The Soldiers’ Home’s Granite Bridge

An artist’s view of visitors taking a drive in the Soldiers’ Home in 1886

The park-like quality of much of the Armed Services Retirement Home’s (AFRH) grounds is well known. However, with the closing of the grounds in 1968 the greater public ceased to know the the sites that the grounds afforded. This past year, with the formation of the Friends of the Soldiers’ Home and their collaboration with the residents and staff at the Home, the grounds have started to become more accessible to the greater community again. This was most evident during the July 4th celebrations held there.

The ground’s vista of the Capitol building is both well known an impressive. Yet it is one of the grounds lesser details that has caught my attention lately. This is the small granite bridge at the south end of the lakes — located on the western border of the property a little south of Park Road. Like the Anderson Cottage (aka Lincoln Cottage) and the original Scott building, it is frequently shown in illustrations of the Soldiers’ Home grounds (see 1886 image above).

Stereoview of granite bridge from the south ca. 1880

When I asked members of the Home about the bridge, I was informed that it was construction ca. 1871 at the south end of the duck pond also known as Lake Nina. I was also given the following brief description of the bridge:

[The bridge was built] during a time when the west section of the campus was used as a recreational park for both residents and visitors. The Board of Commissioners in their August of 1870 meeting ordered for the construction of a second lake to “have a dam and stone bridge combined.” The three-span arch bridge is constructed of rusticated stone with a lion’s head keystone, stone voussoirs, and a brick barrel, spanning the stream that runs south from the artificial lakes.

A view of the bridge from the north, as seen today

A visitor to the grounds fortunate enough to be at the south end of the lakes can still find the bridge today — although it is less impressive now than it once was. Sometime during the past decades the bridge’s abutments, rail, and balustrade were removed leaving only the rusticated stone with a lion’s head keystone. While restoration of the bridge can not be said to be high on the list of improvements at the AFRH today, it is heartening to read that the present draft of their Master Landscape Plan proposes that “the original granite balustrade of the Granite Bridge should be reconstructed using historic photographs,” (Sec. 4.7.8.3).

Reconstruction based on historic photographs will only contain one major decision on the bridges appearance.  Though largely unchanged for most of its existence, sometime between 1915 and 1918 four monumental urns were added to the each end of the bridge. These can be seen in the postcard and snap shot images below.

Postcard showing granite bridge from the north ca. 1920.

Snap shot of young boy in front of the granite bridge ca. 1918.

I have included the article accompanying the 1886 drawing of driving at the Solders’ Home after the jump.

DRIVING TO THE “SOLDIERS’ HOME”

There are two drives t be taken by the visitor to the city of Washington which are always spoken of first by the sight-seer as well as the resident, and both possess charms for the lover of fine scenery as well as for the student of history. One of these drives is that over the Potomac by the Long Bridge, or the old Aqueduct Bridge at Georgetown, to Arlington; the other is the drive north to the Soldiers’ Home. The Soldiers’ Home drive is the most popular, as it is the most accessible, and it bears repeated visiting without tiring the visitor, as does the melancholy cemetery at Arlington, with its thousands of eloquent white head-stones. The popular driving hour in Washington is just at sundown, after the dinner hour, which is earlier in most houses than it is in New York. When the tide has fairly set toward the Soldiers’ Home the pretty shaded streets in the northwest section are contributing all sorts of equipages to the procession that streams into Seventh Street Road from Fourteenth Street and Boundary Road – a sort of boulevard at the edge of the city. The asphalted roads stop at the boundary, and from that point over Columbia Heights, which rise sharply from the city limits, there are dirt roads to the Home. It is but three miles from the city to the Home, and the road lies for a part of the distance through an uninteresting neighborhood. It is a steadily rising road, however, and as the carriages turn into a shaded lane, where the roadway is bowered by trees on each side, the visitor sees that the [view to the] left is spread out before him far to the east and the west. A little chapel and an inner gate are passed, and the a perfect road is found leading off to the right through a majestic forest. There are about five hundred acres in the enclosure, and they include stretches of lawn, forests that are the results of years of growth and care, lakes, gardens, farm patches, and the buildings for the old soldiers for whom the property was acquired.

The drive by the east winds gracefully through field and forest until the immediate neighborhood of the Home – a large brick building with extensive piazzas, usually occupied by blue-coated veterans. The dormitories, kitchen, farm-house, residences of the Superintendent and his subordinates, cluster about the Home and close by it is the little cottage, not now used, but made familiar to everybody as the Soldiers’ Home cottage occupied by Presidents Buchanan, Lincoln, Hayes, and Arthur during the summer months of their administrations. North of the Home is an attractive building containing a library for the inmates of the Home, and beyond it, outside the grounds, it the National Cemetery, with its 5424 graves. One who drives through the grounds and back will probably not be impressed with the elevation of the Home until the return. At the top of the hill, a short distance from the central buildings, a magnificent view of the city, the Potomac River, the hills of Virginia and Maryland, is obtained. The Capitol building is a conspicuous glistening whit object in the middle distance, set in the green of the thousands of shade trees that rise above the buildings of the city. On a hill within the grounds, between the observer and the point where he entered, is the hospital, a large and substantial building most favorably placed to catch any passing breeze in summer. No well-informed driver will let a visitor to the Soldiers’ Home grounds fail to see what is called “The Vista.” It is a glimpse of the Capitol caught through the accidentally formed from of foliage of several trees, and the effect is pretty. The roads in the Home grounds, which is a sort of park, [are] not so extensive as Central Park, but more favored by nature, are maintained by the inmates. Begun by an appropriation of the pillage money exacted by General Scott from the city of Mexico, the Home is now supported by contributions from the soldiers in the regular army, with assistance from Congress.

The above is from Harper’s Weekly, June 26, 1886.

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6 Comments on “The Soldiers’ Home’s Granite Bridge”

  1. Denis James Says:

    Nice piece, Kent. Do we know why the abutments, rail, and balustrade were removed?

    • Kent Says:

      I wasn’t able to find that out … but suspect they were in need of repair and the administration at the time decided it was just easier to remove them. They do not appear to have survived.

  2. ANNE Says:

    Kent, I so appreciate these historical notes. Keep it up!

    Annie

  3. Howard Says:

    Not your every day source of park funding! “Begun by an appropriation of the pillage money exacted by General Scott from the city of Mexico, the Home is now supported by contributions from the soldiers in the regular army, with assistance from Congress.”


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