The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There are a lot of myths about D.C.’s Winder Building. The truth is impressive, too.

A 19th-century photo of the Winder Building, built in 1848 by a real estate developer is still in use as a government building.
A 19th-century photo of the Winder Building, built in 1848 by a real estate developer is still in use as a government building. (Library of Congress.)

For many years, there was a plaque on the Winder Building on 17th Street NW near the old Corcoran Gallery, which said the building had been used as a jail for enemy soldiers during the Civil War. I remember reading somewhere that President Lincoln used to walk over there to talk with the guards and to “interview” the captured soldiers.

I had not been by for a long time, but when I walked by there last month the historic plaque had been removed. The website of the U.S. Trade Representative, whose offices are now there, says the story about Lincoln and Confederate prisoners is not factual. Nevertheless, the U.S. Quartermaster General and Army Ordnance departments were there during the Civil War, and Lincoln did visit. Surely all of that deserves a plaque.

Edward Tabor, Bethesda

A Washingtonian walking on the west side of the White House in 1848 would have been astounded by the structure rising at 17th and F streets NW. Five stories tall and containing 130 rooms, it was at the time of its construction the largest building in the city.

The man who built it, William H. Winder Jr., came from a well-known — if somewhat unlucky — family. He was the nephew of Gen. William H. Winder, who led — or misled — American forces in the Battle of Bladensburg in the War of 1812.

In the 1840s, the younger Winder knew the growing federal government was hungry for office space. He made a gamble, buying land near the White House and hiring Philadelphia architect Richard Arthington Gilpin to create an L-shaped Italianate Renaissance-style building with a narrow iron balcony wrapping around the east and south sides between the first and second floors.

Winder was right: The Department of War quickly gobbled up most of the space for various agencies. But not all.

Also in the building was what today might be called a lobbyist. A former Navy contracting agent named William B. Scott advertised that his office was conveniently located in the Winder Building, down the hall from the Navy. Read his newspaper ad: “His long connexion with the Navy Department . . . together with an extensive acquaintance with the members of Congress, may possibly enable him to render important service to such as may entrust their business to his management.”

By 1854, the secretary of war decided it would be easier to just own the Winder Building outright, and he purchased it from Winder for $200,000. That secretary was Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy.

The whiff of rebellion made things difficult for Winder during the Civil War. His cousin, John H. Winder — scion of a Maryland family known for its Southern leanings — resigned from the Army and joined the Confederacy, where he oversaw Union prisoners. William Winder was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government and spent 14 months in federal custody before being released.

During the war, the Winder Building housed the Quartermaster General’s Department, the Navy Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography, among others. In 1865, the Army Signal Corps erected a rooftop platform to send and receive signals by means of flags and lights. Other occupants of the Winder Building over the years included the commissioner of pensions and the surgeon general.

In 1950, the National Capital Sesquicentennial Commission put a plaque on the Winder Building claiming that “President Lincoln was a constant visitor during the trying days of the war and received here the latest despaches by wire from the Army in the west and by courier from the southern front. In addition to conferences with his military commanders, it is recorded that he often came at night to talk to prisoners held in the cells.”

Except, he didn’t.

“It’s just not true,” said Jim Lighthizer, president of the Civil War Trust. “It was a government building. It wasn’t like the telegraph office, where Lincoln would go and sleep on the couch.”

The telegraph office was across 17th Street in the main War Department building, where the Old Executive Office Building stands now. Perhaps that proximity gave rise to the confusion.

In 1969, the Winder Building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Despite this, the General Services Administration moved to demolish it and two adjacent buildings to make way for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. Public outcry put the kibosh on this.

The Winder stayed, and between 1976 and ’79, the GSA sprang for an extensive restoration. An aluminum balcony was added to replace the rusty iron one removed during a 1922 renovation. At some point, the error-ridden plaque was taken away.

Jim Lighthizer has a soft spot for the building. His younger brother, Robert E. Lighthizer, is the head of the current tenant: the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

Jim determined that his brother’s office is the same one used by Quartermaster Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, whose epic organizational skills were instrumental in winning the Civil War. He found a daguerreotype of Meigs and had it enlarged for his brother’s office.

Said Jim: “It’s kind of cool when you think you’re in the same space where one of the more important figures in American history worked.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

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