Streets of Washington Presents Mary Foote Henderson, The Iron-Willed Empress of Meridian Hill

Streets of Washington, written by John DeFerrari, covers some of DC’s most interesting buildings and history. John is the author of Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats, published by the History Press, Inc. and also the author of Lost Washington DC.

Ed. Note: This was originally printed in 2011 but just came across my facebook last week, thanks to John for being kind enough to let us repost this great story here.

Mary Foote Henderson 01 rev
Mary Foote Henderson, circa 1923 (author’s collection).

The Gilded Age, from the 1870s until the 1910s, was a unique period in Washington’s history. The city attracted many nouveaux riches who were drawn by the fact that upper-class Washington society in those days was wide open to anyone with lots of money, a circumstance not found in other major Eastern cities. Of all the wealthy people who moved to Washington to exert power and influence in the Gilded Age, one of the most powerful and influential was a woman, Mary Foote Henderson (1846-1931), who turned her City Beautiful dreams into reality along upper 16th Street.

Born to a prominent New York family, Mary learned the social graces at several exclusive finishing schools, became fluent in French, and developed an abiding taste for the arts at a very young age. Her father, Elisha Foote (1809-1883), was a prominent judge who later became Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office. Mary came to Washington at the invitation of her uncle, a Connecticut senator, who introduced her to Washington’s important single men, including the distinguished Senator John Brooks Henderson (1826-1913) of Missouri, who was 20 years her senior. Henderson was famous for having co-sponsored the 13th Amendment to the Constitution banning slavery. In the spring of 1868, he and six other Republican senators defied their party as well as public sentiment by voting against conviction of Andrew Johnson during his impeachment trial. Mary Foote was in the gallery looking on as he cast his momentous vote, which effectively doomed him to a single term in the Senate. Once the drama of the impeachment was over, in June 1868 John and Mary were married. It was said that the whole Senate attended the wedding.

John Brooks Henderson detail 04479u
John Brooks Henderson (Source: Library of Congress)

When Henderson’s Senate term expired the following year, the couple moved back to Missouri, where Henderson made much of his fortune from local Missouri bonds which he bought cheaply and then redeemed at full value, benefiting from a favorable court ruling. Meanwhile Mary built up her social credentials, founding the St. Louis School of Design and becoming known as an excellent hostess. She was the author of Practical Cooking and Dinner Giving in 1877 and Diet for the Sick, A Treatise on the Values of Foods in 1885.

boundary castle
Boundary Castle. Source: D.C. Public Library Commons on Flickr.

A turning point came when the Hendersons decided to move back to Washington in 1887. They purchased several house lots along 16th Street on a steep hill just north of Boundary Street (now Florida Avenue), an area just beyond the original limits of Washington City that was still semi-rural in those days. The Hendersons began constructing a massive mansion of Seneca sandstone on top of their hill. The house, designed by Massachusetts architect Eugene C. Gardner (1836-1915), was in the fashionable Romanesque Revival style and was supposedly modeled after a castle Mrs. Henderson had seen in the Rhine country. Boundary Castle, as they called it, was a sprawling brownstone pile very much in keeping with the wistful, Romantic aesthetics of the late Victorian age. Completed in 1888, the castle’s sprawl was extended to the west with a huge service wing, designed by Washington architect T. Franklin Schneider, in 1892. The new wing featured crenelated battlements that made it look very castle-like. The main house didn’t originally have such battlements, but in 1902 it was remodeled to add them in, completing the structure’s medieval-fantasy appearance.

The Hendersons’ first formal dinner, held in February 1890, drew a rave review from The Washington Post, which marveled at Mrs. Henderson’s elegant attire—her Felix gown of old rose velvet trimmed in gold—as well as the lavish furnishings of her castle: the “mellow” Moorish entrance hall, plush-lined picture gallery used as a ballroom, and grand oak-paneled dining room hung with oak-leaf embroidered tapestries. An invitation to dine with the Hendersons immediately became a highly sought-after status symbol.

Boundary Castle Dining Hall (Wash Times 1904)
The dining room (Source: The Washington Times, March 13, 1904).

Ensconced in her intimidating palace, Mary Henderson proceeded to exert her influence on the character of her immediate neighborhood as well as on Washington society at large. There had been talk by 1898 of the need to expand the White House to meet the needs of the contemporary presidency. Late that year, Mary began promoting on Capitol Hill an alternate plan for a grand new Executive Mansion to be built on the crest of Meridian Hill (i.e., directly across the street from her house). Collaborating with architect Paul J. Pelz (1841-1918), one of the designers of the Library of Congress, Henderson envisioned a massive temple-like complex with sprawling terraces and columned arcades that The New York Times called a “pretentious structure.” The proposal was politely tabled. Two years later, Henderson made another attempt, this time based on a proposal by Franklin W. Smith (1826-1911). Smith’s Executive Mansion was similar to Pelz’s but instead straddled 16th Street, which passed through it under an enormous arch. It too was set aside.

Boundary Castle
Postcard view of Boundary Castle, circa 1908. (Author’s collection)

The same view today (Photo by the author).

Undaunted by these defeats, Henderson began re-making the rough-and-ready Meridian Hill neighborhood into a grand European-style enclave of exotic chateaux. The Hendersons bought up properties all along 16th Street and began erecting lavish palaces to be rented or sold to high government officials and diplomats. The first were along the west side of 16th in the blocks north of Boundary Castle, including the Venetian-style “Pink Palace” (1906) at the corner of 16th and Euclid, which was rented to Oscar Strauss, Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of Commerce and Labor as well as a new Embassy of France (1907), just south of the intersection with Kalorama Road, done in a supremely Parisian-looking Beaux-Arts style. Several additional large residences were constructed over the next few years in the same block as the Pink Palace. These imposing palaces would be occupied by the Danish, Swedish and Polish embassies. In Henderson’s eclectic vein, each of these would be designed in a different architectural style and lined up neatly in a row, like postage stamps in an album.

These houses, as well as more to come in the future along 15th Street, were all designed by Mary Henderson’s favorite architect, George Oakley Totten, Jr. (1866-1939), who had handled the renovations to Boundary Castle in 1902. Totten was a prolific Washington architect who also designed a number of lavish diplomatic residences in other parts of the city. In 1915, he built his own Arts-and-Crafts-style house on the east side of 16th Street in the block above Euclid Street.

Neighborhood real estate development was not Mrs. Henderson’s only interest by any means. She also became an impassioned evangelist of healthy living. Writing in her 1904 book, The Aristocracy of Health, she rhapsodized almost maniacally about her vision of the human body reaching an ideal state “when blood-corpuscles are no longer disintegrated, spiculated, and pale, but round, red, and rich laden;…when the body-machine is no longer oppressed with the clinkers of surplus material; when reserve forces are no longer wasted or dissipated by avoidable devitalizing expenditures…” This bizarre vision stood in contrast to what she saw as the deplorable contemporary state of humankind: “The violation of hygienic laws has been so general and long-prevailing that human degeneracy has come to be accepted as the appointed lot of humanity. Human life is but an apology, a makeshift, a compromise…”

By the time her screed on healthy living was published, Mrs. Henderson was famous for her elegant dinners featuring strictly vegetarian cuisine and no alcohol. A 1905 fete included a fruit soup, mock salmon in hollandaise sauce, broiled slices of pine-nut Protose (Protose was a meat substitute made of peanut butter, wheat gluten, and corn starch, among other things), unfermented Catawba wine, iced fruit, and Kellogg Gelatine for dessert. As reported in the Post, the printed menu cards for this dinner included “figures corresponding to each item on the bill of fare, showing the number, kind, and proportion of the food units, or ‘calories,’ contained in each dish.” Like all meals prepared by Mrs. Henderson’s accomplished English chef, it was said that the uninitiated couldn’t tell that they weren’t eating meat or fish.

Henderson Castle Barrett Co (Natl Photo Co) c 1921 29767u
Boundary Castle seen from the north, circa 1921 (Source: Library of Congress).

In May 1906, Mary famously decided to dispose of the plentiful and expensive stocks of fine wine that Mr. Henderson had accumulated over the years in the cellar of Boundary Castle. Her butler was a member of the Independent Order of Rechabites, a Christian temperance society, and he had asked for the use of the castle grounds for an assembly of his group. With Mrs. Henderson’s acquiescence, members of the butler’s “tent” brought armfuls of wine bottles up from the castle’s cellars and smashed them on a large rock in the front lawn. There was so much wine that it ran down into the gutters of 16th Street. The newspapers loved the story. With racial insensitivity typical of the day, The New York 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….

Soon, however, there would be many fewer African-Americans in the neighborhood to benefit from Mary Henderson’s accidental largesse. After many years of persistent lobbying, Mary succeeded in 1910 in getting Congress to authorize the purchase of land for construction of Meridian Hill Park across 16th Street from Boundary Castle where she had previously hoped a new Executive Mansion would be built. She argued that the stunning views from this site as well as the opportunity for elegant terracing and cascades made the spot ideal for a formal park. As Congress and city officials were won over, no one seemed to care that the site was already densely occupied by African-Americans living in mostly single-story frame houses. Since Civil War times, African-Americans had settled in this area, which had been just outside the city limits. The future park site had been subdivided in 1867, and many of its residents owned their own homes. They were all forced to leave. Later Mary Henderson would boast to a reporter that “we bought out the owners of the shacks on our hill and pulled them down.” Once the land was cleared, it took many years to construct the park, one of the most beautiful in the city. No trace remains of the previous inhabitants.

Mrs John Henderson with children Harris & Ewing 16062u
Mary Foote Henderson and unidentified children. Source: Library of Congress.

Mary Henderson fought many battles. She wanted the Lincoln Memorial built on Meridian Hill rather than the Mall. She had a house built on 15th Street that she offered to the government as a residence for the Vice President (predictably, it was thought too extravagant). She thought 16th Street should be lined with busts of the Presidents and renamed the Avenue of The Presidents (it was indeed renamed in 1913, but only for a year before it was changed back). More successfully, she pushed for the city’s first zoning regulations, adopted in 1920, to help control the erection in her neighborhood of large apartment houses, such as the ones that the brash Englishman, Harry Wardman (1872-1938), was building everywhere. There seemed to be no end to her energy and aspirations.

Henderson Castle 1931
Henderson Castle at the time of Mrs. Henderson’s death (Author’s collection).

After she died in 1931, the neighborhood began to change again. Mary Henderson’s vision of Meridian Hill as an exclusive residential enclave began to fade. Wealthy people headed further to the west, and the spaces in and around the elegant 16th Street houses began to fill with apartment buildings. Boundary Castle—now known to most people as Henderson’s Castle—was rented in 1937 by a Texan named Bert L. Williams, who reopened it as the Castle H Tennis and Swimming Club. The old ballroom was fitted out with a stand-up bar. Mary would have been horrified.

Henderson Castle Matchcover front
Matchcover from the Castle’s club days. Author’s collection.

As early as 1935, there had been talk of tearing down the old castle, but it hung on until January 1949, when it was finally razed. Wealthy neighbors Eugene and Agnes Meyer had purchased the mansion in order to get rid of the rowdy club. Being a flight of Victorian fancy, the castle had grown distinctly out of favor by the 1940s. At the time of its destruction, the Post ran an editorial dismissing the castle as a relic of the “brown decades” of the late 1800s, when everyone was gloomy because of the Civil War (hunh?). “It is well that this brownstone ghost is at last laid low by the hammers of the wreckers,” the paper intoned. Not everyone agreed, however. A Post reader, Horace Monroe Baxter, fired back an angry letter calling the editorial a “nauseating shock.” “I would suggest to you,” he continued, “in furtherance of your love of modernistic architecture, that you make arrangements to have the lovely Washington Post Building…torn down and replaced by one of those slab-sided architectural monstrosities of soulless modernity.” This, of course, is exactly what did eventually happen to the Post’s beautiful Richardson-Romanesque building on E Street downtown, perhaps as punishment for condoning the destruction of Henderson’s Castle.

The site of Boundary Castle, seen from Meridian Hill Park (Photo by the author).

Meanwhile, by the early 1970s, Mary Henderson’s elegant Meridian Hill Park had become a staging ground for civil rights rallies and was widely known as Malcolm X Park. It was in for hard times. Across the street, a developer bought the empty Henderson tract and in 1976 built an enclave of pricey townhouses called Beekman Place. He wisely left in place the sturdy brownstone retaining wall along 16th Street that was built for the castle, and it remains there to this day.

Kim Prothro Williams has done much valuable research on Mrs. Henderson and her influence on Meridian Hill, and she provided very helpful assistance for this article. In addition, other sources included: James Goode, Capital Losses, 2nd Ed. (2003); Kathryn Allamong Jacob, Capital Elites (1995); Sue Kohler and Jeffrey R. Carson, Sixteenth Street Architecture Vol. 1 (1978); Kim Prothro Williams, Mrs. Henderson and the Making of 16th Street (2010), and numerous newspaper and magazine articles.

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