What Once Was
Bellevue Becomes Dumbarton House: a moving experience
Published: September 15th, 2015
By Matthew B. Gilmore*
To view images full size & high resolution, left click on each
On May 30, 1914 John L. Newbold received a dose of unwelcome news: the following Monday, June 1, the District of Columbia would commence demolition of his fine Georgetown mansion. Newbold did what anyone in his position would do; he contacted his lawyers and filed suit. The news should not, could not, have been a surprise to him. Newbold’s home, called Bellevue, lay in the roadbed of the imminent extension of Q Street between 27th and 28th Streets, NW.
How this came about and the roots of the litigation extend back to the origin of Georgetown itself.
The original 1751 Town of George encompassed a few blocks along the bank of the Potomac River. Later additions extended it northward, up into the heights above. The natural eastern and northern boundary was Rock Creek. Entry into Georgetown was from the north southward on High Street (now Wisconsin Avenue) and across Rock Creek over two bridges, one at Water (now K)
Street and Bridge (now M) Street. Georgetown, bounded by water to the south, east, and part of the north expanded up Wisconsin Avenue. In 1855 an additional Rock Creek crossing was added at Paper Mill, later replaced in 1871 with the P Street Bridge.
Georgetown became part of the District of Columbia in 1791; the neighboring City of Washington developed along a spine extending along Pennsylvania Avenue from Rock Creek easterly to the Navy Yard and F Street downtown. Its growth beyond the aptly-named Boundary Street (now Florida Avenue) began in earnest in the 1860s. By the 1880s it was clear a plan was needed for orderly growth, potentially extending the grid and avenues of the L’Enfant plan outside the city boundary. One of the earliest approved plans was for the extension of Massachusetts Avenue deep into what had been Washington County, proposed in 1886. This encouraged real estate development just to the north and east of the isolated corner of eastern Georgetown where Bellevue sat majestically on its bluff. Soon after, on May 14, 1889, a new subdivision — Kalorama Heights — was mapped.
Kalorama Heights noticeably chips off a little bit of what we now consider Georgetown, crossing Rock Creek. This seems unusual but indicates the open question of the day — what to do with Rock Creek. The creek banks south of P Street were a noxious industrial area, with ash heaps, trash dumps, and manufacturing including lime kilns. The Kalorama subdivision map suggests tunnels were being considered. A Senate resolution of July 22, 1892, directed the District’s engineer commissioner, Capt. William T. Rossell, to prepare plans and estimates for converting Rock Creek below Massachusetts Avenue into a closed sewer and to compute the net gain from the increased value of the filled land over the cost of the valley land that would need to be condemned.
Georgetown landowners were alert to the new developments across Rock Creek. The District government was alive to the issue of what to do with Rock Creek. In 1890 the National Zoological Park had been established. It was isolated from the rest of the District and its establishment along Rock Creek encouraged the Commissioners to consider the improvement of the rest of the valley.
After extended debate, plans to cover over Rock Creek were defeated and plans for a parkway were begun in 1913. So, Kalorama Heights never would extend across Rock Creek. But plans were laid to extend Q Street across on a new bridge. Problem was that Q Street did not extend to the creek. When it was laid out as Stoddert Street there was no need. A large block of land terminated the street. And in 1799 or thereabouts a house was built on the high bluff at the center of the property.
It had its moment of fame when owner Charles Carroll of Bellevue played host to Dolley Madison as she fled the British troops burning Washington in 1814.
This was the house that John L. Newbold purchased in 1912 and which the District was threatening to demolish in 1914.
This is not to say Newbold had not been strenuously engaged in efforts to save his house during the previous two years. Perhaps he did not know that he lacked quiet title to the property when Howard Hinckley sold it to him. The potential for opening the street through the property and the obstacle the house remained was clear.
The 1900 conveyance to Hinckley included the clause that the house should be removed on notice in the case of land being condemned for the extension of Q Street —- or “the District would have the privilege of removing said improvements and have the right to reimburse itself for the cost of the same from the holder of said improvements.” That is, the owner could remove it or the District would at the owner’s expense. “Remove” was not defined either as “move” or “demolish.” The permit Hinckley got that January included some curious annotations. The permit was for repairs. Notations indicated that the District would not be liable for moving the wings of the house should Q Street be extended. It is unclear if this indicated some agreement that the District was liable for the removal of the center portion of the house.
Georgetown agitation for a Q Street bridge stretches back to at least 1907, reported the Evening Star on June 29. In 1911 the District began the condemnation process for the Q Street extension. 1910 Legislation had recently given the Commissioners enhanced authority to condemn property for dedication as public right of way in accordance with the Permanent System of Highways. Condemnation proceedings continued in 1912 (Evening Star May 9, 1912) but appeals continued into 1913. On January 6, 1913 the condemnation jury made its awards; these were appealed, but then upheld. Newbold was notified on September 24, 1913 that he had until March 1, 1914 to remove the house. The other major property affected by the condemnation was the P Street car barn, yards, and shops at 2411 P Street NW. Most of that property was unaffected but the curved street alignment did carve off a section of the Metropolitan Railroad (later Washington Railway and Electric Company) property.
Newbold was president of Merchant’s Transfer and Storage Company, having started out in his father’s parcel delivery business. In 1911 he had testified before Congress at hearings regarding parcel post rates (the United States Post Office Department, as it was known from its establishment in 1791 until 1971, finally created parcel post in 1913). And Newbold was not only an influential businessman; he was also well-connected — his sister was married to the president of the Evening Star newspaper, Frank Noyes (also president of the Associated Press), and his brother Fleming Newbold worked for the Star and would rise to become its publisher. His wife was Emilie Cresson Newbold — the Cressons were prominent in Philadelphia society.
Newbold’s June 1, 1914 equity case against the District (Equity case No. 32694 John L. Newbold vs. District of Columbia) centered on the fact that he had received no consideration for his house, which he valued at $25,000. The District had warned him to move the house several times before, most recently on May 15. However, this new case would again forestall the move until it was resolved. The case was dismissed April 12, 1915 and he was allowed until August 1, 1915 to remove the house. This was the end of the line. The District was pressing ahead with construction of the bridge and extending Q Street. A curious suggestion had been made in 1908 (in the Report upon improvement of valley of Rock Creek: from Massachusetts avenue to mouth of the creek) to create a road from 26th Street along the boundary of Oak Hill Cemetery up to R Street and looping around Bellevue; perhaps it was an alternative to moving the house, but it went nowhere.
Newbold bowed to the inevitable and on July 12, 1915 he paid $36.90 for permit No. 178 to move his house out of the right-of-way of the extended Q Street.
He hired house mover Caleb L. Saers. Moving houses was a much more common occurrence then than now and more than has been assumed historically. The 1914 city directory has a business listing heading for house movers. There were two listed, yet it was established enough to warrant its own directory listing.
The two wings were demolished and the center structure was gently moved aside a few inches then slowly shifted the 60 feet north and downhill by six feet.
This was accomplished, according to Grace Dunlop Peter (at page 258 in A Portrait of Old George Town), as follows:
“Slowly, very, very slowly, old Bellevue was placed on huge rollers, horses were attached to a windlass, and it almost took a microscope to see the progress made day by day, but at last it reached its present site, safe and sound. It was necessary to pull down and rebuild the wings, as they had no cellars.”
Additionally, John De Ferrari noted in his “Streets of Washington” blog that Saers “found the Newbold mansion particularly challenging[;] it took three weeks and 200 jacks to raise the old house a half-inch off the ground and probably several months after that to drag it into its new resting place. . . .”
Also, according to a report in the July 4, 1915 edition of the Washington Herald, “Contractors say that Mr. Saers has undertaken one of the most difficult and delicate tasks in a huge way ever known in the District.”
The move of the house was probably accomplished more quickly that previously assumed; it was probably completed by August 17, according to John B. Hammond’s inspection notes.
The legalisms of the condemnation process were not completed until December 24, 1915, with the filing and recording of the map showing the land condemned for the Q Street extension.
Construction of the retaining wall on the south edge of the property commenced. The District proceeded swiftly in grading and paving the street and completing the bridge — the Herald reported that nearly 6,000 cubic yards of earth would be removed from the Bellevue property for the roadway. The approach from the east had already been prepared. Newbold took out permit No. 2070 on October 21 to erect the required brick wall along the southern edge of his property along Q Street.
An additional permit was required as the wall projected seven inches into public space. This work went much slower and was not completed until September 20, 1916.
The new Q Street (Dumbarton) bridge (built for $198,784.59 — as reported by D.E. McComb, Engineer of Bridges to the District Commissioners in 1916 — opened to no fanfare on December 24, 1915.
Sadly, no images of the house move have ever surfaced; only speculation remains for why this may be. Press coverage was slender — the Washington Herald (July 4, 1915), the Washington Times (July 10, 1915), Washington Post (July 18, 1915). Newbold enjoyed the relocated house for perhaps nine more years. In 1924 his wife Emilie quietly resumed her maiden name (in part) and began to appear in newspaper articles as Mrs. Cresson Newbold, indicating the couple must have divorced. Newbold himself remarried. The house was rented out; it may have been impressive in Georgetown — yet almost cozy to its tenant, Congressman Ogden L. Mills, whose family had a 65-room Beaux-Arts mansion (still standing) in Staatsburg, New York. It was Mrs. Cresson Newbold who sold Bellevue to the National Society of Colonial Dames in 1928.
The Society rechristened the house as Dumbarton House. It had already begun to become an historic landmark years before. The Star gave it a mention and picture in its March 15, 1908 edition with the headline, “A century ago on Rock Creek.” The October 31, 1915 Sunday Star included “the beautiful portico at Belle Vue” in its feature piece on Colonial doorways of Georgetown. The Star included it as number 268 (of 331) on its September 28, 1915 Washington area historic landmarks list. In 1931 it was on the Georgetown house tour, even while it was still the residence of New Jersey Republican Congressman Charles Eaton. Its ultimate transformation came when the Society hired Fiske Kimball and Horace Peaslee to remove T.J.D. Fuller’s work and bring the house back to a purer architecture, stripping away “inauthentic” additions and transformed Bellevue into the Dumbarton House of today.
*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com; he is also on the Board of Directors of Humanities DC. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.
(For nearly five years until June of 2015 until he decided to devote more time to researching and writing, researching and writing of this feature was by Stephen A. Hansen, an historic preservation specialist, Washington DC historian, author of several books and of the Virtual Architectural Archaeology blog.)
© 2015 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.
All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.