Clifton

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 Gildemeister, recently arrived from Germany. In 1855 the tax assessor counted twelve cows on Gildemeister’s farm, so it seems likely that he made his living selling milk and butter.

“Farm For Sale.––I offer for sale my farm and country seat, situated on the Heights of Georgetown, adjoining the residences of Mrs. Barber, Mrs. Barnard, Mrs. Morton, Mrs. Boyce, Messrs. Linthicum, Adler and Eliason, containing about 40 acres of land, improved with a frame dwelling, gardener’s house, cow and horse stables, etc. the very short distance from Georgetown and Washington makes it very well adapted for a dairy farm and market garden. The high elevation commands a beautiful view of the Metropolis and surrounding country, and is in this, as well as in regard to health, unsurpassed. It will be sold entire or in lots to suit purchasers. Henry Gildemeister.” (Evening Star, March 2, 1857, p.1; National Intelligencer, April 15, 1856, p. 1)

 

 

Charles Ellet Jr. (1810-1862)

 

Charles Ellet built Clifton, just north of Georgetown, D.C, in 1857. (Topographical Map of the District of Columbia, surveyed in the years 1856-1859, by Albert Boschke)

Charles Ellet built Clifton, just north of Georgetown, D.C, in 1857. (Topographical Map of the District of Columbia, surveyed in the years 1856-1859, by Albert Boschke)

 

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)

 

 

James Elverson (1838-1911)

 

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)

 

Elverson died in 1911, and Clifton passed to his son, James Elverson, Jr. Elverson’s 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.

 

Clifton, 1938

 

In 1922 Washington hostess Cornelia D. B. Calhoun, founder of the Woman’s Universal Alliance, negotiated a plan to transfer about thirty acres of Clifton to Congress, to become a park, which would be crowned by an acropolis called the Mother’s Memorial. “It is planned to make the memorial the tallest tower in the world and to house in it welfare organizations for women and children.” “If this plan were successfully carried out, Mrs. Calhoun said ‘the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome’s, would fade by comparison.'” In 1924 Calhoun announced that the sculptor William Clark Noble had been selected for the project, and his design was used to raise funds. By 1925 Clifton was spoken of as “last occupied by the Woman’s Universal Alliance,” and the estate was only one of five tracts being considered, and by 1929 it was no longer in the running. That year it was announced that a new sculptor had been selected, and that his design would be erected on a site adjacent to Rossdhu––a mansion in Chevy Chase that Calhoun and her husband had built a short time earlier. When the first sculptor demanded to be paid for his earlier work, Calhoun had him arrested for trying to blackmail her. He was acquitted, and since Calhoun’s husband had admitted that his wife’s Woman’s Universal Alliance had spent $100,000, with almost nothing to show for it––and as there was nothing further said of the Mother’s Memorial––the sculptor’s suspicion, that funds raised for it had been diverted into building a thirty-room castle on a hundred acres in Chevy Chase, is plausible. When the first sculptor demanded to be paid for his earlier work, Calhoun had him arrested for trying to blackmail her. He was acquitted, and since Calhoun’s husband had admitted that his wife’s Woman’s Universal Alliance had spent $100,000, with almost nothing to show for it––and as there was nothing further said of the Mother’s Memorial––the sculptor’s suspicion, that funds raised for it had been diverted into building a thirty-room castle on a hundred acres in Chevy Chase, is plausible.

 

 

(“Woman’s Alliance Acquires Estate,” Evening Star, November 30, 1922, p. 13; “Plans for Temple, Tribute to Woman,” Evening Star, February 14, 1923. p. 21; “Bill Would Extend D.C. Park System,” Evening Star, February 14, 1923. p. 41; “Mothers’ Memorial May Rise on Tract Designated as Park: Congress asked to Assume Control of Land Held by Woman’s Universal Alliance,” Evening Star, December 11, 1923. p. 27; “Approve Memorial to Motherhood, Committees Select Design by W. Clark Noble for Erection in Washington, Arch to be 297 Feet High,” New York Times, July 6, 1924; “Marriage,” Evening Star, January 13, 1925, p. 8; “Mother Memorial Drive Is Planned,” Evening Star, April 8, 1925, p. 43; “Mother Memorial Site Dedicated,” Evening Star, May 13, 1929, p. 4; “Five Face Charges of Blackmail Plot Against Calhouns: Sculptor and Wife Are Involved in Case,” Evening Star, August 7, 1929, p. 1; “Noble Collapses As Judge Orders Acquittal Verdict,” Evening Star, June 1, 1931, p. 1; “Mrs. Daisy Calhoun, Noted Hostess Here, Dies in Charleston,” Evening Star, March 22, 1949, p. 14; John Kelly, “A Mom-umental Failure, The Spectacular Flameout of the Mother of all D.C. Memorials,” Washington Post, May 11, 2008, p. W14; “In 1927, a Scottish castle was built in Chevy Chase. Thirty years later, it was gone,” Washington Post, February 10, 2018.)

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Marie Oge Beale, Truxtun Beale’s second wife.

 

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)

 

 

(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.

 

 

___________________________________________________________

 Carlton Fletcher

 The citation and acknowledgement of my research is greatly appreciated.

All rights reserved.

 

 Questions and corrections may be directed to

carlton@gloverparkhistory.com

 

The support of the Advisory Neighborhood Council (3B) is gratefully acknowledged.