It Was Once Called Metropolis View
That chunk of land to the west of Colonel Brooks’ estate and south of the Middleton estate (where Catholic University is now) was once a 410-acre tract known as Metropolis View and owned by Washington Berry.
Berry was the son of Zachariah Berry, a wealthy Maryland planter who is estimated to have owned over 8,000 acres of land in Maryland, the District, and Kentucky. His manor house, named Concord, still stands in District Heights. At his death in 1845 various tracts in and around DC were willed to his sons and grandsons. Washington Berry served in the War of 1812, married Eliza Thomas in 1822, and shortly thereafter moved here and built a grand home he called Metropolis View, which the Evening Star described this way:
The original house was a large double structure, with wide halls and immense rooms on either side, the ceilings of which were remarkably high. The frescoes running around the upper parts of the walls in these rooms were excellently executed and represented the fruits of agriculture. This house was built of bricks burned on the place in a kiln erected on the plat near present Eckington.
Washington Berry became a gentleman farmer, using primarily slave labor to tend the place. He and his wife appear in the 1840 census with seven children and ten enslaved workers. In addition to the brick mansion, there were stables, a carriage house, a barn and other outbuildings. His sons owned a tract called Bellevue, at the extreme southern tip of the District, and Berry managed their farm as well as his own.
Of its 410 acres, about a quarter of Metropolis View was heavily wooded and became known as Berry’s Woods, a popular picnic and event spot for generations of Washingtonians. Washington Berry died in 1856. In his will, he left substantial amounts of land in the District and Prince George’s county to his sons. He left Metropolis View to his wife, and when she died 5 years later, it passed to their daughters.
During the Civil War, the property and house were used by numerous Federal officers and troops, and the soldiers encamped there did considerable damage. Shortly after the war, a book called “American Bastile” documented some of the abuses Confederate sympathizers underwent in the border states. Thomas Berry, son of Washington Berry, was one of the complainants. He had been arrested in 1862 on suspicion of being a Confederate officer, and in addition to his own rough handling, related how the soldiers treated the family home:
“They had taken possession of the old homestead, “Metropolis View” about a mile from Washington, and had permitted the soldiers to wantonly mutilate and destroy the dwelling, which was elegantly finished and furnished; that the soldiers had thrust their bayonets into the plastering on the walls and ceiling, and had shot into the ornamental work. A party of them even went so far with their vandalism, as to break into the family vault, and desecrate the remains of the dead, tearing the silver-plated handles and screws from the coffin which contained the ashes of his father; while the coffins of his infant brother and sister were broken open at the same time and their bones left lying on the floor of the vault; that when John Maguire, an honest Irishman, went to them, and with tears in his eyes entreated them to desist and respect the dead, and not to desecrate the remains of the family, as they had been good to him, he was met by these unfeeling men with jeers and laughter, and the remark that they were all rebels, and that they had heard there was jewelry buried with the dead.”
Even though the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act had freed the slaves here in 1862, almost all the landowners in our area had been slaveholders, and it wasn’t unusual for Union soldiers to treat them like the enemy. Other soldiers camped nearby burned down Queen’s Chapel in 1863, having heard that the Queens were confederate sympathizers. And soldiers from Fort Bunker Hill raided a gravesite on the property of Jehiel Brooks to steal the bricks for their own housing. When the Civil War ended and all the soliders left, many of the estates had been damaged, Metropolis View so badly that it was no longer functional as a farm. In 1865, the estate was made available for sale.
At the same time, the government was giving serious consideration to finding a new location for the Executive Mansion. The established White House site was considered unhealthy in the summer, thanks to the putrid Washington City Canal (Tiber Creek) that ran through downtown and spilled into the Potomac in the swampy area just south of the mansion. Major Nathaniel Michler of the Army Corps of Engineers was assigned to “inquire whether a tract of land of not less than 350 acres adjoining or very near the city can be obtained for a reasonable price for a park and site for a presidential Mansion…” Michler scouted a number of sites, and Metropolis View was a leading candidate:
“Metropolis View is beautifully situated, having a high and commanding position; it is partially covered with groves of fine old trees, deciduous and evergreen, and possessed of an abundance of timber. A fine spring rises in the place, and two small streams, tributaries of the Tiber, course through it. In nearly every direction the eye meets with charming landscape scenes, and it overlooks the Capitol and the broad valley of the Potomac. This locality possesses many attractions, and is susceptible of great improvement. It is easy of access by some of the finest avenues and streets leading out of the city, and is at a very convenient distance from the most prominent public buildings.“
Michler said the property could be bought for $200,000, but he also recommended the adjacent Eckington tract be purchased as well for $155,000 more. “The two tracts of land united would furnish ample grounds to surround the mansion and also open a fine park to connect with the city on the direct line with the Capitol.” A park stretching from present-day Catholic University to Florida Avenue sounds awfully nice, but the whole idea of moving the Executive Mansion died after Ulysses S. Grant was elected president in 1868 and put the kibosh on the plan.
Since no one else was likely to buy the whole tract, Metropolis View was broken up into large lots of 5 to 10 acres and offered at auction. In 1869, one of the most prominent men in the country, remembering pleasant visits with Washington Berry and his family forty years earlier, decided to buy the old mansion and some of the land to make into his country home. It would be the beginning of a new era.
The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase
Salmon P. Chase (right) was the Chief Justice of the United States when he bought the Metropolis View property in 1869. Abraham Lincoln had appointed him to the court after Chase resigned as Secretary of the Treasury in Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” cabinet. And a rival he was. Throughout his career, Chase had one overriding ambition — to become president of the United States. An anti-slavery champion, Chase was Ohio’s governor, then senator, then competed with Lincoln for the 1860 Republican nomination for the presidency, which he lost. He fumbled his chance to run against Lincoln in 1864 with clumsy behind the scenes machinations, and switched to the Democratic Party for the 1868 race, but again was denied the nomination.
Known as an intellectually rigorous and humorless man, Chase had a painful personal life. He buried three wives and four children by the age of 46, leaving him with two daughters: Janet, known as Nettie, and her half-sister Katherine, called Kate, who he dedicated his life to educating, counseling, and cajoling into becoming the perfect 19th century woman and an essential part of his political life. (left, Salmon P. Chase with his daughters Nettie and Kate. Mathew Brady photo, probably taken around 1857, when Kate was 17 and Nettie 10. Library of Congress).
Kate responded, using her intellect, charisma and political acumen to not only serve her father, but to establish herself as a presence in Washington society. She ran her father’s household at their stately home at 6th and E St. NW, and hosted many receptions there for Washington’s political and social elite. Known for insightful political conversation rather than just small talk, Kate gained the title “Belle of the North” during the Civil War years. She dreamed of becoming First Lady in her father’s White House. Numerous powerful men were enamored of her charms, including future Secretary of State John Hay and future President James Garfield.
Civil War General and Missouri Senator Carl Schurz described her this way:
She was about eighteen years old, tall and slender and exceedingly well formed…vivacious hazel eyes, shaded by long dark lashes and arched over by proud eyebrows. The fine forehead was framed in waving, gold-brown hair. She had something imperial in the pose of the head, and all her movements possessed an exquisite natural charm. No wonder that she came to be admired as a great beauty and broke many hearts.
She could also engender great enmity, particularly with the First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, who took a firm dislike to both Kate and her father. She refused to attend Kate’s wedding in 1863, the most lavish social event of the year, but the President went, spending two and a half hours there to make up for his wife’s absence. The marriage seemed like an ideal pairing. The groom, William Sprague IV (left), was one of the wealthiest young men in the country, heir to the A. & W. Sprague textile business. While governor of Rhode Island, he fought with the state’s brigade at the first battle of Bull Run, earning him Abraham Lincoln’s respect and Kate Chase’s admiration. He had been elected senator by the time he and Kate were married. It was not destined to be a glorious union. Sprague was known as both a serious drinker and a womanizer, and was more interested in his businesses than in legislating, spending much time away from Washington. For her part, Kate had to put up with gossip that she also had a wandering eye and had married the wealthy Sprague only to provide funding for her father’s political career.
Husband, wife and father all lived in the house at 6th & E (right, click to enlarge. Willard R. Ross Postcard Collection, DC Public Library). When tensions arose between Kate and her husband, Chase would often counsel his daughter to acquiesce to Sprague, even if he was in the wrong. It didn’t help. Relations between husband and wife continued to worsen, and Salmon Chase recognized it was time for him to move out.
As a young man in 1829, Chase had come to Washington to teach school and study law with William Wirt, the U.S. Attorney General. Wirt introduced him to a number of prominent people, including Washington Berry. Chase wound up spending considerable time at Berry’s Metropolis View, and jumped on the opportunity to buy it in 1869, even though it was a strain on his finances. However, after the damage done to it during the Civil War, the mansion was no longer move-in ready, to use a modern term. Chase was forced to borrow a substantial sum for extensive repairs and renovations. To oversee the work he hired Edward Clark, Architect of the Capitol. It took two more years before Chase was able to move in, but he loved the resurrected place, deciding to rename it Edgewood. He felt the name Metropolis View was not “euphonious” enough, and since the estate was on the edge of Berry’s Woods, the new name was apt. Chase biographer John Niven describes his affinity for the home this way:
The Edgewood house and its grounds were a primary interest of Chase for the remaining years of his life. From the distant past, he called upon an extensive knowledge of farming techniques, of fertilizers and contour plowing, of the planting and care of dozens of fruit trees he had planted on the estate, apparently with an eye to future marketing of the crops.
Chase wouldn’t get very far with farming, given his duties as Chief Justice and his declining health. When weather permitted, he walked the two and a half miles from Edgewood to work at the Capitol, which would take him about an hour each way. Kate took charge of decorating the mansion, and spent considerable sums on art, furniture and china. Given her husband’s deep pockets, money was no object to Kate Chase Sprague. That was to change abruptly in 1873.
In May, Salmon Chase suffered a massive stroke while in New York visiting his daughter Nettie and her husband William Sprague Hoyt (a second cousin to Kate’s husband). Kate was able to to be at his bedside when he died on May 7th at the age of 65 (left, notice from New York Herald, May 8, 1873). His funeral was attended by President Grant and most everyone of importance in Washington. His body lay in state in the Capitol, on a catafalque that had held the body of Abraham Lincoln eight years previously. Then in September, while Kate was still dealing with her grief, the financial Panic of 1873 hit her husband’s businesses hard. The banks decided they had to place the Sprague companies in a trusteeship. William Sprague was no longer in charge but was given a salary, part of which was to go to Kate as an allowance. Suddenly her beloved father was gone and so was her luxurious lifestyle. It made things even more tense within the marriage.
Kate was now living at Edgewood with her daughters, while her son was in school in Germany. But Nettie wanted to sell the estate and divide the profits. The relationship between Kate and Nettie was already frayed due to their husband’s business difficulties, which had the two sides of the Sprague family suing each other. Kate eventually bought out her half-sister’s interest in Edgewood, but Nettie insisted they sell their father’s furniture and other possessions, which pained Kate greatly (right, notice in the Evening Star from January 14, 1875. Click to enlarge). The sisters were now estranged, and would never reconcile.
Even though her father was gone, Kate kept hosting her weekly salons, continuing to impress her guests with an adroit command of political strategy and tactics. Now the dinner parties were held at Edgewood, rather than the 6th St. house, and political luminaries continued to drop by. One of Kate’s favorites was New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, one of the most powerful Republicans in the Senate (left). Considered one of the handsomest men in politics, to Kate Chase Sprague he was everything her husband was not; well-read, a brilliant speaker, and physically fit, a man who neither drank nor smoked. He was also married. That Kate and Conkling began having an affair was common knowledge on Capitol Hill and soon in the gossip columns as well. That William Sprague had a long-time mistress, Mary Viall, was also common knowledge, but the newspapers were far more interested in Kate. Gossip reporters like Miss Grundy and Donn Piatt made her a true national celebrity, though not in the way she would have preferred.
It all came to a head in 1879 when Kate was staying at the Sprague’s summer home in Narragansett Pier, Rhode Island. Her husband was supposed to be away on business, but returned unexpectedly to find Roscoe Conkling there with Kate. Exactly what happened next has always been a little murky due to the principals changing their stories numerous times, but it appears Sprague exploded in anger, loudly ordered Conkling off the property, then chased after him, perhaps with gun in hand. The newspapers had a field day piecing the story together from eyewitness accounts. Here are the headlines in the Washington Post a few days after the event:
No matter the actual details, the reputations of the three people involved were all tarnished, perhaps Kate’s most of all. Ostracized by many of her former society friends, she retreated to Edgewood. It was clear her marriage was effectively over. In 1880, she filed for divorce on grounds of adultery, extreme cruelty and nonsupport. Sprague filed a countersuit accusing Kate of adultery and “improper intimacy with other men.” It turned into a mud-slinging match, all of it played out in the newspapers. Finally, in 1882, the two decided to settle. Sprague withdrew his countersuit and Kate amended hers to remove the charges of adultery and cruelty. She was granted the divorce and custody of her three daughters, while her son would stay with Sprague. She was also allowed to revert to her maiden name, and became once again Kate Chase.
Feeling the need to escape from the public spotlight, Kate took her daughters on a trip to Europe, where they would spend the next four years. When they returned, she tried to renew her relationship with her son Willie. The two had hardly communicated since the divorce. He was not in good shape. A bad marriage, along with drinking and employment difficulties led him to commit suicide in 1890. Bereft, Kate blamed her ex-husband for her son’s death, closeted herself in the sanctuary of Edgewood, and started to live the life of a recluse. How times had changed.
Turn of the Century, End of an Era
The original Metropolis View tract was 410 acres. Salmon Chase bought only 40 of those acres, so what happened to the rest? Many of the lots were sold but remained undeveloped through the 1880s. Frederick Rose built a tavern just off Lincoln Avenue on a lot that would eventually be absorbed into Trinity University. A number of lots along Bunker Hill Road were sold to religious orders that wished to affiliate with the growing Catholic University. One of the largest tracts was the 25 acre farm of Charles Stewart, just five hundred yards north of the Edgewood mansion. Stewart was the son of Pennylvania Congressman Andrew Stewart. He was a paymaster for the U.S. Navy, probably bought the property in the late 1870s and built a solid 9-room farmhouse there. Together with his wife Susan they raised their two children; Frank, born in 1881, and Alberta, born four years later.
In late 1888, 4th Street was extended from Eckington up to Bunker Hill Road, cutting into both the Edgewood estate and the Stewart farm. But it also brought the electric streetcar, which acted as a spur to development. In 1890, Kate Chase and her creditors platted the portion of her estate that sat between 4th Street and Lincoln Avenue, calling the subdivision Edgewood. And in 1891 William Denison platted the lots to the east and south of the Stewart farm as the subdivision Metropolis View.
Things were getting financially very difficult for Kate Chase. The upkeep of the Edgewood property was expensive and little money was coming in. She took out multiple mortgages, and soon was on the hook for more than she could repay. Kate was entertaining an offer to buy Edgewood for $115,000 when the buyer suddenly died, along with the deal. In 1895, her creditors foreclosed on the mortgages, and began to auction off her personal effects (right, notice in The Evening Star, Jan 5, 1895). She went to court to get an injunction to stop the auction and was awarded a reprieve for six months. In that time, she implored her father’s old friends to help her save Edgewood as a historic landmark and shrine to the memory of Salmon P. Chase. With help from J.P. Morgan and other investors, she was able to come up with a trust fund of $80,000 which allowed her to fend off the creditors, at least for a time. It also allowed her to stay on the property, which she otherwise would have been forced to leave.
Things were also not going well on Charles Stewart’s farm. His wife died in 1888, leaving him to raise 7-year-old Frank and 3-year-old Alberta by himself. When Frank was 14, Stewart bought him a bicycle. Only a few months later, while riding speedily down 6th Street downtown, Frank collided with a horse-drawn trolley and was run over and killed. Charles Stewart was devastated, withdrawing to his house with his daughter; he began to neglect his farm and turned into a recluse. One day in 1897, as Alberta left for school she called out to her father, but he didn’t answer. He had suddenly died during the night of a heart attack. Alberta, only 12 years old, was taken in by her cousin. She had just inherited her father’s farm.
Meanwhile, Kate Chase (left, later in life, from John Oller’s book “American Queen.” ) was trying to patch up her financial woes by raising chickens and selling milk, eggs, and vegetables from a rickety wagon to nearby residents and some downtown hotels. Occasionally a reporter would seek her out, but more often than not she refused to talk. The mansion was deteriorating and the grounds were overgrown. Kate tried to carry on as best she could but her health was worsening. She had serious kidney problems, but didn’t go to a doctor until it was too late. On July 31, 1899, she died at Edgewood at the age of 58. The funeral was held in the library at the mansion. Kate’s daughters were in attendance, but not her sister Nettie. Obituaries and tributes filled the nation’s newspapers for the next month, chronicling the singular life of Kate Chase and trying to assess her legacy. Some of the columns had a touch of schadenfreude in seeing someone of such high social standing fallen so low. But most were generous, playing down the scandals and focusing more on the time when Kate Chase was at the center of Washington’s social and political life. The Cincinnati Enquirer put it this way:
No Queen has ever reigned under the Stars and Stripes, but this remarkable woman came closer to being a Queen than any American woman has.
The passing of Kate Chase also saw the passing of her beloved estate, Edgewood. The property’s creditors lost no time in looking for buyers, and found one quickly. The Sisters of Charity had been running St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum at 10th and G Streets NW for many years, but needed to find a new location. The orphanage trustees secured 19 acres of the Chase property, including the historic home. In May of 1900, the mansion that Washington Berry built and called Metropolis View, that Salmon Chase rebuilt and called Edgewood, was finally torn down. The orphanage, a much larger building, went up quickly on the site.
The Stewart farm had lain fallow since Charles Stewart died in 1897, but the family that had already been stricken twice with sudden tragedy was about to be stricken again. On July 18th, 1901, 15 year old Alberta, the heiress of the Stewart estate, dropped dead of a cerebral hemorrhage. Despite her youth, she had left a will, a one-page undated, unsigned handwritten document that was remarkably precise in leaving the property, valued at $60,000 or more, to her uncle’s family. It was filed for probate, but since she was a minor, the authority of the will was contested and it would take years for the courts to figure out the estate’s final disposition.
Over on the other side of Bunker Hill Road, the Paulists had outgrown their space on the Catholic University campus and were looking for nearby property on which to build a new house of study. When the Stewart farm became available, they purchased it, and in 1913 laid the cornerstone for St. Paul’s College.
The picture of that event shows Cardinal James Gibbons, on the left of the platform by the derrick, blessing the cornerstone surrounded by Catholic dignitaries and the onlooking crowd, but it’s the background I find intriguing. The camera is facing south, and on the horizon St. Vincent’s Orphanage is clearly visible. Through the branches you can see the dirt track of a rudimentary 6th Street leading up to the orphanage. And on the far left is the Charles Stewart farmhouse, soon to be razed as the college was constructed. It is a rare expansive look at the landscape of Metropolis View.
Over the next decade, the subdivisions of Edgewood and Metropolis View grew slowly, not hitting their stride until the 1920s. Gradually the name Metropolis View began to fade and the entire area became known as Edgewood. St. Vincent’s Orphanage continued functioning until 1968, when it closed its doors. It was torn down and replaced by the Edgewood Terrace mixed-income development, which opened in 1972.
St. Paul’s College opened up its property for development in 2012 and now the fields of the Charles Stewart farm have become a community of townhouses called Chancellor’s Row.
Given the success of Chancellor’s Row and the nearby Monroe Street Market and other developments in Brookland, there is bound to be more development pressure in Edgewood. In telling the stories of the people who lived, worked and died here, I hope to give present-day residents a sense of connection with the past. It just might help assure that future development will be smart, forward thinking, and serve today’s citizens, without forgetting those that came before.
For those interested in further reading on the life of Kate Chase, I highly recommend John Oller’s American Queen, a well-researched, well-written, well-annotated biography. Peg Lamphier’s Kate Chase and William Sprague is another insightful book, and John Niven’s biography of Salmon Chase is an essential work for anyone interested in the history of that era.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals; The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Lamphier, Peg. Kate Chase and William Sprague; Politics and Gender in a Civil War Marriage. University of Nebraska Press, 2003.
Marshall, John A. American Bastile; A History of the Illegal Arrests and Imprisonment of American Citizens During the Late Civil War. Philadelphia: Evans, Stoddart & Co. 1869.
Niven, John. Salmon P. Chase; A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press 1995.
Oller, John. American Queen; The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North” and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal. Boston: DaCapo Press, 2014.
Matthew B. Gilmore and Michael R. Harrison, A Catalog of Suburban Subdivisions of the District of Columbia, 1854-1902, Historical Society of Washington, Washington History, Vol. 14, Fall/Winter, 2002/2003
Report of the Chief of Engineers accompanying Report of Secretary of War, Appendix T-1, Report in Relation to “Public Park and Site of Presidential Mansion,” appended to Annual Report dated October 1, 1867, of Brevet Brigadier General N. Michler, in charge of Public Buildings, Grounds, and Works, with Accompanying Sketches. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1867.
“Edgewood and Its Surroundings,” Evening Star, October 7, 1882.
“Two Country Homes,” Evening Star, September 19, 1888.
“Respite Granted,” Evening Star, December 19, 1894.
“Edgewood Saved From the Hammer,” Washington Times, December 19, 1894.
“Sudden Death Claimed All,” Washington Post, July 20, 1901.
“Miss Stewart’s Will,” Washington Post, July 23, 1901.