What Once Was
“Here to feast on historic places” — First Stirrings of Historic Preservation in Washington
Published: December 25th, 2016
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By Matthew B. Gilmore*
On May 18, 1932, “appropriate exercises” accompanied the placing of a bronze tablet on the original (1856) Government Printing Office building at North Capitol and H Streets. Not surprisingly, several hundred people attended, given that the GPO had been a major employer in the city for many years. The event was organized by the Permanent Committee on Marking Points of Historic Interest, made up of eminent Washingtonians.
John Clagett Proctor addressed the assembled crowd on the historical importance of the location. Writer of the history feature column for the Evening Star, Proctor was well-known in Washington, DC social circles and its local history community. His stem-winders often had a convincing true-to-life vividness.
An example was his description of President Jefferson crossing the flooded Tiber Creek on his horse to get to the Capitol in 1803 — the horse was almost swept away by the volume of the stream — which had an eye-witness quality that caused other old-timers to ask, “Were you there, John?” 
Proctor had worked for the Government Printing Office for 50 years; it was a family affair — his mother, brother, sister, and two uncles had also been employed there. Proctor took the opportunity to wax nostalgic in his address and rambled back to his childhood days, concluding with the following:
“But, Mr. Chairman, I am not unmindful that I am down on the program to present this tablet to the Honorable the Public Printer, which I take pleasure in doing at this time, on behalf of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia and its Committee on Marking Historic Sites. And in hoping it may endure forever, may I but add, Mr. Carter, that though fully realizing that you have had a number of worthy predecessors, yet I do believe that in days to come, when your term of office is written up by the future conservative historian, that it will fill only pages of meritorious acts and results equal to, if not exceeding, those of any of the distinguished men who have preceded you.” 
This occasion would be one of the last of the committee’s three decades’ effort to mark historic sites in Washington. The GPO building itself was demolished and replaced only a few years later (1938-1940). The bronze tablet had already disappeared.
Washington lacks an official historic marker program such as London’s blue plaques. This year celebrating its program’s 150-year anniversary, London’s markers were instituted in 1866 to identify buildings where the famous had lived. There are well over 900 markers (a not surprising number considering the size and history of London). The New York Times recently featured the history of the blue plaques which also included a map.
Paris started its own current marker program in 1992, theirs being more didactic rather than simply commemorative.
Washington’s efforts to mark (and to preserve) locations of historical importance were begun in the 1890s as the city’s 1900 centennial neared, heightening an historical consciousness. Guidebooks describing Washington sites had been published since the 1820s and the 1880s saw an increasing number of historical accounts of the city.
An important driver of the increasing interest in documenting the history of the city was the periodic return of the veterans of the Civil War. The annual Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) National Encampment returned to Washington in 1892, for the first time since 1870. The dramatically changed city must have been a shock to the thousands of visiting veterans. GAR membership was still near its peak of over 400,000.
Sites of particular interest to Civil War veterans were given temporary numbered markers and a pamphlet listing them published. Well over 200 locations were so marked, a substantial number of which being sites where Civil War hospitals had been located — of particular interest to those veterans who might have spent time recuperating in them (or had compatriots who did).
Memorial Association of the District Of Columbia
The late Victorian era saw an explosion of professional and voluntary organizations devoted to virtually every kind of endeavor in the arts, sciences, literature, and society. Washington already played host to the American Historical Association, founded in 1884. In 1892, just ahead of that year’s GAR National Encampment, the Memorial Association of the District of Columbia incorporated with some ambitious goals, as reported in the Washington Post of June 28, 1892:
“. . . it will be the aim of the new society when possible and desirable to buy such places [those of historic significance] outright, in order to preserve their identity and protect them from the march of modern improvement.” Title to any acquired property would rest with the federal government.
The Association produced a handsome pamphlet a few years later titled “Historic Washington,” compiled in part by prominent biographer Charles Lanman, well-known for his biographical sketches of members of Congress (the precursors to the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress).
There were slightly over a dozen initial locations proposed by the Memorial Association for preservation. Many of these are familiar (some under different names) and have been preserved. Some have not — Diplomat Joel Barlow’s mansion known as “Kalorama” and the oldest schoolhouse had already been demolished (1888). The oldest school house was at the southeast corner of 14th and G Streets, NW (now the site of the former National Bank of Washington building). The Van Ness House was razed in 1908 and the Union Hotel in 1935. Linthicum Place is now known as Dumbarton Oaks.
On February 3, 1893, seven months following the Post‘s report on the Memorial Association, the Evening Star reported on its work then being spearheaded by a number of prominent local historians and political figures, as follows:
“. . . for the suitable marking by tablets or otherwise of the houses and places of great historical interest in this city and the preservation of noteworthy houses at the national capital—made so by their having been occupied by some of the greatest men in American history . . . and serve the higher purpose of cultivating that historic spirit and that reverence for the memories of the founders and leaders of the republic upon which an intelligent and abiding patriotism so largely depends.”
To encourage patriotic civic education, the Association would place markers at sites in Washington of national historic interest. It had been first organized under District rules in 1892 then by Congressional action in 1893. Aiming for a high profile, the new organization structure required six members be appointed to its governing board by the House, six by the Senate, and six by the President of the United States. As reported by the Star on December 22, 1894, Cardinal Gibbons and the Washington Board of Trade had endorsed the Association’s stated preservation and education goals announced the previous year.
An entire pamphlet over 60 pages long contained endorsements of the Memorial Association’s aims from politicians, clergy, and newspapers nationwide.
In October of 1893 the Association scored a signal victory with the acquisition of the Oldroyd collection of Lincolniana. That collection of Col. O.H. Oldroyd’s Lincoln-related artifacts had been housed in the Lincoln homestead in Springfield, Illinois. Oldroyd was ousted as custodian of the homestead with the election of Democrat John Peter Altgeld as governor. The Memorial Association offered to house the collection in Washington at 516 10th Street, NW in the Peterson House where Lincoln died after being shot in Ford’s Theatre across the street.
According to reports in the October 14, 1893 editions of both the Evening Star and Washington Post, the collection consisted of over 2,500 items, including busts, photographs in great profusion, badges, medals, and even a rail reputedly split by Lincoln himself. At the 1894 organization of the Columbia Historical Society the redoubtable Kate Field made note of the existence of the Memorial Association and prompted discussion about any potential conflict between the two organizations.
In 1894 the Association began fundraising for the purchase of the Peterson House. The Post had endorsed this endeavor eagerly: “It is a mansion that should be saved as it is to future generations and cared for with the same religious veneration that is bestowed upon the home of Washington at Mt. Vernon.” There had already been other proposals for the federal government to purchase it and in 1896 the government did acquire the Peterson House.
Lawyer and author Louis Schade, publisher of the Washington Sentinel newspaper, had owned the house since 1878. In its December 17, 1887 edition the Star was reporting that Schade and family were annoyed by pilgrims to the site of Lincoln’s death.
The fortunes of the Memorial Association seem to have faded after this triumph. In 1896 New Yorker J.C. Bancroft Davis and Librarian of Congress Ainsworth R. Spofford were appointed by the Senate to the Association’s governing board (Star, December 10, 1896). Not much more was ever heard of the Memorial Association, and its place would be eventually taken by another organization — one a bit less ambitious, the Committee on Marking Points of Interest.
In 1902 the Grand Army of the Republic National Encampment would return to Washington for the first time since 1892. The new Committee on Marking Points of Interest produced a fold-out map and list of over 200 sites of “historic interest.” The catalog was tailored to the interests of the veterans, calling out the locations of long-vanished Civil War hospitals, forts and other related sites. The GAR encampment was expected to attract 200,000 visitors.
The Star reported on August 20, 1902 that the signs marking points of historic interest would be of a more durable material — tin, rather than canvas and would measure three feet by three feet.
Marking Sites for Presidential Inauguration Visitors
As reported by the Washington Post on March 3rd, the marker committee for the inauguration resolved to pursue organizing a permanent body to research and permanently mark historic sites. The next day the Star characterized the markers to be erected for the 1909 inauguration as being “. . . [s]potted with small wooden tablets, made in imitation of bronze.” Further, its report included the following observation:
“Many of the landmarks are passing from view, for Washington is in a state of change. It is growing rapidly and its growth requires sacrifices. The older buildings are being replaced by new ones. . . . In a few years, unless permanent marks are established, most of the historic buildings will have been swept away, without trace to note their existence.”
The Star advocated that the federal government undertake the project to permanently mark with bronze tablets the sites of historic interest. Congress appropriated $500 in 1906, and an additional $500 each in 1907 and 1908. (Star October 7, 1909).
In 1910 plans to mark places in Washington significant to local and national history came to fruition. Decatur House and the Old Brick Capitol were marked with bronze tablets on July 4th. Committee chairman William P. Van Wickle laid out the history of the marker effort back to 1902.
“The committee,” as reported by the Star on July 4, 1910, “was complimented by the inaugural committee for their creditable work, and soon after March 4, 1909, the chairman of the committee on historic sites received a letter from Mr. Henry B.F. Macfarland, then president of the Board of District Commissioners, stating that the temporary markers placed by the committee had been of such great interest to the many strangers visiting our city, as well as our own people, that he earnestly hoped that permanent tablets in bronze would soon be erected, and that the Commissioners stood ready to appoint such a committee.”
The Star further reported that the citizen’s committee had been appointed by Board of Commissioners President Cuno H. Rudolph three months earlier, on April 6th, “to take up the work of permanently marking in bronze of the points of historic Interest in the District.”
Permanent Committee for Marking Points of Historic Interest
In 1913 two very handsome tablets were affixed to the General Land Office at 7th and F Streets, NW (once the city’s main post office and for over 50 years afterwards home of the U.S. Tariff Commission and now the Hotel Monaco). Henry Bacon designed the tablet. Art historian and critic Royal Cortissoz (best known for the wall inscription at the Lincoln Memorial, “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever”) wrote the inscriptions. Henry Hering, a pupil of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, executed the design (Star June 27, 1913).
The tablet affixed on the building’s south (E Street) side commemorated the site of Blodget’s Hotel; the one on the east (7th Street) side celebrated Samuel B.F. Morse’s telegraph.
William Van Zandt Cox presided at the unveiling event in the absence of William Van Wickle. Etta Louise Taggart, daughter of lawyer and historian Hugh Taggart and Hazel Van Zandt Cox, granddaughter of former mayor Matthew Emery who built the building unveiled the tablets. Numerous members of the Morse family attended, including Morse’s daughter, grandson, and nephew. (Evening Star, July 4, 1913, Washington Herald July 5, 1913).
Blodget’s Hotel was one of the major buildings of the earliest days of Washington City. Built in 1793, it housed Washington’s first theater; later was home to the post office and patent office. William Thornton persuaded the British not to burn it, sparing the nation’s patent records and models. Congress met temporarily in Blodget’s until the Old Brick Capitol was ready in 1815. Speaker Marcus Benjamin credited the marker effort back to the 1902 Grand Army encampment marker effort, overlooking the efforts of the 1890s.
Several other tablets were in the works — a marble one for the Octagon, one for the Dolley Madison House on Lafayette Square, and one for the location of the first passenger rail station at 2nd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. The Octagon seems to never have received its marble tablet. The Dolley Madison House has a bronze tablet, of similar but not identical design to the two at the old Post Office. Blair House has a similar bronze tablet. The site of the first passenger rail station is just a grassy triangle now; if there was a marker it is gone.
The historic sites were cataloged and marked for subsequent inaugurations, generally re-using the same list of sites with occasional additions or deletions — a sensible course allowing for the re-use of the committee’s (200 plus) temporary signs.
The historic sites catalog was again produced for the joint reunion of the United Confederate Veterans and (Union) Sons of Veterans held from June 4 to 8, 1917. It was a massive effort> The committee had over 100 members — the who’s who of Washington history circles.
The subcommittee charged with the task “[t]o examine and pass on points of interest” had 20 members, including Proctor, J. Harry Shannon (who penned the history column The Rambler in the Evening Star); Allen Culling Clark, president of the Columbia Historical Society; William Tindall, secretary of the District of Columbia; and photographer Willard Ross.  What material (whether tin or canvas) was used to create the markers went unmentioned.
The concept of continuing to permanently mark many more sites still simmered in the background. In its July 14, 1918 edition the Star mentions the proposal to put out those inaugural markers for the duration of the war for the benefit of those residents and workers new to the city — “war visitors,” as it were. Bronze tablets would have been preferred but the expense was too great (approximately $500 each), largely because they would have to be procured one-by-one.
Important locations considered included the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, which many presidents attended; the Belasco Theater, site of Secretary of State Seward’s home); and Fort Stevens. A week later, on July 21st, the Star reported that Van Wickle had called the whole committee together to discuss the lack of weather-resistance of the existing markers. It was noted that the Commission of Fine Arts had approved a marker design to be executed in bronze. It seems nothing came of the idea and the inaugural markers stayed in storage. 
Fairly quietly the program to mark historic sites continued, often in collaboration with other organizations, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution. In 1923 the first city post office site at 9th and E Streets, NW was marked; in 1924 the Peterson House and Ford’s Theater (finally) got their tablets (Star, April 29, 1924). In 1927 the Willard hotel received its marker; the Kiwanis installed a tablet on the northeast corner of the Department of Treasury in 1929 marking the site of the original State Department building and the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty establishing friendship between the United States and Canada. In October of 1929 Friendship House on Capitol Hill was marked with its own tablet.
While permanent markers continued to be placed, the parallel effort creating and updating the catalog for visitors was continued for presidential inaugurations. The 1929 catalog for the inauguration of Herbert Hoover listed 230 sites, plus a list of statues and memorials (this was slightly down from the 250 listed in 1917).
Familiar names populated the responsible committee chaired by Miss Mabel Boardman (erstwhile Commissioner of the District of Columbia), including author George Rothwell Brown, John Clagett Proctor, historian Allen Culling Clark, planner Charles W. Eliot, surveyor and future commissioner C. Melvin Sharpe.
In 1933 the catalog pamphlet was much the same as 1929 — 232 sites listed — with an addition at the very end of a photograph, identified as “2131 R Street NW., Washington home of President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1918 to 1920, when Assistant Secretary of the Navy” — a tip of the hat to the new president.
1937 marked a break with the past. While the points of interest list was again compiled for President Roosevelt’s second inauguration, but this time it was unnumbered and no markers were placed. The content appeared to be substantially the same. The 1941 list was dramatically truncated — a mere 40 items, primarily federal facilities; all sites connected to noted individual historical figures were purged, returning the list (unknowingly) to not much more than the original 1892 pamphlet.
These early historic preservation efforts of over a century ago had their successes and some losses. The Memorial Association of 1892 would surely be pleased to see that most of the existing buildings they would have preserved have been preserved. None of the temporary inaugural markers seem to have survived (unless deep in storage in some distant warehouse); few if any photographs seem to exist. A number of the bronze tablets from 1910 to 1940 still exist — if the building stands; the Blodget and Morse ones remain the most handsome and well-preserved. An exception is Ford’s Theater; its marker is long missing, having disappeared during one of several renovations.
The permanent committee itself faded away and other organizations took up the cause, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, marking historic sites and would continue to do so. Historic markers indeed have proliferated. The Historical Markers Database has 876 entries for the District of Columbia (not all historic markers, some actual entire memorials). Marking sites of historic significance would continue and does to this day, even as the pendulum has swung back to attempting to preserve buildings from the march of progress.
 Milton Rubincam, “John Clagett Proctor, 1867-1956.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, DC, vol. 63/65, p. 293.
 United States Government Printing Office, Annual Report of the Public Printer, p. 135 (1932).
 The Washingtoniana Division at the District of Columbia Public Library has the major collection of Ross images available online; the connection to the “points of historic interest committee” and publications was previously unknown.
 The Commission of Fine Arts could not find a record of an approved design.
Thanks to Ludivine Gilli, Kay Fanning (Commission of Fine Arts), and Adam Berenback (National Archives).
Marcus Benjamin (ed.), Washington During War Time: a Series of Papers Showing the Military, Political, And Social Phases During 1861 to 1865 – Official Souvenir of the Thirty-Sixth Annual Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic. Washington City (1902).
Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan, Bibliography of the District of Columbia. Washington, Government Printing Office (1900).
Douglas E. Evelyn & Paul Dickson, On this spot: pinpointing the past in Washington, D.C. Sterling, Va., Capital Books (2008).
Virtual Architectural Archaeology: Blodget’s Hotel (1793-1836).
Memorial Association of the District of Columbia, “Historic Washington” (1898).
Memorial Association of the District of Columbia Words from many sources commendatory of its work; and especially of the plan to purchase the house in which President Lincoln died. Washington DC, Memorial Association (1894?)
John Clagett Proctor, Washington and Environs: Written for the Washington Sunday Star, 1928-1949 (1949).
Milton Rubincam, “John Clagett Proctor, 1867-1956.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, DC, vol. 63/65; also published in the 45th separately bound book (1963/1965), pp. 273-300.
Dave Taylor & Kate Ramirez (BoothieBarn blog post), “The Memorials on Tenth St.” (March 24, 2014).
United States Government Printing Office. Annual Report of the Public Printer (1932).
“Encouraged by Prominent Men: The Movement to Preserve the House in Which Lincoln Died,” Washington Post (Feb. 12, 1893).
“The Memorial Association’s Appeal,” Washington Post (Jan. 15, 1894).
“Memorial Washington,” Washington Post (Feb. 10, 1893).
“Relics of Abraham Lincoln,” Kate Field’s Washington, vol. 9 #3, pp.42-43 (Jan 17, 1894).
English Heritage, “London’s Blue Plaques.”
*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com. 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.
© 2016 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.