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Sheridan Circle and Kalorama

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Sheridan Circle is among the rarest of American phenomena, a time capsule. Nothing has been added or taken away since 1920; noisy traffic along Massachusetts Avenue is all that disturbs its serenity. As Washington's population of part- and full-time wealthy residents increased, the large domestic structures of Dupont Circle spread westward along Massachusetts Avenue and soon engulfed the new circle that lay outside of L'Enfant's plan. The focus of one of Washington's most elite residential neighborhoods since its development at the turn of the century, Sheridan Circle demonstrates the kind of architectural eclecticism associated with American individuality. In addition to ad hoc private development, its location on the edge of Rock Creek Park and the irregular way the grid streets intersect the circle contribute to the lack of continuity and conformity among Sheridan Circle's dozen structures, originally private residences but now primarily embassies and chanceries.

The oldest houses on the circle were designed by Washington architect Waddy B. Wood in a variety of Mediterranean styles, as he apparently felt its quasirural setting suggested an informal ambiance. Within five years, the work of the equally prolific local architect George Oakley Totten, Jr., began to transform the circle and its environs into Washington's most important enclave of formal, French-inspired urban mansions. As the neighborhood spread northward and joined Kalorama, a wider range of historical styles by numerous good and a few excellent architects created an upper-class urban suburb comprising mansions, large freestanding houses, substantial row houses, and early garden apartments.

When Sheridan Circle was first laid out, both Stephen Decatur and Gen. John A. Logan were considered as possible heroes to be honored with statues in its central garden. However, Gutzon Borglum's animated bronze figure of the Civil War general Philip H. Sheridan astride his famous horse Rienzi (SK01) was dedicated in 1908. Its base with fountains on the sides and stairs on the north and south, designed by architect Henry Winslow, acts as a pivot for Massachusetts Avenue's abrupt shift in axis. Minimal planting on the interior of the circle creates a low, green oasis that throws into relief the light-colored, three- to four-story buildings around its perimeter. Unlike European urban circles, traditionally composed of buildings with a consistent style, shape, and scale, the precarious unity of Sheridan Circle is provided primarily by its color and materials. Its architectural value is the sum of its parts, a rare opportunity in America to view a large group of surviving pre—World War I houses built for the wealthy. These residences, like the majority along the Massachusetts Avenue corridor, escaped replacement by apartment houses because their scale, internal planning, and decoration were keyed to lavish and formal entertaining and could thus be readily adapted to the needs of embassies.

Kalorama, Greek for “beautiful view,” takes its name from the poet Joel Barlow's estate, which he named in recognition of the extensive prospects to be had from its elevated position. The 90-acre estate remained intact until subdivided into several developments in 1887. Kalorama and Sheridan circles define the northern and southern boundaries of the district; Massachusetts and Connecticut avenues were extended along and across Rock Creek Park to define its east and west perimeters. The Highway Act of 1893 mandated that streets in subdivisions beyond L'Enfant's northern boundary (now Florida Avenue) conform to street patterns established by the original plan, effectively halting development of the Sheridan-Kalorama area until the law was amended in 1898 to exempt subdivisions created before its enactment.

The present single-span Massachusetts Avenue Bridge (SK02) that crosses Rock Creek Park above Belmont Road was designed by Washington architect Louis Justement in 1940 to replace a viaduct built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1901. As its height was not as great as the bridges farther upstream, its massive, quarry-faced stone surfaces and low, semicircular arch continue the image of a culvert rather than of a soaring feat of engineering. The Taft Bridge ( SK03) (1897–1907), which carries Connecticut Avenue across the park, was designed by railroad bridge architect George S. Morison as the largest unreinforced concrete bridge in the world. Its four concrete lions were sculpted by Roland Hinton Perry. The picturesque rectilinear street pattern laid out in 1887 sacrificed little of the character of the hilly Kalorama estate, serving nearly as effectively as winding streets (the norm for earlier and later suburban developments). Retention of natural topographical features and dense planting of trees are the deciding factors.

Kalorama has two areas of architectural interest. Some substantial row houses line a few streets that abut Connecticut Avenue, but the region's glory is its urban mansions located on the high ground between Massachusetts and Connecticut avenues. It contains predominantly Colonial Revival, Mediterranean Revival, and Beaux-Arts-inspired homes set within their own grounds. Kalorama Road NW and Kalorama Circle NW wind around the north ridge of land before it descends into Rock Creek Park. The majority of houses were designed in the 1920s following English models in styles compatible with the natural, picturesque setting in which the predominantly fieldstone houses were placed. The influence of the late English Arts and Crafts movement is evident in many of them where vernacular domestic forms, natural textures of materials, and mildly picturesque compositions were the basic concerns of the architects. Close to downtown, high enough in elevation to benefit from summer breezes, and enjoying panoramic views, Kalorama became a preferred locale for those who could afford to live here.

Writing Credits

Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee

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