The Castle on Meridian Hill

1920 View of Henderson's Castle

Near Meridian Hill Park in Washington, DC, at Florida Avenue and 16th Street, stands a stone gate, a remnant of a structure razed in 1949.  It is a reminder of the time when this neighborhood was Washington’s Embassy Row, a brainchild of Washington grande dame Mary Foote Henderson.  Henderson built a number of palatial residences in the 1910s and ‘20s that she rented to socialites and to foreign governments.  The Polish Embassy, at 2640 Sixteenth Street, NW, survives from this era.

Mary Henderson lived where the stone gate stands at Florida Avenue, in a mansion known as Henderson’s Castle.  The Castle was built in 1888 by Mary and her husband, former U. S. Senator John Brooks Henderson.  The Castle’s history stretches back in time, to the early days of Missouri’s Civil War.

John Brooks Henderson moved to Missouri from Danville, Virginia, when a boy.  In 1861 Henderson was appointed a general in the Missouri militia, having been active in local politics in Pike County, Missouri.  Henderson’s military career was distinguished by a decision he made to negotiate with Missouri rebels in Callaway County.  At Wellsville, Montgomery County, Henderson agreed to terms offered by Col. Jefferson Jones to diffuse a confrontation there.  Jones would disband several hundred men he had assembled in defense of Callaway County if Henderson would agree not to invade the county with the Union troops at his disposal.  This incident in October, 1861, gave Callaway County its modern nickname, the “Kingdom” of Callaway.  Callawegians still revel in their short-lived sovereignty.

In 1862, Henderson was appointed to fill the unexpired term of a Missourian who was expelled by the U. S. Senate.  Henderson served in the Senate of the United States until 1869.  He is most remembered, when he is remembered at all, as the author and sponsor of the first draft of what would become the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery, which he introduced as a Joint Resolution of Congress in 1864.  In 1868, Henderson was one of seven Republicans in the Senate to vote against impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.  For this, Henderson earned mention in John Kennedy’s 1956 work, Profiles in Courage.  Like the other six, Henderson’s political future was ruined by this vote.

John Henderson met Mary Foote in Washington and they married in 1868, before he left the Senate.  They returned to Missouri, and lived there for twenty years, first in Louisiana, Missouri and later in St. Louis.  Although the Henderson’s were very successful during those years, the story that is told in Washington is that their wealth exploded when Missouri county bonds issued during the Civil War – thought to be worthless when the Hendersons purchased them at a deep discount – were redeemed by the federal government at face value.  Whatever the case, the Hendersons moved to Washington, D.C. in 1888, and built the magnificent castle on Sixteenth Street.

John Henderson died in Washington in 1913.  Mary passed away in 1931.

Mary Foote Henderson was born in Seneca Falls, New York, into a Connecticut family that included that state’s Governor Samuel Foote.  Samuel Foote’s son – Mary’s first cousin – was Civil War Admiral Andrew Foote.