12 Feb 2024


Lost Capitol Hill: The Washington Asylum

Geoge A. Townsend

When I wrote about Ann Sprigg’s children last week, and specifically about Virginia Sprigg, I wanted to add a link to my piece on the Washington Asylum. Only problem was, I have never written that piece. And so, here goes:

In 1821, the Board of Aldermen and Common Council of the District of Columbia decided to fund an asylum for “the accommodation of the poor, and of vagrants and disorderly persons of the city.” It was to be called the “Washington Asylum.”

In due course, this was built on 7th Street Northwest, between M and N Streets, right where the convention center is today. Early reviews were pretty scathing. Not long after it opened, none other than Anne Royall visited and wrote that the “wretched establishment only exists to disgrace Washington.” It was “dreary and comfortless” and, according to her, the people running it were completely unfit to do so. She did write that the “house is large and beautiful, and in the finest situation in the city.” This was all published in 1826.

It took some 20 plus years for something to be done about it, and in 1847 a request was made by the mayor of D.C. to build a new Alms House. The main result was that the new building was built far outside the city–– on Reservation 13, which was generally the site for anything people did not want directly in the city.

There is remarkably little evidence that this building was ever built – until 10 years later, when it burned down. The March 3, 1857 National Intelligencer reported that the Asylum had burned down the previous evening, and “several of its helpless inmates were burnt to death.”

Detail of 1857 map of Washington showing location of Alms House. Congressional is at bottom left (LOC)

Less than two weeks later, the Board of Aldermen and Common Council passed a joint resolution requesting new plans for a fire-proof building, and authorized the authorities of the alms house to spend up to $300 for such a plan. The design for the new building was made by local architect Charles Haskins. The contract to build was won by Gilbert Cameron, a Scottish builder who had built the Smithsonian Castle. He managed to underbid the other contractors by promising to use the old bricks for the new building.

The work on the building went smoothly, including the purchase of iron bedsteads to fit it out. There does not seem to have much fuss made about its reopening, so it is not until over 10 years later that we find a description of the new building. This is from an 1873 book by George Alfred Townsend (Better known by his nom-de-plume, Gath) entitled Washington: Outside and Inside, A Picture and a Narrative of the Origin, Growth, Excellences, Abuses, Beauties, and Personages of Our Governing City.

Inviting his readers to follow him down Massachusetts Avenue to the Asylum, he then describes it as follows:

It is a smart brick building, four stories high, with green trimmings, standing on the last promontory of some grassy commons beloved of geese and billy-goats, The short, black cedars, which appear to be a species of vegetable crape, give a stubby look of grief to the region round the poorhouse, and thickest at Congressional Cemetery, screen from the paupers the view of the city.

It all sounds like this might be one of the ‘Beauties’ of the city. How untrue that statement turns out to be, we will see next week.

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