Tag Archives: Historic preservation

Sweet ride

Dear J:

Quite often, a taxi ride in DC can be scary and infuriating hell.  (See: 4 AM post-blizzard Union Station group-van fiasco that ended in a shouting match and me fearing for my life on a completely desolate U Street).  But, other times, a DC cab can be pure happiness.  For instance, take last Friday.  Late for dinner with Todd + stuck in Georgetown + graduation weekend was not the perfect equation for finding a taxi.  But luckily a cute black cab with pink stripes stopped to pick me up.

Dupont Cab Association’s William Bolden in car #88 was the highlight of my afternoon, and he gave me an amazing perspective of the city and its/his history.  A cabbie since 1965 (!), Mr. Bolden grew up in Georgetown on 33rd Street – and moved a few blocks over after his grandparents divorced in 1935 (!!)*.  Turning up 29th to avoid rush hour traffic, Mr. Bolden pointed out the Mount Zion Methodist Church, the first church he attended as a child.  A Gothic revival structure with gorgeous stained glass windows, it houses the oldest African-American congregation in DC and is a National Historic Landmark.  Much of the workmanship on the building was done by black artisans, and Mt. Zion served as one of the stations on the Underground Railroad (runaway slaves were hidden at the nearby Old Methodist Burying Ground).  It is also an important reminder that Georgetown has a rich and layered history.

“He who does not travel does not know the value of men.” – Moorish proverb

As Mr. Bolden nimbly maneuvered the cab through the back streets of Georgetown and over towards Dupont, he told me that he hadn’t always just been a taxi driver — he had also worked on the construction of many DC buildings.  At some point during 1958 to 1962, he helped extend the east facade of the US Capitol.  During that project, workers “pushed out” the East Front of the building 33 1/2 feet from its original location by reconstructing the sandstone exterior.  (Side note: This build-out also denoted the end of a statute that had been displayed in front of the east facade since 1853.  The Rescue depicted a “heroic hero” saving a woman and her child from a “savage” American-Indian – A crane accidentally dropped it in 1973 on its way to Smithsonian storage and it has been in pieces ever since).

As we edged close to my home, Mr. Bolden told me that he’s had many brushes with powerful DC figures (Elizabeth Dole once asked him for his card), and almost became one of them himself.  When a key W. aide took a ride in Mr. Bolden’s taxi, the driver took the opportunity to tell him about his plan to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue south of the White House to vehicular traffic.  That street was closed on May 20, 1995 mainly in response to the Oklahoma City bombing.  Originally, the closure only applied closest to the White House from the eastern edge of Lafayette Park to 17th Street.   Later, it was extended an additional block to east 15th Street and East Executive Avenue.  Obviously, having a main thoroughfare closed to traffic is not fun for the car drivers of the city.  Mr. Bolden’s well-thought out scheme to open the street would involve jersey barriers and designated secret service lanes.  The W. aide liked the idea so much that he told Mr. Bolden he was going to present it to the President himself.  Sadly for Mr. Bolden, 9/11 ended any chance to fix his traffic problem in the near future.  (And although I can sympathize with his frustration, I love the pedestrian area behind the White House where you can really see the beautiful building from it’s north side).

With that, my history lesson and lovely cab ride was complete.  And $5.50.  And 10 minutes in total.  What more could a girl ask for?

Love, Pb

*I admit, I was scared for my safety for 1.2 seconds, but realized quickly that this guy was a navigational genius and more in control of the car than 99% of the cabbies I’ve experienced in my lifetime.

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Someone nice please buy this house

Dear J:

Riggs Place, between 16th and 17th Street, is an idyllic example of Dupont Circle living.  It is a tiny, leafy block of row-houses tucked between two main thoroughfares.  When I moved to DC last summer, this block served as the beginning point for all of my downtown escapades.  As you know, my old friend Todd was one of the only people I knew in this city who was not related to me.  It was Todd’s long tours around the city that convinced me to escape my unpleasant life in Boston and move here.  And it was my visits to his adorable Riggs Place basement apartment that introduced me to one of my favorite buildings in the city – the Toutorsky Mansion.

It is an expansive, brick castle that takes up the whole corner of the street, but the Toutorsky Mansion has a quiet presence and almost disappears behind the iron fence and trees that surround it.  I cannot help but stare at it longingly and dramatically as I pass it each day on my way to the gym.

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Until a few weeks ago, I had no knowledge of the Mansion’s past.  And, of course, because of its overgrown and abandoned-looking appearance, I made up a lovely little history of the building for myself:  It was passed down from generation to generation from the original owner, a wealthy tycoon.  But the years had not been kind to this family and the last elderly owner lived alone in the building, his family’s fortune squandered.  Unable to afford its upkeep, he lived among its tattered furniture, the ghosts of their original gilded selves.   At last, he dies.  The house is abandoned.  The property remains in escrow, the subject of an estate feud, left to decay further as distant relatives pick over the last crumbs of a dynasty.

Or not.

A couple of months ago, I was greeted one morning by this story.  Finally, a name for the building – one bestowed by the Russian nobleman who bought the mansion in the 40’s and turned it into a music academy.  Finally, a real history – one that certainly earns its place as a contributing property to the 16th Street Historic District.

The 18-room Toutorsky Mansion was built in 1891 by William Henry Miller, the first graduate of Cornell University’s School of Architecture.  The exterior was built to mimic 16th-century Flemish architecture, and the interior is a combination of Jacobean, Georgian, Gothic, Colonial, and Victorian styles.  The oak foyer and staircase, which are adorned with two hand-carved winged griffins, has been estimated at $700,000.

Miller built the home for U.S. Supreme Court justice Henry Billing Brown, a man with an obvious distaste for minorities.  He is most famous for writing the opinion for Plessy v. Ferguson, the case that justified segregation.  Unwilling to limit himself to one type of race bias, he also voted for the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first US law that banned a class of immigrants by race or nationality.

A variety of inhabitants followed: The Persian Legation, The Zionist Organization of America (Golda Meir is said to have drawn up plans for Israel here), and plain old Johns Hopkins students.  The arts community held events, meetings, and performances here.  And, of course, there was the Toutorsky Academy of Music, run by the dashing-sounding man (he fled Russia after fighting for the losing side of the October Revolution) and his Mexican opera-singer wife.

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This is a description of what the place looked like when the Toutorskys owned it:

Among the furnishings were collections of dolls; swans; World War I medals, decorations and uniforms; stuffed wild animals; Persian carpets and tapestries; heavy antique furniture; and 21 pianos, including a Bechstein concert grand on which Franz Liszt had played.

Can’t you just imagine it?

But contrary to my insistence that the Mansion’s current haunted aura, wildly overgrown grass, and ugly drapes must mean that it has been abandoned, apparently it is currently being operated as a B&B.  It is obvious from the pictures that some big renovations have been done and that the stuffed jaguars and violas are long gone.  Not shockingly, the B&B is losing money and is back on the market (for $4.9M).

I am worried.  Based on the post-Toutorsky ownership of the home, I am suspicious that the next owner will destroy its historic features for good.  As one of the seller’s realtors says:

We haven’t had anyone interested in preserving the original nature of the home as there has already been a considerable amount of interior renovation from the original house in the efforts to turn it into a luxury bed and breakfast.  Clients are looking at the mansion for office space, embassies, private homes and condo conversions.

So, to all of the mansion-seekers:   If you are the kind of person who has $5.0M laying around and are also the kind of person who loves the maintenance and preservation of historic architecture, please buy this home.  Otherwise, leave my house alone!

Love,

Pb

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