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What Once Was

Franklin House: Home of Peggy O’Neale

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By Stephen A. Hansen*

In 1794, William O’Neale, a native of County Ulster, Ireland, moved from Chester County, Pennsylvania, to open a stone quarry at Mount Vernon and one along the western boundary of the newly established District of Columbia to provide freestone for Washington’s new public buildings. It was grueling work, not only for the hired men and slaves, but also for O’Neale himself. The use of slave labor so frustrated O’Neale that he abandoned the quarries to stake his own claim in the new capital.

In 1794, O’Neale built a wood-frame house at the corner of 20th and I Streets, just four blocks west of the White House, and made his living cutting and selling cordwood, coopering barrels and building stoves, as well as selling coal and feed. When he had saved enough money, he built a large brick house to the west of his house at 21st and I Streets and put both his houses up for sale. But investors were not flocking to the new capital city as was hoped in the 1790s, and he was unable to sell either house. So in 1800, he turned the brick house into O’Neale’s Tavern, a boardinghouse and general store.

Franklin House, circa 1913. By now it had been greatly modified, including the addition of a Mansard roof. The MacFeely House at 2017 I Street, now the Arts Club of Washington, can be seen to the far right. photo--W.R. Ross, courtesy Historical Society of Washington, DC.

Franklin House, circa 1913. By now it had been greatly modified, including the addition of a Mansard roof. The MacFeely House at 2017 I Street, now the Arts Club of Washington, can be seen to the far right. photo–W.R. Ross, courtesy Historical Society of Washington, DC.

In 1813, O’Neale built an additional 50-foot-wide house, containing 20, completely furnished rooms. At this point, O’Neale’s establishment covered the western half of the block on the northern side of I Street between 20th and 21st Streets, and became widely known as Franklin House.

Although O’Neale was a successful hotelier, he was a poor businessman. In 1823, he sold the tavern and soon thereafter, it was bought by John Gadsby of Brighton, England. Gadsby also owned successful taverns in Baltimore and in Alexandria. Gadsby’s Tavern in Alexandria is once again open as a tavern and museum.

Peggy O'Neale. photo--State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory .

Peggy O’Neale. photo–State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory .

O’Neale is possibly best known as the father of Peggy O’Neale Timberlake Eaton, whose scandalous life resulted in the resignation of President Jackson’s cabinet. The 1936 movie The Gorgeous Hussy was based on the life of Peggy O’Neale and starred Lionel Barrymore as Andrew Jackson and Joan Crawford as Peggy. (Ed. Note: See chapter 1 of Stephen Hansen’s new book, A History of Dupont Circle: Center of High Society in the Capital.

Site of Franklin House today. The former MacFeely House, now the Arts Club, can be seen sandwiched in between two 20th century buildings closer to 20th Street. photo--Google Street View .

Site of Franklin House today. The former MacFeely House, now the Arts Club, can be seen sandwiched in between two 20th century buildings closer to 20th Street. photo–Google Street View .

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

© 2014 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Stephen A. Hansen. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.