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Save the Castle--Now!

Five years from now, the castle on New Hampshire Avenue NW, the most fully intact Victorian mansion now open to the public as a museum, could be yet another urban facade job, a run of the mill office building with a quirky bit facing the street.

Or the Brewmaster's Castle could be saved, kept open for all to see as a glorious 19th century home smack in the heart of the Dupont Circle neighborhood. Gary Heurich, whose grandfather Christian Heurich built the castle in 1894, led me on a tour of the house the other day--part of a last-ditch campaign to raise $250,000 in back mortgage payments and save the house from sale. The deadline is Feb. 15--Wednesday.

There's a spectacular but very depressing book called Capital Losses, by James Goode, that chronicles the stunning architecture of the great 18th and 19th century buildings that Washington once boasted, but which were lost because not enough people cared to save them.

The Heurich castle tells the story of the outsized role that breweries and brewers played in the great American cities of the 19th and 20th centuries. It takes you back to a Washington that doesn't come across in the marble federal buildings on and near the Mall.

The time to save the castle is right now; in fact, if you don't have a hot Valentine's date tonight, or even if you do, you might want to stop by a benefit at the castle--I guarantee you will be astonished by the interiors of this house, which are unchanged from when old man Heurich lived here.

Three years ago, when the castle was on the verge of being sold and converted into a private club, the Heurich family and the National Trust for Historic Preservation jumped in to create a foundation that in turn borrowed money and bought the place for $5.5 million. They have run the house as a public museum since then; it's also rented out as a spectacular party place and wedding locale.

The place was breaking even--til interest rates jumped. Stuck with a balloon mortgage, the foundation faced suddenly much higher note payments (they leaped from $20,000 a month to $33,000) and fell way behind. Now the lender wants its money.

To become self-sustaining, the foundation will not only have to raise $250,000 by this week, but also $1.75 million by the end of this year. "What we need is a white knight," says Heurich, the youngest of the old man's 11 grandchildren.

If you go see the house, you will know how important it is. "This is the last gasp of Victorian exuberance," says Mary Anne Hoffman, a prominent Washington tour guide who has made saving the castle her mission in life. "It's over the top but it's how the wealthy merchant class lived."

This is a house with huge oak mantels, 15 fireplaces (none were ever used because Heurich feared the fires that had destroyed so many great mansions of that era), hand-stenciled wallpaper, an ingenious music balcony that looks out over three rooms, an authentic German beerkeller in the basement, a gilded Steinway in the drawing room, triple-hung collapsible louvers, a spectacular glassed-in conservatory, a desk that was designed for President Ulysses Grant, an onyx and marble staircase and some ingenious inventions: A central vacuum cleaning system in which you could attach your cleaner's tube to a suction valve built into the wall and the dirt would be sucked right down into the basement. And a voice-powered intercom system in the walls that let you call for service from the second floor all the way to the staff room in the basement.

Gary Heurich, who brought his family name back to the Washington beer business with Foggy Bottom Ale, is trying to maintain his family's long tradition of giving. It was his father and aunts who donated the old Heurich brewery site along the Potomac for what is now the Kennedy Center. A city that from 1796 to 1956 was home to 20 different breweries now has none within its borders. But the Heurich House represents a chance to save a glimpse of the high life at the turn of the 20th century, and Gary Heurich has devoted the past three years of his life to keeping Washington's connection to that time.

"It's a race against time," Heurich says. And it's now right down to the wire.

By Marc Fisher |  February 14, 2006; 6:41 AM ET
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Save the Castle? Of course! Here is an idea, something DC Citizens have talked about from time to time...let's make the Castle the official home of the Mayor of the District of Columbia. Making it a home again restores it to its original useage, has plenty of entertainment space necessary for the WAC (Wallet and Checks) crowd, near Metro for the Mayor to take to the Wilson Building and lots more. So, City Council...let's buy it!

Posted by: John Klenert | February 14, 2006 9:51 AM

But Marc, let's make clear that no one is talking about demolishing the castle -- it won't appear in the next edition of Capital Losses. The Post has reported that, if the castle is sold, mostly likely it would be turend into a restaurant or an embassy. Yes, the interior furnishings would be lost and perhaps the public won't have access, but it's not as if the entire building will be destroyed.

Posted by: Paul Boudreaux | February 14, 2006 9:56 AM

I would love to help the castle. But they've only had it since 2003 - how do I know they won't be in the same trouble again in three years? I'm not being snarky, it's a serious question. (I'm not talking as a big donor here, just someone who walks by the building often and could contribute $50 or so.)

Posted by: h3 | February 14, 2006 9:57 AM

Two words (Bye, Bye)


Posted by: Frankey | February 14, 2006 10:04 AM

I don't think the Heurich Family Foundation knew what they were getting into when they got the castle back. It is definitely beautiful, one of the most beautiful intact historic homes I've ever seen. It needs to be managed well, though.

Posted by: bn | February 14, 2006 10:09 AM

Good question, h3, and one that I repeatedly asked when meeting with the foundation folks. Here's their answer: If they can raise the $250,000 they need to hold onto the house right now, they're still not out of the woods. They would need to find another $1.1 million by the end of this year. That would secure the house, supposedly in perpetuity, because it would be enough to assure that they can make the mortgage payments and it would give them the secure footing they need to get their programs up and running again. The good news is that between rentals for parties, weddings, and meetings, and various cultural/historical programs that the foundation ran, the house was breaking even as a museum/rental facility. So if the real estate financing is taken care of, the programming should pay for the maintenance going forward.

Posted by: Fisher | February 14, 2006 10:12 AM

I went on a date here about a decade ago (think it was for a reception, can't remember the details), but it was unbelievably beautiful inside. What a loss if it all gets junked.

Posted by: vienna local | February 14, 2006 10:51 AM

I went to the castle. Once. About 15 years ago. It was interesting and I have sent friends there. But, fundamentally, as a museum it's a failure. The reason the Heurichs are begging money now is that not enough people want to pay to see the inside of the place. So, let's try the building in another use. Maybe as a restaurant people will pay to go into it. And, if they do, the restaurant will pay taxes instead of being another tax deadbeat for the rest of us to support. But, please, not another deadbeat embassy or tax-exempt environmental group!

Posted by: Kalorama Kat | February 14, 2006 11:16 AM

kalorama kat, did you read the note from mr. fisher? he said that the programs and museum were breaking even, therefore NOT A FAILURE. it's just the real estate prices that were a problem. there apparently ARE enough people who want to pay to see the place.

Posted by: imgoph | February 14, 2006 12:31 PM

And Kat don't forget those ripoff republicon lobbyist groups. Maybe Cheney could just buy it and use the basement for target practice. Yeah those environmental groups, who do they think they are trying to help the environment.

Posted by: modaddy | February 14, 2006 3:27 PM

IMGoph, I read the Fisher note and he said they can't pay the mortgage. In other words, if we'd just buy them the building, they can cover the electricity and the maintenance. The people who see the place are not paying the cost -- they want us to pay the big chunk (the mortgage) for them. It's like, if I buy you a new Ferrari, you can afford to pay the gas and the license.

MoDaddy, Good they're helping the environment. Now, why don't they pay for the city services they're consuming? Why do the rest of us have to make up for their taxes?

Are there Republican lobbyists? Since when? Man, has Newt Gingrich heard about this? Lobbyists aren't tax-exempt.

Posted by: Kalorama Kat | February 14, 2006 3:40 PM

Good photos and fascinating background on the castle can be found on the blog of Michael Grass, a descendant of the sculptor who designed and built the extraordinary mantels and other woodwork in the Heurich House:

Posted by: Fisher | February 14, 2006 10:11 PM

Since the first emails were sent roughly a month ago, I'm suspicious of This Sudden Emergency where they're short, oh, about a quarter mill. If they've been losing money for quite some time, why this late?

Even if everything is on the up and up, I'd be leary of donating anything substantial to their accountants.

Posted by: dan | February 15, 2006 1:26 AM

Maybe the Post editorial staff can donate 1% of their salaries; that should cover the debt, shouldn't it?

Posted by: Chris | February 15, 2006 10:10 AM

Following Fisher's suggestion, I traced the links to Grass's website, and back to the Heurich website. What I find strange is that if you want to visit this place, you have three choices: Wednesday 12:15, Wednesday 1:15 and Saturday 1:15. It says that the Friday tour has been cancelled because of the financial crisis.

This is a place which is open to the public only three hours a week! If they are trying to raise money to save the place, I would think that the idea would be to open it more hours, not fewer. And, if I were begging the public for handouts, I think I would offer to be open to the public a bit more than three hours a week (two percent of the time).

Maybe I'm cynical, but this looks more like a hideout for a small group of elitists and Heurich descendants, not a public service deserving of public contributions.

Posted by: Kalorama Kat | February 15, 2006 1:13 PM

when gnome win chair give: , white slot is always central chair

Posted by: Evan Moore | March 29, 2006 10:20 PM

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