Paul Harris visits Washington DC and discovers some fascinating stories behind buildings that are not comparatively old but nevertheless historic
IT is suggested that American visitors to hotels or tourist sites in Britain need only hear that Queen Elizabeth I or Shakespeare were once there and they are immediately captivated. Even if there’s no truth whatsoever.
Our historic sites attract Americans because of their sheer age.
In America, anything a century or so old is considered quite ancient.
Here, many routinely live in properties of that vintage.
The fact that the USA has a relatively short modern history means that historic properties are not particularly old, at least by British standards.
But the history and back story behind many American sites is no less fascinating despite their comparative lack of years.
Take the Washington DC area alone.
Sticking out like a sore thumb in the Dupont district is a building with a Gothic edifice looking like something straight from a horror film set.
The Heurich House Museum, or Christian Heurich Mansion, is known better as Brewmaster’s Castle.
Its tall tower, rising above the three-storey mansion, would make Harry Potter feel very much at home. It wouldn’t be out of place at Hogwarts.
It was the home of Heurich, a German immigrant who arrived in Washington with $200 and bought a failing brewery.
He turned it into the most successful brewery in DC, with more staff than any other employer except the federal government itself.
Not bad for someone whose parents had owned a modest tavern in Germany in the Thuringia region. It had been his ambition to own his own brewery.
He was producing 500,000 barrels of beer a year in 1894 when the brewery opened.
Heurich wanted a piece of his native country in Washington and commissioned Brewmaster’s Castle.
Its foreboding heavy, dark wood panelling, its basement bierkeller and its knight in shining armour must have allowed him to feel very much at home.
But for someone who had contributed so much to the local economy, let alone introducing quality beer, the Second World War brought heartache for Heurich.
Because of his German roots, there was a severe backlash against him from the New York Times that was latched on to by locals and even by the police.
This despite the fact that Heurich had no sympathy with Hitler and National Socialism.
He died in 1945, aged 102. His brewing company survived a further 11 years before closing.
But his legacy lives on. Regular beer events are held in the mansion, including Oktoberfests and a monthly beer tasting, ‘History and Hops’, which allows visitors to enjoy a beer while touring the house.
In total contrast to Brewmaster’s is Hillwood Museum and Gallery, the former residence of businesswoman, socialite and philanthropist Marjorie Merriweather Post.
Her collection of decorative arts was heavily influenced by the House of Romanov, including Fabergé eggs, two of which are currently on display.
It was during her marriage to her third husband, Joseph E Davies, who served as the second ambassador to the Soviet Union in the mid-1930s, that she acquired a vast collection of objects from pre-Bolshevik Russia.
Eighteenth and 19th century French art feature prominently, but it is to see the orchid collection that visitors travel from afar.
Originally called Arbremont, Hillwood was built in the 1920s but completely remodelled by Post, including altering the position of the library doors to facilitate a view of the Washington Monument.
Tudor Place, a Federal-style mansion, was originally the home of Thomas Peter and his wife Martha, a granddaughter of Martha Washington.
Her step-grandfather George Washington left her $8,000 in his will that she used to purchase the property in 1805, and 90 slaves.
Tudor Place was designed by Dr William Thornton, who was also responsible for the United States Capitol.
Four cushions and a bedspread embroidered by Martha can be seen.
There is also a collection of more than 100 items that belonged to George and Martha Washington, making Tudor Place the largest public depository of objects belonging to the first Presidential family after Mount Vernon.
Among prominent guests who visited during six generations of family ownership was the Marquis de Lafayette on his 1824 tour of America.
Further information: capitalregionusa.co.uk washington.org
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