- Historic Sites
A Wrecker’s Dozen—twenty Years Later
In February 1970 the editors of American Heritage published “A Wrecker’s Dozen,” by David McCullough. It predicted the destruction of thirteen American buildings and lamented the lack of a widespread conservation ethic in the United States. A while ago G. W.Leaworthy of Titusville, Florida, wrote to us, asking what had happened to the doomed buildings. We decided to find out, and we’re happy to report the news is mostly good.
July/august 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 5
The other D.C. buildings were saved as well. The Alva Belmont House, which is now known as the Sewall-Belmont House, is one of the oldest residences on Capitol Hill. Its first section is thought to have been built by Lord Baltimore in 1632, and the main house was added by Robert Sewall in 1800. Leased by Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Jefferson and Madison, the house is supposed to have been the site where Gallatin worked out the finances for the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. When set upon by British troops in 1814, the house was partially destroyed by fire, but it was restored to become one of Washington’s social centers. In the early 1970s the building was almost demolished to make room for a new Senate parking lot; a bill declaring it a National Historic Site saved it. Now the Sewall-Belmont House is a nonprofit museum operated by the National Women’s party.
The west front of the U.S. Capitol also came very close to being demolished. A proposal to redesign and extend the structure was put forth in 1966 by J. George Stewart, at that time the official capitol architect (although he himself was not an architect). The plan, which would have removed the only remaining visible Benjamin H. Latrobe and Charles Bulfinch designs at the Capitol, was considered feasible as late as 1982, although its necessity had been refuted in 1970 by an independent consulting firm. A vote in the House during the summer of 1983 canceled plans for the extension, and it is now free of danger.
The Hill, which was built in 1796 for Henry Livingston, a justice of the Supreme Court and hero of the Ticonderoga campaign, was dismantled in 1983 after a serious fire in the early 1970s ravaged it. Modeled after a Palladian villa, the mansion overlooking the Hudson River has been replaced by a contemporary private residence.
The General Worth Hotel, an 1837 model of urban Greek Revival design, was demolished in late 1969 after a long and heated battle between concerned citizens and the town’s mayor, Samuel T. Wheeler. The hotel was designed by Isaiah Rogers on the model of the Tremont House in Boston. Lincoln stopped at the Worth during his inaugural trip to Washington in 1861, and it was long considered the finest hotel in the northern Hudson Valley. In its place today is an electrical supply company and a parking lot.
The Walter Luther Dodge House, Irving Gill’s sprawling 1916 design for the millionaire creator of Tiz, “for tired feet,” was an early architectural triumph for reinforced concrete. A ranchlike structure of the early International Style, it joined a large garden with a bilevel house, a raised swimming pool, and a two-car garage. The best preserved of Gill’s houses in the 1950s, it was destroyed in 1970 and is now the site of an apartment complex.
The Destrehan Manor House, to round out the wrecker’s dozen, was saved. Built in 1787, it is the oldest plantation home in the lower Mississippi Valley. Early this century the property was sold to the Mexican Oil Company, which operated a refinery on the site; when the refinery was abandoned in 1958, the house fell into disrepair. The River Road Historical Society took over the property in 1970 and has almost completely restored it. About twenty-five miles from New Orleans, the Destrehan Plantation is now a museum and National Historic Site.