* This post was originally published on February 9, 2011, and has been amended from its original version.
Ever since I discovered that the Washington Post’s archives are available to everyone online at the DC Public Library, my new geeky pastime has been to search through the database. It is just so interesting to look through the old classifieds from 1890, like this ad disguised as a “Personal”:
Jennie, Come home to your husband. I will buy one of the $15 high-arm sewing machines at FUNK’S, 1339 7th st., and all will be forgiven. Harry.
A friend* recently pointed out that another beautiful old mansion on Sixteenth Street NW is up for sale. When I realized which building it was — the ”brick affair with a turret on the corner and gabled windows in the mansard roof” on the northeast corner of Corcoran (that most recently housed the Green Door facility’s Clubhouse which closed on December 31 in order to save money) — I decided to do a little investigation in the archives. One article led to another, and I have geekily spent the last two days completely wrapped up and enchanted by the lives of its former residents.
First, the home’s origins: 1623 16th Street was built in 1886 for Hampton Denman by the firm of Fuller & Wheeler. Mr. Denman was a Gold Rush ’49er. He moved to Kansas in the 1850′s where he served as a mayor during the “Bleeding Kansas” years. Later, the Denmans were part of D.C. society, moving in circles that included close friend and former law partner Gen. Sherman. They showed off their home in a traditional New Year’s Day open house in 1888:
The custom which is observed in Washington of receiving callers on New Year’s Day promises this year to be very generally honored (January 2, 1888)
and were at the top of the social calendar in 1895 in the weeks before Lent
Mrs. Hampton B. Denman and Miss Ewing, a tea followed by a small dance (February 3, 1895)
(The Ewings were a key political family – Thomas Ewing, a close friend to Lincoln and Grant, nevertheless served as defense attorney for one of the alleged Lincoln conspirators). Mr. Denman died at 66 on October 11, 1895.
In 1905, Eleanora O’Donnell Hinckley moved into 1623 16th Street with her son and daughter Gladys. Eleanora was estranged from her husband, Robert Hinckley, an artist who studied under Duran, was a contemporary and colleague of John Singer Sargeant, and became the first American pupil of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, after the war, under Cabanel and Yvon. (October 29, 1894) In D.C., he worked at the Corcoran Art Gallery and as a portrait artist. He completed at least 350 portraits of notable Washingtonians and some of his pictures are in the collection at the National Gallery, the Capitol, and West Point. In 1910, Mr. Hinckley gave up painting and moved to Rehoboth Beach where he spent much of the rest of his life (he died in 1941).
A couple of facts the Washington Post tells us about Mrs. Hinckley: She was a member of the Women’s Sixteenth Street Improvement Association who are giving deep consideration to the question of rechristening Sixteenth street. February 14, 1907. (They eventually succeeded in legally changing the name of 16th Street to the Avenue of the Presidents, if only for one year in 1913.) More practically, she she got a driver’s license in 1918: 9318 – Hudson, ’15, Mrs. Robt. Hinkley, 1623 16th St. (March 22, 1918.)
Of all the residents of 1623 16th Street, the richest material is about Gladys – she had a love affair with the house and spent over 70 years there. The newspaper archives depict a daring and spunky society “dame” who was both a beneficiary and victim of Dupont Circle’s 20th century changes. Gladys came to the neighborhood at the height of its desirability, and benefited from her position. She entered society in one of the largest teas of the season (November 30, 1909) hosted in the beautiful dining room that had once been a back porch but which Gladys herself had supposedly designed into an elegant showcase for her parties at age 14 (May 3, 1977). And then in March 0f 1911, Gladys (still one of Washington’s post popular society belles) became the first woman in the Capitol to fly in an “aeroplane” when she went up 50 feet in a Rex Smith bi-plane over Potomac Park:
“It is simply bully to soar out over the ground. You feel as though you were riding on a cloud.” (March 26, 1911)
She later married McEeney Werlich, a foreign service officer, with whom she lived all over the world: Latvia, Poland, Costa Rica, Liberia, and France. After her husband died suddenly at 44 in 1936, she returned to the house on 16th Street and became a hostess of society parties. One of her contemporaries describing her said:
“She had an overpowering, marvelous house, full of people, with all sorts of parties going on…She had a lovely aquiline face and a wonderfully flutely voice, like a marvelous English dowager.” (January 21, 1976)
But Gladys also stuck with Dupont Circle through its lows, and became one of its victims. In January of 1976, at the age of 81, she was walking down Corcoran Street on her way home from a now poor and dangerous 17th Street. A gang of kids who were stalking potential mugging victims, followed her:
According to police accounts, Mrs. Werlich was walking near the McDonald’s [on the corner of 17th Street and Corcoran] on her way home from a supermarket next door to the restaurant when the youths followed her. Mrs. Werlich was struck on the head with a soft-drink bottle during the attack across the street from her home of the past 70 years at 1623 16th St., NW, police said. She died of a fractured skull and other head injuries… (January 24, 1976)
The story was in the news for a while, especially because one of her attackers was a 12 year old boy, and the court repeatedly let the teens back out on the street before the trial.
In one interview about the attack, Gladys’s son, Robert, told the Post reporter about his mother’s attachment to the house. “She wanted to die there. She almost got her wish. She was within 200 feet of it,” he is quoted in the Post’s article titled “‘Grande Dame’s Date with Death” (January 21, 1976)
Robert sold the home within the year. ”I would have liked to make it into a museum, but the cost was prohibitive,” he said. The estate sale revealed to the public a house filled with 150 years of his family’s history:
Included were family china, their portraits of grandfathers and great great-uncles, and their Louis XV style furniture.Mrs. Werlich had lined the walls of the bird room with thousands of books and magazines that came from her travels around the world… [Mirrors in the dining room] reflect the next room where the art works of Robert Hinckley…sit dusty and awaiting a buyer. The pictures are muted portraits of soft-skinned women gazing off and away from earthly concerns. In the living room are a traveling preacher’s organ and chairs that were shipped from the Borghese Palace in Rome.
On the wall in the attic someone had written in blue paint: “…Nature I loved an after nature, art. I warmed both hands before the fire of life. It fades and I am ready to depart.” (May 3, 1977)
It amazes me to realize how each old building in the city holds so many great stories. And it continues to fascinate me to see how quickly our memory about everything we think is important – from “society” ladies to neighborhood tragedies – flies away from the collective consciousness.
*Shout out to C-Roy for the suggestion. Check out the upcoming Slam Theatre 1.0, the newest play he is producing. http://www.newgalaxytheatre.com/