"Something like the Champs Elysees, Sixteenth Street is central, straight, broad and long.... Its portal at the District line is the opening gateway for motor tourists to enter the Capital. On the way down its 7-mile length to the portals of the White House, each section of the thoroughfare will be a dream of beauty: long impressive vistas, beautiful villas, artistic homes -- not only for American citizens but diplomats. Whatever there is of civic incongruties will be wiped out. It will be called Presidents Avenue ."
Mary Foote Henderson, "Remarks About Management of Washington in General and Sixteenth Street in Particular." Printed privately and presented to the Library of Congress, 1927.
SIXTEENTH STREET has never quite lived up to Mary Henderson's startling visions. Its ups and downs have been more than topographic. But today, it still remains for many of us the most fascinating street of the city.
Sixteenth Street is the axis of Washington. An "avenue in all but name," the street goes its high and handsome way seven miles to the District line to become the entrance to the city. Along that compelling panorama is almost a three-dimensional history of the city.
Uphill from the White House, towers and turrets, steeples and porches, ornaments and ivy line the street.
Gargoyles guard steep roofs, and windows show lacy curtains left over from generations ago. Hewn stone steps once trod upon by the famous lead into fantasy houses where space was used with a spend-thrift hand.
The white, classic-revival columns of the White House are the focus of the street. The Lafayette Square houses, especially Decatur House and the former British Embassy (now St. John's Manse), remind you that once the president wasn't the only one to live on the square.
Long limousines and fancily dressed people cluster around the grand hotels. The Pullman mansion, designed in 1909 by Nathan Wyeth, has been, since 1913, first the Imperial Russian Embassy, then the Embassy of the Soviet Socialist Republics. The grand mansion at 1125 is heavily shuttered, and perhaps just as well, for the imperial glitter of its gold-leaf ballroom might blind you as you go by. The National Geographic Library at 4446 with its warm tile roof and arched windows, designed by Hornblower and Marshall in 1902, manages to be both benevolent and majestic at the same time.
Sixteenth Street has been called the Avenue of Churches -- about 45 at latest count. They vary from elaborate edifices such as the concrete sculpture of the Third Church of Christ, Scientist designed by I.M. Pei in 1972 (at 16th and I) to old houses midway to Maryland serving exotic cults.
Lawyers' offices are moving in to splendid old mansions. The offices provide a new life for the houses and borrow from the ornate cellings and heavily carved woodwork a sense of majesty and permanence appropriate to the law.
There are still mansions on 16th Street -- some even keep their circular drives, their ancient trees, carriage houses and bit of garden. Prof. and Mrs. Basil Toutorsky's red brick and stone home and music studios at 1720 is one of the most romantic houses on the avenue. It is guarded by pillars and wrought iron, keeping better than most the ornate interiors proper to its period. It was built in 1892 by Supreme Court Justice Henry Brown to plans by William Henry Miller of Ithaca, N.Y.
On the other side of the street at 1623, the rock-faced Long Meadow sandstone house (designed by Fuller and Sheeler of Albany, N.Y., in 1896), where Gladys Werlich lived for more han half a century, has seemed sad since her tragic death. In 1976, Mrs. Werlich, at 84, tried to fend off a robbery attempt not far from her home but died shortly after of injuries. Her lovely lace curtains seem tattered, and you wonder if the banqueting hall echoes with loneliness.
Couples are moving into the row houses, washing skylights, bringing in new pipes and space, loving the corners and the curlicues. Here and there on once-vacant lots, new houses are going up, perhaps not as nice as the old ones, but welcome for the life they bring to the street.
At Meridian Hill, the handsome old formal park has recently been tidied up. Several embassies are still to be seen -- the Spanish, Mexican, Italian, Polish and Ghanaian, though three plan to leave in the search of air-conditioning. Mrs. Henderson would no doubt spin in her grave if she knew that the site of her castle across from Meridian Park was now covered with moderately priced row houses -- inappropriately named Beekman Place -- since likely she would not have liked her name to be associated with anything less than a diplomatic enclave.
The sister masterpieces of beaux arts architect John Russell Pope (the 1910 Eugene and Agnes Meyer house and the 1920 Irwin Laughlin Meridian House) still command Crescent Place and the best views in the city.
At the mid-point of the street, about Carter Barron Park (once the city reservoir) tax assessments have doubled in the past five or six years, but there are still huge houses -- especially the splendid yellow brick overgrown cottages -- with large lots priced well below some sections with less expansive offerings.
Upper 16th Street is bordered by fine big houses, many of them built by wealthy Jews in the '40s. This area in the '50s was one of the earliest to be integrated by well-to-do black professionals, giving it the nickname of "the Gold Coast." Today, 20 years later, some of the original black settlers are moving on to Montgomery County, often to be replaced by white families moving in from Virginia. The area still remains one of the most successfully integrated sections of the United States, thanks in part to the work of Neighbors, Inc., a local action group.
Carter Barron Park with its fine amphitheater has suffered of late but still could return some day as the Wolf Trap theater of the city, and handier too for the newly returning population. Rock Creek Park meets 16th Street further up, before a later row of handsome houses, some of them embassies. And at the end of the street, the North Portal contemporary homes mark one of the city's last housing developments.
Fine Arts Commission
"Sixteenth Street Architecture," a splendid new documentation of the street, will be published by the Commission of Fine Arts in mid-May under the direction of Charles Atherton, commission secretary. The study is by historian/photographer Sue Kohler and architectural hisorian Jeffrey R. Carson. Floor plans and other photographs are by architect J.L. Sibley Jennings Jr. An exhibit of photographs of the street is open through March 29 at the American Institute of Architects.
In all, 21 houses and buildings, from Lafayette Square to Harvard Street, are documented as to architecture and residents. Kohler and Carson say they have enough research to fill another 600-page book. Some 600 photographs, many of them of buildings and people long gone, illuminate the text -- though for some unexplainable reason, there is no picture of Mary Foote Henderson, empress of the avenue. The scholarship is splendid. It's difficult to see how it could have been done in only three years.
The only complaint is that they didn't include all those other wonderful buildings along the way, such as the former Smithsonian entomologist's house full of carved wooden bugs, the whipped-cream-and-pineapple torte of a mansion now the Ghanaian embassy, and....
Beyond the Boundary
Until 1900, 16th Street was unfinished above Florida Avenue. Florida, the old Boundary Street, then marked the city limits of Washington City. Beyond was the District of Columbia, the county so to speak. Henry Adams, who lived on Lafayette Square, said: "Beyond the Square, the country began." Streams and springs, including a wildly reging torrent called Slash Run, cascaded down the hill to make mosquito swamps between Scott and Dupont Circles.
In 1870, a senator complained that every time Congress appopriated money to plant a shade tree "there comes along a cow or a horse or a goat and tears it down the next day...." Things were better after 1871, when the city attained territorial status and "Boss" Alexander Shepherd took over the board of public improvements.
About then began a great surge of building, with many wealthy families establishing winter homes in Washington to be a part of the social season. Unfortunately, as has been said, many of those people, and others still with us today, tend to treat the city as a first-class hotel.
After 1901, "an incredible building spree," as the book says, "altered the predominately Queen Anne and neo-Romanesque city to one that was fashionably limestone and undeniably Beaux Arts."
Money is not always the answer to good architecture and city planning. After World War I, a new building surge washed away some of the city's best architecture and most historical structures. Lafayette Square was devastated by the demolishing of its northside mansions once owned by W.W. Corcoran, John Hay and Henry Adams.
"Sixteenth Street Architecture" is full of good stories about the street, its architecture, its architects, and most of all, its residents. Perhaps the most interesting are the stories of the houses and the people long lost.
Scaling Henderson Heights
About the turn of the century, the president lived at one end of 16th Street and Sen. and Mrs. John Henderson lived at the other. The president had the White House, but the Hendersons owned Boundary Castle. Of the two, the White House was the less pretentious.
Mary Henderson thought the president would be happier at her end.
She considered that the White House had only a "modest beauty." So she had architect Paul Pelz (a designer of the Library of Congress) draw up a little something, following a proposal by architect Franklin W. Smith.
The new edifice would have bridged 16th Street. The traffic would pass through a triumphant arch (or bottleneck). Over the arch would be a great colonnade, a 500-foot loggia connecting the State Mansion (it isn't too clear just who would love there) and the President's Mansion. All in all it would include about 40 percent of the floor space of the 1900 Capitol.
Mrs. Henderson thought on a grand scale. As she said of the Library of Congress: "If it had been twice as large and twice as beautiful it would have been doubly appreciated."
She had some other ideas for the aggrandizement of 16th Street. She thought it would be the ideal place to build the Lincoln Meorial, or failing that, a Jefferson memorial serving as a formal archway entrance to the city. John Russell Pope presented plans for a Lincoln memorial spanning 16th Street at Meridian Hill, much in the manner of Pelz's new President's Mansion. Mrs. Henderson would have had it a 300-foot-high structure with steps 100 feet wide, escorted by cascades and fountains.
And when most else failed, Mrs. Henderson suggested a "double line of bust statues (equal size) of all the presidents and vice presidents of the United States, to border the sides of Sixteenth Street." (Rather like trophy heads on ploes.)
For years, Mrs. Henderson tried to get the Congress to buy, or even accept as a gift, one of her grand 16th Street mansions (the Spanish Embassy was built for that purpose) as the vice president's mansion. At 90, she was still trying -- even to the point of offering Boundary Castle itself as the vice president's house -- though her adopted granddaughter tried to have her declared unfit to manage her affairs.
(This made Mrs. Henderson so furious that she mounted a great court fight to disinherit the granddaughter. She died in the middle of it in 1931 -- fighting mad -- leaving five wills. A newspaper account -- though of a later date -- said that at her death "from the castle's countless closets there walked forth family skeletons, the court display of which rocked society both here and abroad, while threading his laconic way through the years-ong maze was Mrs. Henderson's Japanese chore boy, Jesse Shima, who was $200,000 richer when the legal smoke cleared." Actually, the final settlement included money to the granddaughter, Francis Wholean, and a niece and nephew, Frances and Henry Arnold.)
Mrs. Henderson did manage to have the street name changed to Avenue of the Presidents for a time, but the next year when she went on vacation (and snubbed a certain influential senator), the name was changed back.
Mrs. Henderson had her successes. She amassed 300 lots on Meridian Hill -- it was said in a newspaper report that she once had to borrow $40,000 to pay the taxes because all her money was tied up in the land.
However, she sold the site of Meridian Hill Park to Congress for $490,000, thus assuring a magnificent eastern view from her house. And she and her architect, George Oakley Totten, built a dozen mansions, sold or rented to foreign governments for embassies.
And she reigned as the empress of 16th Street for 40-odd years. She entertained 15 presidents -- who came despite the lack of meat and alcohol at her dinners -- and everybody else in town.
She had three principal assets, which lasted her all life. She was beautiful, she was intelligent and she was indomitable. In the newspapers a few yers before her death were wonderful photographs of her with her white hair still pilled up in a bouffant pompadour, her eyes still sharp to see anyone who could help her goals. She was a tiny woman, hardly over 5 feet tail. But her ideas were as high as the sky.
Mary Henderson met her husband when, according to the story, at 20 she gazed upon him soulfully from the Congressional Galery. He was a wellknown lawyer, the senator who cast a crucial no vote in the impeachment trial of President Johnson. Sen. Henderson introduced the 13th amendment abolishing slavery.
Her castle, according to the new study, was designed by E.C. Gardner, an architect who wrote several books on house building. Even in 1888 the castle cost $50,000. Architect T.F. Schneider added a stable and service wing four years later, another 32-by-33-foot two-story addition was added in 1897, and in 1902 architect Totten and his partner added still more stone embellishments.Mrs. Henderson, and exercise fiend, later built a tennis court and a swimming pool.
Henderson Castle was torn down in 1949. The flickering of fame can be seen in the lamentable fact that when the current Beekman Place housing development was built on the Henderson Castle site, the builders didn't even remember Mary Henderson in the name.
Promende of Presidents
As "Sixteenth Street Architecture" points out, there were interesting characters building magnificent houses at the other end of the street.
There was, for instance, Marian Adams, called Clover, a witty and interesting woman who was married to Henry Adams, the grandson of John Quincy. Mrs. Adams was the hostess for a literary salon which flourished around them.
The Adams, with their friends, the John Hays, commissioned H.H. Richardson, the architect of the day, to design for them a duplex house at 800 16th St., at H Street NW, in 1884. The Hays house was to be quite elegant in keeping with his society duties as a diplomat. The Adams house, in line with their advanced tastes, was to be plain and uplifting, "a Spartan little box." The book cites some splendid research on the two families by Nancy Ferguson, a summer inern.
Mrs. Adams was a photographer, and she took pictures of the actual construction. Apparently there was a great deal of frivolous fuss about the cost. Cited is a letter from Henry Adams:
"Richardson put back into my contract every extravagance I had struck out, and then made me sign it. After this work he went off to seek other victims. He is an ogre. He devours men crude and shows the effects of inevitable indigestion in his size."
Another time Adams wrote, "Kep your eye on our house-front, and if you see the workmen carving a Christian emblem, remonstrate with them like a father." Later Adams grew ivy over the carving. Mrs. Adams called Richardson's remarkable architecture, "neo-Agnostic."
Tragically, Mrs. Adams perhaps taking the bickering and the decisions about the house too seriously, perhaps upset over her father's recent death -- who knows why -- drank potassium cyanide from her dark room and died. Her husband later commissioned Augustus Gaudens to do the statue "Grief," now standing in Rock Creek Cemetery. Adams stayed on in the house for many years, still the best observor of the capital society. (His book, "Democracy," remains the first and best roman a clef on the city.) The Hay-Adams houses were torn down in 1927 to build the present Hay-Adams Hotel.
Social Circling the Square
The William W. Corcoran house at 1611 H St. was one of the greatest losses to the city -- both historically and architecturally -- when it was demolished in 1922 to make way for the present Chamber of Commerce building.
Sen. Daniel Webster was an early resident, from 1841 to 1843. "Sixteenth Street Architecture" suggests that his friends might have bought it for him. They apparently weren't willing to keep it up for him because he moved shortly to D Street, between 5th and 6th Streets.
Corcoran, the financier and philanthropist, bought the house in March 1849. He commissioned New York architect James Renwick (later designer of the gallery named for himself, also commissioned by Corcoran) to remodel it.
It was in the bay of this house that Corcoran displayed Hiram Power's nude "The Greek Slave" to separate parties for men and women. Corcoran was a great party giver -- one ball was described as "the most magnificent ever given at the capital." The dancing began at 5 a.m. and went until breakfast.
There's much more, of course -- stories for instance about the house of John R. McLean, the father-in-law of Evalyn Walsh McLean, owner of the Hope diamond. The house, at 1500 I St. NW was onlyused for entertaining. (They lived out on Wisconsin Avenue.) The house was described as consisting of a few anterooms wrapped around a gigantic ballroom. One party entertained 1,000 people. It was reported in the public press that at one gala there were three 100-foot-long tables, though the room was 95 feet long.
You could tell 16th Street stories all night -- about the Washington casino planned for Connecticut Avenue at L Street. Or the great Warder house designed by Richardson with a great picture gallery, Venetian red walls, white holly woodwork and a mahogany ceiling.
Sixteenth Street has rivals in the city. Others trumpet the majesty of Massachusetts Avenue or prociaim the pomp of Pennsylvania Avenue. But 16th Street still keeps its memories of a past full of vigorous visions and hopes of a yet more fabulous future.