George Washington used to tie his canoe in the river flats and argue with David Burns to sell all that land so we could have a capital here.
Mr. Burns, who had a healthy distrust of smooth-talking politicians, even Washington himself, was not so sure it was a good deal to surrender his tobacco farm for no better reason than that Labor, Agriculture, the White House, the Capitol and all that stuff had to go somewhere.
Of course it had to go somewhere, but why did it have to go on his farm? So he gave Washington a hard time, and the high commissioners, too (for even in those days you couldn't do anything without a commission or two), and the governor of Maryland.
People pointed out to Davy -- "Obstinate Davy Burns" he was called, merely because he knew his farm was working and who the hell knew if this newfangled capital would work -- people kept pointing out to him that he'd be a rich man if he just sold his farm and went quietly.
Washington was pretty good, they say, arguing Davy Burns out of his land. My own view is that the business would still be in courts if they tried to take Mount Vernon (Washington's somewhat cruddy and graceless ramshackle barn of a house that he spent years trying to make more genteel than it actually was -- the first example in this town of a fellow bent on fancying up an ugly house).
Finally, Washington pointed out God's truth -- it is always satisfying to point out plain facts to some other fellow -- that the government had the right to seize the Burns land for the government's own evaluation of its worth. And Washington is supposed to have said to Davy Burns:
"Had not the federal city been laid out here, you would have lived and died a poor tobacco planter."
Burns said -- I hope with some correct sarcasm -- "Aye, mon, and hed you no married the Widder Custis wi' all her (blacks), ye'd a been a land surveyor . . . and a mighty poor one at that."
Burns is the only American credited with taking Washington down a peg or two, and for that he deserves a monument in this city full of monuments to people of no consequence whatever.
Washington, was unarguably, the most important of all Americans, ranking even ahead of Jefferson, Franklin or Lincoln. But there are times you have it up to here with Washington. He reminds me of Beethoven, whom anybody easily gets a belly full of, banging around the hall. There are kinds of genius that you say well yes, a great genius, and enough is enough.
Which, I might add, you never say of Jefferson or Mozart or Bach -- the ones you can't help falling in love with, but grace (so rare and so prized) never quite overcomes the last hurdle of common worship, that Washington and Beethoven types so readily leap.
Anyhow, Burns had a beautiful daughter, Marcia, who (thanks to land values in this capital) became the greatest heiress in town. Marshall, Jefferson, Hamilton, everybody was touched by her charm and beauty.
She married a damned Yankee, a New York congressman at that, John Peter Van Ness. His own father disapproved the marriage. Marcia was not fancy enough for the Van Nesses. Who were -- to be plain about it -- merely Dutch.
But the marriage was happy. Why not, with all the money she inherited from Davy. Mr. Van Ness was bounced out of Congress for some seemingly innocent activity that upset his constituents, but his revenge was to live extremely well, in the handsomest house in town, and to give a great feast once a year to the Congress.
Mrs. Mesta once observed of this city that all you have to do is hang a lighted porkchop in the window and everybody will come to your house.
They certainly went to the Van Nesses'. Marcia enchanted everyone with her beauty, her modesty, and -- all right -- her fortune.
In due time her husband became mayor of Washington.In 1832 there was cholera and to set a good example (she was rather religious) she cared for the sick and died of it. The mayor, her husband, gave her a public funeral which, actually, she probably well deserved even if her husband had dug ditches. She founded an orphanage on H Street (between 9th and 10th streets) and gave the land for Ascension Church (Episcopal) in the same block.
When the Van Nesses' only daughter died in 1825, a mausoleum was built on H Street. This was (and is) a remarkable structure, costing the fairly unbelievable sume of $30,000 at the time. The Van Ness mansion by Latrobe only cost $60,000 and I personally think they were robbed.
In any case, Marcia was buried in the mausoleum, a charming and somewhat rough provincial version of the Temple of Vesta in Rome. It has triglyphs and metopes without any sculpture and a nice little dome and Tuscan columns and iron doors. Whenever you build something circular, architects really get you, and the mausoleum is of course circular. Round, as the careless say.
It was built of Aquia Creek sandstone, a lovely rock to be sure, but which weathers even worse than marble. The White House is built of the same stone and so were plenty of other late 18th-century structures around town. Whenever you see a building scarcely 200 years old looking as if it dated from the time of Noah, you may suspect it is Aquia Creek stone.
In the 1870s (1870 or 1872, depending on which source you prefer) the mausoleum was moved to Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. Ascension Church moved also, to its present location on Massachusetts. You will probably want to know that Marcia's funeral included troops of girl orphans dressed in green, bearing willow branches.
The Van Ness family paid for moving the mausoleum to Oak Hill. There are no descendants of Marcia and John Peter except somewhat distant collateral relatives. I say that to keep you from asking why the hell the Van Nesses don't pay to fix up the mausoleum that is now falling into ruin.
Early this week I joined a splendid group got together by the Evergreen Garden Club to start the task of restoration and repair. The first thing they will do is have an architectural survey made.
Knowing Washington and knowing architects and bureaucrats as we do, we may suspect this project will cost 2 billion before it's done, probably 248 years from now. But as President Kennedy said, in another connection, let us make a beginning.
The building was designed by George Hadfield. Hadfield was the brother of Maria Cosway, Jefferson's great fiend who -- but that was in another country and besides she's dead. Trumbull introduced Jefferson to her in Paris. Once everything simmered down, she retired to a convent at Lodi, in Italy, and Jefferson wrote her in extreme old age that their minds still ran on similar tracks, she in her convent teaching girls and he at his University of Virginia trying (with what results you may deliver your own estimate for I shall not) to make gentlemen of southern boys who generally are (or were, at least) proud, handsome, opinionated, square, well-mannered, ignorant, touchy, loyal, trustworthy, a bit hopeless, no doubt, and the glory of America, not to split hairs.
Hadfield, like Jefferson (and the only architect in Washington besides Jefferson), had visited and studied classic ruins in Italy. So quite apart from his relationship with Maria Cosway, Hadfield interested Jefferson who was always hot to get a few good decent architects here who understood the nature of a Doric freeze. Hadfield became superintendent of construction for the Capitol in 1796.Most of his buildings have been torn down -- and replaced with worse, you may well suspect -- but Arlington House remains (the Custis-Lee house in Arlington Cemetery) and the old city hall at Judiciary Square. And the Van Ness Mausoleum.
Well. So much for prologue. When the Evergreen ladies announced they would commence their project to restore the mausoleum with a tour of the burial ground and a picnic among the tombs, of course I lost no time joining them. In the 18th century, long before people were buried there, this land was Parrott's Woods. Parrott's Rope Walk was just to the west, between the burial ground and Dumbarton Oaks. But on with it, on with it, in this age of the jet:
So it made sense to picnic once more where our fathers did. Judith Waldrop Frank, Janet Sturtevant, and the Lord only knows how many other righteous women got up the food. Not hot dogs, as expected, but avocados stuffed with seafood, country ham salad with rice, chicken salad with chopped angels, etc.
George Kackley, superintendent of Oak Hill, lectured through a bullhorn, which sometimes did not work. There was something about Francis Scott Key. The mind can only absorb so much. I saw the grave of Lincoln's secretary of war, Stanton. I heard Brian Wiprud play bagpipes as dusk and dark settled. How eerie and how wonderful.
I saw sweet Bran, the graveyard's resident Irish wolfhound, bounding about in eight-foot leaps. He does such a dear thing. As pedestrians walk down R Street, he hides in the bushes and when they are in clear view the hound leaps forth barking ferociously. Like all Irish wolfhounds, he has a disposition as gentle and sweet as a spring lamb, but there are, you know, heathen amongst us who do not like hounds, just as there are those who do not like sunlight or spring or innocence of any kind. Bran scares the bejibbers out of them. They are conforming the hound to the lowest common denominator, I learned, and are teaching him not to scare the imbeciles waddling down R Street.
How much there is to learn of this wonderful old town. How short the time and how long (as editors rudely say) the telling. I cannot now tell you a wonderful tour of the Organization of American States building (the former Pan American Building with the cornerstone laid by Theodore Roosevelt and the wonderful tropical fig planted by President Taft in 1910) beyond saying it was here that Marcia Van Ness' mansion stood. A Latrobe house, torn down in 1908 for the Pan American headquarters. I had gone to see the Aztec tiles but behold, so entwined are the lives of this capital, that I was not really surprised when Ellen Schaffer of the Columbus Memorial Library just happened to mention the building is where the Van Ness mansion once stood. Where Davy Burns' old cottage once stood. Where Washington tied up his boat and argued with Davy and Davy made the crack about the Widder Custis and her blacks.
Cheap shot. So long ago. Such a joy to know.