Charles Ellet built the house he called Clifton in 1857. Publisher James Elverson, who built a new house on the site in 1880, retained the old name name. Truxtun Beale, a retired diplomat, bought Clifton, but never took up residence. The abandoned mansion burned down in 1949.
Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies , the embassies of Denmark and of Italy, and Dumbarton Oaks Park, all come out of Clifton.
Dumbarton Oaks Park begins where Whitehaven Street stops, a little east of Wisconsin Avenue, behind the Georgetown Safeway. A trail leads into a vine-choked valley, crosses the stream that emerges from the Naval Observatory, and passes through a thicket into an open meadow, dominated by a grassy slope on the left.
This hill has passed through numerous owners. It was once part of Ninian Beall’s Rock of Dumbarton (1703) and George Beall’s Addition to Rock of Rock of Dumbarton (1723). Then it was in Pretty Prospects, purchased in 1795 by Benjamin Stoddert and Uriah Forrest. In 1819 Forrest’s widow sold about forty acres to Samuel Turner, Chief Clerk of the Secretary of the Senate. The owner after that was Brooke Mackall, who lived at Oakly (now Dumbarton Oaks). (Priscilla W. McNeil, “Pretty Prospects: The History of a Land Grant”, Washington History, Fall/Winter 2002)
The succession of gentry was interrupted by Henry Gildermeister, recently arrived from Germany. In 1855 the tax assessor counted twelve cows on Gildermeister’s farm, so it seems likely that he made his living selling milk and butter.
In 1857 the dairyman sold the hill to a remarkable civil engineer named Charles Ellet. The house Ellet built there was called Clifton (1857). The ground was poor and stony, but farming was never his intention.
Ellet’s varied career –– building canals, spanning rivers, laying railroads over mountains, and planning vast projects of flood control and river navigation –– earned him comparison with the famous English civil engineer Brunel. At Philadelphia, in 1842, Ellet built the first important suspension bridge in America, and at Wheeling, in 1849, the longest single span bridge in the world. Ellet now had a plan for a suspension railroad bridge across the Potomac above Georgetown, and bought Henry Gildermeister’s farm on Georgetown Heights in order to promote that project, among others, to the government.
Ellet was killed in the Civil War, and never returned to the house that connects him to the history of this neighborhood. (See Charles Ellet, Engineer.)
“Residence on the Heights of Georgetown for rent. Clifton, recently the residence of the late Col. Charles Ellet, Jr.” (National Intelligencer, September 18, 1862)
Clifton was selected as the site of the new Naval Observatory, and the selection committee recommended that Congress appropriate $25,000 for its purchase. That deal fell through, and three years later Margaret Barber sold the neighboring North View for $63,000. (“The Observatory Site: The Report of the Commission Handed to Secretary Thompson”, Washington Post, December 9, 1878, p.2; DC Liber 966 (1881) f. 372-4)
In 1880, when the owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer needed a Washington residence, Ellet’s house was razed, and a new house was built. James Elverson was a self-made man, who started as the messenger boy for a telegraph office, worked his way up to the head office, invested in government bonds during the Civil War, and went into publishing with the profits. One of his ventures, Golden Days, was a weekly magazine for young people, with rags-to-riches stories, similar to his own, by writers like Horatio Alger.
“Clifton,” on the heights of Georgetown, is one of the show places of the District and is an ideally beautiful summer home and a fine specimen of Gothic architecture. The grounds are very extensive, well shaded, and under excellent cultivation by a first class landscape gardener. Here Mme. Patenotre, the charming American wife of the former Ambassador from France, was accustomed to spend several months each season with her parents, Col. and Mrs. Elverson. The informal weekly at-homes during May, at which she received her friends, were a few years ago among the most interesting and exclusive events of a Washington season.
(“Social and Personal.––Delightful Summer Homes Owned by Washingtonians”, Washington Post, June 18, 1899, p.16)
After Elverson’s death in 1911, his mansion was bought by Truxton Beale (1856–1936), a retired diplomat who lived at Decatur House with his second wife, Marie Oge Beale; the Beales thought they might need Clifton because the government had its eye on Decatur House. When the government changed its mind, the Beales had no need for Clifton, and never took up residence.
Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, who had acquired Dumbarton Oaks in 1920, purchased a about twenty-seven acres of Clifton for the wilderness section of Dumbarton Oaks; in 1933 they gave this section to the National Park Service to establish Dumbarton Oaks Park.
Ambassador Beale’s widow, who died in 1956, left the remaining acreage to Harvard University, in memory of her son, Walker Blaine Beale (Harvard, 1918), who died in World War I. This would become Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies.
The house was already gone; in its final years the boarded up and abandoned house had only been visited by the more adventuresome youth of the vicinity, who knew it as the “Haunted House” or the “Ghost Mansion.” When it burned down, the blaze took ten hours to put out; flames were visible for miles, and attracted thousands of spectators. The fire was blamed on “Teen-age Picnics.”(Washington Star, November 6-7, 1949; “Teen-age Picnics in Mansion Blamed for Spectacular Fire”, Washington Post, November 7, 1949, p.B1)
Besides Dumbarton Oaks Park, the former Clifton is the site of three institutions.
The Embassy of Denmark, at 3200 Whitehaven Street, was completed in 1960, and was the first embassy in Washington to be built in a modernist style.
The Center for Hellenic Studies, at 3100 Whitehaven Street, was established in 1961, and completed in 1963.
In 1972, Italy bought about half of the campus of the Center for Hellenic Studies. Construction of the new Italian Embassy, at 3000 Whitehaven Street, began in 1996.
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