The Queen and her Castle
Washington’s Gilded Era between 1880 and 1929 had its share of characters, and Mary Foote Henderson was one of them. She was a woman with big dreams, who saw some of them come true, including the genuine medieval castle she built for herself just above Florida and 16th Street at a time when her only other neighbors were herds of sheep.
Mary was a real estate speculator as well as a visionary, and her husband made enough money to finance her grandiose projects. She bought up a lot of land along 16th Street, with the hopes of converting the street into “The Avenue of the Presidents,” to be lined with busts of all the presidents, a project which was roundly rejected by Congress. She then tried to turn it into Embassy Row, and gave the plan a head start by hiring her friend and architect, George Oakley Totten Jr. to build several mansions which she planned to sell to embassies. But, Embassy Row continued to flourish along Massachusetts Avenue, which already had numerous grand houses just right to be converted into embassies. Undaunted by her failures with these projects, she went on to lobby for re-locating the Presidential mansion to her neighborhood. That didn’t work either.
In relentless pursuit of promoting the value of her real estate holdings, she convinced Congress to buy the 50 acre tract known as Meridian Hill. Hundreds of years earlier, the place had been a sacred Indian burial ground, and because of its commanding elevation, Thomas Jefferson had originally planned to mark the prime meridian from its hilltop vantage point. Mary succeeded this time, and in 1910, Congress paid $460,000 for the huge plot of ground, which is still one of the prettiest parks in the city.
Among her other passions, Mary was a suffragette and a fierce opponent of alcoholic beverages. When her husband died, she inherited his priceless wine cellar, which was forty years in the making. When Prohibition came, she held a huge party, and the Evening Star reported that Mary and her teetotaling friends emptied the fabulous wine collection into the gutters of 16th Street.
Her dreams of glory died with her in 1931 and her castle became a shoddy rooming house. Then it was a school for a while and finally, in 1976, developer Larry Brandt bought it and turned it into the Beekman Place Condominiums.
Washington is a wealthier city now and the current sensibility and laws favor preserving historic sites, so the castle would probably not have been torn down today. Some entrepreneur, as passionate and enterprising in his or her beliefs as Mrs. Henderson, would make it into an inn with a three-star restaurant, and in place of John Brooks Henderson’s illustrious wine cellar, a glamorous wine bar.
Instead, you can drive along 16th street, above Florida Avenue, and still see a few remnants of stone wall with a hint of crenellations that are a faint reminder of the castle we can only wish was still there.
Donna Evers, email@example.com, is the owner and broker of Evers & Co. Real Estate, the largest woman-owned and run real estate firm in the Washington Metro area, the proprietor of Twin oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia, and a devoted fan of Washington history