After graduating from St John’s, Key began his career as a lawyer in Georgetown in 1805. A year later, his uncle, Philip Barton Key, whose watchful eye as a mentor had guided Key in Annapolis, turned over his practice to his nephew.
Although he disagreed with his father’s brother’s politics, Key owed him a lot. In addition to his wealthy clients, Philip introduced Francis to the upper crust of Washington society. Social events at Woodley, Philip’s mansion with a commanding view of Georgetown and the new Federal city, were the talk of the town.
Al Kilborne, author of “Woodley and its Residents,” and a history teacher at Maret, described their relationship.
Philip Barton Key and Francis Scott Key were more than uncle and nephew. It was in PBK's law offices that FSC apprenticed, and when PBK decided to run for Congress, he turned his legal practice over to FSK. FSK was frequently at Woodley. He was there when John Randolph of Roanoke had the seizure that changed Randolph’s life. Key also etched his initials into a window pane that was mistakenly broken up and discarded during a renovation.
Philip Barton Key was a fascinating figure. After fighting as a Loyalist in the American Revolution, he received a first class education in London. Returning to the States in 1789, he married Ann Plater and built the Woodley mansion in 1801. Key was the only Loyalist to move beyond the taint of fighting against his fellow countrymen. He served as a Federal judge and as a Congressman. In his biography of FSK, Delplaine calls Philip Barton Key, “a man of sterling character and winning personality.”
Located at 3000 Cathedral Avenue in Woodley Park, the Federal style house overlooks the city and surrounding area, a view blocked by trees. During the Key’s time, however, the cleared away land below made for a remarkable panoramic view.
In an article in the Washington Post, Kilborne calls Woodley, “the most illustrious house in Washington after the White House and the Vice President’s home at Naval Observatory.” Since 1952, the mansion has been home to the Maret School. Founded in 1911, the school is “an independent, coeducational, K–12, college preparatory day school located on a single campus.”
In his book, Kilborne details Woodley’s residents. The list is a slice of “Who’s Who?” of Washington’s highest-ranking power players and includes a pair of Presidents, Secretaries of War, State and the Treasury, two Senators, two Generals including George C. Patton, and of course, Philip Barton Key.
FDR and Eleanor visited frequently. State secrets were whispered here, and on the afternoon of December 7, 1941, an aide handed Secretary of War Henry Stimson the phone. On the other end was President Roosevelt, who asked, "Have you heard the news?"
In a most gracious offer, Kilborne showed me inside, and pointed out some specific places Key would have stood while visiting his aunt and uncle. One is the fireplace in the middle room. Above hangs a lovely portrait of Philip’s wife. In the foyer, he points to a window by the staircase where Key etched his initials (as noted, the potential artifact was tossed). I know he spent a dozen years researching his book, including conversations with descendants, but I have to ask.
"That sounds like one of those apocryphal stories."
"No, no, he said. "Etching one's initials was a common practise back then."
We also spoke with a Maret student who conducted some research on the portrait, and I learned others helped with the research for the "Woodley Calendar 2012."
On that calendar, August 14 reads: “1814 - View From Woodley. The White House, the Capitol, and the Treasury Building can be seen burning against the night sky.”
Philip Barton Key was likely at home that night and would have witnessed the British burning of Washington (All is forgiven Mr. Prime Minister). Kilborne and I discussed the possibility that Francis had joined him there.
We’ll never know for sure, but we do know the nephew had a date with fate outside Baltimore, and would soon have a view of another British attack.
Note: Many thanks to Al Kilborne. A more gracious host you will not find. I also thank the staff at Maret who let us interrupt their concentration. In particular, my apologies to one teacher who showed diplomacy when a stranger and the history teacher entered her classroom. The former even had the gall to ask her students, “Where was Francis Scott Key when he wrote the National Anthem?”
Of course, they gave the correct answer…