Wednesday, February 15, 2006

VACATION: Will Be Hiding Out Near Gramercy Park

BECAUSE OF A FEAR OF QUAIL HUNTERS in the general vicinity of Rock Creek Park near my apartment, I will be leaving Washington, D.C., for the next five days. I will be taking shelter in the brush, somewhere near Gramercy Park, on the island of Manhattan in the state of New York.

Although my agenda is not set exactly, part of it will involve relaxing in a swimming pool, eating Uygur food in Brighton Beach (perhaps at this place), reading a real book (written on tangible paper products, not accessible on a screen), and investigating the Balducci's flagship store at Eighth Avenue and 14th Street (to see how it is architecturally integrated with its home, the old New York Savings Bank building. I would hope they have some good cheese samples. I might also ride the B61 bus to Van Brunt Street, Brooklyn.

Depending on how I feel, I may or may not update The Washington Oculus while I'm on the road. Don't miss me too much while I'm away.

ALSO: The Heurich House got a 30-day extension to raise the $250,000. Which is good news. Also, thanks to The Washington Post's Marc Fisher to linking to my blog on Tuesday about the Heurich House on his Post blog, Raw Fisher.

Monday, February 13, 2006

HEURICH HOUSE: Staring Down a Auction

(Editor's Note: This is long blog post, but I hope that you do read through it in full.)

AS YOU'VE READ in this blog for the past two weeks or so, you should by now definitely recognize why Washington, D.C.'s Heurich House -- aka the Brewmaster's Castle -- is important and should be saved as the United States' most-intact late Victorian home museum (regardless of my personal sentimental feelings for my great-great grandfather's role in crafting the 31-room home's interior).

For background on the house and the situation, here are some quick links:
- "Help Save the Castle" [Brewmaster's Castle]
- "Racing to Save a Victorian Gem" [The Washington Post]
- "OF URGENT IMPORTANCE: Preserving the Public's Access to the Historic Heurich House" [The Washington Oculus]

EXPLAINING THE CURRENT CRISIS to those unfamiliar with the capital's most-secret museum gem, one thing I stress is that as Washington has grown over generations from a sleepy provincial town on the banks of the Potomac to a center of global power largely populated by transient outsiders (including yours truly ... though I don't like to think of myself as transient) the natural civic constituency that would normally come to the rescue has not been immediately present. The Heurich House is not the Decatur House, it isn't the Octagon House, nor is it Tudor Place. The Brewmaster's Castle lacks an overarching federal story that would typically draw Congressional appropriations or corporate philanthropic dollars with relative ease.

As a member of the merchant class, Christian Heurich -- and to a lesser extent August Grass, my great-great grandfather -- was someone who helped build this city. He wasn't one of capital's more famous inhabitants who helped build this nation while residing here. But that doesn't mean the significance of Mr. Heurich and many others like him should be forgotten about by locals or ignored by newcomers.

MR. HEURICH'S MAGNIFICENT RESIDENCE is a testament to a successful upper middle class businessman. Mr. Heurich was a simple, hard-working brewer -- not a naval hero, not a granddaughter of Martha Washington, not even a Gilded Age mining millionaire turned politician, though one did live across the street (California Sen. William Hearst).

While there is no grand federal story associated with 1307 New Hampshire Ave., Mr. Heurich's grandson, Gary Heurich, did relate a very interesting story as I was helping him guide visitors through the house on Saturday afternoon. And it actually involves the national history of this city and country. It also illustrates the present-day threat the house faces.

IN 1868, CHRISTIAN HEURICH was living briefly in Kansas and for the first and only time, was able to vote for president. (Mr. Heurich, who died in 1945, was never able to see the day when residents of the District of Columbia were granted the right to vote for the guy who lived in one of Pennsylvania Avenue's more fashionable residences.) In that election 138 years ago, Heurich cast his vote for Ulysses S. Grant in a county where the margin of victory was just two votes. Mr. Heurich liked to think that his vote got Mr. Grant into the White House.

So when Heurich was back in Washington, he was no doubt eager to bid at auction on a one-of-a-kind three-sided roll-top desk intended for President Grant. (It was crafted by an admirer in the Montana Territory but the U.S. government refused to pay for shipping, so it went to auction instead.) Mr. Heurich outbid everyone and it became a prized possession. Today, President Grant's desk sits in the Exhibition Room of the Brewmaster's Castle.

THE TRAGIC IRONY here is, of course, that the historic desk Mr. Heurich bought at auction years ago could very likely end up on the auction block in the near future, unless the coalition of concerned citizens trying to save the Brewmaster's Castle -- including your friendly blogger here -- is successful in its fundraising efforts.

The threat is clear. While the exterior of the Heurich House is indeed protected as a landmark on the National Register for Historic Places, the future of the interior is not secure. That means an embassy could come in and paint over "The Young Year and the Expiring Year" (Detlef Sammann's painting on the Parlor's ceiling.) That means that the 1901 Steinway piano in the Music Room that was painted to match the French Revival design scheme of the first floor's formal rooms could be carted away. That means that the Dining Room's exquisitely carved griffin-legged table seating 18 people (which matches the themes seen in August Grass' woodcarvings on the sideboard and the fireplace) could be poked and prodded in Kansas City's convention center as part of an "Antiques Roadshow" Ask the Expert session in a generation or two or three.

FOR THOSE WHO KNOW the history of Frank Lloyd Wright's Meyer May House in Grand Rapids, Mich., it took millions of dollars by a corporation to meticulously recreate and reassemble the Prairie-style home museum's furniture, fabrics and carpeting (seen here). Mr. Wright's Robie House near the University of Chicago -- the quintessential Prairie style home -- has suffered from the fact that its full assembly of furniture and decorations has been scattered and in some instances lost. It took millions of corporate philanthropy by the Steelcase Corp. to recreate the Meyer May House. It is taking an "Adopt an Artifact" effort to recreate and restore the Robie House's interior. Fortunately for the Heurich House, its interior is intact, largely untouched over the past century.

The Heurich House is meant to be a museum, open for tours in the public domain, like is has been for the past half century. It would be a shame if the contents of the Brewmaster's Castle would be scattered to be scooped up by ruthless antiques hawkers.

ALL IN ALL, it would be a shame for the Heurich House to be lost -- largely forgotten by the city Mr. Heurich helped build or ignored by the larger population of newcomers who often grow too comfortable viewing their new home as an amusement park in which to make money or forge a career. In the name of history, it is a cause worth fighting for.

If you can, please donate at

First two photos from Rob Goodspeed, via Flickr. Third photo by Michael Grass, via Flickr. Meyer May House interior from

Sunday, February 12, 2006

HEURICH HOUSE: An Accidental Tour Guide

I SPENT A GOOD CHUNK OF MY WEEKEND at the Heurich House. Like the previous Friday evening, I volunteered my time at an open house at the house, stationed in the Dining Room, where the best examples the woodcarving and craftsmanship of my great-great grandfather August Grass can be seen. Friday's event was sponsored by the American University history department, staffed with grad students and entertained by a string quartet. Unfortunately, the Musicians' Balcony above the Dining Room and Music Room was a bit too warm (as in 30 degrees warmer) than the ground level, so the quartet set up in the Conservatory, which was just as nice.

I've said this before, but it's so nice to see people coming to the house, out of curiosity or out of a yearning to save the house. So keep the donations coming. There are a couple days left.

ON SATURDAY, I was intending to accompany a few journalist friends from New York on a tour, but when we arrived a few minutes before the 1:15 p.m. tour, more than 100 people had shown up for a tour, crowding into the front entry area and down and outside through the Porte Cochere. So Gary Heurich asked me if I could help him give room-to-room tours. So we gathered the visitors in the Conservatory and broke the group into two smaller clumps. Gary started on the main level, while I brought people upstairs to the Master Bedroom and Moorish Room.

I WILL ADMIT that with certain rooms, I had to give myself a crash course in the house's history, but once I was downstairs in the Dining Room, I was back in familiar territory. Over the past two weeks or so, I've learned some interesting things about August Grass' work at the house. Although the workshop of August Grass & Son was located just a few blocks away at New Hampshire Avenue and M Street NW, between 1892-94, much of my great-great grandfather's operation was moved to the backyard of the Heurich House, a sunny, green space enjoyed by many office workers in the Dupont Circle area during lunch hours. And that makes sense. When you're in the Dining Room and see how massive the fireplace (above) and sideboard woodcarvings are, you recognize that those items couldn't have been carted up New Hampshire Avenue. So they were carved and installed on site.

Some other interesting tidbits. If you look to the left side of this photo, you'll see an odd piece of furniture with a curtain and an oil lamp. A few people on Friday asked about the item and I had no idea what it could have been used for. I asked Gary the background of the piece and he told me the Heurich House had brought though a Smithsonian decorative arts expert a few years back to identify the piece's origins. The expert had never seen anything like it. So there's one odd mystery. It'll be a shame if the piece of furniture is auctioned off.

Also, according to a longtime butler's account, Christian Heurich would be promptly seated at the Dining Room table preciously at 5:47 p.m. most evenings for dinner. The meal, often featuring a big crock of sauerkraut on the sideboard, would be delivered at 6 p.m.

We are encouraged -- but guarded -- with our fundraising efforts. There is still a ways to go in the closing days of our fundraising efforts. From an e-mail Gary Heurich wrote to our Save the Castle listserv about Saturday's tours:
The response continues to be very heartwarming for us all, with many kind words, many handing over a 10 or a 20 and not wanting change back, many saying they will spread the word, many saying they will come back...
Now there's the black tie Champagne and Truffles event on Valentine's Day at the house, which I had mistakenly thought last week was this weekend. I got my tuxedo ready to go.

Please donate, if you can, at

KALORAMA: Snowy Night on Wyoming Ave.

Taken early Sunday morning on Wyoming Avenue near Connecticut Avenue, returning from a party. Yes, my camera generally sucks, but it can create some interesting effects, whether I planned for them or not.