Want to learn more about the history of the All Souls neighborhood? Check out this new series on the Young Souls Blog that features historic information about the surrounding area.
By John DeFerrari
“The quietly elegant Envoy, originally opened in 1918 as Meridian Mansions, rises opposite Meridian Hill Park at 2400 16th Street, NW. James Goode tells us that the building was once “one of the truly great apartment houses in the nation’s capital.” Its survival and adaptation say much about the changes that have occurred in the city over its lifetime. They also highlight the unique role that great buildings like this can serve to bridge the gap between past and present tastes and needs.
The sprawling apartment complex was the brainchild of prolific developer Edgar S. Kennedy (1864-1953), a successful real estate mogul during the boom days of the early 1900s. Born in Virginia during the Civil War, Kennedy came to Washington as a young man and got involved in the building trade. He built blocks of rowhouses in several suburban communities that used to be part of Washington County, including Park View and Mount Pleasant. By the 1910s his brother William joined him, and the two set their sights on bigger projects; the first large apartment building they constructed was the Argyle, completed in 1913 at the corner of Park Road and Mount Pleasant Street NW and designed by Alexander H. Sonnemann (1872-1956), a Maryland-born architect who had been Edgar Kennedy’s long-time collaborator. In 1915, two years after finishing the Argyle, the Kennedy brothers arranged a deal with Dr. Zachariah T. Sowers, a prominent local physician, to acquire the undeveloped land he owned at 16th Street and Crescent Place NW in exchange for the Argyle. The Kennedys put Sonnemann immediately to work laying out floor plans for a large new luxury apartment building on the site.
At the time it was designed, the seven-story Meridian Mansions building was massively out of scale on Meridian Hill, an exclusive neighborhood of grand residences and embassies that had been carefully curated by powerful socialite Mary Foote Henderson (see our previous profile of her). Henderson’s “castle” loomed over the block just to the south of the Meridian Mansions site. According to architectural historian Kim Williams, Henderson was generally opposed to the construction of large apartment buildings on Meridian Hill because of their scale, and it seems likely she would have disapproved of the Kennedy project. In 1922, columnist Mayme Ober Peak interviewed Mary Henderson and asked her about Meridian Mansions. Mrs. Henderson told her that when she found she couldn’t prevent the building’s construction, she tried to get it to conform to her vision for Meridian Hill:
The corporation which built it was certainly very decent…. I was delighted at the opportunity of helping design an apartment house that could spread out instead of up, with ample facilities for sunlight and air. There wasn’t an apartment in Washington where an outdoor woman could live happily. I worked with Major [George Oakley] Totten in designing the suites in ells, each with the sunroom opening on a loggia. There is also a water garden on the roof. Ten senators live there now, and their personal interest and influence are worth a good deal to us up here [on Meridian Hill]...”
Continue reading the post on the Streets of Washington blog.
Streets of Washington, John DeFerrari, January 2017.