I N OUR February/March issue Albert Macomber, living in Washington, D.C., in 1863, described a “dilapidated pile of bricks” just north of the U.S. Capitol as the residence of George Washington.
He was wrong, says John H. Rhodehamel, archivist of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association: Washington never lived in the city that bears his name. “The crumbling buildings that impressed Mr. Macomber were actually President Washington’s Capitol Hill town houses, designed by him in 1798 and subsequently built by William Thornton, first architect of the Capitol. Hoping by his example to encourage the development of the new federal city, Washington may also have responded to the old speculative impulse that led him to acquire tens of thousands of acres as a younger man. Within easy walking distance of the Capitol, the two adjoining buildings were to serve as rooming houses for the senators and congressmen who would soon descend on the city that still existed largely in the vision of its planners.”
On September 12, 1798, Washington wrote a letter to Alexander White, one of the commissioners in charge of laying out the new Capitol. He began rather plaintively: “Your letter of the 8th. instant, with a plan of the Squares in the vicinity of the Capital, came to me on the 10th; and for the trouble you have been at in designating such lots as you think would answer my purpose, I feel much obliged.
“From what you have said, and from the recollection I have of the ground, I give a decided preference to lot No 16 in square 634; but the price I fear (upwards of $1200) will sink too deep into the fund which must be appropriated to the buildings; and therefore, if the following queries respecting lot No. 2 in 731 are satisfactorily answered, I must content myself with that; as it is not with a view to accumulate property in the City, but merely to contribute a mite to the accomodation of Congress, that I purchase it at all.”
After posing some questions about the land, Washington continues: “As I never require much time to execute any measure after I have resolved upon it; if an Undertaker could be engaged in ye City or its vicinity, to dig the Cellars and lay the foundation … I could wish it to be set about and executed this fall (and the earlier the better)…
“I am not skilled in Architecture, and perhaps know as little of planning, but as the houses I mean to build will be plain … I enclose a sketch, to convey my ideas of the size of the houses, rooms, and the manner of building them…
“My plan when it comes to be examined may be radically wrong, if so, I persuade myself that Doctr. Thornton, (who understanding these matters well) will have the goodness to suggest alterations.
“I shall make no apology for soliciting this favor of the Commissioners. To promote buildings is desirable; and is an object under present circumstances, of the first importance to the City. If then they can comply it conveniently, I persuade myself they will do so.… With very great esteem etc.”
In the end, Washington did build on the costly Lot 16 (Lot 2, the one he was asking White about, is now occupied by the Library of Congress). John Rhodehamel finishes the story: “In 1814, Washington’s town houses shared the fate of the Capitol and the Executive Mansion in being destroyed by fire. Apparently the ruins were incorporated into a new structure erected about 1817, giving the building Macomber saw at least a claim to direct descent from George Washington’s townhouses. This later building is marked by a tablet on the Capitol grounds.”