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This is an independent research and education project, which accepts no institutional sponsorship. The project depends upon your donation, every penny is devoted to continued research. Please help.

Thank you in advance,
Eddie Becker

 

 

 

Help Save The Holt House

Even here beside the proud Potomac's streams
the medley mass of pride and misery
of whips and charters, manacles and rights
of slaving blacks and democratic whites

 


 

So wrote Thomas Moore about the new Republic of the United States. While the fruits of the labors of the enslaved peoples from Africa are still visible in the Washington area there is little physically to remind us of them as individuals.

A group of engaged citizens in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, spearheaded by Eddie Becker, is determined to do something about that. Click here or on the photo to learn about the skull.

On the grounds of the National Zoo sits a boarded up and deteriorating Mansion called the Holt House. Built in the early 1800's the Holt House is on the National Register of Historic Places and is Federally protected. It is also reputed to still have evidence of slave quarters in the basement. Click here or on the photo for more information on the Holt House.

Nearby an Afro-American cemetery was being used as a dumpster site by the Zoo . Click here or on the picture to learn more.

Mr. Becker and his supporters want to get to the truth of the matter. After continued prodding by the public, the Smithsonian, of which the Zoo is a part, has recently released a study on the history of the Holt House (see newspaper story). Unfortunately, although voluminous, the study is silent about the Holt House's slave past.

The Smithsonian continues to stonewall about whether they will abide by the law and preserve the Holt House. Every indication suggests that they would prefer it gone. They ignore simple and non-costly measures that would stabilize and prevent further deterioration of the structure. They have even increased the deterioration by removing gutters from the building. The Smithsonian has ignored the law which requires co-operation with the public in preservation planning . They have not even allowed inspection of the basement for the reputed slave quarters.

The Smithsonian purports to be dedicated to historic preservation. The Smithsonian has its own Office of Architectural History and Historic Preservation (OAHP). The Office's mission statement says - "In this role, OAHP strives to foster a superior understanding of the heritage of the Smithsonian buildings through preservation, research, and education". Its inventory also includes The Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture.

A conflict arises in that the Holt House is in the midst of land still undeveloped by the National Zoo. Public Affairs Director Bob Hoage says that the priority of the Zoo has been to "build buildings". He also makes the alarming and cryptic statement that there is "new brick" in the Holt House.

The Smithsonian receives most of its money from the Federal government. You can help by writing the House and Senate members of the Interior Department Sub-committees that directly oversee Smithsonian activities. Click here for a list of Congresspersons on the Committees and their email addresses.


For information about Holt House tours and about Holt House Preservation efforts contact the Holt House Preservation Task force. Wanda Bubriski, Barbara Bates or Mary Belcher.


*Update - August 2003

Holt House Report is Released

KCA’s Holt House Preservation Task Force on May 7 released a report urging the National Zoo to save an historic house on its property from imminent collapse. The 84-page report, titled "The Preservation of Holt House: Phase One," was prepared by Quinn Evans Architects of Georgetown with funding from the KCA and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. For more information on the release of the report go to the Kalorama Citizens Association Site.
June, 2003 Intowner Article
Download the report (7.5 megs!).


*Update - May 2001 - Eddie Becker

Legend of prison like slave quarters in the Holt House basement replete with manacles and chains, have been passed on from one generation of Zoo administrators to the next. Though the Zoo has abandoned the Holt house, there are many current and retired Zoo officials who can tell a tale of slavery based upon what they heard about the Holt House.

I will not dwell here on the substantial documented evidence of the history of slavery among those who owned the land, lived or rented the Holt House over the years. Instead this brief is focused rather on the legend of the Holt House "prison like slave quarters in the basement" and perhaps the opportunity to learn more about it.

When the building was first acquired, some of the basement windows according to Boston architect hired for the renovation, William Ralph Emerson, were covered by bars. Was it these prison like bars, that contributed along with other artifacts within the building, to the "prison like" slavery legend? 

The Smithsonian's division of Architectural History and Historic Preservation, perhaps sensitive to these legends suggested that the bars were instead actually made from wood. "The term "bars" which Emerson ascribed to the window coverings, may be somewhat of a misnomer; photos from around 1890 illustrate that the windows of the basement level were covered with what appears to be more of a vertical wooden grate. (Structural alterations, Prepared by Lara Pomernacki, under the direction of Cynthia R. Field, Ph.D. for the Smithsonian's division of Architectural History and Historic Preservation. December, 1997 http://www.si.edu/oahp/holthous/strupix.htm) To see these 19th century black and white photos see, http://www.si.edu/oahp/holthous/images/5369sent.jpg, and http://www.si.edu/oahp/holthous/images/z-12.jpg)

The photos reveal that the bars are certainly flat much like wood slats today. Most prison bars today are round. But what about in the 19th century? A photo from the Alexandria Slave pen show vertical metal grates using flat bars quite similar to the 19th century photo of the Holt House! The Holt House window grates may very well be painted metal. (See http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pnp/ppmsc/00000/00054u.tif and http://ci.alexandria.va.us/oha/archaeology/ar-ex-witness1.html#heading2)

The Zoo is about to embark on a long overdue project to prevent further deterioration of the Holt House. They have not yet provided the Holt House Preservation Task Force with their work plan. But according to Robin Vasa, heading up the project, one element of the project is shoring up the windows. The rotting wood frames are sagging under the weight of the massive masonry. For the sake of preserving the structure, the frames should certainly be removed if they are rotted and insect infested and replaced.

But it would be a shame to destroy evidence that could resolve the question over whether the bars were made of wood or metal. Though Emerson had the bars removed there may be some clue remaining - embedded in the window frame or discarded underneath that could resolve this mystery.

I would respectfully request that the Holt House Preservation Task Force form an experienced team with the cooperation of the Smithsonian and the Zoo to:

  • Examine and document the window frames before their removal
  • Be present on the days the window frames are removed
  • Have an opportunity to examine what has been removed and
  • Examine the opening after the frames removal in the event that there are any artifacts under what had been removed.

Of cause even if the bars are made of metal, it does not necessarily prove that there was a prison in the basement - but it would contribute to our understanding of why people thought there was.
*Eddie Becker 202 332-1000 


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Also we welcome you to visit the Columbia Heights Neighborhood Website of which these pages are a part. 

 

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