by Cate Toups Atkinson
Alley walkers know the place — a medieval-looking “castle” behind a house in the 3900 block of Livingston Street NW. With its thick stone walls, slate roof and solid red door with iron fastenings, it could be in Germany atop a walled fortress touching the clouds.
This odd little stone structure has stood by while two families raised their children, grew old, moved on. It’s now on its third family doing much the same. Walk by on a pleasant evening and you might catch the kids tossing a ball in the yard.
It’s a testament to how quickly time forgets, as no one alive today, not even the sharp 84-year-old granddaughter of the original owner from 1929 — knows who built it or why, despite fluid family memories about it always being a fixture there along with a stone koi pond containing prized goldfish.
Nor do they retain the details of the long-ago owner’s other life passion — he was an amateur “ham” radio enthusiast, likely using the turreted room for his equipment. The 80-foot pole standing next to it with a busted weather vane and pulley on top almost certainly is the radio tower. But it’s just an old pole now, not on anyone’s radar for the exotic connections it once made possible through the Chevy Chase DC night sky.
Current owners Alison Barnes and Stephen Cohen who bought the house in 2005 said that they knew only what was told to them at purchase — that it was probably built by a former owner to remind him of his distant homeland.
“We originally thought we’d use the building as a playhouse for the kids. But it’s spidery and dark in there,” Alison said with a laugh. “We had no idea about the pole. We had always wondered about it and even called the utility company. They came out and looked at it but said it wasn’t theirs. The neighbors didn’t know either.”
Then one day a man stopped by and introduced himself as having grown up in the house, putting some of the pieces together for them.
The Al-Faqih Family Years, 1954-2005
“Everybody always asked, why on earth is it there? But for us, it was just part of our house. The pond was a swimming pool to us. That’s where our father taught us to swim,” said Fadey Al-Faqih, who had stopped by his childhood home a few years ago and introduced himself to the new owners. Pleasantly surprised by a call to his home in Rehoboth, he percolated with memories of the place. “We used to call it the castle. We’d play hide-and-seek back there, war games, just kid stuff.”
Fadey’s parents, Wajih and Hind Al Faqih (pronounced Al-FA-KEY) were Lebanese immigrants who came to America to work at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in 1947. A close family member, Sheikh Asad Mansur Al-Faqih, had been appointed Saudi’s first ambassador to the United States, and also to Canada, Mexico, and the United Nations. He was also a delegate to the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945.
When Wajih’s brother-in-law, the ambassador, transferred out, Wajih and his wife decided to stay in America. They bought the house on Livingston Street and he served as the financial attaché at the embassy for 45 years. They raised four sons in the house, and then it became a multi-generation household. After Wajih died in 2004, the family decided it was time to sell. Mrs. Al-Faqih now lives with one of her sons in California.
Realty company Shannon & Luchs advertised the house for sale in 1954 in the Washington Post. One listed the house — a “gardener’s paradise” — for $28,500. Another called it a “picture book lot” with wrought iron fencing and a stone fish pond. No mention was made of the Cinderella structure in the backyard.
But Fadey said his family always believed the “castle” was built by the house’s first owner who they assumed had been a stonemason from Germany, as evidenced by the fine workmanship of the turret, a stone pond, and a brick and iron fencing that originally encircled the property. He remembered his father saying the former owner was also a ham radio operator and used the turret for his radio equipment. Fadey remembers wires that led from the castle up the pole when they moved in, but they got rid of them.
A New House: The Lorenz Family Years, 1929-1954
What we do know for certain is that the 4-bedroom house was built by Robert H. Sanford, with an upstairs sleeping porch and a two-car garage underneath. He constructed “600 homes in Chevy Chase in the 1930s” while living at 3913 Military Road, according to his 1961 obituary. The building permit — in which Sandford is listed as builder and designer — estimated the house’s value at $12,000.
It is unlikely Sanford took the time or expense to build the turret. Plus it is a completely different architectural style from the brick center-hall colonial house, a design he used repeatedly in his spec houses. A look at the building permit inspections on file in the Washingtoniana room of the DC Public Library might shed some light, but those offices are closed due to coronavirus concerns.
Online tax records indicate that Sanford sold the house in December 1929 at the start of the Great Depression to Eugene G. and Catherine B. Lorenz and carried their mortgage of $4,000.
If Lorenz was a stonemason, it was a hobby, not a profession, because he was an accountant — a profession that three succeeding generations of his family would follow. But he was indeed from Germany. Born in 1884, he immigrated from Berlin through the Port of Baltimore in 1890 with his parents Julius Franz Lorenz and Josepha Anna Lorenz.
A great-granddaughter who now lives in Potomac, MD, and has done some genealogical sleuthing said she believes that Julius Lorenz was a New York shoemaker and lived at 242 E. 28th St. in Manhattan. She did not know when or what brought the Lorenzes to Washington, DC.
The only records I found in New York City newspapers of anyone named Julius Lorenz referenced an orchestra conductor, musician and professor who worked with competitive German choral societies, or “Saengerbunds,” that were held in major U.S. cities around that time. This Julius Lorenz was president of the musical Arion Society of New York and even played before President Teddy Roosevelt and his wife in February 1903.
More research is needed to determine whether or not this person was Eugene G. Lorenz’s father, but it is a fact that Eugene G. Lorenz and his three children were musicians, performing as the “Lorenz Orchestra” in the 1920s, and that his trumpet-player son Eugene H. Lorenz reportedly earned enough money through his music to pay for college.
I found two mentions of a “Julius Franz Lorenz” in Washington, DC, newspapers in the first decade of the 20th century, both regarding property transactions. Records also show that a Eugene G. Lorenz attended high school at Washington Business School (now Cordozo) in July 1900, when Eugene- the-accountant would have been 16.
The New York City connection is legitimized by death records, as both Julius Franz and Josepha Anna Lorenz were living in New York City when they died (1923 and 1937, respectively). Each was laid to rest in a family plot at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, as were Eugene G. and Catherine B. Lorenz. Catherine’s parents, Thomas T. Hurdle and Mary C. Hurdle are also buried there.
Newspaper accounts tracing the family began picking up with the purchase of the Livingston Street house in 1929, although I found no mention in the local papers of a turret or a radio tower in the backyard.
“Wireless radio” or “amateur radio” hobbyists gained popularity in the early 1900s. Such radio transmissions were prohibited during World War I, but by the 1930s it became a mania for its transatlantic capabilities. By then, one needed a city permit to erect a tower. It is possible Eugene G. Lorenz applied for permits for the tower — and the backyard turret — but since D.C. government offices are closed for now, I’ll have to check them later.
Then, in May 1933 — only three years after buying the house — an obituary tells of the early death of Eugene G. Lorenz, identified as a “pioneer public accountant — one of the first in Washington.” He was only 48, had recently become a grandfather and his eldest daughter had just gotten engaged. His granddaughter, Jocelyn Lorenz Poerstel — who would not be born for another three years but who is now 84 — says he died of a brain cyst that should have been benign but it burst during an operation and killed him. He died at Emergency Hospital in Washington DC.
Among his pallbearers would be Howard P. Foley, a longtime client, whose company would in time become one of the largest electrical contracting firms in the country. Although he did not live to see it, Eugene G. Lorenz’s family fortunes would blossom many decades later based on that client connection, just as the modest real estate he apparently bought for $12,000 would exponentially increase in value.
“Family lore has it that his ham radio hobby contributed to his death. It was a very serious hobby that he was quite dedicated to,” said Janelle Lorenz Wright of Potomac, MD, a great-granddaughter to Eugene G. Lorenz who was referred to earlier as having tracked the family’s genealogy. The thread to how this hobby might have led to his death has been lost, she said. Nor does the turret factor into family stories that are otherwise rich with memories of German Christmas traditions in the house on Livingston Street, and the beautiful fish swimming in the backyard pond.
The Livingston Street house, with its high ceilings that kept things cool in the summer, was still full of his children when he died, as his son with his young wife and baby had recently moved back in when their Legation Street apartment grew too hot for a baby. Life marched on without him. Both daughters had home weddings as was common then — one in 1933 and the other in 1935. Social columns reported the “drawing rooms decorated with midsummer flowers,” but there was no mention of a romantic backyard castle.
Eventually Catherine B. Lorenz “bobbed her hair, began socializing and met a nice man and married him,” her granddaughter says. She and her new husband William J. McGarvey moved to a townhouse on Massachusetts Avenue in Northeast, leaving the house and stocked fishpond to her son. She died in 1950.
The son, Eugene Hurdle Lorenz – a CPA like his father and professional trumpet player — not only took over the house, he took over his father’s clients as well. He also earned a law degree from George Washington University. He and his wife Alma Corinne “Bonnie” Miller Lorenz raised their two children, A. Jocelyn and Eugene Kendall “Ken,” on Livingston Street during the Depression and through the war years.
Jocelyn has many happy memories of her 18 years in the house. She’s the 84-year-old granddaughter of Eugene G. Lorenz I mentioned earlier. A widow since 2009, she lives in an independent senior residence in Bethesda, has four children, nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. When she heard I wanted to talk about “the homestead,” she pulled out a “book” she’d written and rattled off dozens of things she found deeply satisfying about the house. She talked of the screened sleeping porch upstairs, two claw-foot tubs, the manual wringer washing machine and the smell of the coal chute in the basement. She remembers the live orchestras her father hosted for client parties, lazing in the glider chairs on the front porch, the rotary phone and the phone number “WO 0680,” the oval pond with fan-tailed goldfish idling under the frozen crust during winters, walking to Blessed Sacrament, and playing all day at Chevy Chase Playground until just before the streetlights came on.
The changes WWII brought were equally memorable. She recalls when the material for nylon stockings were reserved for parachutes instead, and lipstick factories converted to make ammunition. She even recalled mixing in the packet of yellow powder that came with the pale margarine because the dairy industry would not allow it to be butter-colored.
She fondly recalls the family’s maid, Rachel Jackson, an African American woman who arrived by bus every day to take care of her and her brother so their mother could escape homemaker tedium by working at her father’s office at the Investment Building on K Street by the Statler Hotel.
Her childhood was also chronicled by the newspapers, as they seemed to love Jocelyn. From the time she was three and declared “Most Beautiful” in the July 1939 “Chevy Chase Playground Dress-Up Day Contest,” she was a press-photographer favorite. She appears in the Washington Post no less than a dozen times — often in her bathing suit as she grew into a young woman — as a Miss Glen Echo finalist, at a society tea, in a cloud of taffeta with debutantes, as Duchess of the Wilson High School annual country fair, and when crowned Auto Show Queen at the National Guard Armory.
One stand-alone photo carried a caption saying she knew better than to stand in the rain but there she was, drenched in a rainshower grinning up to the heavens. Another time, she demonstrated “perfect form” — an acceptable double entendre in 1955 before #MeToo — hoisting a sail, all curves and smiles in her swimsuit. Later that same year she married Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School sports star Kenneth Poerstel and they settled in Bethesda where he sold Cadillacs for 44 years. She worked for the government.
But she does not recall who built the turret and matched stone landscaping, saying that it’s possible her grandfather either built it or had it built. “It was just always there,” she said. “My earliest memory is of wrecking my tricycle at age six, and I remember it being there then. It had a concrete floor and a wooden ceiling. We called it the tool shed. We would sit in there to get away.”
Jocelyn was 18 when they sold the house and moved to Arlington. She started her adult life and her older brother Ken went into the family business with their father as an accountant. Among his clients was the aforementioned Howard P. Foley, who by then had been in business 40 years as a successful electrical contractor.
For six decades the Lorenzes would manage Mr. Foley’s personal finances — first Eugene G., then his son Eugene H., and then, after Eugene H. died in 1967, his son, Ken Lorenz, took over. By then it was called Lorenz & Lorenz and operated out of the Shoreham Building. Six months before Mr. Foley died in 1969, Ken Lorenz drew up a final will and named himself and his sister, Jocelyn Lorenz Poerstel, as executors and trustees of Foley’s $4.1 million estate, with control of 51 percent of the shares.
The payoff was handsome — Lorenz was awarded 10 percent of the gross estate, $415,000 — to pay him and his sister “whenever and however he decides,” according to a September 1974 Washington Post article. And, according to the article, the will stated that if Mr. Foley’s daughter and granddaughter objected, they would lose all their inheritance.
A family schism eventually occurred around this financial arrangement, and the brother and sister “had a bit of a falling out” and went their separate ways, according to Mrs. Poerstel. The Foley family business eventually dissolved in bankruptcy, as it also hit troubled terrain. In the 1980s its officers were indicted on federal charges of bid rigging and price fixing and the company’s president, Bancroft Foley Jr. (Howard P. Foley’s nephew), settled with a plea deal to serve a year in prison and pay a $3 million fine.
Meanwhile, E. Kendall Lorenz’s business thrived. Among other things, he built the $70 million office building at Two Bethesda Center — the “Lorenz Building” — above the Bethesda Metro before retiring in Potomac, MD.
Nine decades of change, but turret remains
The stone turret missed all this family drama, as it had switched owners back in 1954 when the Al-Faqihs moved in. And even though Eugene G. Lorenz had been dead for 21 years when they bought the house, the wires left over from his hobby still dangled from the pole. Not much changed at the house during their half-century there either, Fadey Al-Faqih said, but he greatly admires the interior renovations its current owners have done. “I always dreamed of doing the same things with the house,” he said.
He said he was especially careful to maintain the castle. Through the years he replaced the glass in the two embrasures, filled in cracks in the original wood door, and replaced the slate roof when shingles came loose. He said that relinquishing his childhood home was “heartbreaking” but he is happy to see that a young family is there. And that the pole out back remains straight and sturdy.
Still, there have been major changes to the landscaping that make him sad. The iron fencing is now gone, replaced after an underground water source destroyed the foundation, and the pond was buried by the new owners who worried about the safety of their toddlers.
Fadey said that seeing recent photos of the castle reminds him of stories he used to fabricate to the neighborhood kids who were mystified by the structure. “They would always be asking me, what is that thing in the corner of your backyard? I would tell them that’s where my parents would put us when they punished us, and tortured us! It was the funniest damn thing! Thank you for the memories.”
Comments or to get on our email list, contact firstname.lastname@example.org