New Plaza Takes Washington Inn
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, September 20, 1913 [p. ?]
In the demolition of the property between the present Capitol grounds and the Union station plaza, the principal building which will disappear is that now known as the Washington Inn, for the site was originally occupied by a three-storied mansion erected for Washington, which was intended for his winter residence. However, but little of the original structure remains, only the two end walls of the three upper stories, the building about 1818 having been superseded by two dwelling houses. Aside from its historical interest associated with Washington in the early days of the last century, it was the domicile of a number of the most prominent men of that day.
Washington had before this time been interested in Washington real estate, having as early as 1792 acquired square 234, situated west of the old observatory grounds, now occupied by the naval bureau of hygiene, and it is supposed from its location that he had an idea of building a residence there.
In 1793 he acquired lots in the Carrollsburg section on the Anacostia or Eastern branch, investing there because it was supposed that that section would be the commercial part of Washington, and he had also in the same year bought two lots on the east side of New Jersey avenue, west of the lot on which he built his mansion in 1799, having purchased that lot during the previous year.
It appears that soon after the purchase he wrote to his friend, Dr. William Thornton, agreeing to the suggestion to erect two houses for the accommodation of members of Congress. That he decided to build one house instead of two. On December 20, 1798, he sent a check for $500 for the purpose of laying in material for the building. Dr. Thornton supervised its erection, and Messrs. George Blagden and John Lenthal, both of whom were employed on the Capitol and whose descendants are living here today, were the builders. Plans were made by Dr. Thornton and the proposal of Messrs. Blagden and Lenthal was accepted by Washington January 30, 1799. The building was completed in the latter part of that year, but some delay occurred in the delivery of glass, which was ordered in Boston through Gen. Benjamin Lincoln. The grounds were enclosed and set out with trees and plants under the general’s personal direction and some of these trees were on the street and a few remained within what are now the Capitol grounds. An aged yew northeast of the Senate wing is today pointed out as one of the trees planted by the general.
On Level with Capitol Floor
There is little doubt that had Washington lived to occupy it that, next to the public buildings, it would have been the most prominent point in the capital and the center of society. As it was, it became in the early days of the century, when most of the leading men in Congress resided in Georgetown for want of accommodations here, the home of many of those prominent in Congress.
On the meeting of Congress in 1800, it became one of the principal congressional boarding houses, and for many years it was conducted by Mrs. Frost. Here were gathered many of the leading men of the nation. Prior to its destruction by the British, August 23, 1814, among others it gave shelter to were Nathaniel Macon, an old revolutionary soldier, who served in his day the longest time of any of our legislators, thirty-seven years; William H. Crawford of Georgia, who was prominent in the legislative halls and in the cabinet and in 1825 one of the candidates for President of the United States; Col. John Taylor of Carline, Va., a writer of note, especially on political subjects, and also a member of Congress; R. Marion, a representative from South Carolina from 1805 to 1810; John Gaillard, who served as a senator from South Carolina from 1804 to his death in this city in February, 1826; James Turner, once governor of North Carolina and a senator from 1805 to 1816.
John T. Frost, son of Mrs. Frost, was for a long time a clerk in the House of Representatives and lived there and was with the army at Bladensburg on the approach of the British.
Official Report on Burning
“On the 21st (of August) the first of the undersigned clerks was furloughed by Brig. Gen. Smith at the request of Col. George Magruder for the purpose of returning to the city, to take care of and save such part of the books and papers of the clerk’s office as he might be able to effect, in case the enemy should get possession of the place, and he arrived here the following day.
“His orders from Col. George Magruder were not to begin packing up until it was ascertained that the clerks at the war office were engaged in that business; and it was not until 12 o’clock Monday, the 22d, that we were informed that they had begun to move the effects of that office, although we were subsequently told that it had commenced the day before.
“We immediately went to packing up, and Mr. Burch went out in search of wagons or other carriages for the transportation of the books and papers. Every wagon and almost every cart belonging to the city had been previously impressed into the service of the United States for the transportation of the baggage of the army; the few he was able to find were loaded with the private effects of individuals, who were moving without the city; those he attempted to hire, but not succeeding, he claimed a right to impress them, but having no legal authority, or military force to aid him, he, of course, did not succeed.
Ox Teams Used in Moving
“Everything belonging to the office, together with the Library of Congress, we venture to say, might have been removed in time, if carriages could have been procured; but it was altogether impossible to procure them, either for hire or by force.
“The most material papers which have been lost are the last volumes of the manuscript records of the committee on ways and means, claims and pensions and revolutionary claims. The clerks were engaged in bringing up these records previous to the alarm, and as it was not certain that the enemy would get to the city, and being desirous to have them completed, they were not packed away with the rest, but were kept out that they might be finished by the meeting of Congress, but, with the intention of taking them to a private residence, if such removal should be found necessary.
“After the defeat of our troops at Bladensburg Mr. Frost removed them to the house commonly called Gen. Washington’s, which house being unexpectedly consumed by fire, these records were thus unfortunately lost.”
Mr. Frost was a lifelong member and secretary of the Columbia Fire Company, located near the Capitol building, and in 1857, when a firemen’s convention was held to establish the seniority of the volunteer fire companies, Mr. Frost, in his letter, stated that his company was the first to be organized but “the books, papers, etc., were destroyed in the conflagration of my dwelling in the attack upon the city in August, 1814.”
Ruins Sold in 1817
In the twenties one of them was occupied by John G. McDonald, then a clerk in the office of the secretary of the Senate. In 1830 the property was put up for sale.
Nicholas Callan bought it for $3,000, and three years afterward sold it to Lieut. Charles Willis Wilkes, afterward admiral, for $3,900. Subsequently Lieut. Wilkes was sent on an exploring expedition to the Pacific and Antarctic regions and during this expedition he made many valuable discoveries and returned home after an absence of nearly four years with many specimens, some of which are on exhibition at the museum.
These were first deposited in the museum in the patent office, and the plants were cared for in the greenhouse erected north of that building, but subsequently found their way to the Botanical Gardens. Lieut. Wilkes and a force of officers and clerks used one of the houses in making up his reports from that expedition before removing his residence to Lafayette Square.
About 1851, when the work on the extension of the Capitol was commenced, the street in front was cut down at a depth of over twenty feet in order to facilitate the hauling of the marble and other material from the Baltimore and Ohio depot. The stone quarried near Texas, Baltimore county, Md., was unloaded at about the corner of North Capitol and D streets and hauled to the shops about the Capitol grounds. The monoliths came here rough-hewed, and they were worked up Capitol Hill by a capstan to which horse-power was attached.
Subsequent to the war, the street was improved, and beneath the building two stories were constructed, and it was devoted then to hotel purposes, being first known as the Hillman House, then the Kenmore, Hotel Burton and Washington Inn.