For $30M You Get An Historic Mansion With Assorted Ghosts

As runaway slaves swam across the Potomac River traveling along the Underground Railroad, they sought a tunnel feeding into the basement of the oldest houses in Georgetown: the Halcyon House.

Today, Prospect Street’s historic Halcyon House, which went on the market on Aug. 30 for a striking $30 million, is said to be haunted by the ghosts of runaway slaves who died in the basement, as well as those of others who passed away in the house.

Back in 1961, Georgetown University students had an opportunity to discover some of these haunted rumors when the university turned the Halcyon House into a dorm for the first formal class of female students. This lasted little over a year, however, as unforeseen zoning restrictions soon surfaced. The university sold the property while making plans to build Darnall and Harbin Halls.

But the Halcyon House has a deep history reaching far beyond its involvement with Georgetown University.

The house is located at 3400 Prospect St. NW and is an enormous Georgian mansion that spans most of the block. The land on which it sits was given as part of a 500-acre grant from Charles Calvert, 3rd Lord Baltimore to Ninian Beall in 1706. Beall was a Scotsman well-known for his zealous Presbyterianism. Beall sold off pieces of this large lot until his death in 1717. Most of this land became the foundations of Washington, D.C.

The lot at 3400 Prospect changed hands until Benjamin Stoddert, secretary of the Navy under former president John Adams and a retired captain wounded in the Revolutionary War, bought the land in 1783. Stoddert built the original proportions of the Halcyon House in 1789, the same year as the founding of Georgetown University.

After its construction, the house was named for a mythical bird, the halcyon, which is said to have powers to calm rough seas, which was fitting because Stoddert controlled the Navy.

During Stoddert’s ownership, he chose Pierre L’Enfant, who was one of D.C.’s master planners, to design the famous gardens located on the property.

In 1900, the mansion was purchased by Albert Adsit Clemens, nephew of author Samuel Clemens, who was better known by his pseudonym, Mark Twain. Albert Clemens employed a full-time carpenter who not only lived in the house but also dedicated 30 years to renovating the Halcyon House.

Under his direction, the house expanded to over 40 rooms, including a library, game room, ballroom and, most interesting of all, an English chapel with pulpit and auditorium — all of which remain to this day, surrounded by an enormous three-sided exterior wall. But one thing Clemens refused to install was electricity, which he believed to be evil.

More recently, the house was purchased for commercial development in 1982 by its current proprietor, John Dreyfuss, a prominent Connecticut sculptor. Dreyfuss declined to comment for this article.

Dreyfuss has spent the last 25 years saving the now 30,500-square-foot house from disrepair. Costs for the renovations have been deferred by renting out apartments in the house’s wings and by hosting various civic and corporate events in the ballroom.

In August, the Halcyon House found itself on the market once again for the first time in 40 years (the house sold for $275,000 in 1966). Its current market price makes it the most expensive house in D.C., which would trump the previous highest price paid for a house in D.C. — $24.6 million last year for developer Herb Miller’s house at 3124 Q St. NW.

“The Halcyon House is one of the most important private properties in the city,” Judy Lewis, the listing agent with Tutt, Taylor & Rankin Sotheby’s International Realty, said in an interview with the Washington Business Journal. “It has a fascinating history going back to the days of George Washington.”

Despite its expensive price tag, the Halcyon House is nonetheless rumored in archives of Lauinger Library to be one of the most haunted houses in Georgetown, and short of the White House, the most haunted house in D.C.

Besides runaway slaves who haunt the hall, a young British soldier wounded in the War of 1812 is said to have died in the house and to never have left.

Other stories include a carpenter working for Dreyfuss who reported hearing screams and moans rising from the basement while in the house one day. He fled, refusing even to reclaim his discarded tools. Another couple renting an apartment in the ’60s claimed seeing a balding, fat man in a brown suit sitting on one of their chairs. Their description matched that of Albert Clemens himself.

A six-year-old resident in the ’60s also complained that the ghost of an old woman would rearrange his bedcovers every night, until one night she kissed him, promised never to bother him again and floated out a second-story window.

Perhaps the best-documented sighting, however, occurred during a cocktail party hosted by the Ropers, residents who also taught at Georgetown in the ’60s. One guest came downstairs and said to Mr. Roper, “I didn’t know your mother was living with you,” to which Mr. Roper replied that his mother was dead. “Then who was rocking in that chair upstairs in your room?” was the reply.

Fear of ghosts has not deterred buyers, however, as the house is supposed to sell for the highest price in D.C. history.


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