NOT ALL THE good stories in Washington happen on Capitol Hill or in the White House. The City of Washington, as opposed to the Capital of the United States, has a rich and boisterous life of its own.
These tales are just now beginning to be properly researched and set down for our edification, amazement and amusement. In the two most recent Washington histories cited here, you should not let the appearance of weighty scholarship (each is well over 500 pages) put you off: The stories they tell are as good as anyone's gothic novel. Even so, the prodigious research which went into them is enough to make you reach for the eyedrops and the bottle of scotch in sympathy.
Sixteenth Street Architecture takes the narrower approach. It tells you every single anecdote and secret about 22 of the more remarkable castles, houses, temples and clubs on the city's most diverse and fascinating street. Sixteenth begins at Lafayette Square, the heart of old Washington, and moves seven miles north to the District line, the last area to be developed. Capitol Losses, on the other hand, takes you all over town to discuss 252 houses, churches, stores, plants and even horse-watering fountains that once were but are no more. Though the buildings are lost, Goode has found the stories. These two books should be read together, because many of the stories are continued from one to the other.
In Sixteenth Street , the authors give extensive biographies of the architects of the structures and the owners. The architecture of each building is discussed in great detail, tracing the sources of each element. In the back is a most useful illustrated glossary of architectural terms -- straightening out the matter of a radial marquise and a crossette architrave. Goode places each building in its own era and introduces you to the people who designed, built, lived and worked there. His bibliographical notes and extensive index are also very useful.
Three of the most interesting buildings are the Hay-Adams House, razed for the hotel which now stands on the site on the north side of Lafayette Square; the John R. McLean house at 1500 I St., and Henderson Castle. All three appear in both books, though the Fine Arts Commission takes them up in greatest detail.
My favorite character is Mary Foote Henderson, who reigned as Queen of Meridian Hill until her death at 90 in 1931 when she left all her money ( $6 million) to her good-looking Japanese houseboy. She was a vegetarian, an exercise fiend, a prohibitionist, a great beauty, a popular hostess, a grand dame, a hugely successful lobbyist (Congress paid for several of her enterprises) and one of the shrewdest real estate manipulators ever.
She set about to make 16th Street "the Avenue of the Presidents." Congress, browbeaten, agreed, until she made the mistake of going out of town, at which time they changed the name back. She tried to ban buses from 16th Street lest the hoi polloi "peer into the boudoirs of the diplomats." With her favorite architect, George Oakley Totten, she built more than 12 of the most magnificent mansions, most of which still stand in glory, if a bit shabby. From Henderson Castle at the top of Meridian Hill, she talked Congress into building and maintaining Meridian Park for the aggrandizement of her surrounding properties and mansions.
After years of trying to sell one of the mansions to Congress for a vice-presidential residence, Mrs. Henderson tried to give one. That was when her adopted granddaughter endeavored to have her declared incompetent. But at 90 the old girl was still the match of anyone else.
The saddest story is about Marian, wife of Henry adams. The couple was the center of a literary salon in Washington and very advanced in their tastes; his book, Democracy , might well be the first roman a clef about the city.
Though she was an accomplished photographer and a student of design, when they came to build a double house with their friend, John Hay (he was a diplomat), they chose the society architect of the day, H. H. Richardson (who had gone to Harvard with Adams).
Adams ordered "a Spartan box," then his wife entered into a series of battles with Richardson over embellishments. This strain, combined with the death of her father, led her to suicide. She went into her darkroom and drank potassium cyanide, a photographic chemical. Her bereaved husband finally moved into the house in 1885 and later had the sculpture "Grief" erected in Rock Creek Cemetery in her memory. The Hay/adams house was demolished in 1927 for the hotel which bears the name.
Goode spent five years going through 225 private and public collections. Out of these has come a remarkable amount of lore on structures no longer extant: the dairy where all the employes had to live above the plant so they wouldn't be late to work; the General Noble Redwood Treehouse; the octagonal houses; the infamous Washington jails; the old Brick Capitol where Congress met; Dunbar High School.
Then there's the strange case of Trinity Episcopal Church which stood from 1849 to 1936 at Third and C Streets. Its design was James Renwick's first plan (rejected) for the Smithsonian Institution. The style was Gothic Revival instead of Norman, but it too was built of red sandstone. It was the church of John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and Francis Scott Key. But efforts to make it the National Episcopalian church failed. When the War Between the States broke out, the minister refused to read prayers for the victory of the Union forces. He was fired. But the church was seized by the Union and used as a hospital. It all happened so quickly, that the congregation was having Sunday services when the government started to board the windows.
Goode, Kohler and Carson are to be congratulated on their fine books. But there's so much they've left out. What about, for instance, that grand house on 16th Street with all the insects carved into the wood paneling? And why have we not had a fuller explanation of the splendid Beaux Arts mansion now the Ghanaian Embassy?
Ah, but there's hope. Kohler and Carson are hard at work on Volume II. And Goode has started the long-needed definitive treatise on the Smithsonian. More! More!