Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


When some good students from Marymount University presented their campus history earlier this year, I noticed they omitted mention of one seminal figure.

Mary Ann Hall was of the most successful prostitutes and brothel keepers in the nation’s capital of the 19th century. Her ill-gotten wealth enabled her to purchase a country farmhouse in what then was Alexandria County on land that would become Marymount and the Washington Golf and Country Club.

What an Arlington family! Mary’s brother was slave owner Bazil Hall, whose plantation off modern-day Lee Highway became Halls Hill. Her other brother John shows up in the post-Civil War Southern Claims Commission 1880s proceedings seeking to sabotage Arlington farmer John Febrey’s effort to collect compensation for his livestock and crops taken by Union troops. (Rebuttal testimony questioned Hall’s character, noting the profession of his sister).

Mary (born circa 1817) made her fortune in a 25-room red brick house of ill repute within sight of the Capitol (site today of the National Museum of the American Indian). “In the 19th century, brothels were part of the urban fabric of city life, especially in Washington, D.C. with its transient population of soldiers and government workers,” Smithsonian Magazine wrote in 2005. “Prostitution was not officially a crime, and during the Civil War, there were 500 registered brothel houses and over 5,000 prostitutes in Washington.”

Hall’s establishment ranked No. 1 in a brothel survey, hosting 19 female “inmates.” Its upscale ambience was proven in a fruitful archaeological dig in the 1990s, along with an inventory listing plush Brussels carpets, oil paintings, china vases, marble-topped tables, a marble clock, a mirror-fronted wardrobe and all manner of mattresses, comforters and pillows.

Mary’s downtown place was raided in 1864. Despite her high-priced lawyer, she was convicted of “keeping a bawdy house” and paid a $2,000 fine.
Her Arlington property of 80 acres was purchased in October 1853 from the Birch family for $2,400, according to Willard Webb’s fine 2004 article in the Arlington Historical Magazine. Called “Maple Grove,” the two-story structure with a taller central tower was improved and assessed, according to 1863 tax records, at $16,000. Union soldiers en route from Chain Bridge passed by it and took supplies and water from her spring (Hall would also later successfully apply for compensation). With her sister running the downtown parlor, Mary by 1880 was spending enough time in Arlington to be listed on the Alexandria County census.

She died in 1886 after a two-week illness (her death certificate omitted her occupation) and was buried under a stunning monument in the prestigious Congressional Cemetery. Her siblings fought over her estate (she left no will), so trustees auctioned the Arlington property – now 92 acres – to Col. William B. Brocket of Louisiana for $9,700. In 1888, it was bought by Admiral Preston Rixey, who, after Hall’s farmhouse burned in 1907, built his mansion and then sold land to the country club. (Mary Hall’s spring and a shelter survived near the golf course’s 14th green until 1959.)

Hall’s obituary in the Evening Star editorialized, “With integrity unquestioned, a heart ever open to appeals of distress, a charity that was boundless, she is gone but her memory will be kept green by those who knew her sterling worth.”

Were that the whole tale, today’s Marymount students might feel a bit prouder.

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Those Cherrydale petitioners opposed to a neighborhood gun shop have won. Just last week James Gates, co-owner of NOVA Firearms headquartered in McLean, told me that news reports of a lease cancellation by the landlord were erroneous.

Gates recently received his federal firearms license and had delivered his safe and display cases to the former location of “Curves” on North Pollard Street. But on Monday ARLNow broke the story that this time the landlord was serious and was revoking the lease.

In a subsequent statement, the gun shop complained that the same landlord had originally approached the store as a tenant. The owner blamed the public outcry on the influence of billionaire gun-control advocate Michael Bloomberg, vowing, “Nova Firearms serve as the foxhole of the Second Amendment in the backyard of the nation’s capital.”