Meridian Hill Historic District
The Meridian Hill Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2014, The Gombach Group.
There are fifteen mansions on Meridian Hill. All of these mansions were designed in the period between 1905 and 1928 and either served as private residences or as the combined home and office of foreign governments. Of these fifteen mansions, eight were designed by the notable local architect George Oakley Totten, for his patron, Mary Foote Henderson (and her husband, John Henderson) occupant of Henderson's Castle. Others were designed by nationally and locally known architects, namely John Russell Pope, Nathan Wyeth, and Warren & Wetmore, Architects. Many of the mansions served as foreign legations with both residential and official functions. They are all of a certain scale, designed with large reception areas, ballrooms and/or music rooms, and living and dining rooms, and all are lavishly appointed on the interior. These mansions line the avenue, but are somewhat clustered, with a group of five located on the west side of 16th Street above Euclid Street and a collection of three located on the east side of 15th Street south of Euclid Street, directly across from the upper terrace of Meridian Hill Park. Two of the private mansions, the White-Meyer House and Meridian House, are located on the curving Crescent Place, off of 16th Street. Currently, eight of these mansions are listed in the D.C. Inventory of Historic Sites and six are listed in the National Register. All of the mansions are important buildings and each deserves recognition in its own right, above and beyond inclusion in this historic district.
The White-Meyer House and Meridian House, located at the southern end of the historic district, are the most private of the area's mansions. Both houses, designed by John Russell Pope a decade apart from each other, occupy large lots and are enclosed by walls that obscure the houses from public view and contribute to an elite enclave-like feeling of Sixteenth Street in general and Crescent Place in particular. The two-story, five-bay brick White-Meyer House, built in 1912 for retired diplomat Henry White and his wife, is stylistically reminiscent of an English Georgian country house. Indeed, the extravagant interior detailing includes some original Georgian-era mantels brought over from England.
Meridian House, commissioned by Irwin Boyle Laughlin, steel magnate and a friend of Henry White who built the White-Meyer House, was erected almost ten years later, just east of the White-Meyer House. The Meridian House property extends west to 17th Street and south to Belmont Place and is enclosed by high concrete walls with limestone facing. Hiding behind these walls is the limestone-clad French neo-Classical manse that appears to rise only two stories, but actually has four, including a sunken basement level of services and an attic-level servants' quarters within the mansard roof. Built into the natural rise of the terrain, both the White-Meyer and Meridian houses enjoy landscaped gardens at the rear with exceptional panoramic views of the city to the south that historically would also have included a view of the Henderson's residence.
North of the Crescent Place houses on the west side of 16th Street as it plateaus, and interspersed by several large apartment buildings, is 2640 16th Street, the southern-most of Mary Henderson's Sixteenth Street mansions designed by George Oakley Totten, Jr. Now owned by a non-profit organization, this mansion was built in 1907 for use as the Embassy and Chancery of France. Totten thus chose to design the building in a distinctly French manner, namely in an academically correct interpretation of the Louis XIV style, a style associated with the great age of French political and artistic life of the late 17th and 18th centuries. Considered one of Totten's finest works, this quintessential Beaux Arts mansion is characterized by its corner site and triangular location highlighted by the building's prominent domed tower, and by its classically arranged and richly detailed limestone facade, its mansard roof and iron roof cresting. For many years, and until 1941 when the expansive Dorchester House apartment building was constructed, the French Embassy stood somewhat isolated, with a large tract of undeveloped land separating it from the emerging group of mansions to the north.
North of the French Embassy is a collection of dwellings built by or inspired by Mary Henderson. These houses occupy the plateau of Meridian Hill and face east to Sixteenth Street. Each of the houses is illustrative of the Beaux Arts period of design and each is comparable in building scale, quality of materials and lavishness of design. However, Henderson and her architect adopted a variety of styles for the buildings, not only in an effort to create visual and didactic curb-appeal, but as illustrated with the French Embassy, to appeal to the prospective foreign tenants, or to perhaps even "seduce" certain favored nations to establish their legations on Meridian Hill.
The most stylistically distinct and the southernmost of the group of mansions, 2600 16th Street, has been known alternately throughout its history as the "Venetian Palace" for its Venetian Gothic style and the "Pink Palace" for its once pink-painted wall color. Constructed in 1905 and designed by Totten, it is the first of the Sixteenth Street mansions built by Mary Henderson in her effort to transform the street into an avenue of diplomatic residences. Despite being flanked by large-scale apartment buildings, the four-story palazzo is highly visible along Sixteenth Street and is notable for its Venetian Gothic/Renaissance-style articulation that is unique in the city and heavily adapted from the buildings found along Venice's Grand Canal. Like these houses, the palace is composed principally of flat surfaces with relief dependent upon shallow balconies (partly removed), and the carving out of the surfaces into open loggias (since enclosed). Similarly like its Venetian predecessors, the palace has marble and stucco wall surfaces pierced by Gothic arched windows with trefoil tracery and a low-pitched hipped roof sheathed with tiles. Although never occupied as an embassy, the house was home to several prominent persons including its first tenant, renowned statesman Oscar Strauss; its second tenant, Franklin MacVeagh, Secretary of Treasury in the Taft administration; and its second owner, wealthy Chicagoan Mrs. Marshall Field, who purchased the house from the Hendersons in 1914.
Next in line to the north is 2622 16th Street, initially built with 2620 16th Street as a duplex, but designed so as to appear as a single, large structure. Although only the northern section remains, the building stands out for its Spanish Baroque style of architecture not common in this city. This surviving half of the former duplex features a five-story tower thought to have been inspired by the Palace of Monterrey in Salamonca, Spain. Its walls are clad in smooth limestone with flamboyant applied terra cotta bas relief ornamentation reserved principally for the door and window surrounds and cornice cresting capped by an intricately carved limestone cornice with corner minarets and arched window openings in the upper two floors. The lower-level floors of the tower are separated by a broad stringcourse and have square-topped openings, while the entry floor repeats the round-arched openings of the upper levels. The southern half of the duplex, originally an imposing three-story and three-bay wide stone edifice with a broad tiled roof, was demolished circa 1965 and replaced with a buff brick apartment building typical of the period.
Mary Henderson built the duplex speculatively in 1908-1909, choosing the Spanish style, possibly in an effort to entice the Spanish government to move its legation here. The southern building in the duplex did house the Spanish Embassy for some time, while the northern and surviving duplex became home to the Danish legations. From 1926 until the present, the building at 2622 16th Street has served as the legation for the Republic of Lithuania.
The Cuban Embassy, located north of the duplex at 2630 16th Street, was constructed in 1916 by the Cuban government for use as its legation on a site purchased from the Hendersons. Although Mary Henderson had already designed a building for the site in an English Elizabethan style that would have furthered the eclecticism of the street, the Cubans instead built their own home in a neo-Classical style. The Cuban government hired the local architecture firm of MacNeil and MacNeil to design its Beaux Arts mansion, stylistically justified by the then-ambassador who noted that "classicism belongs to the whole world, while the Spanish style is of only one nation." The Cuban Embassy is a three-story, five-bay limestone building with a recessed central section flanked by two semi-octagonal end bays. The first floor features a scored limestone base with emphasis placed on the center entry, while the two upper floors have a smooth ashlar finish with each bay given relatively equal architectural treatment. The two floors are united and the bays separated by double-story pilasters, and the cornice line capped by a parapet wall above a projecting cornice. The Cuban Embassy building holds the distinction of being the first purpose-built foreign legation on Meridian Hill built by a foreign government, rather than by Mary Henderson as part of her development venture.
The Embassy of Poland at 2640 16th Street was speculatively built in 1909-1910 by Mary Henderson and designed by George Oakley Totten, Jr. With no known tenant in mind, Totten again designed the mansion as an academic expression of a historic French style, in this case the more restrained Louis XVI style. After holding onto the house for ten years, Mary Henderson sold the building in 1919 to the Polish government, which has occupied the building as its embassy ever since. The limestone building stands 3-1/2-stories high and spans three equal bays, separated on the two upper floors at the center bay by double-height fluted pilasters and articulated at the corners by stone quoining. The building is covered by a Mansard roof, clad in slate with copper seams, and features round-arched dormer windows on all four sides giving light to the fourth-floor servants' quarters.
On the north side of Fuller Street and completing the group of five limestone mansions on the west side of 16th Street is the very Italian, Italian Embassy building at 2700 16th Street, built in 1924 on land purchased in part from the Hendersons. Gelasio Caetani, the Italian ambassador at the time was a trained architect and reputedly heavily involved in the design process, though the notable New York architecture firm Warren & Wetmore were the architects of record, with Whiting Warren chiefly responsible for the building. Not surprisingly, the architects designed the embassy in an Italian Renaissance Palazzo mode with direct references to the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. The three-story, five-bay building is divided horizontally into a rusticated ground floor with emphasis placed on the central entry; a principal piano nobile with pedimented windows; and an attic level of small square windows, all covered by a low hipped red tile roof. The chancery wing, which connects to the main residence by a one-story hyphen, extends along Fuller Street. The chancery, expanded ca. 1930, has a less formal appearance more reflective of an Italianate country villa, than a city palazzo.
On the east and west sides of 16th Street, beyond Meridian Hill Park and its massive retaining wall that extends up the hill, are several more of the street's mansions, including the Warder House, which was moved to the site from K Street, NW in 1923. Saved by architect George Oakley Totten, Jr. the Warder House is the sole-surviving of four H.H. Richardson-designed houses in Washington, D.C. In 1915, while actively engaged by Mary Henderson, George Oakley Totten designed his own house—a stucco-clad, English Arts and Crafts-style house—on Meridian Hill. His house was built towards the rear of his lot, with a large and formal garden between the house and Sixteenth Street. In 1923, when the Warder House at 1515 K Street was threatened with demolition, Totten purchased all of the exterior stonework, windows, roof and interior finishes, including wood paneling, flooring, staircase and other features. He then reassembled the house on his Meridian Hill property, obliterating his garden oasis and effectively converting his own house into a rear wing of the much larger Warder Mansion, which he developed into luxury apartments. Currently referred to as the Warder-Totten House, the Richardson-designed Romanesque Revival style stone dwelling with its battered sandstone walls, arched entry, wide segmental-arched openings, conical roofed stair tower and all-encompassing red-tile roof and the Arts and Crafts Totten-designed rear wing have been recently renovated into condominium apartments.
The Warder-Totten House sits mid-block between Euclid and Fuller Street, with apartment buildings buttressing either end. North of Fuller Street, however, are two more mansions: the former Spanish Embassy which occupies the northeast corner of Sixteenth and Fuller Streets at 2801 16th Street, and the MacVeagh House (former Embassy of Mexico) located just north of the Spanish Embassy at 2835 16th Street. The Spanish Embassy site consists of the original 1923 mansion, and a 1928 chancery wing that extends along Fuller Street. Mary Henderson built the original mansion, designed by Totten, as a memorial to her late husband and son with the intention of offering it to the U.S. government for use as the vice president's mansion. However, then-president Calvin Coolidge objected to the expense of maintaining such a large dwelling and Congress declined the gift offer. The house sat vacant for several years until the Spanish government purchased the building to house its embassy quarters at which time it was extensively renovated. The building consists of a central, stepped cube that rises three-stories in height above flanking octagonal side wings. A projecting porte-cochere with large arched openings fronts the central block, while a circular drive provides easy access from Sixteenth Street. The two-story Chancery wing, extending along Fuller Street toward the rear of the lot, was designed by Jules Henri de Sibour in 1927, in a stylistically compatible manner.
The Embassy of Mexico at 2829 16th Street was initially built as a private residence in 1910, and adapted for embassy use later. During the initial phase of the development of Meridian Hill, Emily Eames MacVeagh had the house built as a gift for her husband, Franklin MacVeagh who was then serving as Secretary of the Treasury in the Taft administration. At the time, the MacVeaghs who were from Chicago and interested in architecture, were renting the Pink Palace at 2600 16th Street from Mary Henderson. Emily MacVeagh was clearly taken by the fledgling street and thus secretly purchased, through the American Security & Trust Company, several lots of land from the Hendersons and other owners, and hired architect Nathan Wyeth to design the house on the site. The four-story, buff-colored brick house lacks the sumptuous ornamentation found on the neighboring Totten mansions, yet is equally, if not more, grand in scale and appearance. Stylistically, the house combines elements of the English, French, and Italian Renaissance, presenting most notably its west-facing piano nobile facade to Sixteenth Street and an Italian loggia on its south elevation. In 1921, the Mexican government purchased the property and added the front porte-cochere, along with the chancery wing to the south and the garage to the rear, to the designs of local architect C.L. Harding.
A group of three more mansions are located on Meridian Hill along 15th Street, on the east side of Meridian Hill Park across from its upper terrace. Mary Henderson built two of these (2401 and 2437 15th Street) and sold the land upon which the third one (2535 15th Street) was built. The Dutch government purchased the lot, and in turn, erected its own embassy building on the site. All three of these buildings, including the former Netherlands Embassy (now the Embassy of Ecuador), were constructed in the 1920s, but were designed in different styles adding to the eclectic nature of architecture on Meridian Hill.
After purchasing the lots of land from Mary Henderson between 1917-18 and 1921-22, the Netherlands began construction of the building at the corner of 15th and Euclid Streets at 2535 15th Street for use as its embassy and chancery quarters. According to newspaper accounts of the period, the Dutch government sent over a "leading architect, Professor Van der Steur of Amsterdam to cooperate with Mr. Totten" on the design. Completed in 1922, the imposing three-story, five-bay building follows a three-part form more characteristic of grand Parisian mansions than the architecture of Amsterdam. Nonetheless, the building is four stories high, has buff brick walls and is covered with a tall mansard roof. It is divided into a central recessed main block and two end wings, all consisting of a rusticated ground floor, a piano nobile, a third floor, and an attic level located in the mansard roof. Double-story pilasters span the two principal floors above the base, and large arched pediments rise above the cornice line in the end wings. The building served as the Embassy of Netherlands for several decades; today it is the Embassy of Ecuador.
Mary Henderson's speculative venture at 2401 15th Street, completed in 1924, was designed in a unique late English Tudor Revival style. The smooth ashlar stone mansion has a definitively Medieval appearance that features an asymmetrically arranged facade with an off-center entry flanked by a more centrally located four-story tower with wings to either side. The wings are arranged with banks of metal casement windows on all three floors, those on the north wing being found in a three-story projecting bay. Intended for use as an embassy the mansion was thus designed with a large reception area and a grand staircase that ascends to highly decorated salons, a ballroom and dining hall. Following its completion, the building sat vacant for almost three years until the Egyptian government leased it from Mary Henderson for its legation headquarters in 1927.
Completed in 1928, the mansion at 2437 15th Street was the last mansion built by Mary Henderson on Meridian Hill and the second-to-last mansion built by her before her death in 1931 at the age of 90. The stucco-clad three-story residence is also the least formal of her mansions, appearing less academically correct than the other Meridian Hill examples designed by Totten. The building is designed in a Mediterranean style that is not attributable to any particular time or place, but rather evocative of the Mediterranean region. The three-story, three-bay house is clad with stucco and is covered with a hipped, red tile roof. A porte-cochere which projects from the center of the first floor and a Venetian style tripartite loggia above it make the center bay the most dominant of the three bays. The side bays feature a symmetrical arrangement of windows and French doors with narrow balconies on the second and third stories. Throughout its history, the building has served as an embassy for the governments of Brazil and Hungary, as headquarters to the American Legion Club, and as current offices to the non-profit Washington Parks and People.
† Kim Prothro Williams, D.C. Historic Preservation Office, Meridian Hill Historic District, Washington, D.C., nomination document, 2014, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.