NEAR THE CITY HALL
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, December 16, 1906 [pt. 4, p. 11]
It was not until Louisiana avenue received that name about 1820 and the site for the city hall was selected that the garb of nature was relieved by a primitive footway of gravel and sand. Meandering paths had been worn within their lines, for in what is now the park some squatters were residing. The corner of 6th street was for many years an open lot, but in the fifties John T. Towers & Bro. erected there a printing office on the site of the Barbour law building. East on part of lot 13 was erected about 1815, a three-story brick building which a few years later became the Shakespeare Hotel owned by Ernst Guttslich, a resort of the professionals of that day. The house was valued in the twenties at $3,200 and later at $3,700. A large portion of the original walls are in the building now on the site. It is said that it was in the third story of the building that one of the first Know Nothing or Native American lodges in the District was formed, about 1853 and that a prominent New England senator was initiated. Mrs. Guttslich conducted a boarding house there for many years after the hotel business was closed.
Adjoining, on the east, is the fenced-in space on which the names of American Theater, Copps' Saloon or Assembly Rooms and Canterbury were prominent in early days. The site, parts of lots 13 and 14, was in 1797 included in the holdings of Dunlap or Carlton, passing into the hands of David Peter in 1803 and through the Washington Tontine, Joseph Forrest, agent, to William Warrant and William B. Wood of Philadelphia in 1820. T hose persons, each well-known in the theatrical profession, conceived the project of building a theater there and September 2 of that year made an agreement to purchase 6,117 square feet at fifteen cents per foot. Having secured the control, September 19 a further agreement was made by Warren and Wood with Samuel N. Smallwood, then mayor of the city; W.W. Seaton of the Intelligencer, and Roger C. Weightman, who afterward served in the mayoralty, John Law and Benjamin L. Lear to create a fund and erect a theater. Shares were $100 each and the holders of stock were entitled to free admission, except to benefit performances, and Messrs. Warren and Wood bound themselves to establish a theater and that the seasons were not to be less than twenty-four nights. In less than a year the building, which seated 700 including separate accommodations for the colored race, was opened. August 8, 1821, being the initial performance. The company in which were Warrens, Woods, Jeffersons, Wallack and others, gave "She Stoops to Conquer," with a farce and dance.
Appearance of the Elder Booth
Hackett, Madam Celeste and Edwin Forest appeared at the theater in that decade, and Lafayette in 1821 attended the performance there of "the Soldier's Daughter," a comedy, and "The Review," a farce, Miss Clara Fisher, who was heard by some persons now living who are not very old, sang some of the old ditties there about 1830.
About 1829, at the suggestion of Mr. Warren, the stockholders appointed a committee to enlarge the building to accommodate 1,000 people, which was accomplished by the close of 1831. In December of that year the theater was reopened under the management of Joseph Jefferson the second. During his regime Kean, Forrest, Mrs. Drake, Madam Feron and other notables appeared, but possibly the greatest event was that of "Daddy," or "Jim Crow," Rice (T.D.), with his negro songs and dances, "Cl'ar de Kitchen," "Jump, Jim Crow," etc. It was there that the late Joe Jefferson, then only four years of age, was introduced to the public. He was carried in a bag to the stage by Rice, and, while singing "Jim Crow," was tumbled out before the audience to take part in the performance. Within a few years the building was entirely remodeled, and was again opened in September, 1835, but a month or two later was again closed.
It is related that during the thirties the theatrical profession was not a lucrative one at times, and that some who afterward reached high rank often found it necessary to live in the green room of the establishment. The late Joseph Narden was an assistant property man at the theater in question, and he was wont to relate how he aided some of the actors of that day by taking them a basket of fried frog legs. Several boys employed there went with him to the country one morning, and over the river captured a dozen or two "bloodnouns." These he stripped of their hind legs, which he got his mother to cook, and carried to the green room. The company was about sitting down to a table very meagerly supplied, and he passed one fried leg to each, saying it was chicken, but when he replenished their plates with more legs the absence of other portions of fowl was noticed and he was asked to explain. That he did. While some of the diners said they would not have been able to eat the delicacies had they know what they were, they had acquired such a taste for frog legs that for some weeks he was kept busy in hunting the greenbacks.
American Theater Again Opened
In the days of the civil war the building was a famous place of amusement for the many thousands of soldiers and others drawn to the capital. A variety of vaudeville show for men was given, and the performances on and off the stage were often of the uproar character and then again were of a high order. A band of six or eight instruments was employed to drum up the audiences daily, and in the evening would start from the front of the Treasury headed by a transparency, and the lively tunes would in a little time attract as many as would fill the place twice over . The audiences would be regaled by song, dances, silent of band tricks etc., on the stage, while soft drinks and cigars were served. Through such audiences as were wont to attend to the time of the hectornners stored far and wide, and some who were then looked upon as only passable in their roles were afterward heard of as stars in the theatrical world. Even the drummer of the little band became prominent in the musical circles of northern cities. The building was destroyed by fire one morning about 1870.
There was no company performing here at the time. It is related that although there was no loss of life there was a narrow escape. The former Shakespeare Hotel was then Lichau’s, and among his patrons was an aged member of the bar who always kept late hours. When the fire occurred he was fast asleep, and he was found in bed around which the smoke was a solid mass. The old gentleman objected to being disturbed so early, but he was forcibly carried downstairs and out.
Owners of Realty
In 1825 the Louisiana avenue improvements were assessed as follows: E. Guttschlich, $3,400, part 13; Warren & Wood, $5,000, parts 13 and 14; H. Gassaway, $1,000, lot 15; William Gunton, $1,000, lot 16; Sarah Smith, $1,400, and T.W.Pairo, $2,000, lot 18; John Withers, $6,000, lot 19, and R. Wallach, $4,000, lot 20.
About that time among the residents were F.A.Russell, an avenue coach builder; Wm. Holt, Michael McDermott and Mr. Eschbach.
In the thirties the ground had appreciated, and there were more improvements noted. The theater was assessed at $7,000, the hotel of E. Guttschlich at $4,700. Henson Gassaway's two houses, $1,000; Wm. Gunton, $1,000; Sarah Smith, $1,400; T.W. Pairo, $2,500; John Withers, $6,000, and Richard Wallach, $4,000.
Growth of Neighborhood