Centuries of Drama at Halcyon House

By Stephanie Cavanaugh
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 30, 2008

In Greek mythology, a halcyon was a bird said to calm rough seas. "It also means peaceful and prosperous," real estate agent Hugh Oates said.

That about sums up Georgetown's Halcyon House.

Built in 1787 by Benjamin Stoddert, the first secretary of the U.S. Navy (who would know from rough waters), the house is on the market for the first time in 40 years. The asking price is $30 million, a sum that requires a good bit of prosperity.

As for peaceful, "You can relax by the pool with a bottle of Ch√Ęteauneuf-du-Pape and watch people stuck in Key Bridge traffic," said Oates, one of the listing agents at Sotheby's Realty. Or put your feet up in one of three living rooms, waltz around the ballroom, play a hot game of whist in the game room or read something edifying in the library. Prefer prayer? Of course there's a chapel.

"For 30,500 square feet, it's quite livable, don't you think?" Oates asked, an hour into a tour of the main house on the 3400 block of Prospect Street NW.

Included in the $30 million price are an adjacent 2,900-square-foot townhouse, six rental apartments, and a gated drive and garage that can hold up to 15 cars. Taxes for 2008 are $71,876. And heating and cooling fall into the category of "if you have to ask," Oates said.

Stoddert selected the site on Georgetown's most prominent hill for its commanding view of the harbor. If anything, that view is even more dramatic today, taking in the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument and the Kennedy Center, then sweeping across the Potomac to downtown Rosslyn and the soaring arches of the Air Force Memorial.

The house, Oates said, encompasses three eras. Stoddert's beautifully scaled Federal building faces the river and contains the original entry -- although the vast front lawn and steps leading down to the Potomac were long ago replaced by M Street.

In the early 1900s, Albert Clemons, a nephew of Mark Twain, bumped out the rear of the house by 25 feet, adding "a grand ballroom for parties and creating a new Prospect Street entrance in a Georgian Palladian style reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello," Oates said. "From a home in quiet good taste, it became a big statement house."

Quite the eccentric, Clemons is said to have thought that as long as he continued to add on to the house he would never die. So in addition to his saner modifications, by the time he did expire in the late 1930s the house was an M.C. Escher maze of doors and stairways to nowhere. Georgetown College (it wasn't yet a university) bought the house in 1961 and furthered the ruin, turning it into a dormitory for students.

The current owner, sculptor John Dreyfuss, along with his now ex-wife, photographer Mary Noble Ours, spent 16 years restoring the house and its spectacular garden, adding a whimsical library on the fourth level, and a vast soaring studio in the undercroft -- like an underground loft of concrete and steel. The studio has been made available over the years for weddings and other galas.

Given its history, it's not surprising that the place has its ghosts. "The most haunted house in Washington," wrote John Alexander in his 1998 book "Ghosts: Washington Revisited."

Crying has supposedly been heard in the basement near a long-sealed door, said to lead to a stop on the Underground Railroad. Footsteps allegedly creak in the attic, and there's a bedroom where guests have reported being levitated in the middle of the night.

Lights occasionally snap off, supposedly by Clemons, who abhorred electricity and wouldn't install it. Stoddert himself may have occasionally been caught cat-napping. Although the current owner has observed no nonsense in his 40 years there, Oates said, one of the workmen claims to have occasionally sensed . . . something.

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