What dreams we have
and how they fly
Like rosy clouds
across the sky.
- Paul Laurence Dunbar
If your passion is demolished historic buildings of Washington, DC, you probably have two things handy - James Goode’s classic “Capitol Losses” and a box of tissues.
Goode does not include any Alexandria buildings (see his “Capital Views”), but a check of Alexandria in his index reveals three men who parlayed success in Alexandria with continued fortune in the capital city.
Let’s take a brief look at these three.
Thomas Circle between Vermont and M, NW
B 1843, D 1947
There Now: Swimming Pool for a Hotel
Taken in 1922, a photograph of Thomas Circle shows a streetcar winding around the six-spoked circle crowned by an equestrian statue of General Winfield Scott, and passing by a Greek Revival, three-story brick home. Sash windows and a neoclassic cornice make it a beauty.
Charles Coltman, a brick maker and builder constructed this landmark dwelling in 1843. In 1860, Washington attorney Thomas Barbour Bryan acquired the mansion. During the Civil War he sold it to his brother-in-law Andrew Wylie Jr. (1814-1905). Born in Washington County, Pennsylvania, Wylie practiced law in Pittsburgh. In 1845, he married Mary Caroline Bryan of Alexandria. The couple moved to Alexandria around 1850. He had a private practice in the southern seaport for over ten years.
When Alexandrians cast their ballots in the Presidential election of 1860, Lincoln supporters were scarce. Wylie was one of just two in the city who voted for the tall rail splitter from Illinois. In his book, “Alexandria: An Illustrated History,” Ted Pulliam tells us, “the election officials almost refused to allow his ballot to be cast” and that he was later threatened by a mob.
President Lincoln must have appreciated the courage. He appointed Wylie as a Supreme Court Justice of the District, who sat on that bench for the next twenty years.
Wylie lived at the prestigious Thomas Circle address until he passed away in 1905. Horace (1868-1960), his only child, inherited the house and other properties in Washington.
Far from advancing his father’s prestigious legacy, Horace ran fast in the opposite direction. After marrying Katherine Hopkins, the judge’s son turned a lustful eye to a siren song he could not resist.
Her name was Elinor Hoyt Hichborn (1885-1928). She was the daughter of the solicitor general under President Roosevelt and President Taft. In 1897, the family moved from Pennsylvania and lived at 1516 K. Street and then 1701 Rhode Island Avenue. Elinor attended Holton-Arms School on Hillyer Place and attended classes at the Corcoran Museum of Art. Writers would soon describe her as stylish, elegant, luminous and radiant.
In 1906 Elinor fulfilled familial and societal expectations when she married Philip Hichborn, Jr. A graduate of Harvard and the son of an admiral, the well-bred young man ran in the same elite Washington circles as Elinor. President Roosevelt attended their wedding, considered one of the top society events of the season.
The seven-year itch came early for Elinor. In 1908, she began a flirtation with Wylie, who lived close by. Inflamed with passion and defying the social conventions of the day, the two deserted their spouses and children and sailed to Europe in 1910.
Needless to say, the Washington newspapers splashed a lot of ink on the ensuing scandal. As one writer put it, the two had betrayed their class.
Author Evelyn Helmick Hively covers this sad and salacious story in her biography, “A Private Madness: The Genius of Elinor Wylie.”
A year after being abandoned, Philip committed suicide.
After Katherine Wylie filed for divorce in 1916, Horace and Elinor were married. The couple returned to Washington in 1919 and lived at 2153 Florida Avenue (house still there). Despite their previous high standing among the elite, social norms would not allow them to return to the circles they once knew.
Elinor found a haven, of sorts, at the Wayfarers Bookshop on H. Street (appropriately located in the basement) She nurtured her need to write, and met fellow writers such as Sinclair Lewis who was writing a satirical novel to be titled, “Main Street.” Elinor also found a new beaux. She left Horace and began a relationship with William Rose Benet, a poet who helped her publish her book “Nets to Catch the Wind.”
In 1925, Elinor, this time for uplifting reasons, made headlines. An article in The Washington Post told readers she had gone to New York and found fame as a successful poet and rising star as a novelist. Her new book, “The Venetian Glass Nephew,” earned praise.
Elinor went on to publish almost a dozen books of poetry and four novels. Looking back in later years, literary critics continued to recall her writings fondly. A “frail beauty,” one wrote of her poetry.
Sadly, Elinor died in 1928 of a stroke. She had always suffered from high blood pressure.
Katherine Wylie lived on the house on Thomas Circle until her death in 1941. Her children sold the house five years later and it was demolished the following year. As Paul Williams notes, the International Inn chain built a hotel there in the early 1960s. Architect Morris Lapidus, who earned attention for his design of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, designed a large glass dome for the pool (later taken down).
As Goode points out, the hotel marked “the beginning of a transition of Thomas Circle from a residential circle to commercial uses.” The hotel is known today as the Washington Plaza.
Roger Chew Weightman (1787-1876)
Penn and 6th, NW
B 1816, R 1942
There Now: Newseum
It’s not easy for any one building to stand out on the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House. With a “Window on the World” facade, the Newseum is certainly a landmark at the northeast corner of Sixth and Penn.
Starting in 1826, the National Hotel stood at this location and was long a landmark destination.
The story starts with Roger C. Weightman. Born in Alexandria in 1787, he moved to Washington in 1801 and became a printer’s apprentice. The young man learned under the tutelage of William Duane who printed and published at the northwest corner of Pennsylvania and Sixth Street.
In 1807, Weightman bought the business and secured the contract for printing government journals and stationary. According to Founders Online, one of his customers was Thomas Jefferson. They point out that “Wylie invited Jefferson to Washington’s celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, eliciting TJ’s last public letter.”
Business must have been brisk. In 1816 Weightman built a row of brick Federal style houses between Sixth and Seventh. They became known as the “Weightman Buildings.” At the corner spot he sold books, as well as “yarns, plaid shirtings, chambrays, sattenetts, chocolate, sugar and nails.”
In 1942, John Clagett Proctor wrote an article on Weightman. He noted members of Congress and assorted officials had gathered at the store. A few Congressmen lived at one of the adjacent boarding houses. His bookstore became a literary center of sorts.
Weightman held sway on both a business and political level. After serving on the District of Columbia council, he was elected Mayor in 1824. His duties that year included heading up the committee to welcome French General Marquis de Lafayette. In front of thousands outside the Capitol, Weightman gave the formal address.
In 1826, Weightman sold the houses, making way for the construction of National Hotel. His distinguished career continued in Washington.
Filled with 200 rooms, the hotel’s first proprietor was another Alexandrian. Even before the first cornerstone was laid for the Capitol, John Gadsby (1766-1844) had earned a sterling reputation as the owner and host at City Hotel in the seaport, a place we know today as Gadsby’s Tavern. Continuing to think big, the English immigrant first ran a tavern at 19th and I NW before purchasing Weightman’s row houses and converting them into a new hotel.
The hotel was first known as Gadsby’s Hotel. Some considered it the best and most fashionable hotel in the city. It competed against other well-knowns such as Union, Brown’s (Indian Queen), Blodgett’s, Rhodes and the Williard.
(Note: The Willard was first built in 1818, then demolished in 1900 for the construction of a new Willard. The Willard website’s history note does not reflect this, making it seem the building is from 1818.
And can you believe some wanted it torn down in the 1970s??? Goode describes it as “Washington’s best remaining example of public architecture in the Beaux Arts tradition.”
Streets of Washington blog points out the National Hotel was built incrementally, “more an accretion of smaller buildings than a single structure.”
Viewers and readers of “12 Years a Slave” may recall Solomon Northup staying at the National Hotel in 1841. His kidnappers took him there after drugging him at a nearby tavern.
In 1865, John Wilkes Booth stayed on the second floor in the hotel while plotting to assassinate President Lincoln, as well as the night before and the day of.
In 1930, The Washington Post wrote of the National Hotel,
“For more than a half century the history of the Nation was made there.” Its banquet room hosted Presidents and major balls.
After Gadsby died in 1844, the Calvert family bought the hotel. A fire in 1921 signaled its end. The guests stop coming and the doors were shuttered in 1931. After the building was demolished in 1942, a new structure went up for the DC Employment Security Building. It went down in 2000 to make way for the Newseum.
East side of 15th between U and V, NW
B 1897, R 1974
There Now: Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments
Of the three businessmen in this look back, Robert Portner (1837-1906) is likely the one you might have heard of. Catherine and Margaret Portner, two of his great-great granddaughters, are poised to open their new restaurant brewery not too far from where Portner made his mark in the city.
Portner’s story is told by Michael Gaines (“The Shortest Dynasty, 1837-1947, The Story of Robert Portner; a history of his brewing empire; and the story of his beloved Annaburg"). Garret Peck also gives him his due in “Capital Beer.” WETA has a terrific article and the Lyceum currently has an exhibit.
After emigrating from Westphalia, Germany, and running a small operation on S. St. Asaph Street in Alexandria, Portner built a massive brewery on the four blocks of Washington Street, Pendleton, St. Asaph and Wythe. At one time, Portner was the largest employer in the city.
When that operation became a smash success, Portner teamed with Albert Carry, a fellow German-American to form the National Capital Brewing Company in 1890. They acquired the Navy Yard Brewery at the blocks of 13th and 14th, and D and E in southeast DC. Several other breweries had been located there. The new plant was able to produce 100,000 barrels a day.
Peck describes Portner’s operation as a “regional brewing powerhouse.” His empire extended all across the Southeast and might have grown further. But his last breath taken in 1906 and Prohibition in 1916 ended those aspirations. His Alexandria plant was used for dairy and poultry feed and then dismantled in the 1930s. Remaining is the bottling plant building that stands across from Trader’s Joe’s and was converted into residential (also see historical marker there).
The story of Portner does not end there. He parlayed his success in Alexandria by becoming a successful real estate magnate in Washington. In 1881, the family moved to the capital city. Portner also built a 35 room mansion in Manassas he called “Annaburg.”
The Portner’s lived at 1104 Vermont Street, NW. His acquisitions include lots on 13th Street, Logan Circle and Virginia Avenue and 7th Street. All this was a warm up act for his piece de resistance. In 1896, Portner bought a block long parcel of land at 15th Street between U and V NW, and built apartment buildings there. Goode notes the “Portner Flats,” designed by architect Clement Didden, was the largest apartment house complex in the city until Connecticut Avenue held that distinction in the 1920s. Ahead of his time, Portner put in tennis courts and swimming pools.
The first part of the six-story apartment complex rose up at the corner of 15th and U Street, followed by the second at 15th and V. With business booming, he put in a finishing central part in 1902. Scratching their heads over the far flung location north of downtown DC, critics dubbed the building “Portner’s Folly.”
Portner, however, got the last laugh. Gaines writes that the residential complex became one of the most fashionable apartment buildings in the city, a precursor of sorts to the high-style units that would rise up on upper Connecticut Avenue. Residents and tenants benefitted from being one block away from the streetcar line. Portner’s builder added ornamental touches such as a pair of sculpted female figures on a corner entrance.
After World War II, the population of the Shaw neighborhood changed from primarily white to mostly black. In 1946, a group of investors bought the Portner Flats, converted it into a hotel, and changed the name to Dunbar Hotel (named after poet Paul Laurence Dunbar). Permanent residents stayed in the renovated and enlarged wing rooms, while the interior efficiencies were used for hotel guests.
The Dunbar Hotel became a crown jewel of the neighborhood. It became the leading black hotel in the city and anchored the west end of the lively U Street nightclub strip.
Shifting demographics signaled the end for the building.
Preservationists fought the good fight but The Dunbar was demolished in 1974. Four years later, the Campbell-Heights apartment house rose in its place. It was later renamed Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments.
Also in 1974, Portner Place, a four story garden style apartments rose up at 1440-1450 V Street. It is being demolished for a new residential development to be called Portner Flats.
These three men are certainly not the only ones to parlay success in Alexandria into fame in Washington. We did, however, find their stories fascinating.
And let’s not forget that tall fellow from Mount Vernon who dreamed big when he looked across the river…