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Washington, D.C.

Holt House

There's a crumbling old mansion inside the Smithsonian National Zoo. 

The Smithsonian’s National Zoo is one of the most heavily trafficked attractions in Washington, D.C., but few of the 2 million annual visitors know that the ruins of a once-grand summer villa are tucked away in a corner of the grounds, just off a service road. The two-story derelict Holt House provides a lens into the conflict between historic preservation and adaptive reuse.

The Holt House likely dates to around 1805 to 1810 and is one of the oldest extant structures in the city. Long before the founding of a Zoological Park in the hills above Washington, the verdant woodlands around Rock Creek were dotted with summer houses that offered respite from the summer heat and urban grime.

The Holt building looks unimpressive today, but digital recreations from Preservation Matters illustrate an early 19th-century view of a stately Georgian mansion with shining white walls and hardwood floors. A succession of owners shuffled in and out over the years, and the property was already quite rundown in 1890 when Dr. Henry Holt sold it in 1890 to the commissioners of the nascent Zoological Park.

Famed Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. was an advisor on the zoo’s design and he thought that the aging Holt House had good bones and could serve as an administrative office for the park. With a little bit of restoration it could “be made very agreeable in a quiet, refined way, not clashing with its surroundings or unduly striking the attention.”

The Smithsonian completely gutted and rebuilt the Holt House interior and did indeed use it as an office for almost a century. But by the 1980s the ancient wooden-framed house was on its last legs and the zoo had it boarded up and abandoned. Vicious termite damage over the intervening period eviscerated the structural walls, and a National Trust for Historic Preservation investigation in 2002 found that “massive collapse of the house is a real possibility; [and] partial collapse or failure of a segment of the framing is a distinct probability.”

The Holt House’s future is uncertain in this time of flux. Pouring millions of dollars into the refurbishment of an obscure 200-year-old wooden house might not be the best use of tight Smithsonian budgets. But tearing it down also isn’t an option—the Holt House has been listed on the National Register for Historic Places since 1973.

Congress, for its part, has signaled a desire to abandon the house in place until it collapses. The Department of Interior Appropriations Act (which funds the Smithsonian), explicitly states that “None of these funds in this or any other Act may be used for the Holt House located at the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC.” The InTowner calls it “demolition by neglect.” 

Know Before You Go

Holt House is located in an employees-only section of the zoo.