In The Early Days
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, December 29, 1906 [pt. 2, p. 1]
Few of the present generation have any idea of what was to be found on the south side of C street between 4-1/2 and 6th streets northwest over seventy years ago, and it will no doubt be surprising to the general public to know what could be seen there in the early days of the last century when it is recalled that circus and theatrical performances were give in the square and it was afterwards a meeting place for societies. An armory and a drill room for a military company were provided and it is therefore evident that village-like as the neighborhood then was, there were attractions for the people.
Nor were the religious interests neglected, and although there had been no church established on the square, a Methodist class meeting was held weekly, and if tradition is correct the attendance was not confined to the members of Wesley M.E. Church, but men high in the executive and legislative departments who were sojourning in the neighborhood were wont to attend.
East of the alley where is now the east building of the Havenner bakery, was lot 16, owned about the year 1817 by B.G. Orr, who was elected mayor of the city that year, and this ground in the twenties became the site of the Circus. For a number of years it was the place which our forbears were wont to frequent for light amusement. It was a large brick building so constructed that the sawdust arena could be transformed into a stage accommodating the theatrical folk when the knights of the ring were on the road.
It was here that for a number of years the circus people wintered “made hay,” and the Thespians were on the stage in the spring and fall.
The circus companies of that day were insignificant in number in comparison with the modern establishments, and often the performers were called upon to put up and take down the canvas, drive the teams and do other stunts of similar character. The “horse opera,” as southern society called the circus, was managed here by Buckley and the few old residents who remember it speak of it as giving a very creditable exhibition – equestrian and acrobatic.
Some Star Clowns
About the year 1830 the name of “The Amphitheater” was given the building, and Joe Jefferson, the elder, with others, appeared for a few seasons with much success. Equestrian performances proved otherwise than a permanent attraction, and for some reason not easily accounted for interest in the drama, especially down town, waned, and the National Theater, which was opened in 1835, became the objective point of fashionable folk.
The property through Alexander Kerr and the Bank of Metropolis, in a few years went to Messrs. Walker & Kimmell, who converted the lower portion into the National livery stable and provided in the upper portion a hall and meeting rooms. The hall made a fine drill room and for several years – in the forties and early fifties – the Washington Light Infantry had its armory there. When, in about the year 1843, the Masons vacated the hall at the corner of 4-1/2 and D streets one of the three lodges – New Jerusalem, No. 9 – moved from there to one of the rooms. Powhatan Tribe, No. 1, of Red Men, the Grand, Timothy, No. 1, and Crystal Fount, No. 8, of the Sons of Temperance divisions, and Association No. 1, Brothers of Temperance also met here.
In the forties Mr. Havenner had as roomers Senators Hunter, Mason, A.P. Butler, and other members of Congress and an official atmosphere then pervaded the neighborhood. Senator John A. Dix resided on the south side of C street, near 4-1/2 street, and in the Exchange Hotel and in each of the boarding houses there were representatives from the legislative halls.
Notwithstanding that the neighborhood was somewhat “tony,” there was a free and easy disposition observable among those who were to be found there, and it did not take long for a stranger to be called by his Christian name. Indeed, not a few bore nicknames complacently, and it is known that one man was called “Big Foot.” He stood it cheerfully, saying that the people were excusable, as his family name was so common and his first name of William or Bill was even more so.