Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Henry Latrobe’

The Cenotaphs at Historic Congressional Cemetery

I have found that cemeteries are often bastions of history, especially here in D.C.  The graves of the many historic figures, politicians and famous people buried here provide a portal to the history that they lived.  But Historic Congressional Cemetery, located at 1801 E Street in southeast D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood (MAP), and which happens to be one of my favorite cemeteries in the city, also has a number of cenotaphs that also point to a wealth of history.  And it was the cemetery’s 165 cenotaphs that were the destination and purpose of my lunchtime bike ride today.

Traditionally, the word “cenotaph” is defined as A cenotaph is an “empty tomb” or a monument erected in honor of a person or group of people whose remains are elsewhere. It can also be the initial tomb for a person who has since been interred elsewhere.  As used at the Congressional Cemetery, the term cenotaph includes not only those that fall under the traditional definition, but also to monuments that mark the actual graves of representatives and senators who died in office during the first several decades of the nation’s history. Some congressmen are buried under a cenotaph, some are buried with a headstone instead of a cenotaph in a different area of the cemetery, and for some the marker is a true cenotaph. And one individual, a Revolutionary War soldier and Congressman from North Carolina named James Gillespie, who was reinterred in 1892, has a separate grave and cenotaph.

Designed by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who was then working on the new south wing of the U.S. Capitol Building, the cenotaphs are constructed of Aquia sandstone, as are The White House and the Capitol Building, and were likewise painted white, forming a visual connection with these nearby symbols of Federal government, and a contrast to the cemetery’s surrounding gravestones. They are grouped in rows in the older part of the cemetery near the main entrance, where they dominate the landscape.

A cenotaph was erected at Congressional Cemetery for each congressman who died in office from 1833 to 1876. The first was for Congressman James Lent from New York, who was initially interred in the cemetery. But after Congress appropriated funds and his monument was ordered, his family had his body brought back and reinterred in New York. Congress erected the monument in 1839 anyway, establishing the tradition of erecting cenotaphs.

After the Civil War very few congressmen were buried in the cemetery, as their bodies were commonly shipped to their home states or buried in the new United States National Cemetery System, in cemeteries such as Arlington National Cemetery. And cenotaphs were discontinued for the most part in 1876, after Massachusetts Senator George Frisbie Hoar stated that “the thought of being buried beneath one of those atrocities brought new terror to death.”

Since that time, only two new cenotaphs have been erected at the cemetery. After a 1972 plane crash in which their bodies were unable to be recovered, Thomas Hale Boggs Sr., the majority leader in the House at the time, and Nick Begich, a Congressman from Alaska, share a cenotaph. And the last one to date is for former Speaker of the House Thomas P “Tip” O’Neill, Jr., who was honored with a cenotaph in 1994, although it is not in the style of the Latrobe cenotaphs.

Alexandria City Hall

Alexandria Market Square and City Hall

On days when I want to go on a longer than usual lunchtime bike ride, one of my favorite destinations is Old Town Alexandria.  And that is where I rode to today.  And it was during this ride I visited the Alexandria Market Square and City Hall, located at 301 King Street (MAP).

The site of the Alexandria Market Square and City Hall originally began as a market beginning in 1749.  Then in 1752, lottery proceeds funded the building of a town hall and courthouse on the site. George Washington served as a justice in this court.  Later, in 1817, a new three-story brick building was constructed, including a town clock tower designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe.  But an extensive fire in May of 1871 gutted the building.  Given the importance of the building, the townspeople raised enough money to pay for an exact replica of the former building.  And that building, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in March of 1984, is still standing today.

The current Second Empire-style building was designed by Adolph Cluss, was a German-born American immigrant who became one of the most important architects in the D.C. area, in the late 19th century.  He was nicknamed the “Red Architect” based on red brick being his favorite building material, and his early communist sympathies, though later in life he became a confirmed Republican.  Cluss is responsible for designing scores of major public buildings in the D.C. area, including at least eleven schools, as well as markets, government buildings, museums, residences and churches.  His designs include the Franklin School and the Sumner School, as well as other notable public buildings in the capital, including the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Building, Calvary Baptist Church, and two of the city’s major food markets, Center Market and Eastern Market.

The original city hall was something of a complex, containing the court facility, both the principal police and fire stations of Alexandria.  The Alexandria-Washington Masonic Lodge also had its headquarters located in the building until 1945, when it moved out of City Hall and into the new George Washington Masonic National Memorial on nearby King Street.  Today the City Hall building houses many of the Alexandria government offices, including the City Council Chambers on the second floor.

The National Capitol Columns

The National Capitol Columns

One of D.C.’s most unusual landmarks is the National Capitol Columns.  What has been described as having the appearance of the ruins of a Greek temple rising up inexplicably in the middle of a field, the 22 Corinthian columns draw visitors year-round to their current home in the Ellipse Meadow at the U.S. National Arboretum, located at 3501 New York Avenue (MAP) in northeast D.C.

The columns were originally part of the U.S. Capitol Building from 1828 until they were removed in 1958, and eventually dedicated at their new home in 1990.  The columns with typical Hellenistic Corinthian motifs were among the 24 that were part of the Capitol Building’s east central portico that was designed by an architect from Boston named Charles Bulfinch, who while serving as D.C.’s Commissioner of Public Building oversaw construction of the portico using a design handed down by the original architects of the Capitol, William Thornton and Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

After being completed in 1828, the columns provided the backdrop for presidential inaugurations from Andrew Jackson in 1839 through Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1957, as well as numerous speeches, protests, rallies, and other gatherings during those years.  The columns, which had originally been constructed long before the familiar Capitol dome was completed, were subsequently removed in 1958 when the base of the Capitol Building was renovated and expanded in order to support and provide aesthetic symmetry for the newly expanded dome.  The columns, which were made out of sandstone, were considered too fragile to support the dome and were replaced with marble replicas.

Soon after the original columns were put into storage on the banks of the Anacostia River, a woman named Ethel Garrett struck upon the idea of preserving them so that the public could enjoy their power, beauty and historic associations.  As a benefactor of the National Arboretum, Garrett wanted the columns to be relocated to the Arboretum’s grounds.  So she consulted with her close friend, Russell Page, a noted English landscape architect, to find a suitable location.

Page determined that the east side of the Ellipse Meadow would be an ideal site, as the columns would be in scale with the more than 20 acres of open space available at that location, and would be visible in the distance to greet visitors as they entered the grounds.  Just before his death, Page sketched a design incorporating the columns in a nearly square formation set on a foundation of stones from the steps that were on the east side of the Capitol.  The design also incorporated a reflecting pool fed by a small stream of water running down a channel in the steps, which would not only reflect the columns, but provide the added elements of sound and movement as well.

It should be noted that only 22 of the original 24 columns stand in formation at the Ellipse Meadow.  So if you want to be able to say that you have seen all 24, you will have to go to the Arboretum’s Azalea Collection on the summit of Mount Hamilton, where the remaining two lie on the ground.  Both are cracked in half and neither still has its base or capital.  Across the Ellipse Meadow from the formation of columns, however, is a capital, or top portion, of one of the columns.  It is presumably from one of the two “missing” columns.  Located at ground level, it allows visitors an up-close view of the craftsmanship of the stone carver and the incredible detail incorporated into the columns.

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Decatur House on Lafayette Square

In 1820, Stephen Decatur, Jr., a U.S. Naval Officer notable for his long and celebrated career, was shot during a duel with another officer, Commodore James Barron.  A long-time rival, Barron bore a grudge against Decatur for his role in Barron’s court-martial and ouster from the Navy years earlier.  Attempting to solve the issue, Decatur accepted Barron’s challenge to a duel. Decatur shot and wounded Barron, as was his intention, and was prepared to let the matter drop. Barron, however, had other plans. He mortally wounded Decatur and exacted his revenge. Decatur was taken to his home, where he didn’t die straight away, however.  It took him two days of agonizing pain to finally succumb to the gut-shot.

It’s notable that their duel occurred during a time period when duels between officers were so common that it was creating a shortage of experienced officers, forcing the War Department to threaten to discharge those who attempted to pursue the practice.

Washington society, as well as the entire nation, was shocked upon learning that Decatur had been killed in a duel with a rival navy captain.  His funeral was attended by Washington’s elite, including President James Monroe and the justices of the Supreme Court, as well as most of Congress. Over 10,000 citizens of Washington and the surrounding area also attended his funeral to pay their last respects to the national hero.

On today’s bike ride I went by Decatur’s former home. Located at 1610 H Street in northwest D.C. (MAP), the house is one of the oldest surviving homes in D.C., and one of only three remaining houses in the country designed by neoclassical architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the “father of American architecture.” In D.C., Latrobe also designed St. John’s Episcopal Church (also known as the President’s Parish) and parts of The White House.  The Decatur House was built with the prize money Decatur was awarded for his naval conquests in the War of 1812.  The couple moved into their grand house in 1819 and spent the first several months cementing their social prominence in Washington by hosting a number of extravagant parties. Prominently located on Lafayette Square just north of the White House, the house was later the home of a number of other famous people, including President Martin Van Buren, who rented it from Decatur’s widow.

Despite leaving her financially well-off at the time of his death, his widow was eventually forced to sell the home due to overwhelming debt.  The subsequent owner built an addition onto the house – a large two-story dependency building at the rear of the property.  This was used as quarters for the numerous enslaved individuals in his household.

Sometimes referred to as a house of slavery and death, Decatur House is considered among paranormal enthusiasts to be one of D.C.’s most haunted. Those who have been in the house frequently claim to have seen Stephen Decatur walking the halls, his expression one of bleak sadness. He has been sighted throughout the house. And though he is often seen looking out windows or walking the halls, he is not the only phenomenon to take place. There are also reports of a mournful weeping and wailing sound that comes from empty rooms or is heard after hours. While no one is certain just who it is, most people believe the voice to belong to Decatur’s widow, Susan. The most palpable phenomenon is the feeling of sadness and heaviness that comes from the room on the first floor where Decatur died.

As with many historical homes, the house is now a museum and houses The Decatur House National Center for White House History, a repository for all things having to do with the home of the President. It is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  It is also open for historic tours of the house as well as self-guided tours of exhibits and even cell phone tours in which visitors are guided by calling the museum’s tour number. Additionally, the house is also available to host weddings and other special events, keeping in the tradition that Stephen and Susan Decatur started almost 200 years ago.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]