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Exploring the History of Kalorama: A Pic-Nic at the Neighborhood’s Finest Estate

Kalorama estate after the fire in 1865 (Library of Congress)
Kalorama is one of the finest neighborhoods in Washington, and its name comes from an old estate. Read about the estate and a pic-nic there in 1844, and explore the history of this beautiful neighborhood.
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“Kalorama” is a Greek word meaning “fine view.” It’s also the name given to one of the finest neighborhoods in Washington.

Here is a quick “Why is it Named…?” The neighborhood takes its name from an old estate, formerly located at 23rd and S St. This was the home of poet Joel Barlow, who acquired the property in 1807 and commissioned White House architect Benjamin Latrobe to expand it and make it more grand. It was Barlow who gave the estate the name Kalorama, and thus, the neighborhood that grew around it.

Sadly, the home was destroyed by during the Civil War, when it as being used as a hospital. The home was rebuilt, but razed in 1887 to make way for the expansion of S St. and the outward expansion of the city.

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Kalorama estate after the fire in 1865 (Library of Congress)
Kalorama estate after the fire in 1865 (Library of Congress)

But this post isn’t about the history of the neighborhood’s name. We came across a great lifestyle article in the Baltimore Sun from August 6th, 1844, which vividly details what the area looked like well over 160 years ago. It’s starkly different from what you’ll see today, though the view is still quite nice (and the homes are amazing). The imagery described in this certainly explains why it received the name “Kalorama.”

A “pic-nic,” according to the most approved lexicographers, signifies an assembly where each person contributes to a general entertainment; and “Kalorama,” (a word derived from the Greek” as translated by learned linguists, means “beautiful to see.” A pic-nic at Kalorama therefore, should be in reality, what the name imports, an “assembly beautiful to see.” Now, just what a pic-nic should be, the party at Kalorama, on Thursday last, was: and that is, a beautiful, agreeable, and entertaining assembly.

Having been one of the favored number who attended that rural entertainment, I intend to-day to expose the light of the “Sun,” by the power of description, the scenic grandeur and pleasant pastimes witnessed and enjoyed on Thursday last, within th lengthened shades of Kalorama–presenting the whole in a panoramic view of varied pleasure.

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Although not found on the map, nor in any manner geographically delineated Kalorama is well known as one of the most picturesque, commanding and salubrious sites within the District. Its wild, romantic scenery–diversified by towering heights, blooming valleys, purling streams, and woodland groves–renders it an oasis in the dreary waste of this city of unmeasurable distances. The pilgrim from the dusty, desert-like metropolis may there inhale, uncontaminated by the lung-destroying offcastings of Pennsylvania avenue, the refreshing breeze of summer’s morn and eve, and quaff, unpolluted by the stomach-killing offscourings of filthy sewers, the invigorating waters which flow luxuriantly from Nature’s fountains. There, far and wide as the eye can range, Nature holds captive, by enchantment, the admiring beholder; and, communing with him in silent meditation, awakens the finer sensibilities with which her Author has dignified him.

Image then, surrounded by such scenery, on a bright, sunny day, thirty or forty of the gentler sex, attended by a well-selected number of the sterner creation, rusticating amid the sports and pastimes of a pic-nic. Look at them! See, wandering on the rugged ascent of yonder heigh, whose summit overlooks a sparkling rill, two contemplative youths–the one fair as the streamlet in which her form is mirrored, the other bright as the scintillations of light reflected from its surface; they are lovers of romance–that’s all. Look, now, through yon cluster of umbrageous trees, and there see, reclining on the sloping hill, a dozen or more of the fairer portion of humanity, engaged in familiar chit-chat with the more uncouth specimens of nature’s formation; they are talking about–nonsense, and nothing else. Penetrate now, if you can, the dark shadows of yon secluded vale, upon whose verdant bosom rest, in all their native loveliness, the forms of a fairy collection, whose silvery tones and dulcet strains reverberating throughout the smiling valley, and reechoed by the distant hills; they are, by adoption, the daughters of–the Muses. View, now, mid the shades of yon irriguous lawn, the woodland nymphs who wander through the mazes of the dance; they are lovers of–perpetual motion. Behold, bounding o’er the hills, now roaming near the gurgling stream, anon clambering up the sturday [sic] oak, a group of laughing urchins; they are–happy. But, ere you depart, in imagination, from this variegated scene of mirth, take a rapid glance at the edibles. See, near that gushing spring, whence flows a gentle rivulet, the richly-laden tables that glare its orders.

Let me just interrupt this incredible prose and bring up the point that you would never, in a million years, see writing as good as this in the newspaper today. It continues.

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This is indeed philosophy, teaching by example, as illustrated in the pic-nic at Kalorama.

Having thus given you a glimpse at the scene, you may form some idea of the conviviality and festivity which revolved away eight or ten blithesome hours at Kalorama. At the hour of twilight the major part of the company returned homeward–some in omnibusses [sic], a few in carriages, many on foot, and others o’er the winding creek, in the “La Belle,” a beautiful sailboat, belonging to a boat club in Washington some of the members of which, rigged out in their river-faring dress, were the guests of the ladies of the pic-nic. Others, however, (numbering about a score) at the polite invitation or Mr. Viyan, partook of the hospitalities of his mansion, where the pleasures of the day were renewed in the delights of the evening, amid the social entertainment of a private circle. At a seasonable hour the company dispersed; and after a rather irregular journey, by moonlight our highways and byways, quagmires and ditches, I reached home, highly delighted with the pleasures off a day at Kalorama.

[googlemaps https://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&q=2300+S+St+NW,+Washington,+District+of+Columbia+20008&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=43.393645,37.705078&ie=UTF8&geocode=FSLIUQId_0xo-w&split=0&hq=&hnear=2300+S+St+NW,+Washington,+District+of+Columbia+20008&t=m&z=17&ll=38.914082,-77.050625&output=embed]

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