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What Once Was

St. Thomas’ Parish

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By Stephen A. Hansen*

In 1886, a Mr. Gibson sold his house at 17 Dupont Circle to a wealthy clergyman, Reverend John Abel Aspinwall. Aspinwall was the son of William Aspinwall, who was once president of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and had built the Panama Railroad across the isthmus. Due to poor health, Aspinwall resigned as the rector of a church in Bay Ridge, Long Island, where he had been serving as rector for 21 years. After a three-year rest, he came to Washington to live and became active in the formation of St. Thomas’ Parish on 18th Street, NW as well as serving as its first rector.

The parish’s first congregation began meeting in 1890 with a mere handful of congregants, worshipping in the abandoned Holy Cross Episcopal Church on Dupont Circle (now the site of the Sulgrave Club today at 1801 Massachusetts Avenue). That parish had closed due to financial troubles a few years before.

Holy Cross Episcopal Church on Dupont Circle. photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Holy Cross Episcopal Church on Dupont Circle. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1892, a parish hall, designed by architect T.F. Schneider (most noted for his Cairo Hotel building on Q Street) was built for the congregation on Church Street — then called Monroe Street. The following year, Philadelphia architect Theophilus Chandler, who had just finished designing Levi Leiter’s mansion on Dupont Circle, was contracted to design a large Gothic-style church to be located adjacent to the parish hall on the corner of Church and 18th Streets. The cornerstone was laid in 1894 and construction was completed in 1899.

Reverend Aspinwall resigned as the church’s rector in 1902, again due to poor health. He then went on to earn a doctor of divinity degtee from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1912, but he died the following year at the age of 74 in his home on Dupont Circle. His funeral was held at St. Thomas’.

In 1912, one of Washington’s two Titanic survivors, Col. Archibald Gracie, captivated fellow St. Thomas’ parishioners with his experiences on the sinking ship. After having survived one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century, Col. Gracie would die within that same year from the stress he suffered from the disaster.

St. Thomas’ Parish.  photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

St. Thomas’ Parish. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Over the years, the church was attended by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, and Edith Wilson (formerly Edith Galt). Franklin Roosevelt, while living on N Street and serving as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, was an active member of the parish and elected to the church’s vestry in 1918. Roosevelt returned to the church and attended services the day after his inauguration in 1933. Hundreds of people lined up at the front entrance hoping to get into the 11 a.m. service. While president, Roosevelt was an honorary senior warden.

Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor, and the President's mother arriving for a service on Christmas Day, 1934. photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Franklin Roosevelt, Eleanor, and the President’s mother arriving for a service on Christmas Day, 1934. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Eleanor Roosevelt kept her connection to St. Thomas’. In 1956, she delivered the first talk given by a lay person at the evening service, where she spoke about her work with the United Nations and human rights.

Sadly, much of this great building would be destroyed. On the night of August 11, 1970, an arsonist poured 12 gallons of gasoline into the church and set it afire. By the next morning after the fire was extinguished, the church that the Washington Star once called “one of the most beautiful edifices in the country” had been totally destroyed.

Ruins of St. Thomas’ Church. photo WikiMedia Commons.

Ruins of St. Thomas’ Church. photo WikiMedia Commons.

Instead of trying to rebuild, the church’s leaders decided to convert the area where the old church building stood, along with its remains, into a park that could be enjoyed by the whole neighborhood. Just as the original stone retaining wall of Henderson’s Castle on 16th Street still stands, now as a newly protected historical resource in the Meridian Hill Historic District, the remains of the original St. Thomas’ Parish also serve as an important relic and touchstone to the past. Yet, St. Thomas’ is now looking to remove or relocate the remains as part of a newly conceived, revised plan to build a new church facing 18th Street along with a residential building that would occupy the rear portion of the site.

Editor’s note: For more on Dupont Circle’s historic sites, be sure to keep an eye out for the author’s forthcoming book, A History of Dupont Circle: Center of High Society in the Capital. Expected publication is September 2014.

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

© 2014 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Stephen A. Hansen. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.