Victorian of the Week #11

May 24, 2002

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All Along The Watchtower

Would you feel like Rapunzel if you lived in a tower?

Just about every intersection on old Capitol Hill is defended by a castle. This fortress commands the strategic corner of 10th and C Streets NE. While many of the watchtowers of Capitol Hill are fanciful and highly-stylized, this turret is one of the most fortification-like for its plain and massive profile.

Dramatic houses suggest mysterious and turbulent events in their past. Any such secrets here might lie with Peter Cunningham, the Irish immigrant who built the house sometime before 1880. Oddly for the lord of a castle, Mr. Cunningham was a gardener by trade. While it isn't clear what he grew, it must have been lucrative. In its early years, Mr. Cunningham's house must have seemed doubly-imposing, for it stood almost alone in the 1000 block of C Street.

By 1900, 1000 C Street was rented to a household which reflected the time’s opportunities for women. Maria Betts, listed as the head of the household, worked as a stenographer and lived with her widowed sister, two boarders, a nephew, and a female servant.

By 1910, the house was again home to the Cunningham daughters Anna and Mary, whose “own income” provided for the services of a servant named Daniel Johnson. Perhaps times were different by 1920, when Anna had become active in real estate and the sisters had taken in a lodger named James Heath who worked for the telephone company. By the bleak depression year of 1930, the Cunninghams’ fifty year association with the house had ended and it was owned by a family with no servants and an entire family of renters at $25 per month.

Today 10th and C is a neighborhood of landscaped postage stamp front yards, flowering dogwood, and rowhouses carved into expensive apartments, conscious enough of its own history for "Johnson's Market 1915-1944” to be commemorated in gold leaf on a rowhouse transom. Prosperity can sometimes be a two-edged sword and make a building "wrong" for its location after a hundred years. Hopefully, though, this tide will help the Cunningham’s castle survive to the age of its European inspirations with charm intact.