Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A "DC Sleeper"

Last week, while attending a Philadelphia wedding reception, my daughter and her husband shared a table with the groom's 85-year-old Great-Aunt Conky, nee Caroline. Aunt C, interestingly, had been Pennsylvania's first female state trooper, dubbed by her former colleagues, "the pussy in our posse." Aunt C was a pistol, according to Jazzy, who kept the table in gales of laughter and danced until two in the morning. I love stories about active oldsters, in part, I suppose, because I'm not so far from becoming one myself. Another commendable oldster, this one from the past, was Washington D.C. brewing magnate Christian Heurich (1842-1945) who, besides making a fortune brewing Senate Brand beer, and criss-crossing the Atlantic seventy-three times for vacations in Germany, also built the remarkable house in these photos.

Dupont Circle, a block north of the house, was the height of Washington D.C. residential fashion when Heurich and his second wife moved here in 1894. Post-WW II office construction has wiped out most of the old houses, but not 1307 New Hampshire Ave., N.W., whose amazing survival reflects the vigor of its owner. Heurich was still making his annual transatlantic vacation jaunts at the age of 96. His last trip - a subject, Ill confess, of speculation on my part - took him to Nazi Germany in the summer of 1939. I will note that he immediately cut that vacation short and returned to the States as soon as Hitler invaded Poland.

The south elevation of the house, overlooking a one-block side street called Sunderland Place, is made of brick. The main facade on New Hampshire Avenue is faced with more elegant brownstone. We see essentially the same facade treatments in suburban subdivisions today, reminding me of a pretentious friend who once remarked, "Do we have a suit of velvet in the front, and denim in the back?"

A sole jarring note - assuming you don't consider Richardsonian Romanesque architecture jarring in itself - is the modern elevator shaft, attached to the north side of the house like a gigantic brick leech. Far better to have it attached there, however, than clumsily inserted inside.

In 1872, six years after arriving in post-Civil War America, Heurich and a partner named Paul Ritter took a big risk and bought a failing D.C. brewery. A year later Heurich bought out his partner, and 20 years after that the Christian Heurich Brewing Company had become the largest private employer in the District. Heurich was still running it in 1945, when he died at the age of 102.

This fine (if ponderous) Victorian mansion, designed John Granville Meyers (of whom I have never heard) was built for Heurich's second wife, Mathilde Daetz, sister of his secretary-treasurer. The couple married in 1887, three years after the death of Wife #1. Mr. H. had some serious bad luck with wives. Wife #2 died in 1895, a mere year after moving into the new house. However, being a rich brewer with a mansion off Dupont Circle undoubtedly helped attract Wife #3, who was (perhaps not coincidentally) the niece of Wife #1. (Still with me?) Wife #3, nee Ameila Keyser, gave him 2 daughters (well, 3 if you count an infant who died), and a son, and outlived him by 10 years.

This is the house of a "grand bourgeois" who lived to become a patriarch of the District of Columbia, notable both for his money and his philanthropies, the latter usually aimed at local D.C. businesses and needy German charities.

I love floor plans, even when they have confusing labels. The one below shows the Heurich House's first floor. #102 is the reception room, labeled "bookstore" (which it isn't); #110 and #111 are grand incarnations of the Victorian era's typical double parlors; #112 is a music room; #106 a serving pantry; the rest you can figure out.

I had never heard of the Heurich House, a fantastic old pile that was left to the Columbia (as in 'District of') Historical Society in Amelia Heurich's 1955 will. Since 2003 it's been the property of the Heurich House Foundation, the happy resolution of a disturbing passage in local preservation annals, about which more later. What J.G. Meyers' complex architecture and New York's Huber Brothers-designed interiors lack in sophistication and elan, they make up for in impressive scale and opulence. The images below show the main hall and the hall fireplace, the latter being one of 15 in the house.

Every big old house - at least the ones I write about - has a reception or morning room for informal or family daytime socializing. This one is immediately to the left of the front door.

In a more sophisticated house the room in the images below would be a drawing room. Here, it's the grander of a pair of connecting parlors, themselves part of a showy 4-room enfilade that stretches across the south side of the house. The circular alcove overlooks once tranquil New Hampshire Ave. The vintage photo is of the Heurichs and their eldest daughter, Anita, taken in this room on her wedding day.

In the view below, the circular alcove is to our back and the drawing room fireplace dead ahead. To the left of it, beyond the baffled young woman, is the main hall and reception room; to the right is the 2nd parlor, music room and, in the distance, the dining room.

The two images below show what is called, for reasons that escape me, the Gold Parlor. The first view is towards the grand front parlor, the second looks in the opposite direction towards the music room.

The Heurich daughters were musical, the fate of most privileged daughters of the Victorian era. I doubt they had much choice in the matter, but they did have a spectacular Steinway grand piano. The musicians' loft overlooks not just the music room, but the front hall and dining room as well.

In the image below I'm posing in the dining room. Behind me is the music room, then the Gold Room, then the grand front parlor, outside of whose faraway windows is New Hampshire Avenue. Heurich House's docent manual identifies the dining room's architectural style as German Renaissance Revival. To me it has the generic "luxe" look of pretty much any American millionaire's mansion from the 1890s. A German immigrant named August Grass, who arrived in America the same year as Heurich, is credited with carving the woodwork and the furniture. Some of the former is actually gesso with a faux wood finish.

The view below looks down the entrance hall from the dining room to the front door. The balustraded mezzanine marks the eastern end of the musicians' loft.

Victorian conservatories always look naked without their original jungly profusion of ferns and palms and blossoming plants. Outside this one is a spacious walled garden - kind of amazing, in the middle of an office district - complete with a carriage house at its far end.

Meyers took less care with the house's garden elevations. That's his conservatory on the left. On the right is a two-story 1914 addition containing Mr. Heurich's office on the main floor and a schoolroom for his children above. A man named Appleton P. Clark designed it, as well as the 1902 carriage house at the other end of the garden.

I am receiving a red carpet tour from Heurich House's Executive Director, Kim Bender, who holds the door between the dining room and an enormously picturesque (and outrageously inconvenient) serving pantry on the floor below.

Here are a few crib notes to the basement plan below. #007 is the pantry we just visited; #016 is the kitchen, next to which were more pantries and a former servant hall, labeled #017 and #018 respectively; #010, also labeled rental, used to be the billiard room.

After hurriedly departing Nazi Germany at the outset of the Polish blitzkrieg, 96-year-old Mr.Heurich and his family detoured to New York to see the 1939 World's Fair. My docent manual says they bought the kitchen cabinets there, although the ones in these photos are obviously (to me, anyway) from the 1890s. It's more likely they bought the fantastic electric stove.

Equally cool is the vintage Westinghouse refrigerator, which my late mother would have persisted in calling an ice box. When Kim, a woman after my own heart, found it stashed in a basement store room, she wasted no time returning it to a place of honor in the kitchen.

There is both a servant and a family side to the basement, the two separated by a door in the kitchen. Distributed along the family hall (#009 on the basement plan) is the boiler room (#012, an admittedly odd place for it), the billiard room (#010, so full of storage I could only get a partial shot of the unusual fireplace), and the so-called German Breakfast Room.

Kim amusingly described what was designed as an in-house "Bierstube" as Mr. H's "man cave." In place of jumbo flat screen and leather recliners, it offered Teutonic atmosphere and a location tucked safely away from the women of the house. Heurich used it for drinking, card playing, and whatever else rich old guys did a hundred years ago. After 1912, at which point he was 70 years old, the family began using it as a breakfast room.

The Heurichs didn't go up and down the pantry stairs, obviously, but used this more spacious flight instead. It leads to a main floor corridor flanked with a silver safe on one side, a powder room on the other, and Mr. Heurich's office at its far end. The vintage photo shows the brewmaster "en famille" in his main floor home office.

Time to take the main stairs to the second floor.

Here's the second floor plan, complete with confusing labels.

The bedroom hall, #204 on the plan, is called, at least by Kim and now by me, the "Hall of Wives." They're all on the walls, including the head rooster himself.

#209, the master bedroom, sits above the front parlor. The Heurichs were rich and prominent but not really society people. They did, after all, sleep in the same room.

Society ladies usually had exquisite - or at least fashionable - boudoirs. By contrast, the third Mrs. Heurich filled hers, #210 on the plan, with the sort of comfy homely furniture and objets that would have made Elsie de Wolfe plotz.

#211, the master bathroom, is accessed from a corner of Mrs. H's boudoir, neither a sophisticated nor a very convenient arrangement.

#203 was Christian Heurich Jr's room. The brewmaster's son managed the family beer business from 1945 until 1956, when competition from nationally distributed brands drove it under. I am told this bedroom was the "Moorish Room" when the house was built. This dreadful Victorian conceit, wherein exotic beads and rugs and divans were flung around with chaotic abandon, was supposed to suggest artistic taste and extensive travel. Happily, not a trace of Moorish-ness remains, at least none that I can see. The sink in the en suite bath, #202 on the plan, has an attractive alabaster counter and splash.

At the opposite end of the second floor are Heurich's daughters' rooms. They're beyond a door for an elevator that was never installed, and a closet slop sink that, to my eye, is a work of industrial art.

The girls' bedrooms are labeled #215 and #208. Their schoolroom is #207, also labeled "office wing," even though it isn't.

Beyond the velvet rope the tourist cannot go, which of course doesn't include me. During almost half a century of ownership, the Columbia (later Washington) Historical Society defrayed operating costs by renting space to the National Geographic Society, the Huguenot Society, the Daughters of Founders and Patriots of America, the Daughters of Veterans of the Civil War, the Mayflower Society, the Military Order of the Loyal Legion, and anything and everything else they could think of. In 2003, the Society moved to more convenient quarters in the Carnegie Library and, incredible as it seems, simply put the old Heurich House on the market for sale. Any developer could have come along, torn it down and replaced it with a new commercial building. Heurich's grandsons, understandably appalled, stepped in, created the Heurich House Foundation, and preserved it instead.

The Foundation still rents out the third floor, seen in the images below. Occupied until recently by a hotel group, as of September, 2013, it will become home to a trio of preservation organizations. The original floor plan remains, work stations and computer terminals occupying former guestrooms.

Servants' rooms on the fourth floor, reached via the back stairs, are leased to a local law firm. The floor plan remains intact up here too, as does almost all of the original architectural finishes. I see an enormous amount of gratuitous destruction done to big old houses in the name of conversion to institutional use. I'll bet most people, certainly myself, would vastly prefer working inside an old house that still looked like one, instead of inside a soulless modern box inserted into one.

Heurich House has a fifth floor with only one room, access to which is directly from the roof. Quite a different view up here, compared to that in 1894.

Kim is unlocking the only door to a circular room with a domed ceiling, and walls with painted gnomes frolicking on painted railings. What they're doing and why they're doing it here, I cannot guess.

We'll take the back stair down, and detour into the musicians' loft for a different perspective on music room, dining room, and main hall.

I had a ball going through the Heurich House, which I might never have known existed, but for a casual comment from a friend. Well worth a visit; the link is