Analostan: General John Mason's Summer Home on Theodore Roosevelt Island

The 70-acre Theodore Roosevelt Island, resting in the Potomac River between Washington, DC and Virginia, once known as Analostan and Mason’s Island, was the site of a grand house and plantation constructed by General John Mason (1766-1849).

North face of Analostan as it appeared when completed circa 1800.  Rendering by Stephen A. Hansen

John Mason was one of the most prominent businessmen in Georgetown at the turn of the 19th century.  He served as a brigadier general of the District of Columbia militia, was a founder of the first bank in Washington, the Bank of Columbia in 1793 and later served as its president.  He became president of the "Potowmack" (Potomac) Company, the predecessor to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company (George Washington was its first president). And in 1815, he purchased the Columbia Foundry, the largest business in Washington at the time. Upon his father's death in in 1792, he inherited Analostan, an island in the Potomac River, just across from Georgetown now known as Theodore Roosevelt Island.

John Mason. Wikimedia Commons

During the 1790s, John Mason began constructing his summer home on Analostan.  In the winter months, the Masons would return to their house near Georgetown.

Mason home on L and 25th Streets and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW (often mistakenly referred to as the Ringold House).  U.S. Signal Corps.

Prominent visitors to Analostan in the summers included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and Louis Phillipe, Duc d'Orleans –  later the King of France.  One of Mason's sons born on the island, James Murray Mason, served both as a United States Senator and Representative from Virginia.  He was later appointed commissioner of the Confederacy to the United Kingdom and France between 1861 and 1865 during the Civil War.

19th-century sketch of Analostan.  Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS),  Library of Congress.

South face of Analostan circa 1800 (southwest view).  Rendering by Stephen A. Hansen

The island was famous for its gardens, which were designed and installed by English gardener David Hepburn.  It became Mason's summer plantation, where he gardened, grew fruit trees, and raised livestock. 

Map of Analostan Island by Robert King (1818).  Library of Congress.

To date, it has been assumed that Analostan was never finished, with only the center block (hyphen) and west wing ever completed.  But a letter from Thomas Jefferson and archaeological evidence from a 1930s excavation suggest otherwise.  In 1806, the east wing was destroyed by a fire while the Masons were at their Georgetown home.  Never one to miss a fire or inspect the damage afterwards, in a letter to his eldest granddaughter, Anne Cary Randolph, Jefferson described the damage and its aftermath: 

"one wing was burnt down and the middle nearly so. They saved their furniture.  Suspicions arising that it was done by one of his house servants who wished the family to go back to Georgetown, he was arrested and on his way to prison with the constable, he jumped out of the boat and drowned himself.  I understand the family will continue through the summer in the remaining wing."  

The west wing that Jefferson referred to did in fact exist.   Jefferson was an architect himself, and would never have made such a mistake if the west wing did not initially exist, especially concerning the home of a close friend that he most certainly had visited prior to the fire.

Due to financial problems, Mason was forced to sell his Washington house and Analostan in 1833 when he moved to his Clermont (Claremont) plantation in Fairfax, Virginia.  He had already vacated the island in 1831 when a causeway stagnated the water in the Potomac River. 

An abandoned Analostan prior to 1906.  Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Library of Congress.

Mason's Island was bought by former Washington mayor William A. Bradley and the house was used as a public resort and then as an army camp during the Civil War.  The interior of the house was destroyed by fire in 1866. After Bradley died in in 1867, the island became home to the Columbian Athletic Club and the Analostan Boat Club.  The remaining roof and several walls collapsed in a second fire in 1906. In 1913, the house was bought by Washington Gas Light Company.  In 1931, the island was acquired by the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Association, which donated it to the federal government for a park. 

The remains of Analostan after the 1906 fire.  HABS, Library of Congress

In 1935, plans were made to pull down the the remaining walls of the house.  Before this occurred, an excavation of the site was undertaken that revealed valuable information about this history of the house.
Excavation drawing of the basement level.  HABS, Library of Congress

During the excavation, only a small part of the area of the former west wing was sampled that led to the conclusion that a dependency had been constructed on the spot, yet what was uncovered mirros the basement of the east wing of the house.  

1936 excavation in Unit A showing a heavy foundation wall that might have been that of the original west wing. HABS,  Library of Congress

This article originally appeared in the InTowner Newspaper, January 2013. Copyright (c) The Intowner Newspaper and Stephen A. Hansen.  All Rights Reserved.