Perched on a scenic and historic ridge at the very spot where it crosses Pierre L’Enfant’s “American Meridian,” Beekman Place quite literally sits at the intersection of history.
Its majestic Seneca sandstone wall provides a reminder of the spectacular Henderson Castle that originally occupied the property, conceived by the remarkable Mary Foote Henderson. Her vision, persistence, and generosity led to 16th Street becoming the original Embassy Row, and ultimately to creation of the extraordinary Meridian Hill Park just across the street from Beekman Place.
Beekman Place sits at the center of one of the most historic and picturesque neighborhoods in Washington. Here’s the story of how it got to be that way.
Pierre L’Enfant and the Washington Meridian
When Pierre L’Enfant was charged with laying out the plan for a new national capital in the farmland and near-wildneress that was 18th Century Washington, he determined the the street running north from the Executive Mansion would be laid out as a “true meridian,” to which the other north-south streets in the city would run parallel.
That meridian became 16th Street, N.W. But in an era of horse-drawn wagons, and at a time when Washington was severely underpopulated (visitors marveled at the empty streets), the City of Washington was much smaller than the District of Columbia. It extended only as far north as the base of the ridge, which was demarcated by Boundary Street, now Florida Avenue and the southern boundary of Beekman Place.
Thus, at Boundary Street, 16th Street yielded to a largely rural landscape. The meridian north of 16th Street was marked by a stone that would ultimately be lost when the street was extended northward decades later. For many years, until the “American Meridian” was moved to the old Naval Observatory, all official distances in the United States were measured from that stone.
Mary Foote Henderson
The city had grown explosively during the Civil War, and continued to grow during the Gilded Age. As the City of Washington spilled beyond its original boundaries and grew to become coterminous with the District of Columbia, several wealthy families bought large estates just north of the old city, something made possible by the termination of the L’Enfant street grid at Florida Avenue, then still known as Boundary Street. The most important of those families were the Hendersons.
To a remarkable extent, today’s 16th Street cityscape is the result of the vision, persistence, and some might say eccentricities of Mary Foote Henderson, who was married to Missouri Senator John B. Henderson. As other politicians have done before and since, Henderson became a major investor in Washington real estate, and created an estate on the south-facing slope of the ridge. They built an enormous brownstone mansion, complete with crenellations, that became known as “Henderson’s Castle,” and surrounded it with an impressive Seneca sandstone wall. A portion of that wall remains along the boundary of Beekman Place, and is carefully preserved and maintained by our community.
But building their own mansion was just a start. Mary Henderson was determined to shape the entire neighborhood and create a majestic boulevard to rival anything in Europe. She tried and failed to have the president’s home relocated to the hillside just to the east of her own home, and failed also to convince the government to rename the newly extended 16th Street as the “Avenue of Presidents.” But she succeeded in establishing the first Embassy Row by with the erecting a series of mansions along 16th Street – designed in a coherent theme by her friend George Oakley Totten – and renting them for use as and embassies.
Meridian Hill Park
Like many outsize homes of the Gilded Age, the Henderson mansion itself was relatively short-lived. By the time she died in 1931, the Gilded Age had given way to the Depression, and the Castle became a rooming house and later a nightclub. This so annoyed an influential neighbor – Washington Post owners Eugene and Agnes Meyer, parents of the legendary Katharine Graham, who lived in the John Russell Pope-designed mansion across Belmont Road – that the Meyers bought the property and had the Castle torn down in 1949. In 1976, they sold the property to the developers of Beekman Place, who integrated the surviving wall into the community’s design.
Although her own home fell to the wrecker’s ball, many of the Henderson-inspired buildings remain and continue to define the portion of 16th Street stretching from Florida Avenue north to Columbia Road. Ironically, her failure to convince to government to move the president’s home led to her greatest triumph: the creation of magnificent and utterly unique Meridian Hill Park on the east side of 16th Street. Today, many Beekman Place residents have spectacular views of the park from their homes, and many more enjoy its amenities year-round.
Beekman Place Today
Today, rather than sitting at the northern edge of the city, Beekman Place sits close to its geographical center, and more importantly, is quite literally in the middle of it all. To the southeast lie the vibrant U Street and 14th Street corridors; to the southwest, Dupont Circle, and to the west, Adams Morgan and Rock Creek Park. Many downtown offices are within easy walking distance, and public transportation of all kinds is convenient.
Still, it is possible to look out the window of a Beekman Place home and admire a vista much the same as Mrs. Henderson’s: the city and its monuments spread out below, fireworks on a warm Fourth of July or a snowfall blanketing the city in winter, and Meridian Hill Park – more beautiful and well-tended than at any time in its recent history – across the street. Her castle may be gone, but her achievements remain, and her spirit lives on in Beekman Place.Print This Page