- Get Involved
The National Air And Space Museum and the National Museum of American History will be open today, March 5; all other Smithsonian Washington, D.C.-area museums and the National Zoo will be closed due to inclement weather. The Smithsonian museums in New York will be open today.Skip navigation
Prepared by Lara Pomernacki, under the direction of Cynthia R. Field, Ph.D. for the Smithsonian's division of Architectural History and Historic Preservation. December, 1997
|Situated atop a hillside overlooking Rock Creek in the District of Columbia is a house whose history has remained elusive and mysterious. The house, as it stands today, has endured the tenure of several residents and has undergone numerous alterations. Now the property of the National Zoological Park, the house is unoccupied and in need of repairs. At the request of the Zoo, a study of the history of its structural changes since their purchase of it has been undertaken.||Holt House|
In March of 1889, an Act of Congress established a commission entitling the Smithsonian Institution, under the direction of Secretary Samuel P. Langley, to select tracts of land to be purchased for the purpose of forming a National Zoological Park in the city of Washington in the District of Columbia. As Head of the Commission, Secretary Langley appointed then curator of the National Museum's Department of Living Animals, William T. Hornaday, to be in charge of selecting land for purchase. ¹ Included in his selection was thirteen and three- quarters acres, owned by Henry Holt, which included a house, "said to be about 45 years old, and in need of repairs." ² Regarding the desirability of this property for the Zoological Park, Hornaday recorded that it would, "be an unfortunate necessity to include the Holt property." ³ Although the value of the property was estimated at $35,000, the Zoo Commission purchased it in July of 1890 for $40,000. ⁴
Holt House was the only building on the property purchased for the National Zoo. The house has been said to have been built just after the turn of the nineteenth century, however, an exact date has not been determined. Originally intended for a residence, some aspects of the house have been likened to similar houses in Maryland designed around this time in a neo-Palladian style. It is a five-part, symmetrical design consisting of a central block flanked by hyphens connecting it to wings on the east and west. Palladian houses attributed to roughly the same time period were often characterized by this five part plan consisting of a larger central block, smaller hyphens, and terminal wings larger than the hyphens, yet smaller than the center block. Holt House resembles the model in plan but not in elevation as the Palladian model featured a taller central block of two stories while the hyphens of most Palladian style homes of roughly this period were only one story. ⁵ Holt House does not exhibit this height difference between the hyphens and the center block.
The Zoo decided to transform the house and make it suitable for the purpose of administrative offices. As Hornaday noted at the time of its acquisition, however, it was badly in need of repairs, and on March 29, l890.the Zoo Appropriations Committee allocated the sum of $2,000 to make the building "suitable for occupancy." The repairs to the building were to include new steps, a new roof, repairs to the plastering, and a skylight in the large central room. ⁶
In May of the same year, the Boston architect William Ralph Emerson, who designed the Carnivore House at the Zoo, visited the Holt House site and made suggestions about repairs which might be made. Emerson's recommendations included removing the bars on the cellar windows, excavating the ground, removing the balconies on right and left of the south front, and tearing out the stairs on the North front. ⁷
|Photographs of the house prior to its being repaired confirm that the lower story of the house, often referred to as the cellar or basement, was partially below the outside grade, now the ground has been excavated and what was once a basement area is now a complete lower story. The term "bars" which Emerson ascribed to the window coverings, may be somewhat of a misnomer; photos from around 1890 illustrate that the windows of the basement level were covered with what appears to be more of a vertical wooden grate.||Holt House south entrance|
with Dr. Henry Holt sitting outside.
Photo 1889 from SI Archives. Negative #5369.
Photographs also reveal that both the east and west hyphens of the upper story were accessed by twin exterior stairways which lead to balconies and doors. From these photographs it is evident that these stairs were in disrepair, doubtless this is one of the reasons Emerson advised their removal. The stairway of the west hyphen appears to have been braced with a horizontal wooden support, to prevent its collapse, and the east hyphen stairway was sloping away from the wall of the south projection which supported it on one side, in the direction of a rail which supported the opposite side which had all but completely collapsed. These stairs and balconies pictured no longer exist and were probably removed just after the architect made the suggestion. Emerson's recommendation for their removal is also sensible in another respect in that they appear to be of a much more picturesque, Victorian style and are inconsistent with neoPalladian aspects of the house.
A third major alteration of the house specified by Emerson was the removal of the stairway on the exterior of the North facade. A photograph indicates that several of the running boards of the steps of the original North stairway had collapsed onto the risers below. This condition was most likely the reason for Emerson's suggestion for their removal. The architect specified that a "somewhat similar structure of wood was to take its place." ⁸ No replacement for these stairs, however, was ever carried out. The removal of these three stairways is significant in that it would have drastically altered the approach to the house. Previously, the main entry to the house would have been on the North side, up the exterior staircase, and into the upper level. Their removal forced access to the house to be confined to the ground level.
Pursuing alterations to the house, W.R. Emerson submitted a document on June 3, 1890 to the Zoo of "Specifications of Additions and Alterations of the Old Holt House" ⁹ which detailed all of the previous month's on-site suggestions. These specifications consistently made reference to plans which have not been found. The significance of the specifications, however, should not be undervalued; they served as a guide for alterations and repairs to the house through the tenure of two future architects.
One month after Emerson transmitted his specifications, Frank Baker, then the Acting Superintendent of the Zoo, wrote to the architect that he had "had some laborers tearing off the roofs and taking out the floors and partitions" and "getting up the basement floor" at the Holt House. ¹⁰ Although this document lacks specificity-it is not known what "partitions" refers to, or which "roofs" are being removed-it is the first clear indication of repairs being made. This correspondence is also the earliest comment on the structure of the house. Baker states that as this work was being done, there was found, an "amount of weakness in the old structure that was not dreamed of at first."' ¹¹ It was the first indication that Holt House was in need of more than simply minor repairs.
On August 5, 1890 work was begun finishing the roof, repairing the outside walls, laying concrete in place of the basement floors and laying down sleepers, as well as outfitting the house with indoor plumbing and a water-closet in the east wing. Work was commenced despite the fact that the bid for these repairs exceeded the $2000 first appropriated. ¹²
A visit from the Assistant Inspector of Buildings of the District of Columbia on August 13, 1890 confirmed what workers had already discovered: that the walls of the house were weak and would probably need extensive repairs. In a letter to superintendent Baker, the Assistant Inspector related his opinion that after examining the walls of the house, he found them to be "old, dilapidated and out of repair, and... entirely unfit for the purpose of a permanent building.' ¹³ A letter from Secretary Langley to the Superintendent in September of 1890 acknowledged that the walls would need to be completely underpinned, that is, a new footing or base would be created, a task not undertaken until 1898. ¹⁴ It was at this point that the $2000 appropriated for repairs appeared to be less than adequate, causing the Secretary, to write the Superintendent to limit the expenditures to those which were absolutely necessary. ¹⁵
At the beginning of the year 1891 Baker requested permission from the Secretary to move his furniture and supplies into the office at the Holt House, as it was now suitable for occupancy. ¹⁶ It appears that during this year only $500 was allocated to make repairs to the roof so that it could weather the winter. The allocation of these funds would indicate that this work was done. ¹⁷
The following year, in October 1892, according to a letter to Secretary Langley, there was a discussion between Superintendent Baker and the Architect Glenn Brown regarding repairs to the Holt House. ¹⁸ Brown was also working on the design of a footbridge on the Zoo grounds at this time. No records exist documenting repairs for the next four years, but Glenn Brown is consulted again in 1896 when repairs resume.
Correspondence between the Secretary and Superintendent indicate that at some point there had been discussion of using Holt House as a residence for the Superintendent. ¹⁹ In May of 1896, acting on the suggestion of the Secretary, Superintendent Baker requested that the Architect Glenn Brown write up an estimate for repairs which would have made Holt House a suitable residence. The estimate totaled $5458.31. ²⁰
Accompanying this estimate was a design by the architect, which demonstrated his knowledge of neo-Palladian design and articulated his understanding of its original character. Included in the proposed alterations was a double staircase with curved flights on either end of the North side leading to a second-story portico supported by two sets of columns in the place of the entrance vestibule that occupied this facade. Other changes included an addition to the west wing to be used as a kitchen and a semi-circular balcony on the upper story of the South side. ²¹ These alterations were certainly on a grander scale than the Secretary had anticipated. He responded that he had no recollection of the idea that the house would serve as a residence for the Superintendent, and that there was certainly not enough money in the budget to cover this expense. ²²
1896 Sketch for Remodeling Holt House
National Zoological Park
Glenn Brown Architect
Scale 1/8"=1 Foot. - South or Office Front.
1896 Sketch for Remodeling Holt House
National Zoological Park
Glenn Brown Architect
Scale 1/8"=1 Foot. - North or Residence Entrance
It appears that there was only money enough to correct the more pressing problems of the house. In 1896 $499.45 was spent, $320.47 of this amount was used for plumbing and gas fittings, the remaining sum was spent on chairs, stoves, and "graters". ²³ In this same year, a destructive storm damaged the roof at the south entrance to the house, with the result that an additional $200 was allocated for its repair. ²⁴
Despite the fact that his plans for the renovation of the Holt House as the Superintendent's residence were not able to be carried out, Glenn Brown continued to be consulted regarding its repair. The work of underpinning the walls, which had been discussed since 1890, was begun under his direction ²⁵ at a cost of $1300. ²⁶ According to a letter from the Superintendent to Secretary Langley, other repairs to the house had been planned for that summer. After the work to the walls was begun, however, it was discovered that "the condition of the walls was altogether worse than had been supposed and more expensive than had been allowed for," Given the cost and Baker's comment, it seems that the work of strengthening the walls with new work was extensive. For this reason no additional repairs were undertaken at this time ²⁷
The work of underpinning the walls was finished on September 17, 1898. A decision by the Secretary was necessary to defer the building of a desired flight cage in order to use $1000 of the funds allotted for this purpose to "repair the upper room of the Holt House in accordance with the plans now being carried out." ²⁸ In a letter to the Secretary, the Superintendent related Glenn Brown's recommendations for repairs, namely, "stone sills for the doorways on the ground floor, iron beams for window openings, recoating outside of house with pebble-dash (stucco), finishing a hallway at north side, repairing large room in second story and altering skylight." ²⁹ The Secretary responded to these suggestions by limiting the work to the repairs to the large upper story room. ³⁰ Later correspondence indicates that in addition, enlarging and centering the sky-light in the large upper story room, as well as fitting it with a frieze designed by Glenn Brown, and enlarging the vestibule on the North side of the upper story were also completed.
Skylights can be seen through the open tiles of the false ceiling in the large upper story room. Digital photo taken April 1998.
Frieze designed by Glenn Brown can be seen through the open tiles of the false ceiling in the large upper story room.
Alterations to the skylight were discussed a great deal. Correspondence reveals that Secretary Langley was concerned that light allowed to filter into the room would be insufficient. In a letter to Glenn Brown, the Superintendent related the Secretary's concern that the use of tie-rods to support the enlarged sky-light might interfere with the amount of light allowed into the large upper room, and that an alternative method of trussing would be much preferred. ³¹ A requisition for the funds for larger panes of glass was approved in February 1899, thus it is clear that the sky-light was in fact altered from its original design. ³²
In 1899, records show that there was discussion of enlarging the vestibule on the North facade of the house. Prior to the removal of the exterior north staircase, the main entrance had been on the North side through an enclosed vestibule on a high porch created under the last private owner. Enlarging the Victorian vestibule required that a new base floor be cantilevered out above the empty space where the Victorian stairs had been. When his opinion was solicited regarding this addition, Glenn Brown stated that, "To enlarge the North vestibule of the Holt House would... mar the general effect of the building, the present projection is an addition, which I think was an unfortunate one in its effect upon the original design." ³³
Brown articulated a crucial insight in his statement: he found the present enclosed vestibule to be an addition. Prior to the discussion of this work, a letter from Superintendent Baker to the Secretary dated September 26, 1898 mentioned that after a survey of the construction of the house, Brown pronounced that, "two periods of construction are represented; the one of the original design and another of a later restoration, very nearly like, but distinctly inferior to the original." ³⁴ A photograph taken before the stairs were removed shows the door with side lights made in the form of a federal period door but not with the detail or proportion of one. Piecing the two Brown comments together, it becomes clear that the North projection, as it stands now, was twice enlarged. The cantilevered upper section is an 1899 addition designed by Emerson. Behind it, the area which would have served as an entrance vestibule to the upper story prior to the removal of the exterior stairway is the "later restoration" to which Brown refers.
North side entrance with stairs. These wooden stairs led up to the second-story, north entrance to Holt House. Photo 1889. They were not original to the structure (their massive, boxed-in scale is of a later period) and the Zoo removed them because of their poor condition. Photo from SI Archives. Negative #5372.
North side entrance as it looks today. Photo April 1998.
Brown's statement regarding both of these additions is consistent with his "Sketch for Remodeling the Holt House" where the lower story of the North entrance is a projected base, and stairs lead to the upper story which is covered by a portico on the base. This plan was a sensible one in the context of the neo-Palladian design which Brown was apparently attempting to imitate. The structure which presently exists varies greatly from his ideal: the 1899 upper story of this vestibule extends beyond that of the lower story, thus it lacks the vocabulary of the Palladian.
In June of 1899, an entry in the Diary of the Director records, "Mr. Emerson asked for perfected plans for vestibule of Holt House." ³⁵ This evidence gives insight into two crucial aspects regarding this alteration. First, it appears that the enlarging of the vestibule did in fact take place, despite the opposition of Glenn Brown; and second, and not unrelated, that now Emerson, who had not overseen any of the repairs since the early 1890's was consulted regarding work on the house. On June 6 of the same year, the addition was made ³⁶ and further repairs were also begun, including flooring the large upper room, as well as the south vestibule, and applying pebble-dash to the exterior. ³⁷ All of these repairs were completed by July 20, 1899 ³⁸ under the direction of Glenn Brown. In October 1899 Brown was consulted regarding the heating of the house ³⁹ and he produced plans for this project, although it appears that the work was never completed. ⁴⁰
Further alterations were undertaken in 1900, but these were marked by a shift in Architects. In response to a letter from Secretary Langley regarding repairs, ⁴¹ Superintendent Baker related that he had "communicated with the architects, Messrs. Hornblower and Marshall, who, at once, visited the park and inspected the premises. They will, as soon as practicable, furnish plans for the work which you desire to be done. . ." ⁴². These architects, Hornblower and Marshall, were employed on the design for a small mammal house at the zoo, making their selection over Glenn Brown understandable.
Not until April of 1901 did further discourse regarding the proposed repairs to the large lower story room ensue. A letter from the Secretary to the superintendent stated, "I have decided, acting on your advice, to finish the little entrance hall and the basement room, not decoratively, but with what is indispensable. The floor, I think, should be of concrete, the walls plastered, and the two winding staircases removed, with memorandum of their position, so that they may be restored if desired... The upstairs disused entrance hall may be supplied with something like removable trap-doors, so as to entirely close the entrance to the well-holes and make a safe flooring... ⁴³ This correspondence reveals that a pair of circular stair cases once graced the south entrance vestibule. They were never replaced, and an entry from the director's diary of April 22, 1901 substantiates that they were in fact removed at this time. ⁴⁴ It is interesting to note that Glenn Brown included these stair-cases in his "Sketch for Remodeling the Holt House." Thus they appear to be sympathetic to the neo-Palladian style of the house.
Regarding the plans for the floor of the large lower story room, a letter to the Secretary from Frank Baker relates that Hornblower and Marshall "propose to make the floor.. which serves as an anteroom to the office, of terrazzo cement like the floors of the National Museum." ⁴⁵ Instead, however, this floor, as well as the floor of the south vestibule, was paved with a yellowish brick which was laid "on edge on a cement base" ⁴⁶ according to Homblower and Marshalls' specifications.
Brick flooring in lower South entrance vestibule. Digital photo taken April 1998.
Ornate door by Hornblower and Marshall inside the lower South entrance vestibule. Digital photo taken April 1998.
Exterior view of Holt House South entrance from the east side. Photograph taken April 1998 by Mignon.
Exterior view of Holt House South entrance, from the west side. Photograph taken April 1998 by Mignon.
Lath ceiling in 2nd story South vestibule. Notice the straight lines indicating the wood was machine worked. Only parts of the lath ceiling are visible - the rest is covered by stucco. Digital photo taken April 1998.
Superintendent Baker also desired to remedy the problem of the lack of light which plagued the lower story rooms of the house. As a solution, he suggested that "two side windows be cut in at the places where Mr. W.R. Emerson indicated and recommended them." ⁴⁷ This reference to Emerson's specifications for repairs at the Holt House indicates their longevity as a guide, even ten years later. In fact, windows were cut as specified. ⁴⁸ During their tenure as consulting architects on the Holt House, Hornblower and Marshall made two final contributions: the design for the lower story south Vestibule interior entrance door, as well as the design for the details of the fireplaces. ⁴⁹
Brick fireplace in lower South entrance vestibule.
Arched window leans against the mantle.
Digital photo taken April 1998.
The completion of the work of the lower story floor, windows, the removal of the stairways, and the new doors in the summer of 1901 marked what could be called the end of an era for the Holt House. ⁵⁰ After Hornblower and Marshall, no other major architects presided over repairs at the Holt House, and few major alterations were made. In 1906, electric lights were installed in the upstairs room, ⁵¹ and it was not until 1913 that a hot water heating system was installed, which required the addition of a stair-way in the west end of the house leading to the cellar below. ⁵² The final alteration appears to have been a metal ceiling which was installed in the Superintendent's office in the December of 1913. ⁵³
Tin ceiling in Superindent's office was installed in 1913.
Digital photo taken April 1998.
A Survey of the Holt House by the Public Buildings Commission in 1917 assessed the Real Value of the building to be $10,000, and listed it as having two staircases and three entrances. ⁵⁴ The two stair ways referred to were the one in the west wing which lead to the cellar below, and the east wing staircase leading to the upper level. Maintenance work done under the Civil Works Administration in 1934 included new electrical wiring, patching up of plaster, a new floor in "a portion of the building," and a new heating boiler. ⁵⁵
Termites have been observed in the building in recent decades. Records from the mid-1950's indicate that the house was infested by termites which had done damage to the woodwork supporting the cellar stairs, as well as the floors, baseboard, and window and door frames. This same report concludes that "there is no structural weakening of the building due to termites" ⁵⁶ and no records indicate that any measures were taken to remedy the problem.
General decay over time as well as continued damage from termites appears to have weakened the house. A survey of the property in 1960 done at the request of Zoo Director Theodore Reed, indicated that "serious" damage had resulted from the termite infestation and that the roof was in poor condition. Recommendations of this survey included moving the administrative offices and initiating the construction of a new administration building.
The condition of the Holt House certainly did not improve over time, and a memorandum from Theodore Reed after having the building surveyed in 1960, commented on its condition: Reed requested to know "who has the power and authority to condemn this building"? ⁵⁷ In 1962, the Zoo undertook the project of creating a master plan which included a new administration building. Zoo employees, however, continued to occupy Holt House. In April of 1973 some maintenance of the building was undertaken. New lintels were installed over the windows, and a dropped ceiling was installed in the large upper story room. ⁵⁸ The building housed research scholars until 1988.
The house has since remained unoccupied, and is currently the subject of an extensive effort to uncover the history of its former occupants and its structural alterations. All that is currently known about the house has been pieced together from various documents, found mainly in the Smithsonian Institution's Archives, such as correspondence and disbursement records. Although specifications for alterations by the architects Emerson and Brown were discovered, these served only as written descriptions; they refer continuously to plans which accompany them, none of which have been found. Without these telling documents, what is known about the repairs to the house is limited. Some changes are certain: