 to St. John Chubb, and the Chubb brothers carried on the banking business, in which they were succeeded by Pairo & Nourse, T.W. Pairo and others.
Col. Munroe owned the north front on 15th street, the Riggs House corner, and erected near G street a frame house valued at $2,200, which in the thirties was a tavern conducted by Louis La Bille. In 1837 it was sold to Paul Kinchy, a confectioner. There was also a fine three-story brick building adjoining the Bank of the Metropolis and Col. Truman Cross, deputy quartermaster general resided there early in the forties, and later Gen. Winfield Scott had his home there.
Three substantial brick houses, painted white, abutted G street, Mrs. Ulrich living at the corner, where some of the foreign representataives, members of Congress and government officials made their homes. Commodore J.H. Aulick was the occupant of the south house of the row. On the G street front was a house erected about 1800 by Mr. Hoban, then valued at $600. This in the twenties was occupied by Sally McCarthy, a colored woman, as while the house remained, which was up to the civil war days, colored people continued to reside there. In the forties Tobias Punington of the treasury lived in a fine three-story residence on G street. In 1845 Mr. Benjamin J. Reiss came upon G street, buying the part of the lot on which the Boston Herald and other papers have their local offices. For a long series of years he was a successful teacher of music.
Willard Hotel Square
A building on F street east of 15th street, about 1830 was the scene of a suicide in diplomatic circles. The Spanish minister who then resided there, while, it is believed, suffering from a temporary aberration of mind, hanged himself in his bed room. The church building in which Rev. Dr. Laurie's congregation worshiped for half a century, besides having a church history, was of much interest as the scene of the sessions of the memorable peace congress in the winter of 1860-61, presided over by ex-President Tyler, when, for a number of weeks, efforts were made to prevent the civil war.
Owen MacDermott Roe, Thomas Metcalfe, Benjamin Blodgett, Walter Stewart, F.S. Moore, Thomas Law and P. Gilman were among the lot holders before 1800, and the earliest valuation of the ground was from twenty to thirty cents which, in twenty years, reached twenty-five to fifty cents per foot. Mr. Law was the owner of the lots forming the northeast part of the square, which, however, he transferred to Thos. Peter in trust for his wife, Eliza Park Custis Law, from whom he separated after a brief married life.
In 1801 John Kearney leased a building site at the southwest corner of F and 14th streets subsequently buying it. He erected here a three-story double brick house, which in 1802 was valued at $2,500. This was the residence of the Kearneys for nearly half a century, the family including Surgeon Kearney, United States navy and Col. James Kearney, who as engineer, had charge of the construction of the Washington canal. Lots four and five on which what was known as the Washington Hotel or Mansion House was erected were in 1798 the property of Mr. Hoban, but in 1801 the first was leased to Wm. Lovell and the following year the improvements were valued at $7,000.The next year the other lot was transferred to Mr. Lovell, the description reading "between the houses of Mr. Blunt and Mr. Lovell." It is not known to what use Mr. Lovell devoted this property but as the city councils met there it is believed to have been a tavern or hotel. Tappan Webster appears as the owner in 1809.
In 1811, lot four with brick house between the house occupied by Wm. Rhodes and the frame building of James McLaughlin was transferred to Rhodes and during the war of 1812 the Rhodes Hotel was located there. In 1816 Col. John Tayloe became the owner of these lots with parts of others, and the property was known as the Washington Hotel property. In a few years it became Barnard's Mansion House and later was successively under the management of Sanford, Fuller, Coburs and Hands. A part of the adjoining lot on the east was leased by Mr. Hoban in 1811 to Peter Vallette who kept a public house there till 1817 when he transferred his lease to Barzilla Wright, who held it for a year when B. Fish became the lessee. In 1831 N. Jewwitt held the place and later Galabrun, a famous French chef took the place and it was soon the resort for some of our best people, as well as of foreign representatives.
In 1800 a lot on one corner of 14th street was owned by Walter Steward, and the lots on the west and north in 1810 were in the name of John Hoye, who in 1815 bought the corner lot. Col. Tayloe, a few years later, owned this property and erected a row of seven three-story brick buildings facing the avenue, and one detached on 14th street. These were assessed at $24,000. They were intended for dwellings, but in 1818 Col. John Strother bought them and converted them into a hotel which soon became famous.
Charles Dickens a Guest
After Col. Strother had deeded back the property it became Williamson's Hotel for some years, then Sanford's Mansion Hotel and Fuller's City Hotel. It was in the latter's tenancy that it was used by the general post office, whose quarters in the Blodgett Hotel on E street were burned in 1836.
In 1837 Joseph C. and Henry H. Willard leased the property, and the buildings being remodeled they soon had a paying custom and were enabled to buy the property in 1853. Soon after the northeast corner of the square was purchased, and before the war the hotel was extended to F street. The Willards sold out to Presby, Sykes and Chadwick, in the fall of 1861.
When the Fullers ran the hotel they had their private residence on 14th street north of the hotel, and their stable was on the site of the new Municipal building. In the days of Strother there was a livery stable in the alley behind the hotel which was kept by Isaiah Ware.
In 1804 T.L. Carpenter leased two lots, including the corner of 15th street and the avenue and Alex. McDonald bought part of one of them, erecting a frame house on the avenue, valued at $800. In 1815 James Patterson bought on the corner erecting a frame house, valued at $700, and, improving it, the valuation was raised to $1,500. In 1828 R.M. Gibbs owned the west part of the square on which was a house valued at $800. Richard Forrest owned a brick house on the avenue near the corner, of $700 value, which, in the thirties, was owned by B .L. Lear, and also frame houses valued at $5,500 at the corner of 15th and F streets, in one of which John Kennedy had conducted a grocery, and it was used for the same purpose by W.B. Laub in the thirties. For some years the Misses Pilling owned a small brick building on 15th street in which they conducted a notion store. Mr. Corcoran in 1839 made his initial purchase on this square and the Corcoran building is evidence that he added thereto until he had secured the full site. About 1808 one of the Irish patriots appeared in this locality, Mr. Nicholas Callan, the progenitor of the well-known family of that name.
Flees From Home and Kindred
Watching for an opportunity to get away, he finally succeeded, and reaching his home at Dundalk called on his wife and with her and their child, left his home and kindred, made his way to a vessel and sailed for Philadelphia. They carried nothing with them save a glass vase which the wife long cherished as the only relic they had of their old home. They remained in Philadelphia a few months and, coming to this city, resumed housekeeping on the south side of F street between 11th and 12th streets, where Mr. Callan opened a classical school for boys, preparing many of the youth for college and the professions. Mr. Callan was one of the troopers at Bladensburg in August 1814, and was mortified that his old enemy was not repulsed.
The family moved to the south side of F street near 14th street about 1808 buying lot 10 on which a brick house, valued at $1,400, was erected. Here was born Nicholas Callan, the well-known justice of the peace and agent, John F., long a druggist, and Michael P. a post office clerk and building association secretary, the eldest remaining in the homestead for over half a century, having his office there.
Mr. James Causten in 1837 settled on this square, buying property on the south side of F street now the northeast portion of the Corcoran building. This consisted of two two-story and basement brick houses, in one of which he had his home and office. He was in the claims business and was largely interested in the French spoliation cases and Mexican claims.
In 1810 the trustees of the Presbyterian congregation, which had been worshiping in the Treasury, under the ministrations of Rev. James Laurie, obtained a site on the south side of F street near 14th street, the deed being for seventy-five feet front of parts of lots 12-14, and in the names of Michael Nourse, James McGowan, Tappan Webster, Joseph Nourse and W. Mackey. On this was the church built, and it had a large and influential congregation, we are told, in the early days. Included in it were the President's secretaries, members of Congress and well-known citizens. It was historic after the merging of the congregation with the New York avenue church, when it became known as Willard Hall.
Realty Deals in 1802
Many of these improvements were made before 1810, and while some were private residences there were boarding houses, stores and barber shops, a book bindery, etc. When the treasury was burned in the thirties the department found accommodation in the houses near 15th street and was there several years.
In the forties there was located at the northeast corner of the avenue and 15th street George Brooke & Company's literary bureau, and in the cellar or basement, a shoemaker's shop. North was a two-storied brick house where James Brown carried on the dyeing and scouring business. On an unimproved lot was a marble cutter's yard and adjoining in a three-story brick house was the locksmith and bell hanging business of John Crome carried on. The corner of F street, the site of the Kennedy grocery, was occupied by William B. Laub. Soon after Mr. Corcoran purchased the present site of the building bearing his name he tore down the houses at the corner and erected a three-story square brick building which was rented to the government, being first occupied by the Attorney General and the first auditor.
Among the Residents
In the forties Gen. George Gibson lived on F street, Gen. Winfield Scott on 15th street, Col. James Kearney at F and 14th streets, John Crome was a locksmith on 15th street; John Daley, a blacksmith, on 14th street; J. Purdon, M. Gilbert, F. Selden, Gailabrun, in the tavern business; N. Callan, T.L. and A.T. Smith, Clarke & Quantrell, F.A. Dickers, J.B.H. Smith, T.J. Johnson, G.W. Rice, lawyers or agents; John Brown and G.W. Coakley, barbers; F.R. Labbe, a professor of dancing; Mrs. Townley, Mrs. Ulrich, Mrs. Whitcomb, Mrs. Stilson, boarding houses; J.H. Blake, a book binder on the avenue; Christopher Cammack, a tailor on F street; H.L. Johnson was the agent of the rubber company; J.E. Morse had a billiard saloon and P. Myerhoffer a bowling alley on the avenue; J. Moatt, a stove store; George Lamb, saddlery; S.W.K. Handy, grocer; Mrs. W. Elmer, Daniel Rowland and John Hand, lottery office on the avenue and F.R. May, lotter, on F street; G. Brooke, literary depot, avenue and 15th street; W.B. Lamb, grocer, 15th and F streets.