Catholic University Could Have Been The White House

Courtesy of Life Magazine Archives

By Claire Prudhomme

The land on which Catholic University resides was under serious consideration for the new place of the “Executive Mansion,” a new home for the President and their family that would be built due to bad conditions in the White House in 1865. 

Construction of the White House began in 1792 and it was not until 1800 that a President actually lived inside, with Abigail and John Adams being the first to accommodate the space. While the White House has undergone many renovations over the years due to weathering conditions, in 1865 it was deemed almost unlivable. 

At this time, the Washington City Canal (Tiber Creek), streamed through downtown and spread its toxic odors and diseases into the small swampy part of the Potomac just south of the mansion. Because of this, the site of the White House was considered unhealthy, especially during the summer. Major Nathaniel Michler from the Army Corps Engineers was assigned to finding a new site and CUA’s plot of land was in the running.

The owner of present-day Catholic University, what was at the time known as Metropolis View, was possessed by Washington Berry. Berry was a well to do farmer who ran a small farm for pleasure but he mostly used the heavily wooded area primarily as a living and recreational space in addition to small yields of crops. When he died in 1856, he left the land to his wife, who after her death in 1861 left it to their daughters. The daughters lost possession of it throughout the destruction that came with the Civil War.

As Metropolis View was primarily owned by slave-owners, during and after the Civil War, Union soldiers destroyed the original estate. They set a chapel on fire, they raided a gravesite for bricks, they broke into the coffins in the family vault and left their bones scattered across the floor of the home, and damaged the property’s estates so terribly that it was unrecognizable. It was put up for sale in 1865, right around the time the White House was looking for a new place for the “Executive Mansion.”

The plot of land that would have been bought stretched from present-day Catholic University to Florida Avenue and while this plan almost came into effect, after Ulysses S. Grant was elected in 1868 he put an end to the whole affair, presumably to avoid any added costs to the federal budget after the war ended. After this, the land of Metropolis View was split up into five large plots and sold at an auction to the highest bidder.

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