Holt House Home Page
Preservation-Minded Neighbors Decry
Decayed State of Zoo’s Historic Adams Mill Road Site
By Anthony L. Harvey in TheInTowner
June 2003 Vol.34, No.12
One of Adams Morgan’s richest historical sites, Rock Creek’s Jackson Hill and the once grand, 1812 plantation mansion known as Holt House that sits on its pinnacle, “is on the verge of collapse” according to a May, 2003 report released by the Kalorama Citizens Association (KCA) and its Holt House Historic Preservation Task Force.
Prepared by the noted Georgetown architectural firm of Quinn Evans Architects, this alarming report documents the demolition by neglect of this “rare surviving example of a five-part-plan residence of the Federal period” by the property’s present owners—since 1889, the Smithsonian Institution and its National Zoological Park. [Ed. Note: It was six years ago that this newspaper first broke the story about the Smithsonian’s stewardship of this property, including related issues of Smithsonian violations of the Historic Preservation Act, as well as other federal statutes intended to preserve the environment and animal and plant life, including the Institution’s assertion that it was not subject to the provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act. See, “Zoo Allowing Collapse of 200-Year Mansion, Desecration of Burial Ground and Rock Creek Pollution Laws,” May 1997, page 1; also, “Zoo Persists With Actions Detrimental to Landmarks,” October 1998, page 1.]
Located on land next to the National Zoo’s pathology department on the crest of a hillock overlooking Rock Creek’s badly silted Herring Run adjacent to garden plots and Walter Pierce Park on Adams Mill Road, Holt House’s present appearance is that of a boarded-up ruin. Better known in its early days as Jackson Hill, Holt House first came to national prominence by its inclusion in the first historic American buildings survey of the 1930s, which was published by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1941. Architectural honors for the design of Holt House are apparently due to George Hadfield, who designed many of Washington’s most famous early Federal structures, including the north portico of the U.S. Capitol, the first city hall for the District of Columbia, and several prominent District and Alexandria private residences, according to British architectural historian Julia King.
The stature of Holt House’s previous owners range in importance from John Quincy Adams, who occupied the site when his wife Luisa purchased the property from her relatives during Adams’ presidency, to Andrew Jackson and Martin van Buren’s cabinet chief Amos Kendall (who served them both as Postmaster General) to its last private owner Henry Holt, a former assistant Army Surgeon General. Kendall left his tenancy of the property with the house in sore neglect. Holt House was advertised in a 1844 issue of Washington’s National Intelligencer in the following terms: “The House is very superior; it is 126 feet long, two wings and a center building, rooms of every size, unique and beautiful in its plan; and wants but to be newly papered and painted to make it delightful.”
Apparently the House “wanted” plastering and shoring up as well! Dr. Holt and his family occupied the house for 45 years, at which time it was sold to the Smithsonian Institution for its just Congressionally-mandated project of a National Zoo in Rock Creek Park and immediately used as an administrative headquarters. The Smithsonian’s stewardship of this historical treasure thus parallels its development of the Zoo itself. After years of “on-again, off-again” attempts at renovation, Holt House was nailed shut and abandoned by the Smithsonian in 1988, seemingly classified as one of the Institution’s “non-performing” assets; local preservationists and history-minded residents believe its Board of Regents and Congressional overseers are basically hostile to the Smithsonian’s acquisition and maintenance of historic properties. They point to the reliance on Congressional report language in the Smithsonian’s federal appropriations bill stipulating that “none of the funds in this or any other Act may be used for the Holt Hose located at the National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., unless identified as repairs to minimize water damage, monitor structure movement, or provide interim structural support.”
The Smithsonian’s central administration reportedly remains mum on its intentions toward this federally and locally land-marked property; its usual resolution of the fate of such troubled or unwanted properties in the past has been simply an outright sale, such as was the case with the National Museum of American Art’s Barney Studio House on Sheridan Circle in 1999. (See, “Barney House Use as Latvian OK’d by Zoning Bd.,” InTowner, November 2001, p. 1; also refer, “Neighborhood Losing Barney Studio House Legacy to Sale of Both House & Furnishings,” InTowner, November 2000, p. 1.) Deaccessioning of such historic properties has been made easier for the Smithsonian through its assertion that it is not subject to the provisions of federal, state, and local historic preservation laws and procedures.
In the case of Holt House, however, the unwanted mansion sits on priceless acreage that is contiguous with the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park—in fact, it is property within the jurisdiction of, and administered by, the Zoo and considered an integral component in it’s long-range planning. From Adams Mill Road—named for the water, grist, and plaster-of-Paris mills on Rock Creek during Holt House’s early days as a working farm—to the plantation life and elegance of the early mansion, through the course of its architectural embellishments on into the 20th century, this uniquely historically contextual acreage tells more stories than most 200 or 300- year-old North American sites. And, added to its history are the ancillary stories and folkloric tales of native American ceremonial rites, archeological and historical records of its use as the first Quaker cemetery in the District of Columbia, and as one of the first African-American burial grounds as well. As one neighbor bemoaned, “Holt House presents a potential treasure trove of compelling, historically interpretive projects and uses. But instead of being put to these purposes, it sits neglected and unused among parked vehicles and piles of building materials as a wasted way station of the Smithsonian’s dereliction of responsibility.”