John Kelly's Washington: A Lovely Archway and 12 Feet of Sweet Revenge

A perceived intrusion of privacy prompted the creation of this suspended three-story structure on N Street NW.
A perceived intrusion of privacy prompted the creation of this suspended three-story structure on N Street NW. (By John Kelly -- The Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

If you have ever eaten at the Iron Gate Inn on N Street NW, you have walked through an iron gate (duh) and beneath an archway. Above the archway is a . . . well, what is it exactly?

That's what Gail McCormick wondered. She heads up the archive at the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the nonprofit group that owns the buildings to the right and the left of that archway and the curious three-story structure that hangs suspended between them. The archive she oversees, the Women's History and Resource Center, is in a long, narrow room above the entrance to the Iron Gate. She's always wondered why the room was so oddly located and proportioned.

After some sleuthing, this is what she discovered: The house at 1734 N St. NW was built in 1875 by retired Rear Adm. William Radford. That was back in the days when nearby Dupont Circle was known as Pacific Circle (it was to the west, like that ocean). By 1884, the house was owned by Thaddeus and Augusta Markley. There were empty lots to the east of the house. The Markleys purchased half of the lot closest to them to make a grand driveway leading to the carriage house at the rear.

When the Markleys returned from an extended trip to Europe, they discovered that someone had bought the lot on the other side of their driveway and was planning to build a house with windows overlooking their own. Incensed by this perceived invasion of privacy, they threw up a wall. But building regulations limited how tall the wall could be, so they instead built an addition jutting out from the second floor of their house and extending all the way to their neighbor's.

Gail found a mention of the room in a New Orleans paper from 1899. Wrote the author: "it bears in the neighborhood the name of the 'spite room.' "

The room is 12 1/2 feet wide and 65 feet long. It's perfect for a library -- and was used as such by later tenants -- although that might have been an afterthought. "If it was built for spite, they probably figured out later what they were going to do with it," Gail said.

Why not just construct an entire skinny building, from the ground up? Gail figures that by classifying it as an addition, and not new construction, the Markleys could bypass more-stringent regulations.

That room and many others in the mansion -- which is stuffed full of handsome mantels, lovely carved molding, colorful murals and artwork -- will be open Saturday and Sunday during the annual Dupont-Kalorama Museum Walk Weekend.

For information, visit That little block of N Street is one of the loveliest in the city, and if you've ever wondered what's inside some of those grand houses, here's your chance.

Let There Be Spite

That isn't the only spiteful house in the area. Several others have that nasty reputation, although some might be apocryphal. The 11-foot-wide house at 1239 30th St. NW has been called a spite house, as has the one at 3047 N St. NW. Alexandria's skinny 523 Queen St. looks spiteful, although it probably isn't.

The only one we can be sure of actually has "spite" in its name. The Tyler Spite House in Frederick was built in 1814 by a local oculist to keep the city from building a road there.

Love Is Blind

A few weeks back, I wrote about animal ophthalmologist Nancy Bromberg. That prompted the District's Sharon Isch to write in that Dr. Bromberg once treated the eye of her cat Murgatroyd for herpes.

"My sister said Murg must have been looking for love in all the wrong places," Sharon said.

Send a Kid to Camp

We're in Day 2 of this year's Send a Kid to Camp campaign. Our goal is to raise $500,000 by July 24 for Camp Moss Hollow, a summer camp for at-risk kids. Your tax-deductible gift will help us get that much closer.

To give, send a check or money order, payable to "Send a Kid to Camp," to P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237. Or contribute online by going to and clicking on the donation link. To use MasterCard or Visa by phone, call 202-334-5100 and follow the instructions on our taped message.

My e-mail: My blog, "John Kelly's Commons," is at

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