The Columbia Mills and Holt House: A History

Holt House, just off Adams Mill Road, NW on the grounds of the National Zoo, was constructed in 1817 as a mill seat for the Columbia Mills, a pair of grist and plaster mills on Rock Creek.  It was purchased by the Smithsonian in 1889 as part of the National Zoological Park and was used for office space for zoo staff, but it has been vacant since the 1980s.  Holt House was listed in the DC Inventory of Historic Sites in 1964 and and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.  Even though it has landmark status, with each passing day it is getting closer and closer to completely collapsing from neglect.

1937 photograph of the south face of Holt House.  Library of Congress.  This side of the house can be seen from Walter Pierce Park when the leaves are off the trees.  Historic American Building Survey (HABS), Library of Congress.

North face of Holt House in the 1980s.  Smithsonian Institution.
The land on which Holt House sits was originally part of a tract of land known as "Pretty Prospect" acquired from the Beall family in 1793 by Benjamin Stoddert (builder of Halcyon House in Georgetown).  Stoddert served as a Captain in the Revolutionary Army, Secretary of the Board of War (1779-1781), co-founder and president of the Bank of Columbia (1794), and first Secretary of the Navy.  

Benjamin Stoddert. US Naval History and Heritage Command

Despite his prominent position, Stoddert's land speculations in the new capital city left him land rich and cash poor.  Perhaps to help increase his cash flow, he constructed flour and plaster mills on this parcel of land between 1793 and 1798.  Unfortunately, Rock Creak would prove not to be a dependable source of flowing water to power a mill wheel as it was very vulnerable to drought.  In 1799,  Stoddert's wife Rebecca lamented to a friend that the lack of rain in DC had caused their mill to stop grinding for the summer.
In 1800, Stoddert sold the property to his friend Walter Mackall.  The deed included "the buildings, improvements, privileges, advantages and appurtenances."  These buildings probably included some form of a residence, or mill seat, for a mill manager and his family.  Architectural evidence for Holt House suggests that the west wing of Holt House may have been built earlier than the rest of the house.  It is more solidly constructed than the rest of the house and may have served as the original mill seat. 

Walter Mackall came from Calvert County, Maryland, served in the Maryland House of Delegates, and was a wealthy land holder in both Maryland and Washington, DC.  His brother, Benjamin Mackall, married Christina Beall, a descendant of Niniam Beall, the original owner of Pretty Prospect. 

In 1804, Mackall sold the property, which consisted of the existent "mills, mill seats, way waters, buildings, and improvements" to Pennsylvania Quaker and miller, Jonathan Shoemaker for $3,800 with an additional mortgage for a total cost $9,600.   He arrived with his family of five sons and one daughter to operate the mills and immediately promoted the mills plaster offerings.

Shoemaker advertisement in the Washington Federalist newspaper. March 1804.

The 1867 Michler map of the environs of Washington shows the two mill buildings.  The smaller one was used for the production of plaster of Paris.  The larger one was a grist mill that ground wheat into flour and corn into corn meal.

Nathan Michler Topographical sketch of the environs of Washington, D.C. 1867. Library of Congress.

In 1807,  Shoemaker gave a quarter-acre of the land for a “common Burying Ground or Place of Interment for the Society of Friends or Quakers, their families and descendants.”  The cemetery was in use from 1807 to 1890 when the land was sold to the National Zoo.
Continual problems at the Columbia Mill and a dispute with Thomas Jefferson forced  Shoemaker to sell the property in 1809 and relocate to Shadwell, Virginia to help operate Jefferson's mills there.  

An early photo of Columbia Mills.  The  plaster mill is the smaller building to the left in the photo.  Author's collection.

Shoemaker sold the property to Roger Johnson of Fredrick County, Maryland, the younger brother of Maryland’s first governor, Thomas Johnson.  This was solely an investment on Roger's part, as he already owned two foundries, a glass works, and a plantation in Frederick County and remained at his home "Bloomsbury" in Frederick County, while sending his son George to manage the Columbia Mills.

George Johnson proved incapable of running a mill and of managing his own finances.  Beginning in 1812, George Johnson began borrowing large sums of money from the Bank of Columbia to rebuild the mills after they burned, employing a millwright to build "the best mill possible." The loans were underwritten by his father-in-law and Georgetown merchant James Dunlap.  Johnson used some of the borrowed money to enlarge the existing mill seat on the property.  The original dwelling became the west wing of the newly expanded house and its original entrance and windows bricked in to match the design of the new east wing, giving the house a uniform appearance. 

Side view of the now almost solid side wall of the west wing (the original mill seat building).  Its second-floor windows and door opening on the ground floor were bricked in when the original house was expanded in 1817.  As the stucco gradually breaks away, the masonry infill of the original openings is visible. Author's photo
Holt House was undoubtedly constructed for show in order to make the mill more attractive to potential buyers by offering a mill seat.  When built, it consisted of grand central space with hyphens connecting to the two wings that provided bedchambers and other more private spaces. In keeping with early nineteenth-century house plans, each hyphen contained a staircase providing access to the ground/basement level of the house and possibly a winter kitchen in the original west wing. 
George Johnson's expansion of the original mill seat may have also been an act of desperation.  His large family of a wife and 11 children would have created a very cramped living situation in the original mill seat, so the larger house would have been much more commodious.  Some proof that Johnson actually occupied the house is that when John Quincy Adams visited the mill in of July of 1823 when he was considering purchasing it, he noted that George Johnson’s wife and three small children were also at the house.
By 1818, George Johnson was in serious debt and Roger Johnson attempted to intervene on his son's behalf. Writing to George's father-in-law, James Dunlop, he said that he hopes to sell his lot near the mill in the spring, then later to "sell the half of his Mil" which he was not able to do.  Roger Johnson also asked Dunlop to assume payment on half of George's debts, as he considered him partially responsible for his debts by undersigning the loans.  Roger Johnson maintained possession of 13 3/4 acres of Pretty Prospect as well as Holt House itself.
December 1818 National Messenger advertisement for the sale of the mill
and Holt House.  This ad also indicates when the present-day house was built.

In 1823, George approached his cousin Louisa Johnson Adams (wife of John Quincy Adams) in hopes that John Quincy would acquire the mortgage from the bank.  Adams mortgaged his house on F Street and sold government bonds in order to purchase the mill in 1823 for $20,000, and placed George on salary to continue to manage the mill, with the understanding that George would later repurchase back half the mills from Adams.  Within months of purchasing the property, Adams became president.

Adams had hoped that the mill, eventually to become known as Adams Mill, would be able to provide him some income and security in his retirement years.  But, he was not totally independent in managing this endeavor, as in 1823 his father (John Adams) wagered that demand would soar, and increased production as John Quincy watched as prices fell, costing him $15,000.  While other millers in Washington, and possibly the previous owners of the mill, relied on slave labor, the anti-slavery Adams refused to do so.  Only a year after the purchase, Adams wrote in his diary that the first year “has been a total and a severe disappointment; and I have no reason to expect any thing better from the second.”

John Quincy Adams bought the mill from Roger Johnson.  Photo 1843 by Mathew Brady.  Library of Congress.

In 1824, George Johnson's arrangement with Adams to manage the mills was terminated by Adams due to Johnson's inability to run them efficiently.   When George once again approached Adams for assistance, this time soliciting a place as a clerk in one of the federal departments, Adams records in his diary “I asked him to account for the monies he received from me more than two years since, which he promised he would, but cannot--it being all wasted in the payment of his own debts." Adams assured him he would "in no case recommend him."  By 1827, George was working as a clerk at 1st Comptroller's Office in Georgetown.  Adams replaced Johnson with his own son, John Quincy, who continued to run the unprofitable mill but died of an unknown illness in 1834.
John Quincy Adams II took over running the mill. 
1823 portrait by Charles Bird King.  National Park Service.

After his son's death, John Quincy Adams was left with a $30,000 mill debt.  Another son, Charles Francis Adams, took over the management of the family records and Nathaniel Frye, a relation to Louisa Adams, took over, becoming Adams' agent and attorney.  In 1835, the mills were advertised for rent at $750.00 per year.  The mills were rented from 1834 to the early 1840s.

Periodic repairs at the mills continued to drain Adams' income.  When the current tenant left in 1845, Adams wrote Frye that he was willing to rent "the land at the mills".  With the continued rental of the mills, Frye was still able to secure a small income for Adams in his final years.  After John Quincy Adams' death in 1848, the mills were left in trust to the Adams's heirs.

By 1867, the mills had completely ceased operation and disappeared from the tax books.  When John Quincy's grandson, John Quincy Adams II, sold the mills with land to Peter McNamara in 1872, the mills were no longer mentioned in the deed transfer.   During the 1880s, the property exchanged hands twice more, first to James Edwards in 1882, then to Pacificus Ord in 1884, before being acquired by the Smithsonian for the National Zoological Park.   Early zoo employees reported seeing mill ruins, but today no visible trace remains of the Columbia Mills. 

Remains of the Columbia Mills, circa 1860s.  Author's collection.

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When Roger Johnson died in 1831, he left the disposal of his 13 3/4 acres of Pretty Prospect and the house to his two sons, Joseph and Charles, requesting that the house and lot of land adjoining the Columbia Mills be sold to cover outstanding debts.  It was not until 1835 that they sold the house to Dr. Ashton Alexander, a prominent physician from Baltimore, for whose family Alexandria, Virginia is named.  Dr. Alexander never resided in Washington himself but probably the one responsible for filling in the south porch and north portico in order to create more living space in the relatively small house.
Ashton Alexander.  Portrait by Philip Tilyard (1827).  Medchi Archives.

In 1838, Ashton Alexander rented the house to Amos Kendall, a close confident of Andrew Jackson,  Postmaster General of the United States, and one of the founders of the modern Democratic Party.  Kendall dubbed the house ‘Jackson Hill’ in admiration of his friend Andrew Jackson, probably much to the chagrin of Jackson’s political rival and mill owner, John Quincy Adams, who had to pass by it on his way to his mills.
Amos Kendall rented Holt House from 1838 to 1841.  Photo by Mathew Brady.  National Archives.

Kendall enjoyed entertaining at his "Jackson Hill" home. His two daughters, Mary Anne and Adela, were married at the house in 1839 and 1841. One particular party was described by a guest as “gotten up in very good style.” The guest mentioned that the party occurred in “four rooms below,” suggesting the event was hosted on the ground level of the house.  Two of the rooms had “cotillion dancers” and the other two rooms were identified as “chambers” in which Kendall had set up various tables for games.
Amos Kendall proved not to be the best of tenants— both abusive to the property and totally delinquent in paying any rent.  In  June 1841,  Dr. Alexander placed an advertisement in the Daily National Intelligencer newspaper offering the property for lease or sale, declaring that “it has undergone three years of deterioration by the worst treatment by those who unfortunately tenanted.  The proofs of which are grievously visible at a glance.  And for the whole three years not a dollar, so far, has been received for damages or rent.” 

Dr. Alexander's advertisement in the Daily National Intelligencer offering the house for sale or rent.  June 19, 1841

One of the visible proofs of deterioration that Dr. Alexander mentions must have occurred during Kendall's parties.  Cut into window panes of the upstairs rooms was such pro-Jackson graffiti as: “Down with Hickory’s enemies”; “Huzzah for old hickory”; and “old hickory forever.” The glass panes remained in place in the house until about 1962.

Southern approach to Holt House. Photo circa 1889.  Smithsonian Institution.

Dr. Henry Holt, a former US Army assistant surgeon from Oswego County, NY, purchased the property in December 1844 from Ashton Alexander.  Holt grew crops and raised livestock on the land, adding multiple wooden support buildings as well as a lean to room on the west side of the main house.  

Dr. Henry Holt among his many out buildings.  Smithsonian Institution.

Dr. Holt finally sold the property to the City Commissioners for the National Zoological Park in 1889 for $40,000.   By the time the Zoo acquired the property in 1889, Holt House was very dilapidated and badly in need of extensive repair.  In helping plan the new zoological park, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. advised the park’s planners to look to the graceful architecture of Holt House as a source of inspiration.  The Zoo renovated the house for use as administrative offices.  While the building is once again neglected, its purchase by the Zoo in 1889 probably helped ensure its continued survival. 

Dr. Henry Holt sitting outside the south vestibule in 1889.  By then, the house was in completely dilapidated condition.  Smithsonian Institution.

After Holt House was purchased by the  Smithsonian for the National Zoo in 1899, a heavy pebble-sash stucco was was added to the entire exterior.  The ground around the periphery of the building was excavated by 6 feet and the window opens enlarged to create a full-depth basement for added office space, additional window openings were created in the sides of the building, and skylights were punched through the roof.  What was originally a portico on the north side of the house, later filled in possibly by Ashton Alexander,  was further extended with a cantilevered support underneath.

Stairs leading to the north portico (1889).  Smithsonian Institution.

The house has been vacant since the 1980s.  The Smithsonian refuses to do anything to save one of the oldest houses in DC outside of Georgetown.  Rather than have blood on its hands by directly razing the house, the Smithsonian is just as guilty of intentionally razing the house more slowly through demolition by neglect.  Saving the house would certainly be an expensive endeavor, but such history can never be replaced.

North face of Holt House as it appears today.  Photo by the author.

Holt House as it originally appeared circa 1818.  Rendering by Stephen A. Hansen

The south side of the house as it appears today.  The large columned porch was also filled in in the 19th century to create more space in a what was a relatively small house.  Photo by the author.

South side of the house as it appeared in 1818.  Rendering by Stephen A. Hansen
The great room of Holt House in 2009.  It still has its original fireplace and wainscotting.  Photo by the author.
The original fireplace and mantel in the great room.  Photo by the author.

The great room as it appeared when the house was completed.  Rendering by Stephen A. Hansen

Copyright © 2021 Stephen A. Hansen.  All Rights Reserved.

Selected sources:

Denys Peter Myers. Report on Holt House: A Feasibility Study to Determine Restoration Goals. 1977.

The History of the Columbia Mills.  Smithsonian Dept of Archival History and Historic Preservation on the history of the Columbia Mills.

Holt House and Surrounding Properties: A Documented History.  Smithsonian Dept of Archival History and Historic Preservation.

Holt House Documentation Project 2009. HABS/HAER (Historic Architectural and Building Survey/Historic Architectural and Engineering Record), National Park Service, Department of the Interior.

Smithsonian Institution National Zoological Park: A Historic Resource Analysis. Prepared by Gavin Farrell at the Smithsonian Office of Architectural History and Historic Preservation. 2004.