Historic Sites and Buildings
This distinguished early 19th-century townhouse, located about a block southeast of Washington Circle and a few blocks northwest of the White House, is also known as the Timothy Caldwell House, after its first owner. Ranking in historical significance with the Octagon and Decatur Houses, it is one of the oldest extant buildings in Washington and was the scene of many distinguished social events. For a time, it was the Nation's Executive Mansion, while the White House was being renovated after the British put it to the torch during the War of 1812; and later, ironically, headquarters of the British Legation. Besides President James Monroe, other prominent occupants included statesman Charles Francis Adams and scientist-meteorologist Cleveland Abbe, "father" of the United States Weather Bureau.
In 1802 Caldwell built what is essentially the present northwest rear wing, which apparently faced K Street. Three years later, he obtained more land and extended the structure by erecting the larger, main, front part. During the period 1808-13, ownership temporarily passed to Gideon Granger, U.S. Postmaster General. Caldwell, who may never have lived in the house, subsequently again held possession, until 1840, but apparently because of financial difficulties leased the residence to various tenants. One of these was Monroe, for at least part of the time while he served as Secretaries of State (1811-17) and War (1814-15) under Madison; and during the first 6 months of his own Presidency, from March 4 to September 17, 1817, while remodeling of the White House was being completed following its burning by British troops in 1814. The I Street home of the Monroes, who had acquired many fine furnishings during his service abroad as a diplomat, epitomized tasteful and luxurious living. They entertained graciously, notably at a post-inaugural reception.
The next lessee was the British Legation, from 1821 or 1822 until 1831. During the tours of duty of Ministers Stratford Canning and Charles R. Vaughan, particularly, the house was a social center of the city. Subsequent occupants were the Baron de Mareschal, an Austrian diplomat; Charles Francis Adams, noted diplomat and son of John Quincy Adams; Silas Casey, a young officer who was later to gain renown during the Civil War; and a Mrs. Latimer, who operated a boardinghouse. In 1840 Caldwell sold the property to Francis Markoe, Jr., a State Department official. Then, in 1877, Abbe acquired it and resided in it until his death in 1916. For a few months, the St. John's School for Girls utilized the structure, but its present owner, the Arts Club of Washington, then took title.
The Federal-style rowhouse is four bays wide and 3-1/2 stories in height. The strong, rhythmical design and careful detailing of the street, or south, facade, as well as the spatial relationship of the entrance hall, stairway, and principal reception rooms on the second floor, typify an approach to urban architecture that achieved a high point in this type of house, whose architectural history is somewhat obscure.
The red brick is laid in Flemish bond, and the trim and two belt courses are of buff-colored stone. The gray slate gabled roof, which is edged by a simple wooden box cornice, is flanked by two end chimneys. The two dormers are gabled and fanlighted. Sills are stone; the flat arch lintels feature splayed voussoirs and keystones. First-floor shutters are paneled, and those on the upper two floors are louvered. The third-story windows are shorter in height than those on the two lower levels. The main entrance, in the west bay, is decorated with a semicircular fanlight and double-hung sash sidelights. Surmounting the fanlight is a molded steel arch, which is capped by a console-shaped keystone.
The rear of the house, including the three-story wing, which is three bays in length, is similar in detail to the front but the brick has been covered with stucco. A one-story, shed-roofed, enclosed porch is attached to the north, or rear, wall of the wing. A cast-iron balcony at the rear, second-floor level of the base of the ell overlooks a walled garden-patio.
A fire in 1963 and extensive alterations over the years, including the addition of modern plumbing and heating systems as well as structural strengthening, have vastly changed the interior, which has a side-hall plan. Except for the numerous six-panel doors, few features are original, though much of the decoration and detail is interesting, particularly the stairway and mantels. The plan is roughly the same on all floors: two large front rooms, one behind the other; and smaller rooms in the rear wing. Of particular interest on the second floor is the front drawing room, the largest room in the house. Behind it, adjacent to the stair hall, is a smaller reception room.
Still used by the Arts Club of Washington as a clubhouse, the building is not ordinarily open to the public. Honoring the occupancy of James Monroe, a small city park across the street is named after him.
Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004