Photo by the author.

On the northeast corner of 11th and K Streets NW stands the last dilapi­dated vestiges of what K Street was once all about—large, elegant Victorian mansions that were the homes of the city’s most powerful and influential citizens. For the last 7 years, the mansion at 1017 K has been quietly crumbling behind the humiliating wrap of a massive fabric billboard.

It’s a mystery why the city allowed such an obnoxious misuse of the structure, but saner actions have been taken more recently. According to Washington City Paper‘s Lydia DePillis, after she contacted the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in March, the city raised the tax rate on the property in consideration of its blighted condition.

Rather than undertaking repairs that would remove it from blighted status, owner Douglas Development Corporation recently filed for a raze permit.

The building’s interior is apparently in poor condition, having been neglected for many years, and some floors are reported to be partially collapsed. Reclaiming it won’t be easy. Yet however much the structure has suffered, we owe it to ourselves to save this fine old mansion.

It seems odd to encounter a residential building like this on K Street, the avenue of “trophy” office buildings, and it’s even odder that the building has languished for so long. Many see it every day and wish that it would be restored after such profound neglect. Its woes have been written up on Peter Sefton’s engaging Victorian Secrets web site and noted in blogs such The Other 35 Percent.

Many were shocked to learn of the recent plans to tear it down. After the filing of the raze permit was first publicized on the H-DC History Net, local blogs quickly reported the alarming news, including The Location, Prince of Petworth, and the City Paper.

But the house is not yet doomed. The DC Preservation League filed an historic landmark nomination for the property in 2008, and thus the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board will be required to review the case before a raze permit can be issued. If the property is designated a landmark, the raze permit will be denied, although the owner will still have the right to appeal the decision.

Detail of the adjoining townhouse, included in the historic landmark nomination. photo by the author).

Architectural historian James Goode has called K Street between 9th and 20th streets the “Park Avenue of Washington” in the late 19th century because of its distinguished mansions and their prominent owners. “In the 80’s and 90s K street was the most exclusive residential section of Washington and the center of social life of the city,” wrote The Washington Post in 1929. “In those days all entertaining was at home and diplomats from foreign countries mingled with Government officials, statesmen, and ranking Army and Navy officers in the big, handsome houses set far back, fronted with deep lawns, hedges and trees, that lined the street.”

Among the most opulent were the Childs House at 1527 K, built by a wealthy Philadelphia widow in 1894. Designed purely for socializing, the mansion was in the French Renaissance style of Parisian townhouses. Nearby, wealthy Senator Stephen Elkins (1841-1911) built a massive Georgian Revival house at 1626 K in 1892. Elkins had made millions from land speculation in the west and mining in West Virginia. The mansion’s ballroom could accomodate 200 guests, was approached by a grand walnut staircase, and was decorated with gilt Louis XV furniture.

The fine house at the corner of 11th and K was not at the center of K Street’s gilded age excesses (which is one reason it has survived), but it has many of the key elements of the street’s lost residential format, including a spacious front lawn, officially called “parking” because it was reserved by city regulation for park-like features.

The distinguished building and adjoining structures were constructed in 1878 in the then-prevailing Second-Empire style by successful Washington builder Michael Talty (1812-1890), an Irish immigrant. An early resident of the house was William H. Burr (1819-1908), a former Senate stenographer who had become a well-known proponent of philosophical skepticism.

Peter Sefton has called Burr “one of Washington’s most notorious curmudgeons, iconoclasts, and disturbers of the cultural status quo.” After raising eyebrows with such incendiary tracts as Self-Contradictions of the Bible (1860) and Revelations of Antichrist (1879), Burr settled in at 1017 K as a kind of genteel retirement home in his later life.

Col. Harrison Allen during the Civil War. Image from the Library of Congress).

Another well-known resident was General Harrison Allen (1835-1904), who came to Washington in 1901 to be second deputy auditor of the Post Office department. During the Civil War, Allen had been commander of the 151st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, which he led at the Battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

During an artillery bombardment shortly before Chancellorsville, a shell passed only a few feet over his head. Just before the Battle of Gettysburg, Allen was given leave, causing him to miss most of that big event. He was nevertheless retroactively promoted to Brigadier General in 1865 for “faithful and meritorious services.”

After the war Allen entered politics, serving as a delegate to the 1868 Republican Convention, as state senator, and as Pennsylvania’s auditor general. In 1882 he was appointed United States Marshal for the Dakota Territory, where he pursued stage coach robbers and horse thieves until getting his Washington appointment from President McKinley.

On September 22, 1904, he spent the evening playing cards with his wife and friends in the downstairs parlor at 1017 K and appeared to be in perfect health. However, the next morning he was found dead in his upstairs bedroom, the apparent victim of a heart attack. I’ll leave it to others to speculate whether his ghost still haunts the old house.

After Allen’s death, the inexorable process of change for 1017 K—and all of downtown Washington—slowly took shape. The wealthy began moving to the trendier, northwestern “suburban” neighborhoods of Dupont Circle and Kalorama and ultimately out of the city altogether. Many of the large buildings they left behind were subdivided for boarders or converted for commercial uses before eventually being torn down.

A photo from the Library of Congress of a K Street row near 14th Street, circa 1915, shows the transition taking place: A large Department of Justice building rises between two elegant Second Empire houses, looking ready to push them out. They’d all be gone before long.

Department of Justice Building on K Street c. 1915. Im agefrom the Library of Congress.

The mansion at 1017 K had a notable second life when it became the headquarters of the DC Statehood Party, organized in 1969. As described by Cultural Tourism DC, the DC Statehood Party gained prominence in 1971 when Julius Hobson (1919-1977), a noted civil rights activist, ran for the non-voting delegate seat in Congress now held by Eleanor Holmes Norton.

Hobson was a civil rights pioneer who between 1960 and 1964 had led more than 80 pickets of downtown retail stores, successfully gaining jobs for thousands of African-Americans who had previously been barred from or severely limited in working at these establishments. Hobson’s campaign for delegate, though unsuccessful, raised the profile of the Statehood Party and helped establish it as a viable third party in the District. The party continues to this day as the DC Statehood Green Party.

It’s been many years now since 1017 K has been occupied by the Statehood Party or any other organization, despite its unique status as the last of its breed. Striking parallels can be drawn with a legendary historic preservation case from the past, the Rhodes Tavern at 15th and F Streets NW. In the late 1970s and early 1980s an extraordinary effort was mounted by concerned local preservationists to save the tavern, which had been built in 1801 and was a polling place in the first DC municipal elections held in 1802.

There were many very good reasons to save that rare building, but one of the most compelling was that it was one of the last reminders we had left of the type of building that used to line Washington’s central business district in the the city’s earliest days. As Nelson Rimensnyder has pointed out, Washington’s first building regulations, decreed by George Washington himself in 1791, specified that “the wall of no house be higher than forty feet to the roof” and that “the outer and party walls of all houses…be of brick or stone.” The result was uniform rows of simple but elegant Federal-style townhouses along the city’s few main thoroughfares, including Pennsylvania Avenue and F Street.

The strategically located Rhodes Tavern, a prominent example of this type, witnessed every Presidential inauguration from Thomas Jefferson to Ronald Reagan. It was devastating when the fight to save the humble building ended in 1984 with its complete destruction. Not only was this particular jewel of early Washington gone, but all traces of the original building type specified by George Washington were lost forever from the inaugural parade route.

Rhodes Tavern before its destruction. Image from the Library of Congress).

The K Street mansions of the late 19th century were another major defining element of the city’s built environment that are now—almost—all gone. If 1017 K is torn down, we will have no reference point left on K Street to recall this part of our shared past. There will be nothing but office boxes, and we’ll never be able to undo the loss of this last reminder of the genteel residences that once lined this busy office canyon.

Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.

John DeFerrari is a native Washingtonian with a lifelong passion for local history and writes about it for his blog, Streets Of Washington. His latest book about DC history is Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, DC. John is also a trustee of the DC Preservation League. The views expressed here are his own.