Monday, March 21, 2011

Samuel Davidson for sale

"Evermay", the secluded Georgetown estate built for Samuel Davidson in 1801, is for sale and the real estate agency is putting a shine on its first owner. Its web page listing the house boasts that it is on the National Register of Historic Places in a Historic District "which includes the northern grounds of the White House, the Treasury Building, the Old Executive Office Building, and Lafayette Square: — all on lands that were part of the 150 acres Samuel Davidson once owned."

A good deal of history is guilt by association, but real estate history tends more toward grace by association:

"The history of Evermay intertwines with the evolution of Washington, D.C. In 1792, George Washington commissioned French architect and engineer Pierre L'Enfant to design the new U.S. capital. [actually it was 1791] A year later, businessman Samuel Davidson purchased prime acreage in what would become Georgetown, [Georgetown had been since the 1750s and what Davidson bought was rather off the beaten path] and selected an exceptional hillside setting for the site of his home. Both L'Enfant and Davidson turned to architect Nicholas King [L'Enfant never turned to King who came to the city in 1795, three years after L'Enfant left and King was a land surveyor] to execute their visions for the city of Washington and Evermay." from

The asking price for Evermay is $29.5 million.

Too cheap.

Let's see if we can jack it up to $30 million just by giving a true portrait of Davidson, a grasping, selfish, colossal pain in the butt to city authorities and fellow land owners who enlivened Washington history as much as he deadened the development of the city.

On June 2, 1810, when he finally got a good fence, much of it brick, around his estate, Davidson put an announcement in the newspaper:

Evermay proclaims
Take care, enter not here,
For punishment is very near.

More of that announcement later.

Yes, Davidson was there at the beginnings of the City of Washington. Technically Davidson indeed was the owner of the centrally located land the government bought but he had never lived on it. The Peerce family owned the land since the 17th century and farmed it. Davidson was a merchant in Georgetown with an eye for the main chance, as were most of the sophisticated landowners surrounding the Peerces. Two members of the famous Carroll family of Maryland were also landowners in the future city. The Peerces were persuaded by their betters to join them in signing over all their land to the government in a March 30, 1791, agreement with President Washington which set up the mechanism for development of the city. After Peerce signed, Davidson bought his land for $6000, plus a 500 acre farm on the Gunpowder River north of Baltimore, and a chintz pattern for Mrs. Peerce.

Davidson expected to make a good deal of money. While the plan of the city showing the sites of the public buildings had not been made yet, Davidson had befriended Pierre L'Enfant the man making the plan. That friendship paid off. When L'Enfant showed his plan, Davidson was a big winner. The public square north of the future White House would take generous portions of his land for which he would be paid.

Then when the government fulfilled its end of the March 30 agreement Davidson would get half of all the building lots on his property not taken for streets and public spaces, which the government would survey at its expense. By anyone's calculations the price of lots immediately north of the White House had to be high. L'Enfant advised him to dig clay on his land and begin making bricks. He would have a lot of building to do. Davidson wrote to bankers in London looking to mortgage his property to raise the money to build handsomely.

Then L'Enfant proved too energetic for the three commissioners overseeing the construction of the public buildings. Davidson sided with L'Enfant and even loaned money to keep men L'Enfant hired at work after the commissioners fired them. But President Washington sided with the commissioners and the L'Enfant Plan that Davidson had seen was replaced with a revised plan that showed a much smaller square north of the White House.

Davidson became a bitter enemy of the commissioners and, it seemed to many, of the city itself. He wasn't shy of insulting the commissioners, blaming them for the city's slow development due to the "fatal loss of public opinion of your abilities." (June 1, 1792, Davidson to the Commissioners.) The commissioners tried to placate him by letting him have all the building lots immediately north of the White House. Davidson took them but didn't build on them. He kept insisting that they were part of the public square for which he should be paid.

Another Georgetown merchant who speculated in city property, Benjamin Stoddert, begged Davidson to build some houses, calculating that would increase the value of his lots to half a million dollars. Davidson made bricks on his land for two years and sold them to the commissioners. The real estate agent's web page lauds Davidson's "industry" for making bricks, but most brickmaking in the city was done by slaves. Then he had the trees on his land cut and sold for firewood. He let a friend's nephew work the farm on his land, sown principally with oats.

He sold a few lots to men working on the public buildings, but, in part because of his niggardliness in developing his property, those were not flush times for workers in the city. Davidson account books, now in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division, are peppered with wry comments on tardy payments: "Beware of Wm. Dyer [a master carpenter] he being a rascal...." At the same time he wailed that he could hardly make enough off his 150 acres to pay for the taxes the commissioners demanded.

But in the main, the account books chart gains like the sweet deal he made with a newly appointed commissioner. On January 5, 1796, he sold "Negro Thomas" to Gustavus Scott, for 112 Pounds 10 Shillings. [The transition to dollars and cents was slow even in the capital-to-be.] Davidson bought the slave the week before from Hugh Cox of Charles County, Maryland, for 80 Pounds. Davidson had to buy clothing for the slave, at 2/19/5, and sundries at 3/0/2, and calculated his profit at 26/10/5 or about $70.

I should add that there is no evidence that Davidson was cruel to slaves. Indeed in 1809, he bought Edward for $600, and a year later he delegated extensive responsibility to him. Evermay was brought to that point of perfection when it was time not to invite everyone to an Open House but to keep everyone away. Back to that announcement that I found in his papers in the Library of Congress:

Whereas my height called Evermay, adjoining this town is now completely enclosed with a good stone wall, in part, and a good post and rail fence joining thereto. This is to forewarn, at their peril, all persons of whatsoever age, sex, color, or standing in society, from trespassing on the premises, in any manner, by day or night; particularly all thievish knaves and idle vagabonds; all rambling parties, all assignation parties; all amorous bucks with their doxies; all sporting bucks with their dogs and guns. My man Edward, who resides on the premises, has my positive orders to protect the same from all trespass as far in his power, with the aid of the following implements, placed in his hands for that purpose, if necessary: viz. law, when the party is worthy of that attention and proper testimony can be had -- a good cudgel, tomahawk, cutlass, gun and blunderbuss, with powder, shot and bullets -- steel traps and grass snakes.

It is Edward's duty to obey my lawful commands. In so doing on this occasion, I will defend him at all risks and hazards.

For the information of those persons, who may have real business on the premises, there is a good and convenient gate. But mark! I do not admit mere curiosity an errand of business. Therefore I beg and pray all of my neighbors to avoid Evermay as they would a dive of devils or rattle snakes and thereby save themselves and me much vexation and trouble.

Now who wouldn't pay $30 million for such a dive of devilish history? Rattle snakes! Do I hear $32 million? Steel traps! Do I hear $35 million?