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.
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