By Cate Toups Atkinson
Ever notice two houses in the 3800 block of Legation Street NW that appear to be conjoined fraternal twins? They’re not a duplex, as each has separate exterior walls and roofs. What connects them is an odd little wing running roughshod over the property line, suggestive of a bygone era where kids and dogs and platters of food went back and forth between households.
But why? And are they still joined today? As is usual with houses in Chevy Chase, when the doors to these houses crack open, all kinds of stories spill out, and these are not exceptions. Who lived here and what they did with their lives often takes over the narrative.
“The story was, the daughter divorced and they built the house to accommodate her and her children,” said Elizabeth Jenkins Joffe, who bought the house on the left with her husband, lawyer Paul Joffe, in 1977.
Like most rumors that filter through generational neighborhood turnover, there appears to be a sliver of truth to that tidbit that was already half a century old by the time the Joffe’s moved in.
The records tend to agree with it, although they aren’t crystal clear and they say nothing about the family relationships. The lot numbers and physical addresses of these two houses — they were originally platted as three house lots — have been rejiggered several times as infill occurred through the years, making it hard to trace.
But starting from the beginning, the two-story frame house on the left, 3825 Legation, was constructed in 1910 for $5,500 by local builder Howard D. Fulmer for his parents, John H. and Louise Fulmer. The lot to the right, also owned by Fulmer, sat empty for the time being.
The Fulmer household was home to the senior Fulmers plus the builder and his family. The father died only a year after the house was built, at age 65. Newspaper ads attest to the fact that the son ran his home contracting business out of the house. He offered homes “not ready built, but built to order” with more than 50 designs from which to choose. It was a seemingly successful business, as evidenced by the number of houses in the DC databases that list him as builder.
By 1918 Fulmer moved his large family to a newly constructed house at 3901 Jenifer St. His mother, Louisa Fulmer lived another four years, and when she died in 1922 she left $11,000 to her unmarried daughter, Katie Fulmer, and divided the rest of the estate between all three of her children.
It appears the Fulmers rented out the Legation Street house fully furnished until 1924 when it was sold, along with the lot next door, to a man with the distinction of being the youngest person ever to earn a Congressional Medal of Honor.
Col. Robinson Barr Murphy and his wife, Lina Virginia Murphy, were the ones that had the 3823 Legation Street house built. By then in his 70s, Murphy had gone to war at age 13 as a drummer boy and became a scout. He was only 15 when, out scouting near Atlanta, he spotted Confederates cutting away at the right wing of the Federal lines, and he galloped on his pony to tell the commanding officer.
According to a Washington Evening Star accounting of the event, he had tears in his eyes when he reported this grave news. He was then asked to lead the regiment to the enemy. The teenager bravely did just that, and although his pony was shot out from under him, he survived and saved the day. Murphy, the kid, was known as “Colonel” and was officially bestowed the honor by President William McKinley in the 1890s.
In civilian life, Murphy’s business was a wholesale house in Front Royal, and he traveled around the country. It was already late in his life when he and his wife finally settled in Washington, DC, and had the Legation Street house built. They bought both lots — the 1910 house and the empty lot next door — and hired architect George Santmeyers to design the new house. The drawings for a building permit in the Washingtoniana Collection of the DC Public Library clearly show the wing connecting the two homes. Undoubtedly it was specifically designed to deal with the socially awkward problem of a dependent divorcee, their daughter Martha Charlotte.
The Murphys had had three daughters, and Martha Charlotte had married well. In 1905 she became the wife of Charles A. Macatee, the eldest of six sons and three daughters of a prominent Front Royal family whose patriarch was Capt. Charles Augustus Macatee, also a Civil War hero. The elder Macatee was a builder of institutions and a leader in dozens of organizations. He was also a U.S. Treasury Department agent and created a rifle company that was later the foundation of the Virginia National Guard.
Charles and Martha’s war-hero fathers just happened to die a week apart in 1934, but long before then Mrs. Macatee had left her marriage. She officially went by “Mrs. Martha Macatee” for the duration of her life. By the mid-1920s, she and her four children were at home at 3825 Legation St.– the house on the left. A set of French doors opened onto a hallway lined with windows that led next door to her parents’ house.
“There’s a pair of French doors rotting now in our basement,” Elizabeth Jenkins Joffe chuckled. “I understand they were identical to the ones on the other house.”
The Macatees were legendary in the neighborhood during the four decades they lived there, she said. Mrs. Macatee was very proper and had a chauffeur who would drive her around, and she was known to always be fitted out in hat and gloves. She was a Christian Scientist practitioner — a member of the Chevy Chase Christian Scientist church — and had maintained offices at 1317 F Street NW for her professional work up until she died at age 83. Her son, Charles Augustus Macatee III, was also known around the neighborhood.
In 1930 at age 20, young Charles was working as an airplane mechanic at what is now Ronald Reagan National Airport when he he made news headlines for successfully crash-landing a plane. According to the stories, “everyone” had told him he looked like Charles Lindberg — he and Lindberg’s first and middle names were the same — and he wanted to be like him too. He bought an an open-cockpit Challenger plane soon after finishing flight school in December 1929. Among his flight school colleagues was “Miss Mary Lincoln Beckwith,” granddaughter of Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s last surviving son.
According to the Washington Evening Star of March 13, 1930, Macatee was flying a friend, G. Stuart Parker, from Quantico, Va., when his engine overheated and forced him to land about eight miles south of Alexandria — where exactly, the story didn’t specify. He fiddled with a broken water pump and figured he could make it the rest of the way, so he took off again for “Alexandria Airport.” But the engine again overheated and he began losing altitude as he approached the runway. Telephone and power lines “strung along the Washington-Richmond road (now Route 1), bordering the field” stripped off the wheels of the plane, throwing its nose down. “Mcatee instantly opened his failing motor wide and succeeded in pulling up in time to set the fuselage of the plane down in a beautiful ‘pancake’ landing,” the Star reported, noting that “he and Parker stepped out of the ship uninjured.”
The Macatee family held onto the two houses until 1965, but it’s unclear who actually lived in the house on the right after Mrs. Martha Macatee’s parents died in 1934 (her mother and father died within three months of each other and are interred at Arlington National Cemetery). In 1937 a newspaper article referenced a soldier named Kenneth Belt who gave that address, so perhaps the family rented the house out. Eventually, all the Macatee children moved away except for unmarried daughter Lina Virginia Macatee, who lived with her mother in the house on the left. Then Mrs. Macatee died in 1961, and Lina died in 1965, and afterwards, the surviving Macatees divested themselves of the conjoined homes.
According to DC tax records, Daniel Fendrick and his wife Barbara Cooper Fendrick (she ran the contemporary Fendrick Gallery in Georgetown from 1970 until 1991) bought the two homes in 1965. It was the Fendricks who separated the houses, putting up a firewall on the right side, and gifting the older house with the newer wing. Why they didn’t remove the wing is unknown by the current owners. The Fendrick’s, bought the houses as an investment, as they maintained a home in Chevy Chase, MD. Mrs. Fendrick doesn’t recall the details, and her husband died in 1992.
A 1967 newspaper ad lists the houses together, but gives individual prices for each — $25,000 for the one on the right and $33,500 for the one on the left. The house on the left, 3825 Legation,was sold to journalist Thomas I. Dowling and his wife Janet, and the Dowlings turned the passageway into a sunroom. His nascent book collection — now up to 9,000 volumes — was partly accommodated by a new bookcase they built along the wall where the two houses once joined.
The house on the right, 3823 Legation, was sold to Bettina F. and Van Vechten Trumbull. He worked for a Congressman, then the Environmental Protection Agency, and periodically as a copy editor at the Washington Post. They lived there until 1983 when they retired to Nova Scotia. Married for 65 years, they died in 2002 within 10 days of each other, both after long illnesses.
The Dowlings lived on Legation Street for about a decade before they sold it to its current owners — the Jenkins Joffes — and moved one street over to Military Road, where they still live today.
Now 84 and retired, Dowling has had an intriguing career. He was with the State Department in the 1960s (as was Fendrick, from whom he bought the house), then became a writer for The Washingtonian Magazine and later reported for the Washington Evening Star. Early in his journalism career, he said, he “fell” into a book contract about Vince Lombardi. The book — Coach: A Season with Lombardi, published in 1970 while he was living on Legation Street — is touted as one of the best ever written about Lombardi.
While working on a story for The Washingtonian about Jack Anderson, the journalist who exposed political corruption through his widely syndicated newspaper column “Washington Merry-Go-Round,” Dowling recalls he was riding shotgun in Anderson’s car when Anderson stole bags of J. Edgar Hoover’s garbage behind his Forest Hills home. TV cameras captured the whole thing. Dowling remembers details of what was in that trash. His resulting article is titled “Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men? Jack Anderson Knows” (The Washingtonian, May 1971).
Dowling said that after the Hoover escapade, he suspected his phone on Legation Street was being tapped by the FBI and mentioned this when L. Patrick Gray, acting FBI director around the time of Watergate, called him to try to fish for some positive press. “I could tell immediately he wanted to be my new best friend,” Dowling said. He asked Dowling if there was “anything he could do for me and I said, well, I’ve noticed this clicking noise on my phone.There was a long pause so significant you could see that he was thinking, ‘what I am getting myself into!’ And then he hung up and I never heard from him again.” Dowling roared with laughter at the memory.
The Joffes, who purchased the house from the Dowlings in 1977, used the extra wing as a reading room but always thought they would eventually take it down. “It has windows on both sides, so it has nice light,” she said. As the years have passed, there didn’t seem to be a point in removing square footage, so it has stayed. And continues to taunt passersby with its mystery.