Last week, Answer Man explored the Case of the Missing Armillary Sphere. That’s the large, bronze astronomical sculpture that stood in Meridian Hill Park until the late 1970s or early 1980s, at which time it was removed by the National Park Service and, sadly, lost.
When you think about it, it’s a wonder this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often. Answer Man has spent the past week looking in vain for his expensive clip-on sunglasses. He despairs of ever finding them again amid the jumble of the Answer Man compound.
And yet how his compound must pale in size — how his possessions must pale in number — to the holdings of the National Park Service.
When it comes to items that the Park Service has supposedly lost, few compare in scale with the house that once stood at 3518 M St. NW, on the west side of the D.C. end of the Key Bridge.
The house predated Key Bridge, actually, having been built in 1795. Some time in the early 19th century, it became the home of Francis Scott Key and his family. It was from this house that Key traveled to Baltimore in 1814 to secure the release of William Beanes, the Maryland doctor taken prisoner by the British.
So, it was the home of a famous American, which made it all the more sensational when The Washington Post’s Tom Zito announced in an article on May 13, 1981, that the Park Service had lost it.
“Misplacing a house key is one thing,” read the beginning of Zito’s story. “Misplacing a Key house is quite another.”
Now, it wasn’t as if the entire structure disappeared overnight. The house hadn’t been standing since 1947, when it was dismantled to make way for a roadway near the Key Bridge. The plan at the time was to take the house apart, keep track of the pieces and then put them back together again on the east side of the bridge.
But the initial enthusiasm for that project waned. Some of the interior — wooden bits and fireplaces — were stored safely, but the bricks were left in a pile on the proposed new site. Over time, they slowly disappeared.
“After the reconstruction prospects died, so did much incentive for the Park Service to zealously guard the brickpile,” wrote Park Service historian Barry Mackintosh in a paper he prepared in the wake of Zito’s embarrassing story. “With Georgetown in the midst of its restoration boom, it would have been remarkable if the old bricks had not soon found their way into walls, walkways and patios around town.”
While the woodwork was more securely stored, it was eventually decided that the space could be better served storing other things. Some of the interior may have been used in other projects, possibly in the restoration of the Old Stone House farther down M Street.
The mystery of the missing Key House has captivated Washington history buffs ever since. As the Park Service scrambled to respond to The Post’s story, its employees fanned out.
“The press was really having a good time. ‘Why did we lose the Key house,’ ” remembered historian Gary Scott, who retired last year from the Park Service. “We were running around looking for it. We couldn’t find anything.”
In his paper, Mackintosh noted that the house that was dismantled didn’t look much like the one Key had lived in. It had been substantially altered, its gable roof lopped off, chimney demolished, some walls replaced. Even Francis Scott Key-Smith, great-grandson of Key, didn’t think it was worth saving.
In the end, it wasn’t, though bits of it may live on under barbecues or in retaining walls. Today there is a small park commemorating Key at 34th and M streets NW.
It is not at the site of his house, but at the site where his house was meant to be rebuilt but never was.
Here’s a way you can make history in a small way: Participate in our annual fundraising drive for Camp Moss Hollow, a summer camp for at-risk kids from the Washington area.
You can make a tax-deductible donation by going to washingtonpost.com/camp. Click where it says, “Give Now.” Or send a check, made payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Send a Kid to Camp, Family Matters of Greater Washington, P.O. Box 200045, Pittsburgh, Pa. 15251-0045.