10 Sep 2012

Lost Capitol Hill: Thomas Law

You’ve all heard the joke: How do you make a small fortune in the [art/wine/horse] business? Start with a large one. Well, add another one to that: The early real estate business on Capitol Hill. No one better exemplifies this than Thomas Law, who arrived here in 1795 with a large fortune — and ended his life with a very, very small one.

Thomas Law was born in England in 1756, and, as a young man of 17, moved to India, where he spent the next 20 or so years, returning to England with a fair fortune, as well as the best wishes of those whom he had helped in India during his time there. He decided to increase his fortune, and thus moved to the US, arriving in New York City in 1794. He had with him not just the money he had made in England, but money that he had borrowed.

After numerous visits to the future site of the federal city and buying large tracts of land there, he moved to the District of Columbia in 1795. A year later, he married Elizabeth Parke Custis, the President’s step-granddaughter. With his social standing secured, he now turned to the important job of making money. Along with William Duncanson, Daniel Carroll, Robert Morris, James Greenleaf, he expanded his holdings near the Capitol, in the hopes that this would soon become extremely valuable.

At first, things worked out well for Law. He built houses on both sides of the 200 block of New Jersey Avenue Southeast, just steps from the Capitol, a block of ten houses further down the Avenue, and a sugar refinery and wharf at its end, where it meets the Anacostia.

The sugar refinery on the Anacostia. Detail of an 1834 painting by G. Cooke and engraved by William James Bennett. (LOC)

The refinery was one of the largest structures in the District, being eight stories high, with a side wing of five stories. It had been built, and was run, by one James Piercy, who had been given the land, as well as a sum of money, by Law, and had borrowed money from others as well. Production began in mid-1798, but by 1801, they had ceased. Albert Gallatin, in describing the state of the Capital to his wife, wrote that it was “a very large but perfectly empty warehouse.” Even the wharf next door was “graced by not a single vessel.” The situation ended, unsurprisingly, in court, with the three principals all accusing the other of foul dealings.

Law himself lived originally on Greenleaf’s point, in a house generally known as the Thomas Law House. It is one of the few of his houses that remains. He later moved to the west side of New Jersey Avenue, in the row of houses that would later become famous as Thomas Jefferson’s lodging as Vice President. Later, when the house on the other side of the street was completed, he moved there – but not before having entertained Louis Philippe, the future – and last – king of France there. The houses on New Jersey Avenue near C street, which were so important as lodging houses, long ago were torn down to make way for…a parking lot. As to the refinery, it was eventually turned into a brewery, though that did not last long, and by 1847 it, too, had been torn down.

Even his marriage to Washington’s step-granddaughter did not last, with the pair separating in 1802, and formally making the decision to continue “separate and apart” in 1804. The payments that he made to her amounted to $1,500 a year, which became more and more difficult for him to pay as the years passed. was a particularly vocal proponent of the building of the temporary capitol, to ensure that the federal government stayed in the District.

In November, 1816, Thomas Law bought a tract of land well outside the Federal City. On this, he would build a manor house, to which he moved in 1818. In spite of now living outside the District, he continued to be one of the leading citizens of the city, and spoke often before the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences, a forerunner of the Smithsonian Institute.

Unlike his compatriots Carroll, Morris, Duncanson, and Greenleaf, Law never declared bankruptcy, but remained involved in such projects as the C&O canal, the Washington Canal, and the creation of a national currency. He also traveled frequently, and spent a fair bit of time in his native England.

Thomas Law died on July 31, 1834, leaving only small sums of money or lands to his descendents. The bulk of his estate — which was not terribly grand — went to William Blane, from whom he had borrowed 31,000 Pounds before embarking on his American adventure almost 40 years earlier. Law’s will remarks on the debt he owes him, saying that he “has been unfortunate with me in the city purchase and as he is the only one who has lost by me, I am anxious that he should not be a sufferer.”

Law was originally buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, his body was moved into an unknown grave.

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