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What Once Was

The “Obstinate” Mr. Burnes’ Cottage

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By Stephen A. Hansen*

When Congress decided on the location of the new nation’s capital in 1790, George Washington was charged with negotiating for and acquiring the land which Washington, DC now occupies. At that time, the land in the 10-square miles was then owned by 19 separate proprietors. Washington was successful in negotiating with 18 of those, but the land he was most interested in belonged to David Burnes.

Burnes was a third generation landowner in Washington. His grandfather, David Burnes I, a Scotsman, was born around 1690 and acquired his first tract of land in 1721, which comprised what became the southern grounds of the White House, where the old Treasury, Navy and War Buildings once. (See, “The First Executive Office Buildings,” InTowner, Jan. 2013, www.intowner.com/2012/10/11/4371.) In 1730 and 1732, he then purchased two more tracts where the Ellipse is now located. David’s son James added to the holdings by purchasing four more tracts between 1754 and 1771. About 1756, he constructed a cottage on a narrow strip of land along the Potomac River and Tiber Creek, now bounded by 17th and 18th Streets, Constitution Avenue and C Street, NW. When it was built, it stood out as the handsomest residence in the surrounding country. Although the house was only one story, it consisted of four rooms and a garret.

David Burnes' cottage. illus. Scribner’s Magazine, 1873

David Burnes’ cottage. illus. Scribner’s Magazine, 1873

David Burnes II inherited 700 acres of land that extended from the White House to the Patent Office. Burnes had a reputation of being a bigoted, choleric man, fond of controversy, and never known to agree with anyone. He was originally opposed to the arrangement of transferring land to the government, and the City Commissioners were unsuccessful in persuading him to sell. Historic lore tells that George Washington himself made a visit to Crusty Davie Burnes to explain the advantages of the plan. In response, Burnes burst out with “I suppose, Mr. Washington, you think people are going to take every grist from you as pure grain; but what would you have been if you hadn’t married the rich widow Custis?”  Washington retorted with “Mr. Burnes, what will you take for your land?” to which Burnes replied “anything your Excellency pleases.” Whether or not this exchange actually occurred, Washington did refer to him as that “obstinate Mr. Burnes” later in a letter and would have nothing more to do with him.

Burnes put up a long, drawn out fight, wanting top dollar for his land. He would spend an entire day bickering over the price of a piece of land and then refuse to sell it. It may have helped his bargaining position knowing that L’Enfant planned on locating the White House and government office buildings on his land. He ultimately did sell out and became a very wealthy man.

Yet, even with his new wealth, Burnes remained in the small cottage built by his father. In 1793, he did begin to construct a new yet modest house where the Corcoran Gallery of Art is located today. L’Enfant even offered to help design the new house, but Burnes refused his assistance, not wanting such an elaborate home. The completion of the house was ultimately abandoned, possibly due to the slow payment by the Commissioners to Burnes for the purchased land or the fact that 17th Street was opened up through his tobacco crops.

Burnes’s only son John died in 1795 leaving only his daughter Marcia, then known in the new capital as “the beautiful heiress of Washington.” Her elementary education was in Georgetown, but as Washington then offered little opportunity for the further finishing of a young debutante, her father placed her with a cultivated Baltimore family, where she received a proper social and literary education.

Marcia Burnes.  illus.-Records of the Columbia Historical Society (1919)

Marcia Burnes. illus.-Records of the Columbia Historical Society (1919)

At the age of 18 when she returned to Washington, Marcia had no other place to reside except in the family cottage. David Burnes died in 1799 and left his entire estate to Marcia, making her the wealthiest woman in the United States at that time.

In 1802, at the age of 24, Marcia married John Peter Van Ness, a congressman from New York and later the Mayor of Washington, DC. Between the years 1813 and 1816 Van Ness contracted the services of the Architect of the Capitol and superintendent of government buildings, Benjamin Henry Latrobe,  to construct a large Greek Revival-style house located on the same block as the Burnes cottage, which then became known as Mansion Square.

The Burnes cottage and the Van Ness Mansion.  illus.--Washington Times (1895)

The Burnes cottage and the Van Ness Mansion. illus.–Washington Times (1895)

Marcia kept the Burnes cottage as a family shrine. When the Van Ness’s daughter and only child Ann Elbertina died in 1822, Marcia renounced the vanities of the world and turned the cottage into a private chapel for meditation and prayer. She died on September 9, 1832 at the age of 50 years. She was the first woman in the United States honored with a public funeral.

After Van Ness died in 1846, the property passed to collateral heirs, none of whom occupied the mansion and for many years it remained uninhabited. In 1850, the property was purchased by Thomas Green from Virginia, who was the first to occupy the mansion since Van Ness died. Green continued to live there during the Civil War and for some time thereafter. Green, aware of the importance of the old Burnes cottage, continued to maintain it and keeping it from ruin.

Burnes cottage with the Washington Monument in the background, possibly taken between 1889 & 1894. photo-Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Burnes cottage with the Washington Monument in the background, possibly taken between 1889 & 1894. photo-Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Immediately after the assassination of President Lincoln, Green and his wife were suspected of being conspirators in an aborted Booth plot to kidnap Lincoln and hide him in the Van Ness house’s wine cellar until he could be transported over the river to Virginia. They were arrested and confined for six weeks in the Old Capitol prison until they were finally exonerated. The ownership of the property passed to former Governor Swann of Maryland around 1879, although he never occupied it. The property was later used for a German beer garden, a florist’s nursery, and headquarters of the city street cleaners. Yet, throughout the property’s various incarnations, the Burnes cottage continued to stand

In 1893, the Columbia Athletic Club secured the use of the property, then known as Van Ness Park. Although there was much awareness and concern at the time about preserving the Burnes cottage, the following year it was finally razed to create a football field.

The Burnes cottage in 1894, the year it was razed. photo--author’s collection

The Burnes cottage in 1894, the year it was razed. photo–author’s collection

The George Washington University purchased the property in 1902 with the intent of tearing down the Van Ness mansion to create a new campus on the site, but alumni objected because they deemed the property too unhealthy because it was near the marsh that came up to B Street (now Constitution Avenue). The mansion was restored just enough to be temporarily habitable for the school of engineering before moving it to another location. The university finally sold the property to the Bureau of American Republics in 1908, which tore down the Van Ness mansion to make way for the Pan American Union Building.

*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.