07 Nov 2016

History:

Lost Capitol Hill: James Casparis’s Saloon

tb-buseyI occasionally go through old pieces that I have written. Usually, I do this when I want to write a quick piece for a day with lower readership, such as Columbus Day. In this spirit, I looked at one of the earliest pieces here on the site. As it turned out, there was so much new to report that I decided that it should be given the proper treatment. So, herewith the story of James Casparis and his hotels on Capitol Hill.

James Casparis moved to D.C. in the early 1840s. He was under 30 years old at the time. Shortly after arriving, he married another Swiss immigrant, Christina Hitz, daughter of John Hitz. Two years later, he opened the Bon Ton House and Bon Ton Bowling Saloon “for the accommodation of visiters [sic] who desire to wile away a pleasant hour in healthful exercise.”

One “visiter” who was interested in “healthful exercise” was a young lawyer representing Illinois’s 7th district. His attempts at bowling were described by Dr. Samuel C Busey (pic) in his 1895 book Personal Reminiscences and Recollections of Forty-Six Years’ Membership in the Medical Society of the District of Columbia and Residence in This City:

Congressman Lincoln was very fond of bowling, and would frequently join others of the mess, or meet other members in a match game, at the alley of James Casparis, which was near the boarding-house. He was a very awkward bowler, but played the game with great zest and spirit, solely for exercise and amusement, and greatly to the enjoyment and entertainment of the other players and bystanders by his criticisms and funny illustrations. He accepted success and defeat with like good nature and humor, and left the alley at the conclusion of the game without a sorrow or disappointment. When it was known that he was in the alley there would assemble numbers of people to witness the fun which was anticipated by those who knew of his fund of anecdotes and jokes. When in the alley, surrounded by a crowd of eager listeners, he indulged with great freedom in the sport of narrative, some of which were very broad. His witticisms seemed for the most part to be impromptu, but he always told the anecdotes and jokes as if he wished to convey the impression that he had heard them from some one; but they appeared very many times as if they had been made for the immediate occasion.

Lincoln was far from the only person who enjoyed Casparis’s saloon, as we learn from a 1907 Washington Evening Star article: “In fact, so popular was the place that when Congress was not in session the tables were always in service, and some old-times say that the sergeants-at-arms of the two houses often, under a call of the house, summoned absentees from bowling alley, billiard table and bar.”

In this detail of an 1863 picture, taken from the top of the Capitol, Casparis's old and new buildingd can be seen: The old bowling alley is front and center, marked “Capitol Hill Restaurant” while the new hotel is all the way to the left. (LOC)

In this detail of an 1863 picture, taken from the top of the Capitol, Casparis’s old and new buildings can be seen: The old bowling alley is front and center, marked “Capitol Hill Restaurant” while the new hotel is all the way to the left. (LOC)

In 1852, Casparis built a more impressive hotel a few doors east of his original, wood-sided, saloon. The old place was taken over by one others. Sadly, his health did not serve him well. The first indication that not all was well was an 1864 ad in the Evening Star, which tells of the sale of his supply of booze, “some of it being reserved stock of the last twenty years.”

Casparis died March 21, 1869 at age 57, after having “been in bad health for a long time.” Shortly thereafter, his hotel was sold. Whoever bought it did not have any great joy from it, however, just a few years later, the whole square on which it stood was razed and added to the Capitol grounds. Thus, today, no sign of Casparis’s once-thriving enterprise can be seen.

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