About Thomas Circle
History of Important Section of Capital City
The March of Progress
Fourteenth Street Once Mere Wagon Track
Squares 212-15 and 244-47
One of Early Mansions, Since Modernized, Now Occupied by Bishop Satterlee
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, February 23, 1908 [pt. 2 p. 3]
That section of Washington, of which Thomas Circle, at 14th and M streets, is the center, in the plan of the city is laid off as squares 212 to 215 and 244 to 247. L, N, 13th and 15th streets, with Vermont and Massachusetts avenues intersecting, form the boundary lines. What is now Highland terrace in the early days was a hill of easy ascent from the east, and the ground was of a rolling character. This is still apparent because a few houses in this space are now on the natural grade.
Most of the land in the beginning of the last century was owned by Gen. John Davidson. The northwest fraction of the tract known as Jamaica Plains was in possession of Samuel Blodgett. Except for some improvement on the corner of Massachusetts avenue and 14th street about the year 1820, most of the lots remained in the state of nature till nearly 1840. In fact, while they are noted on the early tax books, it does not appear that all of them were appraised, and all that were rated bore from one-half cent to two cents foot valuation.
The establishment of the National race course about 1804, and Columbian College, now George Washington University, north of the city resulted in 14th street becoming a much-used road. For fifty years or more it was simply a wagon track, and in racing seasons between 1804 and 1850 animated scenes were witnessed in the passing of every conceivable variety of vehicle and hundreds of horsemen and pedestrians. So much interest was then taken in the races that Congress, it is said, often adjourned in time for members to attend. Thomas Circle was the point at which the crowds traveling by way of Massachusetts avenue and Vermont avenue joined those from down town.
Col. Graham’s Hospitality
The first material improvement in the vicinity was to the northwest of the circle, in square 212. This square, between 14th and 15th streets north of Massachusetts avenue, was laid off in sixteen lots in 1798. Davidson’s heirs were given lots 3 and 4, Blodgett 5 to 10 – the west half of the square – and the United States 11 to 16. In 1803 Thomas Snowden acquired lots 4 and 5; in 1807 R. S Beckley 5 to 10, and the latter in 1818 went to Thomas Munroe and the next year to C. Coles. In 1817 John Graham came into the square, acquiring lot 11 to 16 and afterward lots 1 and 2, thus owning the whole east part of the square. Here Mr. Graham erected a palatial edifice, whose walls are yet standing. They form a part of the now modernized residences of Bishop Satterlee and the Haitian minister. It was a building in keeping with the location, and for many years was a noted place.
Col. Graham, as he was known, was a Virginian gentleman of the old school, who in the Madison and Monroe administration, filled the office of the chief clerk of the State Department, and as a diplomatic agent was sent to Brazil and other South American countries, and was sent by the government to the southwest to interview Lafitte.
William H. Crawford resided in the house in the twenties, when he was Secretary of the Treasury, and when, in 1825, he was a prominent candidate for the presidency. The contest in which he was concerned was decided in the House of Representatives in favor of John Quincy Adams.
Residence a Political Center
During the campaign in which the candidates were Gen. Jackson and Henry Clay the residence was a political center as well as the scene of many brilliant entertainments. In 1831 the property changed hands, Col. Charles Hill buying lots 12 and 16 and the buildings from Susan Graham for $10,500. Afterward he secured lots 3 to 5 and 11 to 15, and became the owner of more than half the square. Under Mr. Hill’s ownership his name was applied to the entire locality, the circle being a development of later years. Mr. Hill was a member of the prominent Maryland family of the name, and as a planter was famed for his many acres and his success in business ventures. Under his ownership the property was improved by gardens of utility and ornament, and became one of the beauty spots of the capital.
Col. Hill was a generous host, entertaining many leading persons of the day. For many years he was a director of the Bank of the Metropolis and numbered many friends among the business men of the community. While he did not neglect his interests in Maryland, he was ever mindful of the needs of the city and District. The place was sold about 1870 for a little less than $100,000 to the late Thomas B. Bryan, who was a Commissioner of the District. When Col. Hill bought the property two cents per foot was the ground rate and the improvements were listed as $6,000.
Washington’s First Milk Wagon
In 1842 lots 5, 6, and 10, extending through the center of the square, were sold to William H. Diets, and in 1846 William Dunawin bought lots 7 to 9, in the west of the square. Mr. Dunawin erected a two-story brick dwelling at the corner of 15th street and engaged in the dairy business. It is said he was the first to use a wagon on a milk route in this city.
The triangle known as square 213, between M street and Massachusetts avenue, east of 15th street, has but a brief history. Laid off in two lots and in 1790 assigned to Davidson’s heirs, they were subdivided and assessed first at one cent per foot. Afterward the valuation was as low as one-half a cent. In 1803 title was vested in Thomas Snowden. In 1830 Samuel Rainey owned the lots, and afterward they were sold to John Brannan. The valuation of one-half a cent per foot remained unchanged for thirty years, while the only improvement was one of $100, listed in the name of Davidson’s heirs. Mr. Brannan erected a two-story frame house on the north side of M street near 15th street, in which he, and afterward his family, lived until quite recently.
Between Vermont avenue, 15th, L and M streets, square 214 was platted for twenty lots, and in 1797 these were apportioned to the Davidsons. In 1801 J. M. Gant and A. Shaaf each had lots on M street; in 1803 Thomas Snowden had several lots, and the next year J. Southgate leased lot 12 on M street. In 1819 Commodore Decatur and Col. Bomford owned eight lots on L, 15th and M streets, and at the northeast corner of the square George Sutton bought lot 2 on L street from Thomas Crown and erected a building appraised at $1,600, which in 1825 he conveyed to Daniel Baker. Mr. Baker afterward bought lot 1, at the corner of Vermont avenue, and Mr. Jeffers became the owner of five lots on 15th street, extending from the corner of L street. In the thirties A. R Watson, W. C. Goddard, Samuel Redfern and Peter Callen were lot owners, and the improvements were listed to Mr. Baker, $1,800; Mr. Goddard, $260; W. Campbell, $1,000, and _____ Williams, $500.
Settlement of Colored People
Square 215, formed by Vermont avenue, L and 14th streets, of which the Portland Hotel now occupies the northern portion of the two original lots, in 1796 was owned by Davidson’s heirs. The original assessment was 2 cents per foot, reduced for a time to one-half cent. In the twenties the valuation increased to 3 cents. In 1821 it was owned by Snowden E. Stephens in 1833 bought lot 1 for $120, and five years later sold to John Daley, who erected a three-story brick with a store on the ground floor. Jim Daley’s grocery store and the town pump on the corner were landmarks of the vicinity for many years.
South of N street, between 14th street and Vermont avenue, square 244 was divided into two lots in 1796 and assigned to the United States. On the south point of this square is the statue of Martin Luther, in front of the Luther Memorial Church. Rev. Dr. Butler pastor, which occupies the remainder of the square. There is no evidence that a valuation was placed on the ground a hundred years ago, but in the twenties the lots were listed for half a cent per foot.
In the forties R. T. Morsell purchased the Baker house on L street. He was a clerk in the land office. His family resided in the house for more than fifty years. Much of the land on the Vermont avenue and M street fronts of the square was bare of improvements, with the exception of a double-frame house on the former thoroughfare, which was the home of the families of William Croggon and James Lavender. On 15th street there was a settlement of colored people of the better class, among whom was William Sanders, a plasterer, W.H. Prentiss, who was attached to the State Department over fifty years ago, owned and lived in the house at the corner of 15th and L streets.
Donation to Charity
The history of the triangular plat is unique in that it passed fro the ownership of the national government in the shape of a donation to charity. From 1796 to December, 1832, the title remained with the government, and in the latter year, by an act of Congress, $20,000 worth of the public lots in Washington were donated to the two orphan asylums, St. Vincent’s Catholic and the Washington Protestant. This square was part of the selection made for the Washington Protestant Orphan Asylum by the commissioner of public buildings, Col. Joseph Elgar, for the latter. On December 11, 1832, he made the deed to the following trustees for the Washington City Orphan Asylum; Rev. Dr. William Hawley, Rev. O.B. Brown, Gen. J.P. VanNess, Col. Nathan Towson and Col. James Larned of this square and others.
Between Vermont avenue, M, N and 13th streets sixteen lots were platted, and in 1796 they were vested in the United States. The appraised value was the same as in other adjoining squares. The first purchaser was Charles L. Coltman, who for many years was prominent in the brick business and in corporation affairs. He purchased lot 4 in 1825 from Col. Elger, as commissioner for $103.67.
On the lot which fronted on M street he erected a comfortable brick dwelling, in which he resided for many years. In the next year Luke Richardson bought the lot adjoining on the east, and in 1827 Mr. Coltman bought westward to the corner lots – 5, 6 and 7. In 1830 Mr. Richardson bought lot 15, on 13th street, and lot 2 on M street, and in 1839 he also secured lots 1 and 16, at the corner of M and 13th streets.
Columbian College had title to lots 8 to 14, the northern part of the square, in 1833. In 1830 the only improvements assessed were those of Mr. Richardson ($700), a two-story frame house, and Mr. Coltman a brick ($1,800).
The flatiron formed by Massachusetts avenue, 13th and M streets, known as square 246, was divided into two lots and was included in the Greenleaf holdings. Like square 244, it was in possession of the United States until 1832, when it went as a donation to the Washington Orphan Asylum. Ten years afterward Mr. Charles Tschiffely, a clerk in the topographical engineers’ bureau of the War Department bought the entire square, and in 1843 he sold the western portion to William McLean. Mr. Tschiffely built a neat brick cottage facing on M street, and made it his home for many years.
On the west part of the square, facing M street, two or three frame dwellings were erected, which were occupied by William A. Richardson, a merchant tailor, and G.Y. Bowen, a sweep master of the second ward.
Some Early Valuations
On the east side of 14th street above L street there was some improvement made nearly a hundred years ago, for the heirs of Walter Hellen acquired five lots in 1803 and his heirs were taxed $600 for a house on lot 10 in 1820. This was a frame occupied by Archie Brown, a well-known gardener employed at the Linnian Hill nurseries. This square, south of Massachusetts avenue between 13th and 14th streets, was numbered 247 and consisted of eighteen lots, which in 1796 were vested in the United States In 1802 five of the lots had passed to Benjamin Stoddert and one to Peter Lenox. The next year Mr. Hellen owned five of them and Dr. William Thornton eight. Seventeen years later John McDuell bought lots 7 and 8, including the northeast corner of 14th and L streets. Here he first erected a modest frame dwelling, assessed at $400, and afterward a larger and handsome frame cottage, assessed at $1,000. Mr. McDuell beautified his grounds with a garden of flowers in front and a vegetable garden in the rear. About 1839 Mr. McDuell built elsewhere and sold this property to Col. W.W. Billing, who for long years was collector of taxes. A few years thereafter Mr. Billing’s family was rendered homeless by fire. In 1827 William Jewell and Col. Bomford were investors in the square, and in 1830 the former’s three lots were sold to John Nickoll and the latter’s lots to Caroline Gill and T. Johnson. At this time the buildings on this lot were valued at $200. On lot 1, at the corner of L and 13th streets. Nicholas Lowe was assessed $150 for improvements, and the ground was still valued at 2 cents per foot. In 1836 Lewis Dulany, a colored herb doctor, moved into one of the houses in the square, and a short time afterward several colored families resided in L street. Dulany met with considerable success as a practitioner among the poorer classes, and he was the recognized leader of his race in that section. Early in the fifties, when excitement was occasioned by the escape of slaves, Dulany was suspected of aiding them, and, becoming fearful of arrest, he left the city.