13 Sep 2021


Lost Capitol Hill: Crane’s Union House

A few weeks ago, we looked at Our House, a tavern on 8th Street SE. While the owner, John Golden, attempted to sell the bar and its fixtures, the rest of the family continued to run a bar, Union House, on the same square and, in fact, continued to own several plots there.

Like Our House before it, the Union House did not do anything to draw attention to itself in the newspapers of the time – probably a good thing, as the usual reasons were for unsavory activities. A previous tavern by this name, which operated for many years at 11th Street on the Southwest waterfront, was known for the illegal liquor and gambling that went on there.

In contrast, the Union House was an upstanding part of the neighborhood, making the papers only once, in a roundup on the “Grand Display” that was Washington’s reaction to the end of the Civil War. In a front page article, the Evening Star described all the ways that private and public buildings were lit up in order to celebrate this great victory. Well down the article, under the “The Navy Yard” sub-heading, the article stated that the “Navy Yard folks were not by any means behind the up town people.” (sic)

It continued: “Among those who made a handsome display in the Sixth Ward were […] Crane’s Union House.” The list went almost a whole column and hundreds of names. On the same page was also an advertisement for Ford’s New Theatre’s production of The American Cousin [sic – should be Our American Cousin] as a benefit to Laura Keene (seen above). Elsewhere in the same edition, there is a short advertisement stating that the President would be attending that production.

The only other time the tavern was mentioned was in a classified advertisement was to encourage those interested in taking over a bakery stand to stop by Union House to inquire about the specifics.

The eponymous Crane in Union House was James A. Crane. He, however, did not own the property, though he did inherit it from his mother after her death in 1868. While her will stated that he should receive it, it also stipulated that he would have to share the alley next to the tavern with his brother Matthew, who was to inherit other property on the same square.

Don’t look for any of these buildings today – they were torn down to make way for the SE Freeway. In this 1973 picture, 8th Street can be seen in the center, Our House and the Union House were to the right of the street. (DDOT)

James A. Crane would not enjoy ownership for long, as he passed away six years later, in 1874. His will left to his wife –Mary Ann Vanhorn whom he’d married in 1872 – only the money that she had brought into the marriage. The rest, including the Union House property, went to his adopted brother Michael. This did not go over well with his other adopted sister, Mary Griffin Sweeny, who filed in court to be included in the payout after his death. As so often in these cases, it is uncertain what ended up happening.

Along the way, the Union House had been given the street address 918 8th Street Southeast, with Crane and his family living next door at 916. Mary Anne Crane moved to 317 First Street Southeast and died in 1906. In spite of only having been married for some two years 30 years earlier, her obituary still lists her as “widow of the late James Crane.” She was buried in Congressional Cemetery.

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