Development of Meridian Hill, the visible edge of the city from the White House area, was the result of private initiative. In 1888, former Sen. John B. Henderson and his wife, Mary Foote Henderson, erected a house on a 6-acre site with commanding prospects in this still rural part of the city. Designed by architect E. C. Gardner of Springfield, Massachusetts, the Henderson house was built in a rusticated Seneca brown-stone in Romanesque revival style. Subsequent additions and renovations over the next fifteen years by local architects Thomas Franklin Schneider, George Oakley Totten, Jr., and Laussat R. Rogers, who were partners between 1899 and 1907, resulted in an impressive but architecturally incoherent mass of battlemented towers of varying sizes and shapes. The retaining wall between Florida Avenue and Belmont Street on the west side of 16th Street is all that remains of the original complex.
The influence of the Hendersons during their forty-three-year residence at Meridian Hill was far more significant than the house they built. Socially active, they were concerned with developing 16th Street, the major northern thoroughfare leading to the White House, as the Avenue of Presidents. Although today the street extends 7 miles to the District of Columbia line, Meridian Hill was not incorporated within the city limits and mapped until 1903.
Meridian Hill was originally the site of a major farm, Mount Pleasant, owned by the prosperous Georgetown merchant Robert Peter, and derives its name from the official meridian of the United States on the White House north-south axis, established on 20 December 1793. Commodore David Porter's famous house on Meridian Hill was located on the White House axis at the top of the hill. Reputedly designed by George Hadfield in 1816 (burned 1863), Porter's house and extensive gardens were considered to be one of the most elegant of Washington's early estates.
Beginning in 1890 the Hendersons began buying land in the area, choice lots eventually developed by Mrs. Henderson as an enclave of embassies. Initially, however, the Hendersons sought to interest the government in developing the area as a major focus for new or enlarged public buildings. In 1898, Mrs. Henderson retained Paul Pelz to design a new presidential mansion on the heights of Meridian Hill. Reminiscent of John Nash's Carlton House Terrace (1827–1833) in London, Pelz's grand pile was to sit atop the hill, on the site of the present park, behind a massive retaining wall approached by a vast forecourt and double staircase. Franklin W. Smith, in his illustrated Designs, Places, and Suggestions for the Aggrandizement of Washington (1900), reinforced the scheme of Henderson and Pelz by proposing an even larger version to span 16th Street, with the roadway passing through an arch beneath the building. In 1911 John Russell Pope suggested placing the Lincoln Memorial, a Greek temple approached by an extraordinarily long run of steps, in this same central location. Mrs. Henderson vociferously supported this proposal even after the Commission of Fine Arts had selected the western end of the Mall as the site for the Lincoln Memorial.
In 1906 Mrs. Henderson proposed an urban park, Meridian Hill Park ( MH01), opposite her home on the east side of 16th Street. Approved by the Commission of Fine Arts in 1914, the 12-acre garden was not completed until 1930. Designed in 1919 by Ferruccio Vitale of the landscape firm of Vitale, Brinckerhoff and Geiffert and completed by Horace W. Peaslee, the sloping site lent itself to a water staircase on the model of those in Italian and English Baroque gardens. Its main feature, the central cascade, was based on the best-preserved seventeenth-century Italian example, that at the Villa Aldobrandini at Frascati. The architectural framework of Meridian Hill Park, including the retaining wall along 16th Street, the water staircase, and the upper and lower terraces, were all constructed of concrete with an aggregate of small stones.
The iconography of the sculptural program is multinational. The monument to President James Buchanan (1930; sculptor, Hans Schuler; architect, William Gordon Beecher), located at the northern terminus of the lower terrace, was part of the plan first approved by the Commission of Fine Arts. The standing figure of Dante (1920; sculptor, Ettore Ximenes; architect, Horace W. Peaslee) was a gift by Carlo Barsotti on behalf of Italian Americans. The equestrian statue of Joan of Arc (1922; sculptor, Paul DuBois; architect, McKim, Mead and White), a copy of the one in front of Reims Cathedral, occupies the central position of the upper terrace above the cascade. It was a gift of friendship by the women of France to American women.
When Mrs. Henderson initiated development of the park, she hired local architect George Oakley Totten to design a series of mansions, which she proposed to lease or sell to embassies. The first was the Venetian-inspired Pink Palace (see MH20), completed in 1906; the last, the present Embassy of Ecuador at 2437 15th Street, was finished in 1927. In all, Totten designed nine mansions in the neighborhood, as well as his own house. Others designed by various architects supplement Totten's group. They cover a range of historical styles from Italian Renaissance to French Second Empire, apparently as a conscious attempt to provide as much historical and visual variety as possible. Although historical eclecticism was the norm of the period, there may have been an added dimension at Meridian Hill, where the intent to make them embassies of many nations contributed to their stylistic diversity.
By 1915 Totten had purchased a sufficient number of lots on 15th and 16th streets to begin his own residence, having by this time completed designs for numerous speculative mansions for Mrs. Henderson. It was a small house with a separate studio (his wife was a potter) and pavilions set well within the boundaries of a formally landscaped garden that ran between the two north-south streets. The garden and studio are gone, and the five-bay house with its side entrance is now attached to the back of H. H. Richardson's Warder house (see MH22), which Totten purchased during its demolition in 1924 and reerected in his front garden. Totten renovated the Warder house to serve as luxurious apartments, many of which were rented to embassies. It later served several functions, undergoing renovations each time it changed hands.
Three religious congregations moved to Meridian Hill during the 1920s, erecting churches close to one another on the crest of the hill. All have tall spires, adding distinctive vertical notes to the horizontally organized neighborhood of urban mansions. Each has its own architectural merit, but the sum is greater than the parts. The visual interrelationships between the three spires, each distinctly different in form and inspiration, provide Neo-Georgian, Neo-Baroque, and modern stripped classical elements to complement the stylistic diversity of the embassy buildings. In general, and due to its artificially imposed development, Meridian Hill proper was an architecturally sophisticated but isolated enclave rather than a neighborhood with an adequate social and service infrastructure.
Sixteenth Street from Scott Circle to the foot of Meridian Hill is anchored at each end by large, well-designed apartment houses and lined with a few freestanding substantial houses and three major institutional complexes, two of which are exceptional architecturally, the Carnegie Institution (see MH05) and the Scottish Rite Temple (see MH12). Sculptor Henry Kirke Brown's bronze equestrian statue of Mexican War hero General Winfield Scott ( MH02) was placed atop its monolithic granite base in Scott Circle in 1874. The architect was George E. Harvey of Newburgh, New York; his drawing for the stark, abstract ovoid pedestal is dated 1871.
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