Today, it’s a Gap clothing store. But almost 150 years ago, the large Greek Revival building at 1258 Wisconsin Avenue NW in Georgetown was Forrest Hall, an assembly hall where Mark Twain gave a lecture.
Named for its owner, wealthy Georgetown resident Bladen Forrest, the building opened in 1851. According to local author Tim Krepp, Forrest Hall’s meeting rooms hosted groups like the Masons and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, who discussed issues like retroceding Georgetown back to Maryland.
During the Civil War, the building became Forrest Hall Military Prison, an improvised jail for deserters where 3 people died, according to government records.
Mark Twain delivered a handful of lectures in Washington City during the winter of 1867-1868, while serving as a secretary to Nevada Senator William Stewart and composing correspondence for newspapers primarily in New York and the west. The last lecture he gave was on Saturday, February 22, 1868 at Forrest Hall.
On February 22, 1868, the Georgetown Courier ran a notice that “Mark Twain, the genial, witty and humorous Californian” would be “volunteering his services” for “the benefit of the Ladies’ Union Benevolent Society” later that evening. Founded in 1868, the organization exists today as the Aged Woman’s Home of Georgetown, located across the street at 1255 Wisconsin Avenue NW.
According to the Daily Morning Chronicle, an “appreciative audience, including many of the most prominent persons of Georgetown” packed Forrest Hall that night:
“[Twain] selected as his topic ‘The Sandwich Islands,’ and for an hour or more kept the audience in almost continuous roars of laughter. Upon stepping forward to the desk in his usual cautious and deliberate manner, he was received with applause. He apologized for his appearance without an introduction by stating that the young man who had promised to present him to the audience has been disabled.
He fell down and broke his heart or neck, Mark didn’t know which, not being particularly interested in the young man. The chief reason for his intrusion upon their attention was a request, made by several ladies, that he should deliver a lecture for the poor. He always had a grudge against the poor, and therefore embraced the opportunity to inflict a lecture on them.”
This post is excerpted from the forthcoming book, “Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: Adventures of a Capital Correspondent.”