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Three Stories About Boundary Castle

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Meridian Hill was once graced with the presence of a magnificent castle. Yes, a castle.

Boundary Castle, also known as Henderson Castle and sometimes Prospect Castle, was the home of John and Mary Henderson. John, being the former Senator from Missouri who authored the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and Mary being the powerful socialite who established 16th St. NW as the epicenter of culture and society in the early 20th century.

Boundary Castle in the 1920s by Theodor Horydczak (Library of Congress)
Boundary Castle in the 1920s by Theodor Horydczak (Library of Congress) – Click for greater detail

The Hendersons paid $50,000 for a six acre plot of land and in 1888, the castle on Meridian Hill was completed, slightly north of Boundary St. (i.e., Florida Ave.) and on the west side of 16th St. NW. Made from Seneca sandstone, the same material used in the Smithsonian, it boasted 30 rooms and was an imposing presence on the hill.

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The Henderson’s had purchased 300 lots along 16th St. in the hopes that they could develop the area into the center of Washington society, attracting the vice president as well as prominent diplomats and their embassies. This was the height of the Gilded Age.

Sadly, the castle was razed in 1949 and now is the site of 216 townhouses in Beekman Place.

1. Monday, February 10th, 1890: The first dinner

The Evening Star reported on a very special event being held at Henderson Castle: the first formal dinner. The beginning of the article gives an excellent description of the castle’s interior.

Boundary castle, the superb hone of ex-Senator and Mrs. Jno [sic] B. Henderson of Missouri, was thrown open last night for the first time to a large company, the guests of honor being the delegates to the international American congress, of which the host is a member. This new home, recently completed, is situated at t he head of 16th street on a grassy terrace and overlooks, from the windows of the square towers, Arlington heights, the river, the Capitol, the monument, the White House, and commands a fine view of the whole city. To the north of it one square is the cabin that was built and owned by Joaquin Miller and which his friends hoped he would occupy for many years. Mr. Henderson’s house is modeled on the style of a Normandy castle and is built of Connecticut brown stone. It has square towers and rounded recesses, balconies, porticos and archways of stone. Inside the hall is decorated in green and mastic color, in the Moorish fashion, and about the door casings, windows and ceilings are engraved mottoes from Mahomet’s [sic] Koran in the Arabic characters.

Mary Foote Henderson in 1913 (Library of Congress)
Mary Foote Henderson in 1913 (Library of Congress)

Fascinating. Does anyone else find it really interesting that mottoes from the Koran were engraved on the ceilings? The article continues …

The drawing rooms open one on each side from the hall; to the left is the buttercup yellow room, with its onyx mantel and hearth, and out of this opens the domed picture gallery, which last night had its faded rose plush divans pushed back against the walls that the polished oak floors might be cleared for the dancing. The walls are hung with plush that makes an agreeable background for a fine collection of paintings from the French and Flemish schools. The drawing room to the right is also in faded rose plush and its open into the oaken dining room, which has its walls above the fluted oak wainscot hung with a green tapestry woven in a pattern of oak leaves. The staircase of oak ascends from the rear side of the square hall. The library is in the front of the house, on the second floor, and is shelved to the ceiling in mahogany; Mrs. Henderson’s pretty pink boudoir opens out of it. On the third floor among others is the room of Mr. Jno. N. Henderson, jr., all in blue, and out of it by a spiral staircase is reached the square room in the top of the highest tower. Mr. and Mrs. Henderson received their guests in the yellow drawing room, Mrs. Henderson wearing a Paris princesse [sic] gown of velvet and silk. The back and train were of pink and white striped pompadour silk, and the sides and sultana front were of faded rose leaf velvet. The Turkish jacket and front opened over a vest and petticoat of white silk lisle embroidered in gold, and in the opening of the bodice at the throat she wore a necklace of pearls with a diamond star pendant. Mrs. Henderson is slight, petite and blonde, and being bright and vivacious in manner is a charming hostess of her magnificent surroundings. Mr. Jno. B. Henderson, jr., who is in his junior year at Harvard, was present, assisting his parents to extend the hospitalities of the castle, and with him was his friend Mr. Thos. Barron of New York. Supper was served in the dining room throughout the evening. It consisted of dishes hot and cold, oysters and salads, fruit and confectionery, coffee, bouillon and lemonade, but no wines or liquors were offered.

The event was a pretty big deal, as the guest list included a large number of ambassadors, Supreme Court justices, several dozen senators, Members of Congress, high-ranking generals, as well as Andrew Carnegie, John Nicolay and countless other members of high society.

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Built in 1888 for Senator John Brooks Henderson, the castle stood at the intersection of Florida Avenue and 16th Street, NW (northwest corner). Henderson was a skilled politician and was the man who drafted the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. In 1949 the house was razed, with only the great stone entrance gate posts having survivied the wrecking ball. (DC Public Library Commons)
Built in 1888 for Senator John Brooks Henderson, the castle stood at the intersection of Florida Avenue and 16th Street, NW (northwest corner). Henderson was a skilled politician and was the man who drafted the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. In 1949 the house was razed, with only the great stone entrance gate posts having survivied the wrecking ball. (DC Public Library Commons)

2. Singing the praise of temperance

Mrs. Henderson was a stubborn and staunch teetotaler, as well as vegetarian. As such, it made little sense to continue to keep wine in the large castle cellar. On May 18th, 1908, the Washington Post reported on what many would call a tragic waste of fine wine and liquor.

Gallons of rare old vintage prized for age and quality trickled through the gutters and went the way of many good “jags” when the Rechabites emptied the cellar of Boundary Castle, the home of former Senator John B. Henderson, of Missouri, and sang the praises of temperance with the babble of the river of wine.

On the invitation of Mrs. John B. Henderson, wife of former Senator Henderson, members of the Independent Order of Rechabites, of John B. Henderson Tent and Onward Ladies’ Tent, headed by High Chief Ruler Wayne W. Cordell, dumped demijohn and jug into the gutters, and imported whiskies, brandies, cordials, and other beverages ran together and mixed their royal nectar with the common “suds.”

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It was a ceremonious affair. A long line of Rechabites, carrying at the head of the column and American flag, were received in the art gallery of the castle on the hill, on Sixteenth street extended. They wore the red, white, and blue regalia. Mrs. Henderson wore the white and gold regalia of Onward Tent.

“There has been a burden on my mind these last three years about what to do with a dramshop in my cellar,” said Mrs. Henderson at the proper time. “Previous to that time we had been accustomed to serving wines and liquors, supposing that people in general were not physically strong enough to fully enjoy themselves at dinner without such stimulants. Should I give it away? No; that is no better than serving it one’s self. Should I send it to a hospital? The new school of medical practice is more and more in line with hygienic methods and less and less in the way of drugs.

“Should I sell it? What in all this wide world could be more abominable than to give a person the right to poison his neighbors for a money consideration? Now, fellow-Rechabites, I shall leave it to you what to do with the dramshop.”

The high chief ruler made a reply to this invitation, and then the ceremonies of emptying the jugs took place.

This is just tragic. So much great wine … wasted.

Boundary Castle view at intersection of 16th and Belmont in 1920s
Boundary Castle view at intersection of 16th and Belmont in 1920s

3. Boundary Castle as the new White House

We have written about proposed new Executive Mansions before, but this is a new one and we were not familiar with this story. In a Washington Post article on July 8th, 1906 entitled “Castle for President,” it is suggested that there was talk of purchasing the property for use as the President’s home.

The proposition for Congress to purchase the Henderson property, upon which is located the handsome building known as Boundary Castle, on Sixteenth street extended, and make it the home of the President is favored by the District Commissioners, but they are of the opinion that the proposed price of $600,000 is excessive.

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The purchase of this property was suggested during the last session of Congress. It was provided for in an amendment to the bill for the purchase of land for the extension of Rock Creek Park, and it was for this reason, that the Commissioners were consulted as to the merits of the proposed addition of the Henderson place to the government tract.

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The Commissioners contended all along that the price quoted was too high. They declared that at the present time property is not worth the amount asked. The property is assessed for taxes at $240,000. Despite the high price, the Commissioners urged Congress to make provision for the purchase of the land, as its price might increase still further in the future.

Neither the Rock Creek Park extension bill nor the amendment for the purchase of the Boundary Castle was enacted by Congress, and it is certain that another effort will be made in December to have the necessary amount appropriated for purchase of the property.

Commissioner West ventures the suggestion that the purchase of the Boundary Castle to be used as the President’s home is the proper thing but he deems the price quoted too high.

It’s such a shame this building no longer exists.

Below is a great photograph of Boundary Castle we uncovered on one of our favorite blogs (and inspirations), Streets of Washington. They posted it on Flickr and if you’re a photo or postcard buff, you’ll love everything they post up there … some seriously amazing stuff.

Boundary Castle postcard
Boundary Castle postcard
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Enjoy daily

Ghosts of DC stories.