At first the patch of high land on the east side of Rock Creek was called "The Widow's Mite" - not exactly a home that encourages real estate development.
But sometime last century it became "Kalorama" - Greek for "beautiful view" - and by 1909 a speaker at the Columbia Historical Society referred to "beautiful Kalorama Heights," where the embassies seemed to be gathering as "the palace end of town." As it became more fashionable, it became more crowded. The "beautiful view" itself shrank.
The growth of "Kalorama: From Country Estate to Urban Elegance" is depicted in a current exhibit at the Woodrow Wilson House, itself a Kalorama landmark as well as a national historic site. The exhibit might serve as a model for other neighborhoods to copy.
Old maps, drawings and photographs trace the early history of the area. King Charles II repaid a political debt to one John Langsworth in 1667 with a grant for "The Widow's Mite" - a name which lasted at least as long as 1792, when the city of Washington map appeared. Langworth apparently didn't do much with the property.
By 1750 it had been sold to the Anthony Holmead family, and the second Anthony built Kalorama's first house, Rock Hill, where S Street now runs. Rock Hill was sold to one of the early federal city commissioners, Gustavus Scott, in 1974, and the Holmeads built a second home for themselves. Scott went bankrupt, however, and soon the original house was in the hands of William Washington, George's nephew and aide-de-camp. He remodeled Rock Hill and sold it to Joel Barlow, a poet, diplomat and friend of Thomas Jefferson, for $14,000.
It was Barlow who bestowed the name "Kalorama" on Rock Hill and made it famous. One of his illustrious friends, architect Benjamin Latrobe, built a Greek lodge at the entrance gate. Robert Fulton tested his steamboat model on Rock Greek and built a summer home where 24th and Wyoming now intersect. Presidential families, diplomats and friends from abroad visited. So hospital were the widow of the Irish patriot Wolfe Tone to live with them, they built a wing on their house for her.
The estate's days of glory came to and end in 1887, when the last owners sold 60 acres to the Philadelphia syndicate that platted Kalorama Heights. Sheridan Circle was laid out and soon Massachusetts Avenue was extended across the bridge and into the country. With a summer temperature "five degrees lower" than downtown Washington, that area was ripe for development. It was Washington's version of "The Cherry Orchard."
As in the Chekhov play, there were casualties. The section of the exhibit called "Early Kalorama" illustrates the lost houses. The Barlow mansion was razed in 1888. The second Holmead house survived until 1929.
Gradually the present neighborhood took shape. The "Presidential kalorama" part of the exhibit shows the handsome houses where future or past presidents have lived: Herbert Hoover at 2300 S. William Howard Taft at 2215 Wyoming Ave., Franklin Roosevelt at 2132 R. All of those houses are now embassy properties.
The show is rounded out with "Diplomatic Kalorama," a look at the elegant foreign mansions in the area, and a group of striking photographs of "Neighborhood Amenities." Outstanding among the latter are the Spanish Steps. Built to negotiate the 14-foot drop at the end of 22nd st. between Decatur Place and S Street, they provide, as the exhibit states, a distinctive entry to the neighborhood.
The exhibit and the tape were both class projects for Dana Perry, who recently received a master's degree in the museum education program at George Washington University. She began last fall by studying old maps and looking for people who has grown up in the area. She found Joel Barlow, a collateral (indirect) descendant of the Joel Barlow who named Kalorama, on the day before he left Washington for retirement in Florida. Later she found Anthony Holmead.
Perry does not recommend undertaking an exhibit and an oral history project at the same time. But the results are nostalgic and instructive and worth a visit. The show is up through the end of August, from 10 to 2 on weekdays and noon to 4 on weekends.
(The author, public information officer at the Library of Congress, is building a house in the Kalorama area, designed by her husband, Francis Donald Lethbridge.)