The D.C. legacy of celebrated architect H.H. Richardson resides in a heap of trouble.
You’ve seen the Warder-Totten House. It’s just north of Meridian Hill (Malcolm X) Park on 16th Street NW, situated in a row of ornate embassy buildings, right next to the Howard University dormitories. You know which house it is because it is not like the others on the block. The houses around it gleam with profligate ornamentation. They have strong iron fences out front that tell you somebody or something valuable is inside. But all that remains of the Warder-Totten House is a gaping shell, a structural corpse, surrounded by a chain-link fence. From the street, you can see what is left of the house’s interiors caving in, as if in some domestic mock-up of hell.
But if the folks in Boston could see the house, the last surviving work in D.C. by genius architect Henry Hobson Richardson, there’d be panic in the streets. After all, Richardson designed the famed Trinity Church on Copley Square in Boston. With it, he launched a whole new American architectural style, called Richardsonian Romanesque. Richardson is a god in Boston. What the hell is wrong with you people here? Don’t you know what you’re looking at?
Turns out, that’s all anybody’s been doing with the Warder-Totten House for almost 14 years: looking at it. Since Antioch College’s failed School of Law bugged out in 1986 after taking terrible care of the property, nobody has laid a finger on the place. Nobody, that is, except for squatters and poachers and pyromaniacs, who, following Antioch’s example, helped reduce this onetime Shangri-La—with its mahogany interiors, marble arches, and imported Japanese tea room—to a sad, gaping stack of ashlar sandstone.
The passionate types in D.C.’s historic-preservation phalanx blame the house’s longtime owner, Ali Qaragholi, for its ruin. Qaragholi’s firm, Eligate Partners, bought the house in 1987 with plans to turn it into an apartment building. It never got the money for the project, however, because the Reagan-era Washington real estate boom collapsed not long afterward. It’s been that kind of century for the grand old house.
Qaragholi tried for several years to sell the house for $3.5 million. No takers. But then, who wants to spend that much for a house littered with the detritus of drug dealers and other types of human waste? To some preservation activists, the price of the house seemed artificially high and the maintenance seemed artificially low. The place was practically asking for trouble. And trouble it got: In the first 10 years Qaragholi held title, there were at least five “suspicious” fires at the Warder-Totten house. In 1996, during a fire that gutted the cupola, firefighters rescued an interloper from the roof.
Whatever deity is in charge of protecting historic houses in D.C. must have it in for what Richardson considered his finest example of domestic architecture. This isn’t the first time that ignorance and neglect have conspired to take the house down.
In the early 1880s, Benjamin H. Warder, who started the company that later turned into International Harvester, wanted to retire with his millions to the fashionable residential neighborhood on the north side of the White House. Maybe he had seen Trinity Church, the J.J. Glessner house in Chicago, the Albany City Hall, or the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, all Richardson works dressed in the architect’s trademark rusticated stone. Warder brought Richardson down from Boston to design the house on the northwest corner of 15th and K Streets NW—one of four Richardson designed in that neighborhood. (The other three—including houses for John Hay and Henry Adams—were removed long ago.) Warder moved into the house in 1885. He lived there until he died while traveling in Egypt in 1894. His widow stayed on at the house until 1921.
Once the Warder family left the house, though, the corner of 15th and K fell prey to downtown development—the destruction of historic landmarks in Washington is not purely a late-century phenomenon. “Historic Old Residence Will Be Razed for Office Building,” ran the headline of the Washington Star of Jan. 31, 1923. Developers had their eyes on the site to erect the Investment Building—a structure, incidentally, whose limestone, brick, and terra-cotta facade is currently being held up by steel braces while developers build new offices behind it.
At the time, the feared loss of the house caused heartache in the likes of John B. McCarthy, the corresponding secretary of the Association of Oldest Inhabitants. “‘To me it brings to mind a prophecy made in 1886 by Senator Leland Stanford of California,’” McCarthy told the Star. “‘He said that K Street was destined to become the street of the future, the big business street of the city.’”
How right the senator was.
Fortunately, somebody else—somebody rich—took a shine to the Warder House. George Oakley Totten, an architect of several embassy buildings on 16th Street NW, was walking by the Warder property when he saw the house being dismantled. He fell in love with the structure’s frank lines, its strong, reticent walls, its perfect proportions.
“I felt an instant desire to save this building and immediately bought everything that was available,” Totten wrote in a letter to the Evening Star. “The French would have classed the Warder house as a historic monument and seen to it that it was preserved as a work of art.”
Totten bought all the masonry from the house and moved it in his Model T Ford, piece by piece, up to 16th Street between Euclid and Fuller Streets. Totten re-erected the L-shaped mansion in the formal garden of the smaller house he had already built for himself. He had built his house—which today remains only as a roofless pair of gables like the kind you see in TV clips from Kosovo—before he married Miss Vicken von Post, whom one newspaper account of the day described as “a charming little Swedish lady who was internationally known as a sculptor.” The smaller house had earned a nice spread in The American Architect in July 1921.
Totten turned the relocated Warder house into a suite of apartments. “It’s not a faithful reconstruction,” notes Catherine Anderton, a local preservation activist who has worked to preserve the Warder-Totten House for the past several years. “[Totten] had a lot of the outside and some of the inside. The front door was a reproduction—the Smithsonian got the front door and possibly lost it.” Nonetheless, Totten’s reconstruction of the house marked one of D.C.’s earliest preservation efforts. “The irony is that Mr. Totten could move the house from K Street in his Model T,” Anderton remarks. “If he could do that, why can’t we save it in 1999?”
Anderton is one of several preservation buffs who have made saving the house an avocation. The local InTowner newspaper could probably fuel a quarterly supplement with partisan updates on its demise. Daniel Morales, with the D.C. firm Horsey and Thorpe Architects, helped do drawings for posters and T-shirts as part of a preservation push several years ago. “It’s incredibly odd to me,” Morales says, “given the influence that Richardson had on houses in D.C., that it would get to this stage.”
The beginning of the end probably came in 1939, when George Totten died at age 72 and left his wife flat broke. The whole place fell out of the Totten family’s hands soon thereafter. Over the years, 2633 16th St. NW has been variously owned by the Kabat-Kaiser Clinic, the National Lutheran Council, and, of course, the Antioch School of Law.
But the bad guy in preservationists’ eyes today is Qaragholi—not to mention the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which has been slack about enforcing building codes and preservation laws. The house was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, but even that lofty designation has failed to protect it.
Qaragholi believes he has been unfairly bashed by preservationists and the news media. “They only had one side of the story,” the developer says. “They never said how much time and money we put in it—and the harassment about getting the homeless out of there.” He says he tried in vain to work with the police to keep the property secure. Recently, Qaragholi says, he spent $30,000 putting fencing up around the perimeter. But he could never get banks to front him money for renovation—because either the economics or the environment seemed dodgy to lenders. “Frankly, I love the building. I love the area,” the developer says. “And I still believe in the project.”
That’s not good enough, however, for George Oakley Totten III, the son of the man in the Model T. In 1997, the younger Totten issued a statement lashing Qaragholi for his neglect of the house where Totten was born: “Mr. Qaragholi evidently has wanted to destroy these buildings and erect something else such as the neighboring ghastly apartment house,” the younger Totten wrote. “[A]n attractive buyer should be sought for the restoration and cultural use of these structures, not for cheap apartments but for a cultural foundation or educational institution…something appropriate to the revival of this historically important section of our capital city.”
On Dec. 9, as it happens, somebody finally bought the Warder-Totten House from Qaragholi. Tutt Taylor and Rankin Real Estate LLC sold the property for $2.15 million—somewhat below the $2.5 million asking price—to a group called the American Housing Partnership. The buyer is rumored to want to build apartments in the old house and erect a tower on the east half of the lot. But for now, all plans are under wraps. When pressed as to what’s in store for a mansion that’s been wrecked from foundation to attic, Tim Chapman of American Housing Partnership, who helped lead contract negotiations for the settlement, says, “That’s a damn good question.” CP