If John Adlum had had his way, the U.S. government would be growing grapes on the Mall and turning it into wine. Lovely, lovely wine.
Alas, the Feds did not see things his way. In the early 19th century, they spurned Adlum’s suggestion that the way to lessen American dependence on foreign wine was to create our own by testing out grape varieties at the base of Capitol Hill.
But Adlum didn’t give up. “He took it upon himself to do what he thought the government should be doing,” said Kim Prothro Williams, author of the new book “Lost Farms and Estates of Washington, D.C.”
I met Williams recently on a patch of land that was once the center of Adlum’s agricultural experiments. We were two blocks from Wisconsin Avenue NW on a street named for Adlum’s old estate: Springland Lane. There was nary a grape vine in sight. There was, however, a physical remnant of those agricultural days: a low stone building with a slanting roof. It’s the springhouse that served Adlum’s vineyard, which once ranged over the rolling landscape here.
“A springhouse is essentially just walls with a roof built over the source of water,” Williams said. The roof kept debris from falling into the natural spring. Shelves inside were used to keep cream and butter cool. The Springland springhouse is in a side yard, amid the hostas. Water flows through it still.
Williams delights in these remnants of a time when Washington grew more than red tape. For her book she sought out the history of the structures that rural living required — springhouses, smokehouses, icehouses, corn cribs, barns, etc. — and harvested those that remain.
It’s more than you might think. There are old barns in such places as St. Elizabeth’s and the Franciscan Monastery, institutions that once grew their own food and raised their own livestock. Dozens of farmhouses are scattered around town.
“I think what inspired me to write this book is that a lot of this information is known to the people who live in these farmhouses — so people may know the history of that street or that house — but I don’t think anyone had made the connection citywide,” she said.
Williams is an architectural historian whose day job is in the District’s Historic Preservation Office. To identify farm structures that still dot Washington, she pored over a detailed 1894 map of the city in the Washingtoniana collection of the MLK Library. By comparing it to subsequent maps, she was able to find buildings that survived development.
“You notice the footprint,” Williams said. “For the most part, the farmhouses are sited on hills overlooking the city. Most of the farmhouses look south and were sited in a way that corresponds with farm lands.”
Sometimes, buildings were worth a look because they didn’t conform to the grid pattern that Washington adopted when the distinction between the downtown City of Washington and the outlying Washington County was erased in the 1890s. Many old houses were torn down. Some weren’t.
“Many of the houses that survived are skewed on their lots,” she said. “Those would jump out at me.”
So would houses that were in the center of their block or didn’t line up with the street or the houses around them.
“It was a really old-school approach, but I think it was pretty successful,” Williams said. She identified 84 artifacts — from gate posts to complete buildings — that were once part of the city’s agricultural fabric.
Over the years, many inevitable factors contributed to the decline of agriculture in Washington. During the Civil War, troops bivouacked in farm fields. Later, streetcar lines opened up acreage to residential development. Farms held on into the 1940s. A dairy farm — Wahler Bros. — operated in Congress Heights into the 1960s.
John Adlum wasn’t the only green-thumbed Washington entrepreneur who wanted to literally transform the American landscape. Thomas Main was a Scottish immigrant who tried to grow grapes on land he rented near today’s Reservoir Road. When that crop failed, he turned to something he knew better: hedgerows.
In 1808, he placed an ad in a Washington newspaper for his nursery near Little Falls, where he grew more than 50,000 American hedge thorn seedlings for use in separating farmers’ fields.
“That’s what they did in Scotland,” Williams said. “It was really just a practical thing. Looking around, he had seen a scarcity of wood [in Washington]. Wood was expensive. Why not introduce what was called live fencing? It’s good for the environment — you cut down fewer trees. It’s less costly. And it brings in nature: You’ve got birds feeding in your live fencing. It just becomes part of the landscape.”
Among Main’s customers was Thomas Jefferson, who purchased some thorn hedges either for Monticello or the Executive Mansion.
Main died in 1814. I like to think that some of his hedges survived and, 200 years later, still grow where they were planted.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.