The Armed Forces Retirement Home, known for many years as the Soldiers’ Home, is tucked away on a beautiful campus near North Capitol Street in upper northwest Washington.
This past week’s earthquake did substantial damage—millions of dollars worth—to one of the most distinctive and iconic buildings on the entire campus, Scott Hall (now known as the Sherman Building), originally opened in 1857.
For 150 years, the AFRH has offered veterans a restful retreat amidst a cluster of striking historical buildings. Most well-known nowadays among Soldiers’ Home buildings is the once-endangered Lincoln Cottage, a Gothic Revival country house built by banker George W. Riggs (1813-1881) in 1842 and used by President Abraham Lincoln as a summer retreat.
It has been named a national monument, restored, and made into a fascinating museum by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But the attention given to the Lincoln Cottage seems to have pushed the rest of the Soldiers’ Home buildings into undeserved obscurity.
To appreciate the Sherman Building, one has to start at the beginning of the story, with the founding of the Soldiers’ Home. As Matthew Pinsker has explained, the institution was a long time coming. There had been talk in Congress as early as the 1820s of establishing a facility to care for disabled veterans who were unable to support themselves, but little came of it.
In the 1840s, Maj. Robert Anderson (1805-1871)—best known as the commander of the besieged Union forces at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in the opening days of the Civil War—mounted a determined effort to establish a soldiers’ retreat. At his urging a bill to create a military asylum to aid such unfortunates was introduced in 1841, and much debate was held on the subject in the early 1840s, but again no asylum was actually established.
The turning point came as a result of the invasion of Mexico City in 1847 by American forces led by Gen. Winfield Scott (1786-1866). True to historical form, the conquering army extracted a tribute ($150,000) from the good people of Mexico City to spare their fine city from being looted and destroyed.
Rather than turning the money over to the War Department, Scott then took the extraordinary step of putting $100,000 of it into a bank account to be reserved for establishing an Army asylum, “subject to the order of Congress.” The War Department tried to get the money back but was blocked by Senator Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) of Mississippi—later to become president of the Confederacy—who shepherded a bill through Congress that finally established the asylum in 1851.
The law establishing the military asylum designated two other locations, in Mississippi and Louisiana, but the one in Washington was the only one that lasted. Using the Mexican tribute money, Congress bought the 200-acre country estate of banker Riggs, including his Gothic Revival cottage, and later purchased additional properties, including the adjoining Harewood estate of Riggs’ partner, William W. Corcoran (1798-1888), ultimately creating a 500-acre bucolic, wooded reservation. As originally established, the Soldiers’ Home welcomed veterans of the regular army with 20 or more years of service as well as disabled veterans with any amount or type of service.
The first inmates of the military asylum lived in the old Riggs cottage beginning in 1852, but clearly more room was needed. The asylum’s board authorized construction of a new main hall to accommodate up to 250 residents as well as two other large cottages, all to be clustered around the Riggs cottage near the northwest corner of the huge property. Lt. Barton S. Alexander (1819-1878), an experienced Army engineer who would later have a key role in the Civil War defenses of Washington, was chosen to oversee the construction.
Scott Hall as it originally appeared, from 1857 to 1869. Source: Harper’s Weekly, Jan. 5, 1867, via the Library of Congress.
The new main hall would later be named Scott Hall, after Gen. Winfield Scott, and it has remained the centerpiece of the Soldiers’ Home until this day. Construction began in 1852 and continued for five years. For its design, Lt. Alexander imitated James Renwick’s Smithsonian Institution building, now known as the Smithsonian Castle, a triumph of the “picturesque” mode of architecture promoted by Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852).
Picturesque buildings aimed to use eclectic designs based on historical architectural styles to blend in with their natural settings. The picturesque precedent fit the new Soldiers’ Home building perfectly, situated as it was on top of an idyllic wooded hilltop with sublime views of the capital city. Its Romanesque-arched windows, wistfully reminiscent of a medieval abbey nestled in the remote countryside, gave dignity and architectural flair to what could have been a drab government dormitory.
While the Castle was made of red sandstone, Scott Hall used white New York marble. Its construction was overseen by Gilbert Cameron, a master builder and stonemason from New York whom Renwick had brought to Washington in 1847 to work on the Smithsonian project. As completed in 1857, the building was two stories tall with cast-iron balconies, a large clock tower rising up at its center, and a stately, arched front porch.
Once Scott Hall and the other two new cottages were complete, Soldiers’ Home found itself—temporarily—with more than enough room. The commissioners decided to build goodwill by offering to provide accommodations to President Buchanan in the summertime as a retreat from the stifling heat and humidity of downtown Washington. Buchanan stayed in one of the new cottages rather than the original Riggs house, where the Home’s superintendent lived.
When the Lincolns arrived, they wanted the Riggs house. One suspects that Mary Todd Lincoln was behind this decision. Abraham Lincoln enjoyed staying at the cottage and was said to have drafted the Emancipation Proclamation there. Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur summered there as well. James and Lucretia Garfield had been planning to spend the summer of 1881 at Soldiers Home, but they never got the chance; Garfield was felled by an assassin’s bullet at the Baltimore &amp;amp; Potomac train station on the Mall in July 1881.
Stereoview photo of Scott Hall as it appeared from 1869 to 1887. Image from the author’s collection).
As originally built, Scott Hall quickly proved to be too small, and the building was remodeled in 1869 by adding a third floor under a fashionable, Second-Empire style mansard roof. The building was then remodeled again in 1887 after a large annex had been constructed behind it. The resulting structure, completed in 1890, is even more castle-like than before, with crenellated parapets and a truly monumental Richardson-Romanesque clock tower.
At 320 feet, Scott Hall boasts the third highest elevation in Washington, DC. The vast grounds of the Soldiers’ Home surrounding it were kept open to the public after it was built, and a network of scenic roads was constructed that made the property a great destination for a Sunday outing, especially before the roads and amenities of Rock Creek Park were developed. As described in Joseph West Moore’s Picturesque Washington (1887):
A short distance from Washington, on the Rock Creek road, is the Soldiers’ Home, a most beautiful sylvan retreat where the aged and invalid soldiers of the regular army can pass their days in peace and comfort. There are few finer rural estates in the land, and it is often called “the Central Park of Washington,” as it is constantly open to the public, and over its five hundred acres of beautifully diversified hill and dale, every one can wander at will, enjoying the charming views and attractive surroundings.
Within the grounds there are seven miles of drives on broad, well-made roads, shaded in summer by gigantic oaks with luxuriant leafage; and there are lakes with swans, long stretches of meadow-lands, handsome arbors perched on hills, whence can be obtained delightful prospects of the country for several miles; ornate villas, statuary, and various adornments. It is, indeed, a pleasant spot, with plentiful means for peaceful enjoyment, and, doubtless, many a “weary pilgrim on life’s devious course,” as he strolls through these grounds almost envies the superannuated warriors their privilege of residing here.
Soldiers’ Home has undergone many changes in the intervening years. Many buildings have been added; much land has been lost. When large new buildings, a dormitory and hospital, were completed in 1954, the Scott Hall name was transferred to the new dormitory, and the historic Scott Hall became the Sherman Building. Safety concerns then led to the closing of the grounds to the public in 1968.
The complex used to include a large and productive dairy farm, worked, in part, by some of the residents. The dairy farm and other land located to the south of the property—40 percent of the Home’s acreage—was lost in the 1960s when it was appropriated for development of a large hospital complex that now includes the Washington Hospital Center, Children’s National Medical Center, the National Rehabilitation Hospital, and the local Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The land grab also included acreage for the extension of North Capitol Street and Irving Street.
Renamed the Armed Forces Retirement Home in 2001, the now-venerable institution receives no taxpayer money to fund its operations, relying instead on a 50-cent weekly payroll deduction contributed by all active enlisted military personnel. To earn more income, the home developed a master plan, approved in 2008, that calls for development of some of its underutilized property. An early version of the plan was scaled back in response to concerns about density and historic preservation.
Last Tuesday’s earthquake only added to the Home’s financial challenges. According to Carrie Barton, an historic preservation specialist with EHT Traceries, Inc., a number of carved stone pieces from the Sherman Building’s pinnacles and crenellated parapets fell off, either inward through ceilings or outward to the ground. Stone masons were marking and cataloging the pieces for eventual repair.
More seriously, the building’s iconic tower was severely compromised. It sustained major cracks and was leaning toward one side. An emergency effort was undertaken on Saturday to stabilize it as Hurricane Irene approached, but engineers were uncertain whether it could be repaired or would need to be entirely rebuilt.
This coming week, engineers expect to develop a plan for how to proceed with the building’s restoration. Additional photos of the earthquake damage can be found on the DC Preservation League’s Facebook page.
Cross-posted at Streets of Washington.