The High Times of Washington, D.C.'s Lost Henderson’s Castle
This is part of our weekly series, Lost Masterpieces, about the greatest buildings and works of art that were destroyed or never completed.
It was to be the crown jewel on a boulevard meant to rival the Champs Élysées—a vision of grandeur concocted in a time of decadence.
It’s hard to imagine today, standing on the 16th Street edge of Meridian Hill Park, watching buses, cars, and dogged bikers working their way up.
Across the street, where the unfortunate backside of a development best described as a facsimile of historically faithful townhouses now stands, stood one of the most legendary palaces of Washington, D.C.’s Gilded Age—Henderson’s Castle.
It was D.C., not Newport or New York City, that provided the setting for Twain and Warner’s Gilded Age. It was a city where the powerful built second homes and the nouveau riche found a more welcoming societal climate. Corruption and greed ran rampant.
During roughly six decades, from 1870 to 1930, Washington, D.C. saw a construction boom, and countless palatial homes were built along Massachusetts Avenue, K Street, Connecticut Avenue, and 16th Street. Those remaining today are by and large owned by foreign governments.
Henderson’s Castle, a 30-room Richardson Romanesque pile of brown stone, was designed by the Massachusetts architect E. C. Gardner for Mary Newton Foote Henderson and her husband, the former Senator John B. Henderson of Missouri. Completed in 1888, it was a giant example of what was termed the “Brown Decades” of Victorian houses.
“Few families have had a greater influence on Washington in its architecture and development than the Hendersons,” wrote historian James Goode in his seminal Capital Losses: A Cultural History of Washington’s Destroyed Buildings.
The palace was also named Boundary Castle, as it sat on the outskirts of the city just past Boundary Road (now Florida Avenue). The Hendersons paid $50,000 for the site and an additional $50,000 to Gardner for his designs.
The mansion was three stories tall, with two four story towers, a stable, and servants wing.
It was notorious in its heyday for Henderson’s lavish parties, which took place in a 100-feet long, 75-feet wide, and 30-feet high ballroom, which of course, came with a stage and balcony.
The parties were considered “legendary” but were all vegetarian. The vegetarian aspect was due to Mrs. Henderson, one of D.C.’s most colorful and domineering grande dames.
While her husband had a noteworthy career—he was co-author of the Thirteenth Amendment—Mrs. Henderson’s was certainly more interesting.
She was not merely content with building her palatial home. Determined to remake Washington, she had 16th Street (which leads directly to the White House) renamed the “The Avenue of the Presidents.”
It was later changed back after neighbors objected to having to change their stationary among other reasons. She tried to have the White House moved just next door.
She built a number of mansions along 16th Street which she rented out, including the still-standing Pink Palace and residence of the Spanish Ambassador (now the Spanish Cultural Office).
The latter was intended to be given as a gift to the U.S. government for use by the Vice President, but its lavish upkeep was deemed too steep by Congress.
She was so successful in getting the wealthy of the world and their governments to build around her, a Finnish diplomat once famously declared: “There lives in Washington a lady who enjoys the distinction of succeeding where the great Napoleon failed.”
The New York Times declared in 1925 that “In all the capitals of the world the only quarter rivaling [16th Street] is the Legation Quarter of Peking.”
To build this vision, Henderson spent ungodly sums. To prevent a structure going up nearby, she once spent $500,000 to buy out the developers.
She was ruthless in her pursuit of her beautiful enclave.
Most of the land around her was occupied by freedmen who had built single-story dwellings. “Step by step the war on ugliness was waged,” she told the Times, “And at length Sixteenth Street hill has been converted into one of the true beauty spots of the national capital.”
She persuaded Congress to purchase land across the street from her, clear out those shacks, and build what is now considered one of the city’s most beautiful parks, Meridian Hill Park.
She was a teetotaler, so when her husband died in 1913, Mrs. Henderson arranged for the thousands of bottles of expensive wine, brandy, and whiskey to be smashed in the street.
The amount of liquor tossed was so abundant that the Times reported “Along the gutter down the hill Negroes gathered, and with tomato cans and other utensils scooped up what they could of the liquor and drank it. As they enjoyed themselves they sang old-time plantation melodies, while the Rechabites within the courtyard sang stirring temperance hymns.”
Her Machiavellian intrigue over property was not relegated solely to Capitol Hill. She famously cut out her foster granddaughter Beatrice Wholean from her will because Beatrice opposed her donating a mansion for the Vice President.
When she died at age 90 in 1931, her will was actually full of all sorts of oddities. She also left $200,000 to a 26-year Japanese immigrant she befriended in her later years. None other than Dr. John Harvey Kellogg battled over her latest will as he claimed she had intended to leave some of her millions to his institution.
Apparently her will from a few years prior had left everything to him for “the spreading of biological ideas.” She left $200,000 and a 4,000-acre estate to Battle Creek College for “race betterment.”
Unfortunately, when she died the castle’s fortunes plummeted. In 1937 it was turned into a club. In 1941, it was bought by Eugene Meyer, the owner of the Washington Post and a neighbor, because the club had become bothersome.
In 1949, it was razed during a time period when many of D.C.’s iconic Victorian buildings were lost to modernity. When it was destroyed, the Washington Post wrote “It is well that this brownstone ghost is at last laid low by the hammers of the wreckers.”
In that spot sits Beekman Place, which is made up of 216 townhouses. On the southern 16th Street corner, all that remains of Henderson’s Castle is a brown gate.