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What Once Was

The “Seven Buildings”: Some of Washington’s Earliest Townhouses Now a Building Billboard

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By Stephen A. Hansen*

The Seven Buildings were constructed on the northwest corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 19th Street, NW in 1796. While once proud examples of some of the earliest and most fashionable residences in Washington, only the façades of two remain today, incorporated into the Mexican Embassy building.

On December 24, 1793, the real estate syndicate of James Greenleaf and Robert Morris purchased 6,000 lots from the city commissioners in order to help finance the new government and began marketing the lots for sale and development. Robert Morris was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. He helped George Washington acquire the funds for the Yorktown campaign during the Revolutionary War and was given the moniker “Financier of the American Revolution.” The Greenleaf-Morris real estate syndicate went bankrupt in 1797 and Morris died in 1806 after spending several years in debtor’s prison.

1865 Matthew Brady photograph of the Seven Buildings [photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division).

1865 Matthew Brady photograph of the Seven Buildings (photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division].

In November 1794, General Walter Stewart purchased the seven lots on the northwest corner of Pennsylvania Avenue at 1901-1913 Pennsylvania Avenue from Greenleaf and Morris, and in 1796 constructed seven three-story brick townhouses.

When complete, the Seven Buildings were some of the earliest residential structures built in the city, and for many years thereafter, some of the most fashionable. Each was exquisitely detailed; an ornamental lintel with a sculpted woman’s head was placed above each front door.

Perhaps the most famous of the Seven Buildings was the corner house at 1901 Pennsylvania Ave. President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, lived there from October 1815 to March 1817 while the White House was being rebuilt after it was burned by the British in 1814. It became known as the “House of 1,000 Candles” after an evening reception given by Dolley Madison in honor of Andrew Jackson in 1815. It later became the residence of Martin Van Buren shortly before his inauguration as President in 1836.

Three of the Seven Buildings at Nos. 1905-09 Pennsylvania Avenue, ca. 1900.  (photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division).

Three of the Seven Buildings at Nos. 1905-09 Pennsylvania Avenue, ca. 1900. [photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division].

Other well-known residents of the Seven Buildings included Elbridge Gerry, who lived in one of the houses from 1813 to 1814 while he was Vice President. Naval hero Stephen Decatur purchased No. 1903 in 1817 and possibly lived there until his house on Lafayette Square was completed in 1818.During the Civil War, General George B. McClellan and General Martin Davis Hardin established their headquarters in the Seven Buildings. By the 1890s, the Seven Buildings were being used for commercial purposes rather than homes. 1913 Pennsylvania Avenue was razed in 1898, and a new, four-story building was erected in its place.

By 1910, the former home of the James Madison was occupied by Nichols Pharmacy. In 1917 and 1918, the owner of the pharmacy, Eugene R. Nichols, was charged with adulterating regulated solutions and selling them. This must not have been a serious offense, as both times, he failed to appear in court, only forfeiting a $20 bond that he had posted himself.

The Seven Buildings and Nichols Pharmacy, ca. 1920. The fourth floor on the next building was a mid-19th century addition. (photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division).

The Seven Buildings and Nichols Pharmacy, ca. 1920. The fourth floor on the next building was a mid-19th century addition. [photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division].

1901-1905 Pennsylvania Avenue were razed in 1959 to make way for an office building constructed on the site. From the 1950’s until 1983, 1911 Penn was home to the Italian restaurant, Marrocco’s Sorento Room. By 1979, only 1909 and 1911 Pennsylvania Avenue remained.

Then, in 1986, those two houses became the latest victim of “facadism,” or architectural billboarding with their street-facing walls incorporated into the new $4.5 million, nine-story Embassy of Mexico.

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The last two of the Seven Buildings fronting the Mexican Embassy. [photo–courtesy Wikimedia.]

The architect of the project, Peter Vercelli, persuaded the developer the save the old façades, not because he knew their history, but because they  seemed to match the original cornice line along the avenue. As a result, the 1898 office building at No. 1913 was demolished,  No. 1911 was restored, and a mid-19th-century floor addition on No. 1903 removed and returned to its original 1796 appearance.

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

© 2013 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Stephen A. Hansen. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.