Friday, June 6, 2014

This is a photo of the now-demolished Francis Scott Key House in Georgetown, taken in 1895.

The house was built in 1795, and Key and his family occupied it some time between 1805 and 1808. It was from this house that Key traveled to Baltimore in 1814 to secure the release of William Beanes, the Maryland doctor taken prisoner by the British -- during which trip he would write "The Star-Spangled Banner".

Lots of people will tell you that it was a crying shame when this "historic" home was dismantled in 1947 to make way for Key Bridge. The Park Service, they claim, intended to reassemble it. But the Park Service then "lost the Key House" -- and now it's all gone. In 1981, the Washington Post ran a major story on "The Case of the Lost Landmark: What So Proudly They Nailed Is Gone". The press ran with the story, laughing all the way. Stories like "Park Service Loses House" and "Missing: One Landmark" were published nationwide.

Only, it wasn't lost. And it wasn't historic.

Key died in 1843, and in 1853 his heirs sold the house to a family which used it as a hotel and restau­rant. During the Civil War, the new owners added a blacksmith and machine shop by ripping out a window and adding a door in its place. The owners added a new wing in 1895 (knocking through a new doorway in the wall in the process), which was used for selling ice cream. The restaurant and hotel closed, replaced with a boarding house and then a dry goods store and then a shoemaker and then a drug store.

The Francis Scott Key Memorial Association was formed in 1907, and it leased the house and opened it as a memorial to Key. But their effort failed, and they abandoned the house in 1912.

In 1913, the owners chopped off the rear portion of the gable roof, and added a flat roof in its place. The wood front facade was removed and a brick facade with plate glass storefront added. The home's original exterior chimney was demolished, as was the 1850s west wing (supplanted by an ugly solid brick wing). The contractors made off with the window sashes, doors, lathing, beams, and other woodwork in the house.

The federal government acquired the land on which the Key House stood in 1931. But this was the height of the Great Depression, and there was no money to restore the structure. A major fund-raising campaign by Ulysses S. Grant III, executive director of the National Capital Park and Planning Commission, came up with zilch. (So much for all that "public support" to restore the house, eh?) In 1933, a restoration of the Key House was proposed, but architectural consultants said the house was far too altered to have anything but "sentimental value". The Georgetown Citizens Association actually opposed its restoration, and Key's great-grandson, Francis Scott Key-Smith, publicly announced his opposition to the plan as well.

In March 1947, Congress enacted legislation providing $65,000 for creating a replica of the house. Although the cost of a replica was more like $100,000, the Park Service dismantled the Key house in preparation for the project. The salvageable woodwork was taken to a storage area beneath Arlington Memorial Bridge, and a highway contractor stored the brick and stone at a nearby site. But President Truman vetoed the legislation, citing the need for construction materials and funds for the Korean War. "Outraged" members of Congress pledged to enact legislation the following year to force the home's reconstruction.... and nothing happened. (So much for all that congressional outrage, eh?)

Georgetown was then in the process of turning from slum to ultra-wealthy neighborhood. Those wealthy people stole the brick and stone from the storage yard for use in reconstructing local homes. In time, people forgot what the the stored wood was for, and some of it was used to reconstruct the nearby Old Stone House, while some was merely disposed of.

So, the upshot is that the "loss" of the Key House wasn't really a loss. It had no architectural value (even in its original condition), and was not important to Key's composition of the National Anthem. While three exterior walls and half the roof remained, nearly all the rest of the interior and exterior of the house had been chopped up, dismantled, destroyed, or thrown away years ago. No record of Key's belongings existed, and the house would have stood empty. Anything inside it would have been nothing more than fakes.

The accusation is that the Park Service lost the Francis Scott Key House.

The truth is, the Key House was lost long before the Park Service got hold of it.

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