Lost and Found? Myth, Says Answer Man

By John Kelly
Sunday, March 12, 2006

On the grounds of the former Navy complex on Nebraska Avenue near the corner of Massachusetts and Nebraska avenues NW, there is a chapel without a steeple. A few blocks away, on the corner of Nebraska and Van Ness, there is what appears to be a steeple in someone's back yard. I've heard some stories about a quasi-feud involving the steeple but no definite answer. What's the poop here?

Christopher Dwyer, Washington

If Answer Man was to reduce this story to a children's rhyme, it would go a little like this: Here's the church. Where is the steeple? Open the doors and [redacted by Department of Homeland Security].

What we're dealing with is an urban myth -- a particularly delightful one, but a myth nonetheless. The legend takes several different forms. Here is a representative version: The chapel used to have a steeple, but it was in need of repair. It was taken down for renovation, but a dispute over the unpaid bill prompted the disgruntled restorer to keep it.

Myth, myth, myth, myth, myth.

The chapel, like the nearby buildings, was originally part of Mount Vernon Seminary, a women's college founded by Elizabeth Somers . Somers was a Methodist, and the 1925 chapel was designed "to resemble the neocolonial style of the rest of the campus, but with a touch of a Methodist meeting house," said Nina Mikhalevsky , author of "Dear Daughters," a history of the school.

A viewer's eye might not search for a missing steeple if not for a certain design element that architect Wesley Bessell chose to include: a white cube atop the roof. It looks like a platform for something.

The Navy entered the picture in 1942, when it decided the Mount Vernon campus was essential to its national security needs and gave the college the boot. Mount Vernon College moved its campus to Foxhall Road. (It eventually faltered and, in 1999, was absorbed by George Washington University.) What was originally the Somers Chapel came to be known as the Navy Chapel, a place of worship until about 1990 and a picturesque setting for military weddings after that. In 2004 it was deconsecrated. The reason? The Navy was leaving, and the Department of Homeland Security was coming in. DHS has its headquarters on the campus now and won't say what the chapel is used for.

Now to the other half of the myth. There is no denying there's an odd object behind the fence at 4200 Nebraska Ave. NW. But it isn't a steeple; it's a cupola. Most people don't have a cupola in their back yard, but then most people don't like cupolas as much as Wiley Buchanan Jr. did. He served as President Eisenhower 's chief of protocol.

Buchanan and his wife, Ruth , moved into the estate at the corner of Van Ness and Nebraska in 1940. One day in 1967 he was driving on Wisconsin Avenue as the Mount Alto Veterans Hospital was being demolished. (Eventually the new Russian Embassy would go up in its spot.) The hospital's cupola rested forlornly on the ground. A deal was struck, and it was his.

"He just came home one day and said he was going to bring home that cupola," remembered Buchanan's widow, Ruth. "I said, 'What in the world are you going to do with it?' He said, 'I'm going to have it near the end of the property, by the swimming pool.' " They used to tell people it was the guardhouse.

When she was working on her history of Mount Vernon Seminary, Nina Mikhalevsky, an assistant dean of GWU's Columbian College, took a tour of the Navy complex. When they visited the chapel, her guide spun the tale of the missing steeple.

"I just started laughing," said Nina, who had seen early photos of the always-steepleless building. The guide confessed to Nina that he knew the story was false but delighted in sending people off on wild goose chases in search of the missing steeple.

A joke, or a finely honed disinformation campaign?

Questions? Writeanswerman@washpost.com.

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