Kalorama: From Joel Barlow's Scenic Seat to Suburban Subdivision

The Kalorama mansion as it appeared circa 1825.  Rendering by the author.

The Kalorama mansion in Washington, DC once stood on the south side of the 2300 block of S Street, NW on the site of Jeff Bezos's two houses.  The original part of Kalorama dated from about 1750 and was built by Scottish immigrant and early Washington proprietor Anthony Holmead.  It was a long, two-and-a-half story house made from brick imported from England.

In 1795, Holmead built a new house for himself that he named "Rock Hill" on top a craggy plateau just a stone's throw away from his first house that he sold to City Commissioner Gustavus Scott.  Scott added gardens and landscaping to the Holmead house and named it "Belair."

Anthony Holmead's Rock Hill.  It was located in the center of what is now Mitchell Park in the Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood (see the map of the estate below).  Library of Congress.

With his purchase and upgrades to Belair,  Gustavus Scott found himself in financial difficulties and sold off two parcels of the estate on the edge of Rock Creek to Edgar Patterson and Evan Lyons.  Patterson built a paper mill and Lyons, a grist mill.  Learning that Scott was near bankruptcy, Thomas Jefferson wrote to poet, statesman, and close friend, Joel Barlow, trying to interest him in purchasing Belair: "There is a most lovely seat joining the City on a high hill commanding the Potomac River, with superb house and gardens," but at the time Barlow seemed not to be interested.

Upon Scott's death in 1800, his widow sold Belair to William Augustine Washington (President Washington's nephew) for $16,000.  Washington added a dining and drawing room onto the rear (north side) of the house.  In 1807, Washington sold the estate at a loss to Joel Barlow.  Washington then moved to Charleston, S.C. where he died a short time later.

Joel Barlow.  Charles Willson Peale. U.S. Department of State.

Barlow changed the name of the estate from Belair to Kalorama, Greek for “fine view,” as he felt the name Belair had been already given to many places in Maryland and Virginia.  When Barlow acquired Kalorama, it consisted of 30 acres.  He then bought an additional acre to allow access to the estate from Boundary Street (now Florida Avenue and R Streets) and twenty acres to the north for a barn and orchard.  

Around 1810, Barlow engaged the services of architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and added the large east wing to house, a gatehouse in the style of a Greek temple at Boundary Street, a family mausoleum at Massachusetts and 22nd Streets, and stables at Massachusetts and Decatur Place.  Kalorama was covered entirely in a mustard yellow-colored stucco to give the various additions an overall uniform appearance.

The large east wing was added by Joel Barlow that was possibly designed by Benjamin Latrobe.  Rendering by the author.

Thomas Jefferson often visited Kalorama to consult with Barlow on foreign policy matters as well as gardening and agriculture.  Barlow was also an intimate friend and supporter of inventor Robert Fulton who was experimenting with designs for a new steamboat.  Having no children of their own, the Barlows invited the Fulton family to live with them, which they did throughout the course of ten years.  When Fulton finished his experimental model of his steamboat, the Clermont, Barlow had Rock Creek below Lyons millpond dammed up for Fulton to try out his model.  
 
Map of Barlow's Kalorama Estate.  Matthew B. Gilmore

“Kalorama,” a romanticized view by painter Charles Codman.  U.S. Department of State.
 
Upon the resignation of the American minister to France, President Madison persuaded Barlow to travel to France to arrange a commercial treaty with the Napoleonic government.  Tragically, Barlow died of exposure on Christmas Eve 1812 while following Napoleon over the frozen fields of Poland.  His body was buried in Poland.  His widow Ruth returned to Kalorama where she was joined by her sister Clara and her husband Col. George Bomford.  Ruth Barlow died at Kalorama in 1818 at the age of 62.
 
Kalorama estate gate and gatehouse.  Author's collection.

During Ruth Barlow's time at Kalorama as a widow, it became something of a boarding house for local and foreign dignitaries. About 1818, Mrs. Wilson who was the widow of the young Irish patriot and hero of the Irish insurrection of 1798 Theobald Wolfe Tone, whom the Barlows had met in Paris was invited to come live at Kalorama.  The west wing of the house, disproportionately small compared to the grand east wing, was added for her occupancy and consisted of two large apartments with stairways in both the front and in the rear.  
 
In 1820, Susan Decatur, the grief-stricken widow of Commodore Stephen Decatur and close friend of Clara Bomford, along with two of the Decatur's nieces, moved to Kalorama and secluded themselves in the west wing.  At Susan Decatur's pleading the remains of Stephen Decatur were temporarily placed in the Barlow family mausoleum before they could be transported to Pennsylvania for burial. 
 
B/W photograph of a watercolor of Kalorama by E. Esterbrook.  Author's collection.

In 1822, George Bomford acquired the title to Kalorama.  Bomford added the conservatory onto the front of Holmead's original house and amassed the size of the estate to 91 acres, a large part of which later became the Kalorama and Belair Heights subdivisions.  Due to financial problems, Bomford was forced to sell Kalorama in 1846 to Thomas Lovett from Philadelphia who acted as trustee for his parents, Thomas and Louisa Fletcher, for $25,000.
 
Kalorama.  Photo of an oil painting by Baron Alexander Bodisco, the Russian envoy to the U.S. from 1837-1854.  Author's collection.

Due to its relatively isolated location, the mansion was commandeered during the Civil War by a regiment from Illinois for use as a smallpox hospital.  The Lovetts temporarily returned to Philadelphia.  Hospital tents were struck and out buildings were demolished when the army was disbanded in the fall of 1865.  But during a farewell ball for the remaining hospital staff on Christmas Eve of 1865 in the mansion, a defective stove pipe caught fire and completely gutted the east wing.  Years would pass before the government settled on the rent and damages to Kalorama to be paid to the Lovetts during its occupancy.

Kalorama after the 1865 Christmas Eve fire.  Library of Congress.


After the Civil War, Louisa Fletcher, by now a widow, returned to Kalorama and died there in 1868.  Kalorama stood empty until 1875 when her other son George Sidney Lovett decided to return to the family mansion with his second wife Emeline Dore Boggs Lovett and their two daughters, Charlotte and Anna.  In need of funds to restore the mansion to its former glory, he sold a forty acre parcel of the western part of the estate to the Freedmen's Savings and Trust Company for $15,000.  This was the first of a series of events that would ultimately lead to the complete break up of the estate.

George Sidney Lovett. Author's collection.

One year after George's death in 1882, District Commissioners confiscated an east-west, fifteen-feet wide strip for a subterranean tunnel for an aqueduct through the upper part of the estate.  That same year, a real estate operator purchased the western parcel for $30,000, twice what the Freedman's Bank had paid.  In 1885, wealthy Bostonian, developer, and father-in-law of Alexander Graham Bell, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, bought this same parcel of land for $60,000.  He had it surveyed and platted, calling it Belair Heights after the name given the estate by Gustavus Scott, and then sold it to a New York syndicate for $300,000.  

Emeline Lovett continued to occupy Kalorama while the extension of the city above Florida Avenue and westward with Massachusetts Avenue began to encroach upon what remained of the estate.  In 1886,  District Commissioners began proceedings to extend Massachusetts Avenue through the southern part of the estate, passing directly through the old Barlow cemetery.  The only objections to the proposed extension were Commander Brown of the Naval Observatory and Evan Lyons, a descendant of the Evan Lyons who had purchased the land from Augustus Scott for a grist mill.  Brown removed his objection when he learned the extension would not cross Rock Creek.

Map Indicating the proposed extension of Massachusetts Avenue through the Kalorama esate ("T.R. Lovett" outlined in red). The Washington PostOct 20, 1886.

With development happening all around, four of the five Lovett heirs to Kalorama—George's brother Thomas, and three sisters—smelled a financial windfall and wanted to sell it, but the fifth heir, George's widow Emeline who held the land in trust for her two daughters, refused to sell.  As a result, in 1886 the four Lovett siblings petitioned to divide the property into fifths.  Emeline got the southern portion of the estate, from S Street NW south to Q Street NW that included the mansion.  The siblings quickly sold their portions the next year to a Philadelphia syndicate that paid $5,900 an acre for sixty acres of the estate.  The Evening Star reported that "this transaction was the highest ever made in this area for land beyond the Boundary.  The contrast is striking between the unimproved Kalorama property enclosed by its rough stone wall, and the handsome houses along the end of Massachusetts Avenue near Rock Creek."

 
The Washington Post
.  Nov 14,1886

Emeline Lovett would continue to try to hold onto her portion of the estate, along with the old Kalorama mansion, but this would not last for long.  In 1887, the  Kalorama mansion was condemned and razed for the extension and grading of S Street that would have run directly through the house.  

The next year, Emeline's share of Kalorama was subdivided as Kalorama Heights.  With her house gone, she needed a new home and she finally subdivided the remaining land that was not condemned by the city.  Emeline and her daughter Charlotte moved to 2203 Massachusetts Avenue, a single row house that was built as her residence in 1890 on her subdivision on her part of the Kalorama estate directly across from the Barlow mausoleum.  Emeline's other daughter, Anna (now Mrs. Beaman), would move just across the street to 2208 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.