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What Once Was

Reconstructing Historic Holt House

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By Stephen A. Hansen*

If you walk through Walter Pierce Park between Calvert Street and Adams Mill Road when the leaves are off the trees, a large, dilapidated old house can be seen across the gully sitting on top of a bluff on the grounds of the National Zoo. This historic house is known as Holt House and is one of only a handful of turn-of-the-19th century country estates left in Washington. Other such country-style estates of this period include Dumbarton Oaks, Dumbarton House, and Mayfair in Georgetown.

Under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Zoo, Holt House had been used until 1979 for administrative offices, and then was abandoned. Intimately linked to the early history of Washington, and listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the DC Inventory of Historic Sites, Holt House is both a local and national treasure, but with each passing day, it is getting closer and closer to collapsing from neglect. Large cracks in the walls, a leaking roof, and general decay tell of its gradual demise.

Holt House was once part of Columbia Mills, now referred to as Adam’s Mills because of their ownership by John Quincy Adams. These water powered mills were likely constructed between 1793 and 1800 and built along Rock Creek, just above Georgetown, in an area that is now also owned by the National Zoological Park. The mills produced plaster of Paris, flour, and corn meal. No one is sure when Holt House was actually built, nor who the architect was, but indications are that it was constructed sometime between 1800 and 1829, when Roger Johnson owned the mills. The house was first ever mentioned in 1831 in Johnson’s will, which also revealed that the house already had been separated from the mills. John Quincy Adams purchased the mills from Johnson around 1824, but within months of purchasing the property, he became President. Adams had hoped that the mills would be able to provide him some income and security in his retirement years. Though never a very successful business, the mills remained in the possession of the Adams’ family until about 1872.

After Roger Johnson’s death, “Pretty Prospect” (as the Holt House property was then known) was sold in 1835 to Dr. Ashton Alexander, a prominent physician from Baltimore, for whose family Alexandria, Virginia is named. Dr. Alexander never resided in Washington himself, and in 1838, rented the house to Amos Kendall, Postmaster General of the United States, a close confident of Andrew Jackson, and one of the founders of the modern Democratic Party. Kendall must not have been the best of tenants, as in 1841, Dr. Alexander placed an advertisement in the newspaper offering the property for lease or sale, declaring, “It has undergone three years of deterioration by the worst treatment by those who unfortunately tenanted. The proofs of which are grievously visible at a glance. And for the whole three years not a dollar, so far, has been received for damages or rent.”

Another physician, Dr. Henry Holt, originally of Oswego County, New York, and after whom the house is now named, purchased the property in December 1844 and was the first owner to have ever lived in the house. But rather than practice medicine, Holt farmed the property.

Holt made several changes to the house, including adding a new entrance on the north side and verandas and stairs on the south side. It is also likely that the two-story south vestibule is a fill-in of a large original rear porch. These changes altered the proportions and overall appearance of the house from its former classic design. While Holt occupied the house, it continued to deteriorate. Photos from the 1880’s show ivy growing through the windows into the house, and broken-down exterior stairs in the front and the back. Dr. Holt and his family finally sold the property to the Commissioners for the National Zoological Park in 1889 for $40,000.

By the time the Zoo purchased the property in 1889, Holt House was very dilapidated and badly in need of extensive repair. In addition to the repairs, the Zoo altered the house even further by extending the north vestibule, digging out the center of the basement, filling in windows, enlarging and adding additional windows. While the building is once again neglected, its purchase by the Zoo in 1889 probably helped ensure its continued existence for the last 120 years.

As a long-time resident of Kalorama Triangle, I had become very concerned about the fate of Holt House and frustrated by the lack of any attempts on the part of the Zoo to maintain the building. Thanks to the efforts in 2001 of a local community organization, Help Save the Holt House, which first called public attention to this historic treasure, the house was mothballed, gutters and downspouts installed, the roof repaired, and the windows boarded up. In 2003, the Kalorama Citizen’s Association released an 84-page report urging the National Zoo to save this historic house on its property from imminent collapse.

Recently, I decided to build a computerized recreation of Holt House to show how it may have originally appeared when it was built. Our goal was to create a visual and accurate record of the house, as well as offer a new and visual approach to historic preservation that might help raise a new public awareness and interest in the house.

Based on the historic documentation that exists of changes to the house, historic photographs, stylistic analysis, and physical examinations of clues to changes made to the house over the years, I generated a 3-D computerized recreation of Holt House as it may have appeared when it was first constructed. It was an enlightening and educational process to watch this house come back to life on the computer screen as original details were discovered and were restored. This will be an ongoing project and we will update the model each time we learn more about Holt House.

[Editor’s Note: This reconstruction is posted on the author’s blog, and includes an explanation of how certain decisions were made in the reconstruction the original house.]

*The writer is a local historic preservationist and is owner of DC Historic Designs. He can be contacted by email at stephen@preservationmatters.net or by visiting www.preservationmatters.net.

© 2010 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Stephen A. Hansen. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.