Trading spaces—brewery to concert hall, school to castle, and the little-known history of “Myrtilla Miner’s School for African American Girls”

September 26, 2017

 

“Ms. Miner, a white woman from New York, moved to the District of Columbia to open the school in the early 1850s. It burned down in 1860, the result of an arson attack. “

 

Brewery to Concert Hall

 

President Eisenhower signed National Cultural Center Act in 1958 to fund a center for the performing arts in Washington, DC. As the planned National Cultural Center was subsequently supported by President Kennedy, after his assassination his successor—President Johnson—signed legislation naming the planned center The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1964. The groundbreaking ceremony was held in December of that year, on a large plot of land on the north bank of the Potomac River adjacent to the Watergate Complex (which had opened two years earlier), and the center opened to the public September 8, 1971.

 

But as development in Washington, DC expanded greatly during and after World War II, how was such a prime and large location available for the new performing arts center? The answer can be found in the history and generosity of the Heurich family and the Christian Heurich Brewing Company. Christian Heurich was born in Germany in 1852 and subsequently became apprentice to a brewer. Immigrating to the United States in 1866, Mr. Heurich eventually landed in Washington, DC, partnered with an existing brewery, and eventually took over the business, renaming t the Christian Heurich Brewing Company. The first brewery, located south of Dupont Circle at 20th and M Streets, NW, was very successful, but after a disastrous fire, Heurich built a new brewery on the banks of the Potomac River and a new fire-proof mansion for himself and his family on a plot of land at 20th and Sunderland Streets, NW. Construction of both the brewery and mansion—now known as the Brewmaster’s Castle—began in 1894.

 

Christian Heurich lived a long and fruitful life—the brewery became Washington’s largest—and he continued to run the business until his death at the age of 102 in 1945. Although his son attempted to continue the business, the brewery closed in 1956 and the Heurich family subsequently donated a portion of the land on which the brewery stood to the US government. The buildings were then razed to make room for the Kennedy Center.

 

School for Free African American Woman to Gilded Age Mansion

 

The land on which the Heurich mansion and garden sites at 20th and Sunderland Street, NW also has an interesting history. The Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington became a very fashionable place to live during the Gilded Age in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, the neighborhood contains several Gilded Age house museums and numerous former Gilded Age mansions that subsequently became home to civic institutions and foreign embassies. The Heurich House was donated by the family to the Columbia Historical Society (now the Historical Society of Washington, DC) but was re-purchased by a Heurich family foundation in 2003 and since then has operated as one of Washington’s most elegant and most intact historic house museums.

 

Before construction of the Heurich mansion in 1894-96, the plot of land on which it stands hosted a little-known facet of Washington history. In 1851, a white female abolitionist named Myrtilla Miner opened a school for free African American women in Washington, DC—to great controversy. Slavery was still legal in Washington, but Miner realized the city had a large population of free African American men and women. First hosting the school in a downtown building, due to the persistent hostility she faced she then purchased a house in the still rather undeveloped neighborhood of Washington, DC—where the Heurich House now stands.

 

Recently, C-Span recorded a presentation by the Heurich House Museum’s Executive Director, Kimberly Bender, on this remarkable and little-known aspect of the Heurich property’s history and the extraordinary efforts by Ms. Miner to provide for the education of free African American women in the nation’s capital before the Civil War.

 

Watch the C-Span Video

Myrtilla Miner’s School for African American Girls

Presentation by Kimberly Bender, Executive Director, Heurich House Museum

August 30, 2017

 

Also read

Obituary of Christian Heurich (son of the first Christian Heurich)

By Maureen Joseph

The Washington Post

July 13, 1979

 

 

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