By James Croggon, The Evening Star, September 24, 1906 [p. 7]
Few sections of ancient Washington had such an unpromising outlook in the early years of the nineteenth century as the square on the south side of Pennsylvania avenue between 10th and 11th streets, and the square south of that whose lines were once within the waters of the Tyber, now facing the wholesale market space, for many years the canal basin. It is, therefore, not surprising that the southern portion, especially that which was often under water, was slow to improve. Indeed, if credence is given to the accounts handed down to this generation, the wonder is not the slow rate at which this slice of the municipality made progress; but that substantial citizens settled upon it and worked energetically to build it up. For, as before stated, there was south of it the Tyber, which was being converted into the Washington canal, the completion of which was problematical; the lay of the land was low in comparison with the grades of today, and in 11th street there was a small stream whose head was in the neighborhood of 12th and G streets, and which followed a serpentine course. However useful this was for carrying off water, etc., it had well worn an ugly gully in the street, and, as early as 1809, had put the corporation to the expense of bridging it. Yet at an early period a building for theatrical purposes was erected there, known later as the Washington Theatre or Assembly Rooms. It is needless to say that the former inhabitants would find little familiar to them in this section, though there are a few old buildings standing.
Important Early Event
This section was included in the Burns tract when the city was laid out and the square fronting the avenue laid off into eight lots, the avenue front into but two. In 1800 Pratt, Francis and associates owned half of them, the other half being held by the original proprietor, David Burns, from whom it descended to his daughter, Mrs. Van Ness, wife of General Van Ness. The 10th street corner portion from the middle of the square, lot 7, became the property of Wm. H. Dorsey. When the first assessment was made by the corporation in 1803 the avenue front was valued at 12 cents per foot, the 11th street front at 8, and the 10th and C streets property at 4 cents. By 1807 these valuations were reduced about one-third. The first improvement assessed was in the name of Gen. John P. Van Ness of $4,000 on lots 3, 4, and 5, the theatre building, on the site of the present Kernan's Lyceum Theatre, whose walls contain some of the original building. In 1811 Capt. Phillip Mauro bought lot 7, the 10th street corner, and for a few years conducted the business of an auctioneer there, but later was established in the neighborhood of 7th and the avenue.
The Original Owners
Before the Thirties
In the square south there were twelve original lots which were valued first at three cents a foot, but it fell in 1807 to one cent. They were then owned by Thomas Law and the owners of the Burns estate. There was nothing doing in sales for a third of a century other than by lease with the privilege to purchase. In 1818 John Carothers leased lot 10, at the southwest corner of 10th and C streets, having in 1824 a building on the lot, then valued at eight cents a foot. Henry Ault, a tinner, owned property on lot 7, at the southeast corner of 11th and C, in a building of the like value. Samuel Walker had leased before that time lot 9, fronting on C street, and in 1828 James Green leased parts of lots 10 and 11, on 10th street. In 1830 they were listed for only a $300 improvement in the name of Thomas Law, and one of $1,800 in the name of John Carothers.
Fronting Canal Basin
That the site of the first building erected for theatrical purposes in the District should have been at the northeast corner of 11th and C streets northwest is difficult to understand by those who have knowledge through reading and family traditions of the physical features of that locality at the period. Though close to the avenue, it was only a short square from the walls of the canal, and at one time but a few yards from the waters of the creek which ran through this section to the Potomac. Indeed, the very doors of the building were at times under water during storms or high tides. It is true that the Masonic fraternity had erected a small hall on the square west, but the surface of the ground on the west side of 11th street was slightly higher, and on the square south there was no settlement for years. The old theatre became the city post office for a time in the early forties. While the office was located there, the neighborhood was never a lonely one. When mails were received and dispatched by stage there were scenes entirely unknown to the present generation. There was, on the southeast corner of 11th and C streets in the twenties a $300 improvement, assessed to Thomas Law, and the ground had risen from a few cents - one to three, then to sixteen and twenty. John Carothers, from 1818 to 1822 was in business at the southwest corner of 10th and C streets, going from there to New York avenue, 18th and H streets, where he established a tannery about 1828.
Wild Waste Nearby
There had been some theatrical performances in the infant years of the capital before 1803, companies of strolling players giving shows at Conrad & McMann's tavern, now the Varnum, at the northwest corner of New Jersey avenue and C street, and at the Great Hotel, afterward the post office, which was burned in December 1836. In 1803 a movement looking to the erection of a permanent temple for theatricals was made by the opening of subscription books, and by April of that year there was a meeting, over which Daniel Carroll presided, when the site was selected and a building committee appointed.
Gen. Van Ness Treasurer
According to Mr. A.I. Mudd, whose progenitors were among the early residents of Washington, the money needed, raised by stock at $50 per share, did not flow into the coffers freely, but the building, which cost some $3,000, was finally finished. Mr. Maginnes opened it November 16, 1804, with a grand medley entertainment of song, dance, magic, pictures, etc. lasting a month. It was opened and closed alternately for some years, and, failing to pay to the satisfaction of the shareholders, was put up for sale in 1811 and 1813, but was not disposed of. As before, performances and vacation alternated until April 10, 1820, when fire destroyed all save the walls and, doubtless, had not the adjoining boarding house of Mrs. Braden and some others been covered with snow, the flames would have spread. Here Joseph Jefferson, Mrs. Warren, Mr. Fennel, Mr. and Mrs. Wood, Mr. and Mrs. Burke, Mr. and Mrs. Wallace and others performed. The vaudeville also was not unknown here.
After the fire the walls were found to be intact, and the Carusi family, having settled on the avenue at 10th street, bought the property. There were the father, Gaetano, and his three sons, gifted as musicians and artists; the father also well-versed in law and a linguist of note. The sons, Samuel, Lewis and Nathaniel, had established a reputation as professors of music, dancing and painting, and here could be fitted up a building in which their avocations could be easily followed.
Purchased Old Ruins
The Carusis, who were associated with the assembly rooms and the property in this section for years, had, for a few after the arrival of the family - Gaetano, the father, and three sons - in this country under an engagement with Commodore Preble to form and instruct a band for the Marine Corps, resided first near the navy yard. Subsequently, they lived on 11th street above E street, and later south of the avenue. Having in course of a few years established themselves as musicians and teachers, they took a more pretentious residence, what is now 1004 Pennsylvania avenue, as did Michael Sardo, also a musician, on the corner of 10th street. During the war of 1812 and after, the latter was engaged in keeping a store on 10th street, just south of the avenue, where he is said to have sold his whole stock to the British soldiery, being soon the richest man in Washington in pounds, shilling and pence. While the family residences of the Carusis and Sardos were here, there were also on the square the homes of Col. Joseph Watson, Col. D.P. Polk, Senator Poindexter, George M. Bibb, whose son John married a Carusi, Col. Ashton, Mrs. Blake, widow of major Blake, James B. Colvin, editor and publisher of the Register, as well as the boarding houses of Mrs. Sardo, Mrs. Braden and Mrs. Stewart; F. Stenger's grocery store, C. Polkinhorn's harness shop, G. Gaither's silversmith store, Benjamin Chamber's engraver's shop, P. Kinchey's confectionery store, John Coad's cabinet shop. Later there were on the avenue front the properties of M.R. Coombs, restaurant keeper; R.I. Davis, music storekeeper; Samuel Lewis, silversmith, Kinchey, confectioner; Sidney DeCamps, with bookbindery on 10th street, Joseph Whitney, shoemaker, Alexander Rutherford, marble dealer, Charles Lyons and Mrs. Edward's residences. Squire Clark and his office, near the corner of 11th street for a time, and afterwards J.W. Thompson's plumbing establishment, was opened there. Over Buckingham's shop on C street was a small hall, in which some societies held their meetings, the German Benevolent Society among others.
This neighborhood was several times the scene of excitement through the actions of a demented ex-government official who, in his early life, made an enviable name among the citizens. At times he would become possessed of the idea that he had untold millions of wealth, which it was unfair to keep all to himself. With pieces of paper the size of banknotes he would count out into the hands of those he met what he thought to be thousands of dollars. Sometimes he would attempt to give a fortune to a stranger and a scene would often follow.
Had Money to Spare
The steamed oyster had its start at the southeast corner of 11th and C streets and it is not generally known that its introduction to the public was one of the results of the civil war. Messrs. Thomas M. and George Harvey had, in 1858, taken the building at the southeast corner of 11th and C streets, which had been for years the shop of Captain Buckingham, while he was engaged in iron work. It was of brick of about sixty by thirty feet, and the Harveys, making a specialty of hotel and boarding house trade and giving their personal attention to all the details, including the serving of boiled, oysters, became favorite caterers.
Tried an Experiment
The wholesale market space now fills the site of the ancient canal basin, at times a busy mart devoted mostly to the lumber and wood trade. The usual craft seen there was the long boat propelled by men pushing with poles. Some of the vessels were supplied with mast and sails the shoulder-of-mutton style being the favorite. When, however, the ice stopped navigation, this basin underwent a metamorphosis, for the water was at best a few feet deep, and furnished an ideal skating place, where hundreds resorted.