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What Once Was

The Lenthall Houses: A Moving Tale of Historic Preservation?

Tip: Click any image in the article to view that image at a larger size.

By Stephen A. Hansen*

The twin Lenthall town houses, now located at 606-10 21st Street, NW, once stood at 612-14 19th Street, NW. They were constructed around 1800 and named after their builder, John Lenthall. Born in England in 1762, Lenthall was a son of Sir William Lenthall, Speaker of the House of Commons, and came to Washington in 1793. A skilled architect, Lenthall served as architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s principal assistant in the construction of the Capitol building, overseeing the day-to-day operations at the Capitol during Latrobe’s frequent absences from the city. In 1808, he was killed when one of the arches of the Supreme Court chamber of the Capitol collapsed and crushed him.

The Lenthall houses at their original at 612-614 19th St. location / click to enlarge (photo—Lib. of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.)

The house currently located at 610 21st Street stayed in the Lenthall family until 1902. The other house at 606 21st Street was probably only briefly in the hands of the Lenthall family, as is was deeded to a William Francis in 1808, who flipped the property the next day.

Throughout their history, the Lenthall houses have been home to artists and patrons of the arts. After the death of John Lenthall’s widow Jane in 1853, the house at 610 21st Street passed to her unmarried daughter and artist, Mary King Lenthall, who stayed in the house until her death in 1892. The house then passed to her brother’s grandson, John Lenthall Waggaman, real estate broker, art collector and patron, who kept the house until 1902.

610 21st Street was then acquired by Washington artist and founder of the Arts Club, Bertha Noyes. The Arts Club began meeting in the house in 1916, and Noyes eventually headed the committee that chose the early 19th century mansion and former home of President James Monroe at 2017 I Street, NW as its new home. Bertha Noyes died in her home in 1966 at the age of 90 leaving it to the George Washington University, which then turned it into a rental property.

The house at 606 21st Street eventually became the home of May Allen who was well-known in the Washington arts circle, a member of the Arts Club herself, and contributor to collections in the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Library of Congress. The house later became home to Hugh H. Obear and his wife Mildred. Obear was a prominent Washington lawyer and served as president of the DC Bar Association.

The Lenthall Houses today at their new location at 606-610 21st St. / (photo–Wikimedia/AgnosticPreachersKid)

Beginning in the 1960s, The George Washington University began expanding and filling its West End neighborhood with campus buildings and income-producing properties. Their development model was to sell land with the option to buy it back after 30 years. In 1962, Obear fought a zoning change to allow for the construction of a 12-story, $15 million office building at 1800 G Street, arguing that it would mean greater commercialization of the neighborhood. He lost the battle and in 1966 the building was erected.

In 1977, GW planned to sell off the land around the Obear property on 19th Street to the World Bank to construct an office annex, which was to be one block long and 130 feet high, with only a brick “garden wall” between the 12-story building and the Obear property. Originally, Mrs. Obear had planned on leaving the house to the university, but when she learned of the plan, she cut GW out of her will. In 1978, she reluctantly sold it to GWU and moved to an apartment.

Now in possession of both houses, GW determined that they interfered with development plans for the block and considered various alternatives to demolishing them. The university decided to relocate them to a site on 21st Street between F and G Streets that could be made available by razing an existing, but not as old, row of townhouses there. Former Architect and Senior Vice President of Colonial Williamsburg, A. Edwin Kendrew, advised on the preservation of the houses. After considering options for their adaptive reuse, it was decided that they should remain single-family residences, but updated with modern plumbing, heating, and electrical systems.

A detailed inspection of the houses found that their rear wings were not part of the original construction and were added later in order to move the original kitchens out of the basements. The rear wings were removed before the relocation of the buildings. Archaeological excavations in the yards of both houses conducted by the university’s anthropology department uncovered original walks, outbuildings, underground drains and a cistern.

Ready for the move / click to enlarge (photo—Historic Amer. Bldgs. Survey, Lib. of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.)

The buildings were structurally quite fragile, with sagging beams and thin masonry walls, adding to the challenge of successfully moving them and not destroying them in the process. The lack of adjacent houses, which usually flanked and braced buildings of this kind, had required various reinforcement and protective measures over the years, which included applying extensive coats of plaster on the exterior exposed side walls at an early date to waterproof and add support to the thin masonry.

On the move to their new location on 21st St. / click to enlarge (photo—Historic Amer. Bldgs. Survey, Lib. of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.)

The buildings were ultimately shored up on their sides and lifted up from their foundation on I-beams, and over the course of four hours on August 5, 1978, were moved to their new location at 606-10 21st Street.

Today, the Lenthall houses remain single-family residences and the university makes them available to visiting faculty and writers through subsidized rental agreements. The houses were listed as DC Landmarks in 1964 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

*Stephen A. Hansen is an historic preservation specialist, Washington DC historian, author of several books and of the Virtual Architectural Archaeology blog.

© 2012 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Stephen A. Hansen. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.