Activities Walking Washington DC

Navigating DC’s 16th Street NW: Presidents Avenue

Meridian Hill

DC’s 16th Street NW might have been the new home of The White House at the turn of the 20th century if Mary Foote Henderson had her way. Wife of Missouri Senator Henderson, she envisioned a grand boulevard filled with embassies. And she had the money to build them.

Henderson described her vision for this major city road. “Something like the Champs Elysees, Sixteenth Street is central, straight, broad, and long; its portal at the District Line is the opening gateway for motor tourists to enter the Capital.

“It will be called the Presidents Avenue.”

Mary Foote Henderson

She did succeed in building The Henderson Castle in 1889 on DC’s 16th Street, but it was red brick, not a White House. And it is where her family lived, not President Benjamin Harrison.

Boss Shepherd

There was one little problem with creating Presidents Avenue. Henderson was competing with Alexander Robey Shepherd, one-time Governor of Washington, DC (1873-1874) and a real estate developer. He was nicknamed Boss Shepherd. His plans were to develop the area around Pacific (Dupont) Circle with embassies.

I wouldn’t have known anything about Henderson vs. Shepherd’s competing plans for developing DC’s elite neighborhoods if I wasn’t signed up for a neighborhood walking tour. Even though I live in Washington DC, I still find it is the best way to educate myself about the city’s history and architecture.

On this bright May afternoon, I am taking the Meridian Hill & Adams Morgan walk (DC Design Tours). Founder Carolyn Muraskin leads our band of four curious souls. A former architectural designer and lover of all things brick and mortar, Muraskin said she left her drafting desk so she could talk about buildings rather than draw them.

Cascading foundation at Meridian Hill Park

Our group meets promptly at 2 pm at DC’s 16th Street and Florida Avenue NW. We stand outside a fence blocking the 16th Street entrance to Meridian Hill Park. We are looking across the street at the remains of the Castle. “This is where the Hendersons used to live,” explains Muraskin.

Henderson was a powerhouse woman and a tireless promoter of Presidents Avenue. “But she was competing with Boss Shepherd, governor of DC. It proved difficult for her to fulfill her mission,” said Muraskin.

Henderson Castle

The Hendersons’ mansion on DC’s 16th Street and Florida Avenue was a block long. In the 1890s, it was still a rural enclave. Instead of Beaux-Arts mansion, pigs, sheep, and horses roamed the dirt-packed streets.

Henderson Castle (Source: Library of Congress)

The illustrated history of Neighborhoods in the Nation’s Capital features a photograph of Henderson’s castle with turrets. This residence “dominated the northwest corner of 16th Street and Florida Avenue until its demolition in 1949,” according to editor Kathryn Schneider Smith.

Meridian Hill Park

Henderson donated land across the street from her castle for the city to build a European-style park. Landscape architects George Burnap and Horace Peaslee created Italian-style garden. Muraskin described it as a “combination of Versailles and Italian Renaissance.”

“Mary Henderson’s vision for 16th Street also led her to persuade the federal government to create a European-style, twelve-acre park on land she donated on Meridian Hill . . .”

Washington at Home

Meridian Hill Park is now in disrepair but in its heyday, it featured fountains, statues, and sweeping lawns. It is designated a National Historic Landmark.

The National Park Service is now responsible for its upkeep. Due to a lack of funds and resources, the maintenance is behind. The majestic fountain no longer is working. There are cracks on the surface. A fence blocks pedestrian traffic on the Florida Avenue NW side at the bottom of the park. According to the NPS, “rehabilitation of the lower plaza and various locations in the park is ongoing through Summer 2022.”

Meridian Hill Park still deserves a tour due to its historical significance. There are multiple statues on-site including “Serenity,” “Dante” and “James Buchanan.” as it was a bit of a dumping ground for artwork needing a home. Of particular significance is the young Joan of Arc statue.

The nine-foot-tall statue is perched on a six-foot block of granite. It occupies the most prominent position above the fountains at Meridian Hill Park.

“This one is noteworthy as a gift from the women of France to the women of the United States.”

James M. Goode

It is a 1922 cast of sculptor Paul Dubois’ 1889 statue. It is the only statue of a woman on a horse in the nation. Joan’s 30-pound sword has been stolen a lot over the last 80 years. In fact, it was stolen in 1932, 1968, 1977, 1980, 1987, 2010, 2011 and 2016, according to The Washingtonian.

Embassy Row South

While Massachusetts Avenue NW between Scott Circle and the north side of the U.S. Naval Observatory is traditionally known as “Embassy Row,” 16th St. NW is Embassy Row South. Due to Henderson’s singlemindedness, there are seven current embassies located on DC’s 16th Street. They represent the nations of Australia, Kazakhstan, El Salvador, Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Cuba, Lithuania, and Poland.

Henderson commissioned several mansions near Meridian Hill in collaboration with architect George Oakley Totten Jr. The most famous is the former French embassy located at the corner of 16th Street and Kalorama Road NW. The cylindrical towers and round windows distinguish the limestone mansion.

“Built in 1907, the project was her first successful enticement of a foreign mission to Sixteenth Street, in keeping with her great ambition to create an ‘Avenue of Presidents’ lined with lavish embassies and memorials.”

Historic DC Preservation

The Beaux-Arts building ranks among Totten’s finest work. After Ambassador Jean Jules Jusserand’s retirement, the estate was turned back over to Henderson. The former French embassy “is among the finest of nearly a dozen Meridian Hill mansions built by Henderson.”

Other Significant Buildings

Henderson tried to twice to build an embassy for Italy but neither gift was accepted. Instead the Italian government hired architects Whitney Warren and Charles Wetmore to design their neo-Renaissance building. (These architects were also associated with the Grand Central Terminal in New York City.) It served as the Italian Embassy from 1925-1977. More recently, this historic building has been converted into apartments with a new nine-story apartment tower.

Embassy Building No. 10 (also built by Totten) was not acquired by a nation. But it has served as the headquarters of DC’s Department of Parks and Recreation since 1942.

Meridian Hall was built in 1923 and briefly served as an embassy. The style resembles an English manor house. It is a Tudor Revival mansion.

Warder Mansion

Warder Mansion is the only surviving building in the city designed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson. It was commissioned in 1885 by American businessman Benjamin Warder. Originally located on K Street NW, it was saved from razing.

“The Richardsonian Romanesque style house was reconstructed piece by piece at its present site in 1925 by architect George Oakley Totten Jr.”

The Embassy of Mexico resided at the Beaux-Arts Mansion from 1921 to 1989. Today it is home to the Mexican Cultural Institute, which hosts art shows and performances. The historic home’s murals and decorations are on display to the public.

Trio of Churches

This historic community on Meridian Hill is also notable for its churches. The road has been nicknamed the “Highway to Heaven,” as there are more than 50 churches from the White House to the Maryland border.

16th Street NW

Standing at one corner, we face two historic churches. They are: All Souls Church (Federal style) and National Baptist Memorial Church (Baroque style). Behind us looms a third church. It was the Washington Family Church National Cathedral. (But Muraskin reports it is “now Moonies but built in a ‘Mormon style.’ Two churches purchased tracts of land from Henderson at the intersection of 16th Street and Columbia Road. So Henderson was definitely an equal opportunity real estate magnate. She sold land to everyone.

(Insider’s Note: Although the Scottish Rite of Free Masonry is not a church, it is a fascinating cultural icon. It is also located on 16th Street.)

Walking Tour

I highly recommend a walk on 16th Street NW just to observe all the historic buildings, churches, and residences. (The neighborhood reminds me of Dupont Circle and Georgetown, which also features many historic residences.) Traveling by car, you simply don’t notice all the distinctive architecture on the wide boulevard. Henderson was a proponent of the City Beautiful Movement.

The City Beautiful Movement was inspired by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, with the message that cities should aspire to aesthetic value for their residents.

The New York Preservation Archive Project

The design and appearance of historic Washington, D.C. radically changed at the turn of the century, thanks to the McMillian plan. The latter radically transformed the National Mall and the environs around the city’s national monuments.

While Henderson proved unsuccessful in luring the President or Vice President to live on 16th Street, she did turn Meridian Hill’s prospects uphill through her tireless promotion of this neighborhood.

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  • Sarah McDonald
    May 21, 2021 at 11:54 pm

    I love stories about inspiring women, sounds like a great walking tour of an interesting neighborhood. I had pre-pandemic plans for DC, hope to make it out there soon.

    • Terri
      May 23, 2021 at 6:57 am

      Me too! I can’t believe I didn’t know about Henderson until I took this walking tour. I hope you and your family can visit Washington DC in the future. It is a perfect place for a family to visit. There are so many free attractions. You will love it!

  • Lisa
    May 22, 2021 at 9:51 am

    ah i wish i had known about all of the meanings behind these buildings when i lived in Dc! so cool!

    • Terri
      May 23, 2021 at 6:56 am

      Hey I am still learning about the history of all these buildings. I find it fascinating to research the history books about Washington DC’s architecture and then go explore.

  • Courtney
    May 22, 2021 at 12:36 pm

    Great list! D.C. is one of the next places that I’m dying to solo travel.

    • Terri
      May 23, 2021 at 6:55 am

      Plan on lots of time to explore Washington DC – there is so much to see beyond the National Mall and the monuments. I think there are over 120+ neighborhoods in Washington DC – each different.

  • Sharyn
    May 22, 2021 at 9:21 pm

    Wow, such an interesting area – I love discovering different neighbourhoods and their history.

    • Terri
      May 23, 2021 at 6:54 am

      Me too Sharyn!

  • Jade
    May 23, 2021 at 1:47 am

    This looks great Terri! I’ll have to re-visit DC when I make it back to the States. Thanks for sharing! xx

    • Terri
      May 23, 2021 at 6:58 am

      Jade you absolutely want to come back and visit DC if/when you make it back to the states. It is such a vibrant city! I love all the different neighborhoods.

  • Neha
    May 23, 2021 at 3:34 am

    I never knew about this area, probably gets faded over by the famous attractions. WOuld love to check this area the next time I am there.

    • Terri
      May 23, 2021 at 6:54 am

      I highly recommend visiting the historic neighborhoods in DC. The architecture is so varied.

  • Alma
    May 23, 2021 at 6:20 am

    I agree with you, walking tours are such a great way to learn more about an area and its history. As much as brochures or websites are useful and filled with information, having someone tell you about the history makes it so much more realistic. One looks at those beautiful buildings with new eyes.

    • Terri
      May 23, 2021 at 6:54 am

      This is so true. I have lived in the Washington DC area for my entire life but I never knew this information about the embassies on 16th St. Fascinating!

  • Anja
    May 23, 2021 at 6:21 am

    I love these local walks, not just highlights of each city. Great post, thank you for the inspiration!

    • Terri
      May 23, 2021 at 6:53 am

      Thank you Anja. I just love the walking tours where you learn a lot about architecture and history of a neighborhood.

  • Denise
    May 23, 2021 at 5:16 pm

    Can’t wait to go to DC and check out some of your recommendations!

    • Terri
      May 29, 2021 at 2:22 pm

      Denise you will have a blast. Plus you will love the foodie scene!

  • Shannon
    May 24, 2021 at 2:44 pm

    Great info! Sounds like a fun walking tour.

    • Terri
      May 29, 2021 at 2:22 pm

      I absolutely love walking tours in DC. I learn so much about the history of the city.

  • Lindley
    May 29, 2021 at 4:32 am

    I love this!! Dc is the best!

    • Terri
      May 29, 2021 at 2:21 pm

      Awww thank you. I think Washington DC is such a great city too but I am biased!