Mary Arline Zurhorst (1878-1926)
The National School Of Domestic Arts and Science was an ingeniously-conceived institution in which young women were to receive practical instruction––and be trained to instruct others––in home economics.
The school’s founder and principal was Mary A. Zurhorst; her business partner, Charles Francis Wood, was its architect. The design was on a grand scale, and was extensively covered in the press. Zurhorst and Wood envisioned a school where young women would learn to keep house in eleven communal residences while attending classes in home economics, interior decoration, music, languages, and elocution. The campus would have greenhouses and conservatories overlooking Wisconsin Avenue, and tennis courts at the back of the property for the students’ recreation.
It is possible that the plan was spoiled by the United States’ entry into the First World War, and a sudden abundance of jobs for young women; but more likely, it fell victim to a combination of unrealistic projections and architectural overreach. The project was scaled back––only five of eleven buildings were built––and within months of its opening a portion of what had been completed was being put to use as the Mount Alto Inn. In the end the government purchased the National School Of Domestic Art and Science, and converted it to use as a public health service hospital for veterans (which remained in operation until 1965).
The property had been acquired by Benjamin F. Hunt after the Civil War. In 1909, when Hunt’s widow Martha died, the property passed into the hands of developer Amzi Barber––“The Asphalt King”––who died soon after that. Barber’s widow, Julia Langdon Barber, died in 1912. In 1915 it changed hands again.
“Georgetown has the distinction of having furnished the largest sale of the week, although the property is so far out on the extreme northern point of the city lines as to be generally regarded as county property. For a consideration indicated by the revenue stamps as $120,000, William S. Minnix conveyed a large unimproved tract on Wisconsin avenue and Tunlaw road to Charles F. Wood. The property is said to have been purchased in the interest of a Catholic educational institution, although the purchaser declines to discuss the plans and name of the institution. The land is described as lots 293 to 305, 263, and part of lots 262 and 264, in square 1300, and is located on the west side of Wisconsin avenue, with the Tunlaw road forking for its north and western boundaries.” (“Biggest Sale In Georgetown”, Washington Times, May 22, 1915)
Construction of the educational institution––which turned out not to be Catholic––began a year later. The enviable location was to be the grand new home of the National School Of Domestic Arts and Science, which had been founded in 1903 as the National Cooking School, by Mary Arline Zurhorst, the daughter of a family that had been undertakers on Capital Hill since 1857. A few years later it had expanded at a new location. “National School of Domestic Arts, 1756 M St. N.W. (Formerly National Cooking School).––Practical Classes in Cooking, Sewing and Tailoring.” And although courses in music, languages, and elocution were to be added at the new location, there is no doubt that home economics would still have been the strong suit of a school whose degree in Household Engineering equipped its bearer to go out and teach on her own. (Star, September 23, 1906.)
“New School Group To Be Built Here––Eleven Structures to Go Up on Estate Facing Massachusetts Avenue Heights.––Wisconsin Avenue Hill Is Picked Out As Site––Buildings Will Resemble Continental Memorial Hall and Washington’s Home, Mount Vernon.––The secret of the purchase last spring of the old Barber estate on Wisconsin Avenue, facing Massachusetts Avenue Heights, was revealed today when workmen began to break ground for a number of tennis courts and a “rest house” at the rear of the seven acres comprising the property, and it was ascertained that a group of white stone buildings is to be erected on the estate for the National School Of Domestic Arts and Science. The owners of the school said today that the investment involved will be a little inside of $1,000,000. The buildings will cost about $500,000, and between $240,000 and $500,000 is understood to have been paid for the land last spring.”
“Mr. Wood is widely known in government circles. He built the West Point Cadet barracks, some of the barracks and the officers’ quarters at the Naval Academy, and has designed and built forts, power plants, reclamation projects, lighthouses, etc., all over the United States.”
“The old Barber estate has been kept out of the real estate market for years, brokers today said, because of the high bluffs at points of the property, and the fact that much of it is a big, sloping hill, which would have necessitated much extensive grading before it could have been sold in building lots. It faces Massachusetts Avenue Heights at Davis street, just above where the old Tenleytown car barn stood.”
“The powerhouse will be in four or five stories, the upper floors containing apartments for gardeners, engineers, etc. As the point at which the powerhouse is to be situated is below a bluff fifty feet high on the Tunlaw road, the workmen’s apartments will be practically one flight up from the campus. One floor below there will be a big garage, the story below that will be a big coal vault, below that there will be boiler rooms and below that will be ashrooms.”
“All this is to be built in the side of the hill. Coal will be hauled in on the street level of Wisconsin avenue and the ashes will come out on the Tunlaw road, all the handling being done by gravity.”
“Perhaps the most interesting feature in connection with the new institution will be the arrangement under which the dormitories are to be conducted. Each will practically be a house to itself. They will hold eighteen students, of whom six for a certain period will be in charge of housekeeping and operation and the other twelve guests. Those in charge of housekeeping, operation and entertaining will do all the marketing, planning of menus, etc., for the prescribed period, for the other twelve. At the end of a certain period those who have been guests will take their turns as housekeepers, marketers, etc. The institution will be a sort of little village, the principal serving as a sort of mayor and the teachers and instructors as a sort of city council.”
(Star, October 9, 1915)
Beyond what appeared in his press releases, little evidence of Charles Francis Wood’s professional activity can now be found. The 1897 directory of Wayne, Pennsylvania, lists Charles F. Wood, of the Philadelphia Steam Heating Company, which had contracts in Washington at (what is now called) the Old Post Office, and at the Washington Asylum. (Washington Times, May 15, 1897, p.3; August 15, 1897, pt.2, p.13.
Wood was also a partner in a second firm specialized in government contracts; in the 1910 census Charles F. Wood––now living in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania––is listed as vice president of a “Breakwater mfg.” company; the Philadelphia Breakwater Company were contractors for river and harbor improvements.)
There is no reason to doubt that the Philadelphia Steam Heating Company––“power, heat, light, plumbing, piping, ventilating and general mechanical equipment”––participated in construction at the military academies; but Wood’s claim to have “built” these buildings seems misleading, as the principal architects of those turn of the century projects were Ernest Flagg, at Annapolis; and Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson, at West Point).
(That Wood saw himself as an authority on government building projects may be guessed from the title of a pamphlet he issued: The first epistle of Charles to the Congress of the United States of America: Our Building Bureau and its Results, Charles Francis Wood, Wayne, Pennsylvania, 1900, 16 pages, Library of Congress.)
Domestic Arts School to Cost $500,000.––First Work Done On National School. Colonial Style of Architecture To Be followed in Massive New Buildings.––“On the site of the Barber estate, at Wisconsin and Massachusetts avenues, ground has been broken for the series of buildings of the National School Of Domestic Art And Sciences. Charles Francis Wood, a consulting architect of Washington, designed the buildings, which are to cost about $500,000 between $250,000 and $500,000 is to be paid for the land. Mr. Wood is to be the joint owner of the school, with Miss Mary Arline Zurhorst, its founder.”
“The main science hall and administration building, to be one of the most elaborate, will resemble Memorial Continental Hall. This building will be 129 by [40?] feet, front on Wisconsin avenue and will enclose a large open court. This court is to be roofed over with glass and beneath this will be an indoor swimming pool.”
“There will be six dormitories, an infirmary, a principal’s residence, a power-house, a teahouse with a stage in front of it, and an amphitheater, where there will be plays and school exercises.”
Potomac stone will be employed. The dormitories will resemble the Washington home at Mt. Vernon. Bowling alleys and a gymnasium are to be provided. An auditorium will seat 600 persons. There will be accommodation in the school for 400 pupils at first and a chance to enlarge the capacity to 600 pupils.”
“The dormitories will contain suites, each two girls having a study and a sitting-room in common. With each there will be a sleeping porch and a private bath. Each dormitory will accommodate eighteen pupils and two teachers. There will be a teaching staff of forty.”
“The school, founded twelve years ago, now occupies seven remodeled houses in the vicinity of Rhode Island and Connecticut avenues. Its membership has increased to 250 pupils, for whom there are sixteen instructors.”
“The site is one of the most beautiful that could be found.”
(Washington Times, October 12, 1915)
“Scenes At School Of Domestic Art And Science.––Big School Grows On Wisconsin Ave.––Four New buildings on “The Balcony of Washington” Are Completed.––Domestic Sciences To Be Taught By Novel Plan.––From the Connecticut Avenue bridge, the Long bridge over the Potomac river, the Speedway of Potomac Park, from the Mall, the Washington Monument grounds and from other vantage points affording vistas, the observant Washingtonian these days notices an imposing group of buildings being erected on the heights of Wisconsin avenue near Massachusetts avenue.
They are the buildings of the National School Of Domestic Art And Science, springing up by night as well as by day, for the work of erecting them is going on by electric light after nightfall, to crown what an Argentinian diplomat residing in the neighborhood recently described as “The Balcony of Washington,” namely, the ridge on the west side of Wisconsin avenue from Garfield street down, to below Davis street, where the recently acquired school property begins. From this ‘balcony’ the capital lies outstretched in the valley below, like a map unrolled at one’s feet, and, at the back, like a panorama, are the foothills of the Blue Ridge of Virginia.”
“…a novel system of training girls in the domestic arts and sciences which heretofore has centered in a smaller way in the city neighborhood of Connecticut avenue and Rhode Island avenue is to be carried out in a group of community buildings (which will number seven by next year and eleven by the year after), the whole to occupy seven and a half acres and to represent an investment of $1,000,000.”
“The four main buildings cannot be called “dormitories”, although they are to house the pupils, for the reason that the new system of training young women in the domestic arts and sciences requires that the girls themselves shall “keep house” in a “model house,” demonstrating in a practical way in their individual school homes, which are small apartments, the lessons they study in the classrooms.”
“…the administration building––the old Hunt mansion––[will] be put under rollers and moved to the back of the property, to make way for a big stone building…”
“Half a dozen tennis courts have been built at the back of property, and the school will eventually accommodate 200 boarding and 400 day scholars, although it will not be possible to build before bad weather sets in this year enough structures to house more than eighty boarding and 200 day scholars. Plans were made by and the building work is being carried out under the general supervision of Charles F. Wood, vice president and secretary of the school, Miss Mary Arline Zurhorst being president and treasurer, besides presiding as principal of the education department.”
(Star, August 27, 1916, part 5)
(“The old Hunt mansion”, moved to the back of the property to make way for construction of the school, later became the residence of the veterans hospital’s director. Lowered, and stripped of its front steps, shutters, porches, and balustrades, it presented a forlorn appearance, but survived into the sixties. Washington Star Magazine, November 26, 1961, p.4)
National School Domestic Arts and Science, 2650 Wisconsin Ave. N.W.
One-Year Courses: Home Economics, Interior decoration.
Two-Year courses: Domestic Art, Domestic Science, Interior Decoration.
Three-Year Courses: Household Engineering.
Special Departments: Music, Languages, Elocution.
Degree AB or BS.
Large Faculty. Model Equipment. Beautiful Campus. New Buildings.
(Star, September 24, 1916, part 1)
“Friends Visit New Girls’ School Home: National School of Domestic Art and Sciences Embodies Many Novel Ideas.––Scores of Washingtonians who for years have been following the progress made by the National School of Domestic Art and Sciences attended a reception held by the officers and directors of the institution yesterday afternoon in the new buildings.” (Washington Times, October 15, 1916, p.13)
The Hunt-Barber parcel was enlarged to the north and to the west (as the present outline of the Russian Embassy compound makes clear): “Real Estate Transfers.––Cathedral Highlands––Charles J. Bell, surviving trustee, to Charles F. Wood, lots 1 to 5, 17 to 28, square 1812, and lots 18 to 25, square 1932, $11,000. Resurvey on Lucky Discovery––Edward Brooke et ux, to Charles F. Wood, part of tract described, $10. (Washington Post, November 13, 1916, p.4)
[Building Permit issued to] National School of Domestic Arts and Science, owners; Charles F. Wood, architect; to repair building, 2650 Wisconsin avenue; cost, $550. (Washington Post, April 29, 1917, p.R2)
National School of Domestic Art and Science,
Mary Arline Zurhorst, Principal
2650 Wisconsin ave. n.w.
15th year opens October 4, 1917
Special Home Courses
A Substitute Course for High School
Normal Courses, preparation for teachers.
Degree Courses for High School graduates.
Catalogue on request. Ph. Registrar, West 1900.
Model Class rooms. Beautiful Campus. Athletics.
(Star, September 9, 1917)
Gives 77-Cent Banquet––Domestic Science Class Entertains Notable Company.––“A practical attempt to reduce the high cost of living was made last night when the seniors of the National School of Domestic Art and Science, 2650 Wisconsin avenue, dined the District Commissioners and a half hundred others prominent in social life at a cost of 77 cents a plate.
Following is the menu: Hors d’oeuvre, American butterfly, cream of cress soup, filet sole, string beans, biscuit, chicken timbale, macedoine, vegetable, roast ham, dandelion greens, dasheens, romaine salad, apricot cream, coffee, and wafers.”
(Washington Times, March 15, 1917, p.8)
In the end, Mary Zurhorst’s school felt compelled to change its mission. “With the end of the commencement exercises last week the National School of Domestic Art and Science assumed its new name, the Mount Alto School for Young Ladies.” (“Degrees Awarded In Household Arts: Students of National School Appear in Greek Pageant”, Washington Post, May 19, 1918, p.17)
When Charles Francis Wood sold out to the government he may have recouped a portion of his costs; the school on a grand scale that had been Mary Zurhorst’s life’s work was gone. In the 1920 census she is shown as a boarder living at 3100 16th Street NW, where a much smaller school called The Abby was briefly located.
Home Economics. Domestic Art. Domestic Science. Modern Practical Methods. The Abby, 3100 16th St. N.W., Corner 16th and Irving.
Mary Arline Zurhorst, Prin.
(Washington Post, September 28, 1919. p.19)
Despite the failure of the National School of Domestic Arts and Science, Mary Zurhorst’s relatives recall that she and Charles F. Wood remained business partners, and even appeared to be successful; in fact, Zurhorst’s relatives believed her to be wealthy.
Before her death in 1926, Zurhorst willed her entire estate to Mrs. Charles S. Zurhorst––the Washington sister-in-law who had nursed her––and to Mrs. Zurhorst’s children. After Mary Zurhorst died––and after Wood took his life––the promised wealth was found to have evaporated. (Died: Zurhorst, Mary Arline, Washington Post, December 18, 1926, p.3)
(Photo courtesy of Mary Zurhorst Gray, 301 East Capitol: Tales From the Heart of the Hill, 2012, Overbeck History Press)
The Mount Alto Inn
Only five or six of the eleven planned buildings of the National School of Domestic Art and Science were ever built, and, by 1917, some had been put to a new use; for about a year the National School of Domestic Art and Science––now called the Mount Alto School for Young Ladies––operated alongside the Mount Alto Inn. Both were presumably under the direction of Arline Zurhorst.
“Mount Alto Inn––A House of Individuality––The City’s Most Beautiful Resort––10 Minutes Away, 10 Degrees Cooler––New, Unique, Exclusive––High Breezy Delightful––On the Balcony of Washington. Wisconsin Avenue & Davis St. N.W.––Booklet on request. Telephone West 1900.”
(Washington Post, June 14, 1917, p.7)
The most celebrated guest of the Mount Alto Inn was evangelist Billy Sunday, famous for his Prohibition sermons (“Get On the Water Wagon”). In 1918, however, Sunday was taking to the pulpit to preach for war: “I tell you it is [Kaiser] Bill against Woodrow, Germany against America, Hell against Heaven”.
“Billy Sunday ‘Groggy’, But He Will Resume Fighting Kaiser and the Devil Today.––Reports from Billy Sunday’s “training camp” at Mount Alto Inn, where the evangelist’s personal staff is quartered, last night were to the effect that Billy was a little groggy from his three-round bout with the devil and the Kaiser the day before, but that he would be back in the ring again this afternoon and tonight. Monday is Billy’s rest day after three strenuous sermons on the Sabbath, and yesterday he took a real rest on account of his voice, according to his personal representatives. It was announced that he was treated by a throat specialist, and remained in bed practically all day.” (Washington Post, January 15, 1918, p.5)
“Billy Sunday had conferences with secretary of the Treasury McAdoo and Postmaster General Burleson yesterday, but otherwise spent the day resting at Mount Alto Inn, which is his home while he is in Washington.” (“Billy To Help War Savings Stamp Sale”, Washington Post, February 5, 1918, p.4)
January, 1918. Washington, D.C. “Billy Sunday tabernacle.” A temporary meeting hall built near Union Station for a three-month series of revival meetings held by the famous evangelist. (Harris & Ewing Collection glass negative, Shorpy)
Billy Sunday, at the White House, 1922
In January 1919, while her father was stationed in France, nine-year-old Justine Davis arrived at the Mount Alto Inn with her mother. Justine––who attended John Eaton School through May––recounts in her autobiography that Lt. Commander Albert Cushing Read, who commanded the first aircraft ever to make a transatlantic flight (May, 1919) was one of numerous military guests at the Mount Alto Inn (and probably one of the last who stayed there before it closed). (Justine Davis Randers-Pehrson, For My Father: The Story of My Life (1910-2000): Volume One of an Autobiography, 2004; thanks to Mark Collins.)
Mount Alto Veterans Hospital
After the National School of Domestic Art and Science, and its successor, the Mount Alto Inn, had closed, Arline Zurhorst’s campus of domestic residences was taken over by the government and adapted for use as the Mount Alto Veterans Hospital.
In 1922 the Mount Alto Hospital still consisted of the six communal residences, in a horseshoe configuration, of the National School for Domestic Art and Science. (Army Air Corps aerial photo, 1922)
Mount Alto Hospital, 1965; just to the right of the Carillon House, at 2500 Wisconsin Avenue, the old Hunt house can be seen, which had been moved from its former location at the crest of the hill. (Archive of the U.S. Naval Observatory)
One of the original communal residences of the National School for Domestic Art and Science, designed by Charles Francis Wood. (Washington Post, Times Herald, September 26, 1967, p.B1)
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