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What Once Was

Holt House: A Case of Demolition by Neglect

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By Stephen A. Hansen*

Demolition by Neglect: allowing a building to fall into such a state of disrepair that it becomes necessary or desirable to demolish it.

Holt House, located off Adams Mill Road on a promontory on the east side of Rock Creek across from the grounds of the National Zoo, was one of the grander houses in Washington when it was built in the 1790s. It got its present name from its last private owner, Dr. Henry Holt. It has been part of the National Zoo’s property since 1889, but has been vacant since the late 1980s. And with each passing day, it is getting closer and closer to completely collapsing from neglect.

Holt House as it appears today. photo--Stephen Hansen.

Holt House as it appears today. photo–Stephen Hansen..

Few houses in Washington have as long and interesting a history as Holt House. It is intimately linked to the early history of Washington, DC by its association with such significant figures as Benjamin Stoddert (first Secretary of the Navy), presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, and Amos Kendall. During its long life, it has been a mill seat, a rental property, farm, an office building, and now an abandoned building.

The north face of Holt House as it originally appeared when completed. rendering--DC Historic Designs, LLC..

The north face of Holt House as it originally appeared when completed. rendering–DC Historic Designs, LLC..

 

The south side of the house as it appears today.  The large columned porch was also filled in in the 19th century to create more space in what was a relatively small house. photo--Stephen Hansen.

The south side of the house as it appears today. The large columned porch was also filled in in the 19th century to create more space in what was a relatively small house. photo–Stephen Hansen.

 

The south side of the house as it appears today.  The large columned porch was also filled in in the 19th century to create more space in what was a relatively small house. photo--Stephen Hansen.

The south side of the house as would have originally appeared. rendering–Stephen Hansen.

 Mill Seat

The land on which Holt House sits was originally part of a tract of land known as Pretty Prospect and was acquired in 1793 by Benjamin Stoddert from the Beall family. Stoddert served as a Captain in the Revolutionary Army, Secretary of the Board of War, co-founder and president of the Bank of Columbia, one of the first three city commissioners appointed by George Washington, as well as having served as the first Secretary of the Navy under John Adams.

Benjamin Stoddert, the probable builder of Holt House. image--U.S. Department of the Navy.

Benjamin Stoddert, the probable builder of Holt House. image–U.S. Department of the Navy.

             

Despite his prominent position, Stoddert’s land speculations in the new capital city left him land rich and cash poor. Perhaps to help increase his cash flow, he constructed a flour mill, Columbia Mills, along Rock Creek on this parcel of land in the 1790s.

It is probable that Stoddert had Holt House built as a mill seat at the same time as the Columbia Mills, although there is no mention of a house on the property until 1831. The house’s five-part Paladian-style architecture (a center block with two wings connected by “hyphens”) dates it to the late 18th century in Washington. Its poor construction, which continues to plague the house to this day, suggests that the house was quickly and cheaply erected, perhaps to provide a little something extra to entice a buyer for Columbia Mills.

Had Stoddert needed an architect for the house, he may well have called on the services of George Hadfield who was serving as superintendent of the United States Capitol’s construction at the time. But, it is more likely that the design for the house was simply taken from one of many architectural pattern books that were popular with builders at the time.

In 1800, Stoddert sold the property to his friend Walter Mackall. Mackall came from Calvert County, Maryland, was a wealthy landholder in both Maryland and Washington and had served in the Maryland House of Delegates. His brother, Benjamin Mackall, married Christina Beall, whose father Brooke Beall, was a wealthy shipping merchant in Georgetown, sending great quantities of grain and tobacco from the port in Georgetown to England.

The great room in its current condition. photo--DC Historic Designs, LLC.

The great room in its current condition. photo–DC Historic Designs, LLC.

 

The great room as it would have appeared without furnishings when the house was completed. endering--DC Historic Designs, LLC.

The great room as it would have appeared without furnishings when the house was completed. endering–DC Historic Designs, LLC.

 

Mackall may have taken an interest in the mills due to his brother Benjamin’s connection to the Beall’s shipping business. But, Mackall owned the property for only four years. In 1804, he sold the property to Pennsylvania Quaker and miller, Jonathan Shoemaker. Shoemaker arrived with his family of five sons and one daughter to operate the mills. But, constant problems at the mills (Rock Creek tended to dry up) and a dispute with Thomas Jefferson forced the Shoemakers to sell the property and relocate to Shadwell, Virginia to help operate Jefferson’s mills there.

In 1809, Jonathan Shoemaker sold the property to Roger Johnson of Fredrick County, Maryland, who was the younger brother of Maryland’s first governor and another of the three original city commissioners, Thomas Johnson. This was an investment on Roger’s part, as he already owned two foundries, a glassworks, and a plantation in Frederick County. Roger remained at his home “Bloomsbury” in Frederick County and sent his son George to manage the mills.

Original north entrance doorway, now enclosed by the exterior vestibule. photo--DC Historic Designs, LLC.

Original north entrance doorway, now enclosed by the exterior vestibule. photo–DC Historic Designs, LLC.

 

George Johnson proved incapable of running a mill and as well as managing his own finances. Beginning in 1812, he began borrowing large sums of money from the Bank of Columbia to rebuild the mills after they burned, employing a millwright to build “the best mill possible.” The loans were underwritten by his father-in-law and Georgetown merchant James Dunlap.

It is believed by some that Holt House was built by George Johnson. But because of his constant financial problems, and the fact that by the time the Johnsons acquired the property the architectural style of the house was quite passé, it is unlikely that he built the house, or in fact lived in it. He also owned a house in Georgetown, and with a wife and large family, Holt House would have seemed very cramped.

In 1818, George Johnson was in serious debt and Roger Johnson attempted to intervene on his son’s behalf. Writing to George’s father-in-law, James Dunlop, he said that he hoped to sell his lot near the mill in the spring, then later to “sell the half of his Mil” (which he never did). Roger also asked Dunlop to assume payment on George’s debts, as he considered him partially responsible as the under signer of the loans, probably knowing of his incompetence but wishing to appease his daughter. Roger maintained possession of 13¾ acres of Pretty Prospect as well as the house, possibly to ensure his son and large family had a place to live.

George Johnson's cousin and wife of John Quincy Adams, Louisa Johnson Adams. photo--The White House.

George Johnson’s cousin and wife of John Quincy Adams, Louisa Johnson Adams. photo–The White House.

 

It is uncertain who was paying the mortgage on the mills and the house between 1818 and 1823, but in fear of losing his home, in 1823 George approached his cousin, Louisa Johnson Adams (wife of John Quincy Adams), in hopes that John Quincy would acquire the mortgage on the mill from the bank. Adams mortgaged his house in order to purchase the mills in 1823 for $20,000, and placed George on salary to continue to manage them with the understanding that George would later repurchase back half the mills from Adams. Within months of purchasing the property, Adams became president.

John Quincy Adams bought Columbia Mill from George Johnson. photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

John Quincy Adams bought Columbia Mill from George Johnson. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

 

Adams had hoped that the mills would be able to provide him some income and security in his retirement years. But, he was not totally independent in managing this endeavor, as in 1823 his father (John Adams) wagered that demand would soar, and increased production as John Quincy watched while prices fell, costing him $15,000. Although never a successful business, the mill remained in the possession of the Adams family until about 1872.

In 1824, George’s arrangement with Adams to manage the mills was terminated by Adams due to his financial incompetence. Not soon thereafter, George once again approached Adams for assistance, this time soliciting a place as a clerk in one of the departments, to which John Quincy assured him he would “in no case recommend him” for anything. But, records show that by 1827, George was working as a clerk at First Comptroller’s Office in Georgetown, a position possibly acquired with the help of Adams.

Rental Property

In 1831, Roger Johnson died, leaving the disposal of the remaining 13¾ acres of Pretty Prospect to his two other sons, requesting that the house and lot of land adjoining the Columbia Mills be sold to cover George’s outstanding debts. In 1835 they sold the property to Dr. Ashton Alexander, a prominent physician from Baltimore, for whose family Alexandria, Virginia is named. Dr. Alexander never resided in Washington himself, but altered the house to make it more attractive to rent. In 1838, he rented the house to Amos Kendall. Kendall served as Postmaster General under presidents Jackson and Van Buren and was one of the most influential members of Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet.” Kendall dubbed the house “Jackson Hill” in admiration of his friend, probably much to the chagrin of Jackson’s political rival John Quincy Adams, who had to pass by the house to visit his mill.

Amos Kendall rented Holt House from 1838 to 1841. photo--Matthew Brady (National Archives).

Amos Kendall rented Holt House from 1838 to 1841. photo–Matthew Brady (National Archives).

 

Amos Kendall was not the best of tenants. In 1841, Dr. Alexander placed an advertisement in the National Intelligencer newspaper offering the property for lease or sale, declaring that “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.”

Farm

Dr. Henry Holt, a former U.S. Army assistant surgeon from Oswego County, New York, purchased the property in 1844 and turned it into a small-scale livestock farm and orchid. Holt divided the house down the middle into two sections each with its own entrance, one for each of his two sons.

Dr. Holt conversing in the farmyard in 1889, possibly negotiating the sale of the house to the National Zoo. photo--Smithsonian Institution.

Dr. Holt conversing in the farmyard in 1889, possibly negotiating the sale of the house to the National Zoo. photo–Smithsonian Institution.

 

: Dr. Henry Holt sitting outside the south vestibule in 1889; notice the then badly dilapidated condition of the house. photo--Smithsonian Institution.

: Dr. Henry Holt sitting outside the south vestibule in 1889; notice the then badly dilapidated condition of the house. photo–Smithsonian Institution.

 

Office Building

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. Yet, in helping plan the new zoological park, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. advised the park’s planners to look to the graceful architecture of Holt House as a source of inspiration.

The Zoo’s renovations to turn the house into administrative offices included adding a cantilevered extension of the front vestibule and moving the main entrance to the back of the house. It also excavated 6 feet down around the perimeter of the house and added full-height windows to turn the basement into a full first floor. Zoo personnel occupied the building until 1988 at which time it was boarded up.

The south face of Holt House in 1937 when it was being used for administrative offices by Zoo staff. photo--Historic American Buildings Survey.

The south face of Holt House in 1937 when it was being used for administrative offices by Zoo staff. photo–Historic American Buildings Survey.

 

An Abandoned Building

In 2002 the Kalorama Citizens Association’s Holt House Preservation Task Force obtained a matching grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to hire the architectural firm of Quinn Evans to assess the house. Their findings were that a “massive collapse of the house is a real possibility; partial collapse or failure of a segment of the framing is a distinct probability.”

While the Zoo and Smithsonian staff are sensitive to the issues and would generally like to save Holt House, Congress has limited the amount of money in their budgets that can be spent on it, with only enough to minimize water damage, monitor structure movement, and provide interim structural supports.

In 2005, the DC Preservation League included Holt House on its Most Endangered Places list that includes properties threatened by demolition through neglect or abandonment.

Recently, the Zoo and the Smithsonian conducted another physical assessment of the house and a feasibility study to determine what can be done with the property. Various new uses considered for the house included a daycare center for Zoo employees, a visiting scholar’s residence, and a science center. The study concluded that to rehabilitate the house would cost $1,000 per square foot. Unfortunately, governmental resources are still not available to undertake such a project, and both the director of the Zoo, along with Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ), have pointed out that they are in the animal business, and not the historic preservation business.

Additionally, Holt House sits in a secured area of the zoo that does not allow for public access and any potential uses of the house would be limited only to Zoo personnel. This causes problems in raising outside funds to support a rehabilitation, as private donors would hope for some return on their investments, or at least that it could be used by a larger community other than the Zoo itself.

So, as of today, Holt House remains an historical orphan in what are probably its final days, unless someone is willing to step up to the plate soon to save it.

[Editor’s Note: Holt House has been the subject of previous coverage by The InTowner. See, “Zoo Allowing Collapse of 200 Year Mansion, Desecration of Old Burial Ground and Rock Creek Pollution; Laws May Be Broken” (May 1997, http:/.com/d/tinyurl 9tru6d);Preservation-Minded Neighbors Decry Decayed State of Zoo’s Historic Adams Mill Road Site” (June 2003 issue PDF, page 1). See, also, the author’s “Reconstructing Historic Holt House” (March 2010, http://tinyurl.com/d6fsy5r.]

*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.