In Old Washington (Jenkins Hill)

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, February 12, 1911 [p. 12]

It was Jenkins Hill before the title Capitol Hill was bestowed upon it when the site of the building was located. It was described as a ridge, partly covered with scrub oak, from which the descent to the low grounds flaking the Tiber and the stream south of the present Union station was partly gradual and partly abrupt. And north of the Capitol grounds between 1st street east and 1st street west, in the territory proposed as an addition to the grounds, some mighty changes have taken place in the topography. But little of the original natural grade is to be seen, and in some portions there are the roofs of three-storied buildings about the right old grade, and in other portions the fill has been twenty feet or more much of the earth having been used in the Capitol grounds and other places. Most of these conditions have been brought about in the past sixty years. In fact, with the exception of improvements in that portion immediately adjoining the Capitol square, known as square 687, all of them could be counted on your thumbs and fingers, not withstanding in all these years its convenience to the capitol furnished sites for the homes of many employed there.

When the grounds were platted the north line east of North Capitol street was an eighty-foot street known as A street, and westward B street marked the boundary. Consequently the two squares east of the Capitol plaza, which were absorbed under the act of May, 1872, were building squares, and that north, was well settled on the south front in the early days of the last century. While on paper the original lines were as above, all north and south of A street and outside a semicircular fence, erected about 1816, and extending about half way from the center of the building to 1st street on the open commons.

Played Part in History
The square 687 played an important part in the early history of that section. The title of the lots was left in Mar. Carroll, the original proprietor in 1791. Three years after, James Greenleaf was associated with the square, and about 1800 there were $20,000 worth of improvements on A street in the southwest portion of the square. These were a row of three-storied and attic brick buildings, which shortly after were in the possession of A.R. Dowson, who used them in boarding members of Congress, and in the directories of early years the homes of members here were described as “Mr. Dowson’s, No. 1, 2, 3 or 4.” For nearly fifty years Dowson’s row was a veritable congressional annex. Often hundreds of members had their lodgings there, D.D. Tompkins, Vice President under Mr. Monroe, Senator Macon of Georgia, Senator Benton of Missouri, before he erected a home on C street, and Senator Holmes of Maine were among his guests.

West of the row, corner of Delaware avenue and A street, Sam A. Elliot, jr., bought ground and erected two dwellings in keeping with the others in 1817. The next year Benjamin O. Tyler, engaged in the lottery business, had one of these houses, and ten years after this it was sold to Yates & McIntyre. Later John Foy ran a hotel here, which in the fifties became Mrs. Whitney’s, or the “Yellow Tavern,” a place which figured largely in the lives of the members.

Henry Tims, doorkeeper of the Senate, conducted a congressional boarding house on A street front, and among his quests were Senator Dickerson of New Jersey and Caesar A. Rodney of Delaware, as of the signer. Later Charles Tims conducted the drug business here, but it did not interfere with the patronage of the house which followed the family for half a century or more. Among the guests where were Senator Dixon H. Lewis of Alabama, the heaviest member of Congress, at least in avoirdupois, and D.L. Yulee of Florida, who served in Congress under the name of Levy, and under the former name was United States senator up to the civil war. Late in the twenties Mrs. Elizabeth Queen kept a boarding house on A street, and Mrs. Sevier was there ten years later.

Built Four-Story House
In the thirties Joseph Follansbee, a messenger of the House, erected a four-story dwelling on A street and entertained a number of the members. A three-story brick house, erected on 1st street I 1824 by J.W. Beck, was then known as “Beck’s Folly,” because it was disproportionate to the size of his family. J.A. Brightwell lived on A street in the later part of the twenties, and later Robert Brown lived in the west end of the square. In 1841, Thomas Scrivener, long connected with the Capitol police, bought and built about midway of the square on A street, and among his roomers were Senator G.W. Jones, of Tennessee and J.S. Phelps of Missouri. About this time James Waller of the Capitol police had a three-story residence on A street, and Brightwell House was owned and occupied by James C. Hall, and Isaac Wells, another Capitol policeman, lived on A street, as did William Hicks. A frame house, erected by Mr. Fonanshee on B street, was bought by J.S. Meehan, librarian of Congress, also made his home there a long time and later C.H.W. Meehan, his son and assistant, erected a house adjoining.

Sixty years ago there were on A street the boarding house of Mrs. Rumsey and the homes of D.A. Buck, a Capitol clerk; Ellis Clemens, C. Gordon and others.

M. Scrivener just before the civil war erected a building at the northeast corner of the square and opened a grocery. It was under the porch here during the inauguration of President Lincoln that Gen. Scott took position, having two light batteries of artillery on B street, ready should an outbreak occur.

The original grade about coincided with that south, but it fell toward B street. The A street front early had a brick sidewalk and gravel was used on the other fronts. Neither 1st street nor Delaware avenue was improved till the twenties, and then by gravel walks. Until 1872, when this square and its companion south of the east square were included in the grounds, they did not take the form of a perfect square within the lines of A and 1st streets.

The Senate annex, or office building, erected a few years ago, entirely obliterates the conditions of the square in the lines of B, C and 1st streets east of Delaware avenue. As an original building square it was divided in 1799 between Mr. Carroll and the United States, and shortly after some improvements were made.

Built by Mr. Carroll
About 1800 Mr. Carroll had two fine dwellings at the corner of Delaware avenue and B street and two northward of the aggregate value of $18,000. Michael Brown built a one-thousand-dollar house on 1st and B streets, and F. Williamson one at $4,000 on Delaware avenue, which a short time after was sold to William Brent, clerk of the circuit court. For many years Delaware avenue remained in a state of nature, with slight wagon tracks meandering through the grass to Cazanavia, the country seat of Peter Cazanave, a Georgetown merchant who had married Anne Young, the eldest daughter of Notley Young.

The house – a frame – was on Delaware avenue between M and N streets, and was erected in 1789, before the city was laid out. Some little brick paving was then in front of the Delaware avenue properties. In the early days these houses were occupied by Mr. Brown, Mr. Brent, Mrs. Diggs and others. In 1810 Mr. Brent owned on Delaware avenue to the corner on C street, and five years later Robert Brent, the first mayor of Washington, purchased and John Mulloy owned a lot on Delaware avenue, and built a home thereon. Griffith Coumbe acquired lots 1 and 2 on B street about 1820, and erected an addition to the Brown house standing there, which he leased to Sam Hanson in 1830.

Early Property Values
Mr. Coumbe’s property was assessed at $2,400 at the southeast corner of the square; two at $2,500 each, assessed to Sarah Carroll, and Katherine Diggs, and buildings valued at $6,800 on Delaware avenue to W. Brent, and one at $200 to John Mulloy near the corner of C street, and two of $1,500 each to Benjamin Sprigg and J.C. Dunn. From 1827, Judge Cranch lived in one of the Delaware avenue houses until his death, in 1854. On this avenue were Dan Brent, long chief clerk of the State Department; Tobias Watkins, secretary of the Florida commission; W.T. Carroll, clerk of the Supreme Curt of the United states; while on 1st street were Thomas Dunn, sergeant-at-arms of the House; J. Oswald Dunn, assistant doorkeeper of the House, and Benjamin Sprigg, and later Isaac E. Holmes of south Carolina, William H. Ball of the fifth auditor’s office, and a young ladies’ seminary at the corner of B street, and Mrs. A. Peabody on b street. About 1850 on the Delaware avenue side were Alfred Greenleaf, Mrs. Brent, Col. Thompson, Judge W.F. Purcell and others. The Casualty Hospital came into existence on Delaware avenue, and was here when the square was taken for the Senate office building.

In Square 685, west of the above named, the grade was in some parts fully thirty feet above the present grade of Delaware avenue, North Capitol and C streets, as appears from small portions of the original grade visible. There are some persons living who remember a frog pond about the northwest corner of the square on a level with the tops of the present houses. Settlement was very slow up to 1830, the only improvement on the square being two frame houses, valued at a few hundred dollars, on the south side of C street west of Delaware avenue. These were erected about 1816 on leased ground by Nancy Brooks and Robert Stevenson, colored, and the first named used hers till about 1850.

Improvements Were Slow
It was toward 1840, before there were signs of other improvements. About that time John L. Worth of the Capitol police and then the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, having erected an engine house in the neighborhood, some of the employes had homes near by,, among them Reuben Collins, even then a veteran in baggage department, who lived on the east side. Soon after, in 1852, the agent of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad, Thomas H. Parsons, erected the large three-story and attic building on the west side of Delaware avenue, in which he resided many years, now the property of G.W. VanNest, who lately improved it by underpinning. About 1844 William Wurdeman bought at the corner of Delaware avenue and B street, erecting first a frame cottage and later a four-story brick mathematical instrument factory, where much work was done for the government. There were on the avenue then or later Stephen Coster, E.D. Ferguson and Mrs. Campbell.

On North Capitol street in the fifties the site of truck No. 1 was occupied by the Skelly family, of which was the late policeman of the name. The house south of the Belt residence was then the frame upper portion erected about 1840 by P.W. Browning. It was soon after bought by W.H. Stanford, merchant tailor, who made it his home for many years. The brick building north of the truck-house was then a two-story brick, occupied by the Gregory family, and later Mrs. Murray lived there, as also the well known Lieut. Ned McHenry of the old auxiliary guard and the metropolitan Police, then employed on the Capitol force. About the middle of the square, John L. Wirt of the Capitol police owned and lived in a two-story brick, to which was afterward added an additional story by underpinning. John Hollohan, then a marble carver at the Capitol and Nick Acker, a master stonecutter, lived near. In 1854 J.G. Kolb, a tailor, bought what is now 221 North Capitol street, a house to which an addition was made at the bottom, and his descendants are yet there, probably the oldest residents.