I was going through some of my dad's old files — he died in 1988 at age 97 — and found many photos he took with his reliable folding Kodak camera. A picture from 1922 was taken from Florida Avenue looking north on 16th Street, where you can see the Henderson Castle across from Meridian Hill Park. I was wondering how many of your faithful readers know about Washington's only castle.
— Charlie McGovern, Columbia, Md.
Well, Answer Man wouldn't call it Washington's only castle. There's James Renwick's Smithsonian Castle, completed in 1855. And that turreted water tower in Fort Reno.
But in the six decades that the Henderson Castle loomed over 16th Street NW, it was probably the city's most impressive faux battlement. And it was built at the behest of one of Washington's most interesting figures: Mary Newton Foote Henderson.
She came to Washington from New York state in the mid-1860s, reportedly to see U.S. senators up close. (There was no C-SPAN then.) Lest you think she was a mere gold digger, she came from a prominent family of politicians and lawyers. Her mother was a scientist and suffragist.
While in the Capitol's public gallery, young Mary caught the eye of Sen. John B. Henderson of Missouri, who co-sponsored the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. They were married in 1868. After John served a single term in the Senate, he returned to Missouri, made a ton of money as a lawyer and an investor and then returned to Washington with Mary in time to bask in the glory of the Gilded Age.
The Hendersons paid $50,000 to buy six acres on a rise known as Meridian Hill, a name that was a remnant of an unsuccessful attempt decades earlier to create a uniquely American meridian leading north from the White House for use in cartography and navigation.
In 1889, it cost them another $50,000 to construct what they called Boundary Castle, for its position just north of what was then Boundary Street, the border of the City of Washington.
Wrote Sue A. Kohler and Jeffrey R. Carson in their 1978 book on 16th Street: "The location and design gave the impression that the castle was somehow strategic to the defense of the city, while the heights gave the occupants a psychological advantage over the ferret-like maneuvering of those who resided below."
When the ferrets looked up, they saw a 30-room Romanesque Revival brownstone mansion designed by Massachusetts architect Eugene C. Gardner. Outside was one of the city's first private swimming pools. Inside was a 100-foot-long ballroom where the Hendersons entertained.
These parties were . . . unique. Mrs. Henderson was a teetotaling vegetarian who insisted that only ersatz meat and unfermented wine be served at her functions. She even persuaded her husband to destroy the contents of his wine cellar. The bottles were taken outside and uncorked, their contents turning the gutters of 16th Street crimson.
Mary Henderson envisioned 16th Street as the Champs-Elysees of America. The couple bought land around Meridian Hill — their holdings once totaled 300 lots — and built mansions that became embassies for Spain, Poland, Mexico and Ghana.
Finding the White House unimpressive, Mary tried to get Congress to build a grander Executive Mansion on Meridian Hill. It declined, as it did with her idea to place the Lincoln Memorial there.
Henderson did persuade Congress to rename 16th Street the "Avenue of the Presidents," but only temporarily. They went back to the old name a year later, when she was away in Bar Harbor, Maine. She sold Congress the land for Meridian Hill Park — also known as Malcolm X Park — in the process displacing African American families that lived in frame houses facing 15th Street.
Sen. Henderson died in 1913. After Mary Henderson's death in 1931 at age 88, the mansion was rented by a promoter who turned it into the Castle H Tennis and Swimming Club. Henderson probably would have disapproved of the bar the club installed in the old ballroom.
Booze-soaked parties at the club irritated the neighbors, among whom were the Meyers, the family that owned The Washington Post. In 1946, Agnes Meyer, wife of then-Post publisher Eugene Meyer, bought the property. Three years later, the castle was demolished.
In 1971, it was announced that the land was being sold to the American Baptist Service Corp., a company that helped churches build and maintain low- and moderate-income housing. That deal fell through, and instead of an affordable 1,000-unit apartment complex and a nursing home, the land sprouted 216 pricey townhouses.
Today, all that remains of the Hendersons' castle is part of the stone wall that surrounded it.
Next week: The scandalous story of the widow Henderson and her young assistant.
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We're halfway through this year's Helping Hand fundraising drive, but only a quarter of the way toward our goal. So far, readers have donated a total of $55,737 to Bright Beginnings, a preschool that helps homeless children and their parents; N Street Village, a shelter and support network for women experiencing homelessness; and So Others Might Eat, which offers meals and more to poverty-stricken Washingtonians.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.