The Many Lives of George Washington’s Townhouses on Capitol Hill

A formidable pair of brick townhouses once stood just up the block from the Capitol building, though neither the houses nor anything else that was along that street nor even the street itself exist any longer. It is now carefully-tended open space, with a fountain right where the street once ran and a vast parking garage for senators and Hill staff underneath it all. It wasn’t always this way. For more than one hundred years George Washington’s twin townhouses stood here, and they witnessed the many fits and starts of Washington’s early history.

These are George Washington's two townhouses--much modified and expanded--as they appeared in the early 1900s (Author's collection)

George Washington had an abiding interest in real estate and was intimately involved in the development of the new capital city in the 1790s. The city had been slow to develop in its first decade, and in 1798, prominent local landholders, including Thomas Law, convinced Washington to invest directly in city property by purchasing a pair of lots close to the Capitol grounds on North Capitol Street. A pair of substantial townhouses at this location would be excellent investments, it was argued, as they could be rented out to Congressmen who would be moving to Washington with the federal government in 1800. Washington commissioned his good friend Dr. William Thornton—architect of the Capitol—to oversee construction of these townhouses. To perform the work, he hired George Blagden, superintendent of the masons working on the Capitol building. In one of many letters to Thornton about the project, Washington described the start of the project, at which point he already was thinking of design enhancements:
Enclosed is a check on the Bank of Alexa for five hundred dollars, to enable Mr Blagden by your draught, to proceed in laying in materials for carrying on my buildings in the Federal City.
I saw a building in Philadelphia of about the same dimensions in front and elevation that are to be given to my two houses—which pleased me. —It consisted also of two houses united, Doors in the Center, a Pediment in the Roof and dormer windows on each side of it in front, Sky lights in the rear.—
If this is not incongruous with the Rules of Architecture, I should be glad to have my two houses executed in this style. —
Let me request the favor of you to know of Mr Blagden what the additional cost will be.
In a later letter, he described the houses more fully:
Although my house, or houses (for they may be one or two as occasion requires) are I believe, upon a large scale than any in the vicinity of the Capitol, yet they fall short of your wishes…The house are three flush stories of Brick, besides Garret rooms;—and in the judgement of those better acquainted in these matters than I am, capable of accommodating between twenty and thirty boarders. —The buildings are not costly, but elegantly plain.
Once work began on the houses in December 1798, Washington took a keen interest in their construction, often inspecting progress on the work with Dr. Thornton at his side. Although the houses were unfinished at the time of Washington’s death a year later, they were finished by his nephew and heir, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, who had seems to have had a Mrs. Frost operate them as a congressional boardinghouse, as George Washington had envisioned. Several prominent early legislators stayed there, including Speaker-of-the-House Nathaniel Macon, of North Carolina, and William Crawford of Georgia.

The two houses may have looked something like this when they were first built.
The next climactic event for the townhouses, as well as the city in general, was the invasion of the British in August 1814. Though the British were generally very scrupulous about burning only public buildings, the Washington townhouses got burned down as well. There are a couple of possible explanations for this. Anthony Pitch suggests the fire could have been accidental, if strong winds from the burning Capitol carried hot embers to the houses and caught them on fire. However, in the process of trying to protect official documents in advance of the British invasion, congressional clerks had stashed the records of several committees in “the house commonly called General Washington’s,” according to a later report. If the British knew this, it would certainly have been reason enough to torch the buildings. –Whatever the cause, the houses were burned.

The ruins were then sold in 1817 by George C. Washington, grandnephew of George. A certain Peter Morte gained ownership and used the remaining walls to rebuild the house and reopen it as a boardinghouse.

Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes (Source: Library of Congress).
By around 1840 or so, the house came into the possession of Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes, a colorful explorer and prominent figure during the Civil War. He led a famous expedition to explore parts of the Pacific that began in 1838 and continued to 1841. During the Civil War he took controversial actions, such as blockading a port that could have provoked the British to perhaps side with the Confederacy. He had a reputation for being arrogant and capricious, was a harsh disciplinarian at sea, and may have been a model for Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab in Moby Dick.

While Wilkes owned the Washington townhouses, much activity was going on in the neighborhood. In 1848, North Capitol Street was graded, lowering it 10 feet in front of Wilkes’ house. At the time, he had a stone wall built around the house. Then in 1851, North Capitol Street was graded again, lowering it another 15 feet. All this road work had been precipitated by the effort beginning in 1850 to extend the Capitol building. Large marble blocks, shipped into town by rail, had to be drawn down North Capitol Street to the building site, and grading of the road became a necessity. As a result the Wilkes house stood perched precariously on an artificial hill until about 1870, when Wilkes had two stories added underneath the original building to bring it down to street level. Thus the building gained its final height and overall appearance as seen in the photo below.

Detail from a stereoview of the Hillman House (author's collection).
In about 1876, the building was acquired by N. J. Hillman, who operated it as a hotel, called Hillman House, until 1896. Then in 1899, it became the Kenmore Hotel, and as the Kenmore it achieved its greatest notoriety. In the wee hours of May 15, 1901, what The Washington Post called the “most mysterious murder that has occurred in Washington within a quarter of a century” took place at the Kenmore. A 21-year-old Census Bureau clerk, James Seymour Ayres, was shot to death in a fourth-floor room of the Kenmore. His assailant had apparently used Ayres’ own revolver against him and then left it behind at the scene of the crime. Neighbors in the hotel heard the shots, and some even heard groans and cries for help, but none ventured out of their rooms to see what had happened. A neighbor in an adjacent building looked out and saw a shadowy female figure in stocking-feet silently escape from Ayres’ window, descend two flights down the fire escape, and slip back into another hotel window. No clear identification could be made in the darkness. Police later found a bloody hand print on the window sill and blood stains on the fire escape.

From The Washington Post, May 19, 1901.

The case gained national attention because of its overtones of an illicit affair; an anonymous letter had been sent to the Congressional sponsor of the young Ayres, alleging that he was “associating with women and dissipating.” He was apparently popular with “all of the women at the Kenmore,” whatever sorts they may have been, and was known to have tumultuous relationships with more than a few of them, as well as women he met at the Census Bureau. He even had reportedly intimated that he was in a troublesome relationship with a married woman at the hotel and would be moving out soon.

Mrs. Lola Bonine (Source: Washington Post, May 21, 1901).
Suspicion soon began to focus on that woman, Mrs. Lola I. Bonine, aged 32. Five days after the murder, she turned herself in to police and confessed to the murder. According to Bonine, Ayres had lured her to his room on a pretext, saying he wanted to discuss the differences they had had. Once she was in his room, he drew his gun on her and announced, in so many words, that he was going to rape her. Mrs. Bonine, naturally, had no choice but to wrestle the revolver away from Ayres, shoot him three times with it, take off her shoes so as not to make any further noise, descend the fire escape to her apartment, clean herself up, and promptly go to bed. After laying all this out for police, she noted that, at her husband’s suggestion, she had learned the art of self-defense against assaults, and this is what had saved her. The police promptly arrested her.

Despite the implausibility of her story, Bonine garnered sympathy from the start. She was married to a respectable businessman and had two sons, aged 15 and 13. Everybody thought she was the nicest person. Her trial, beginning in late November, raked over many sordid details of the crime and challenged all the unbelievable aspects of her claims about what had happened, but in the end, after nearly a month’s proceedings, she was acquitted. The jury had bought her story.

By the following year, the Kenmore had closed, and the building was vacant. The Post reported in August that passersby invariably wanted to know which window was the one to the murder room (that one, on the fourth floor, without a curtain). “Many strangers, who are unaccompanied by a resident of Washington, and desiring to know the exact location of the room in which the tragedy occurred, frequently go out of their way and make inquiries of the firemen of Truck A, which is located directly opposite the hotel.”

This pedestrian plaza follows the path of the street where George Washington's townhouses were located. The historical marker on the left marks the site of the townhouses. (Photo by the author.)
The hotel later reopened for several years as the Hotel Burton and, after that, as the Washington Inn. In 1913, the government bought up all the buildings on either side of North Capital Street in preparation for creating the Capitol Plaza that would stretch between the Capitol and Union Station, and the buildings were all demolished. The government paid a contractor $7,300 to clear the two blocks, which included buildings worth $1 million at the time, according to the Post. Construction of the plaza was not completed until 1931, however. In 1932, on the occasion of the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth, the District of Columbia donated an historical marker that was set in place in the plaza at the location of the townhouses that originally had been built by our first president.

The marker (Photo by the author).

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This is a reprint of an article that first appeared on Streets of Washington in 2010.

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  1. Thanks for this article, very interesting! Just checking, I thought the British invaded DC in 1812 (instead of 1814)?

    1. It was during the War of 1812; the attack on Washington came in August 1814.


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