5+ Questions with Author Garrett Peck

Garrett PeckGarrett Peck follows his standout book on the Potomac River with a new release on the redstone used in many historic buildings around Washington.

 The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry is a well-written, quick read on a 19th century quarry that used the C&O Canal to ferry its red rocks to the city and its boon and bust history. Monumental Thoughts asked Peck 5+ question on his latest book.

1. A rocky quarry? You first wrote about a river and now a quarry. What’s next – a diamond mine? Is there a diamond mine around here? No seriously, why did you write the book?

I was drawn to the Seneca quarry during my research for The Potomac River: A History and Guide. Of all the hundreds of historic sites I found along the river, this was the one major historical location that no one seemed to know about it. It’s right along the C&O Canal, yet so lost in the woods that it may as well not exist. There are no interpretive signs to indicate the quarry is there. I kept coming back to the quarry, drawn by its rich history, and uncovered just how important the quarry was to our region. The result was the book The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry.

The new book is about way more than a bunch of red rocks. The Seneca quarry was the source of the distinctly rusty red sandstone for the Smithsonian Castle, which in turn launched five decades of Victorian architecture in the nation’s capital. It was also part of a national scandal involving President Grant and the Freedman’s Bank, a scandal I uncovered that none of Grant’s biographers had covered before.

Researching the quarry proved to have its own challenges. No quarry company records survive, so I spent considerable time putting the puzzle pieces back together by searching through archives and newspaper articles, as well as interviewing people involved in Seneca preservation. I dug up a treasure trove of photos showing the quarry in action – many of them with African American workers, who were a key part of the quarry workforce.

2. The Seneca red sandstone buildings stand out around town. Do you think they’ll ever return in vogue?

There were literally hundreds of buildings in Washington and Baltimore constructed with Seneca redstone. While other cities of the Northeast got brownstone, DC’s dominant color of the 19th century was red brick and red sandstone. This local ingredient was a key part of our unique architectural history. Will the redstone buildings ever return in vogue? Although people aren’t building Romanesque buildings anymore, these buildings have never stopped being in vogue, judging by the prices of these grand Romanesque houses in Dupont Circle (have you seen their price tags lately?! Set your face to stunned.)

3. You explain the C&O Canal’s impact on the quarry sending rock to Washington. Without it, do you think Seneca red sandstone would have ever been used?

The Seneca quarry simply couldn’t have become a commercial success without the C&O Canal. The quarry supplied redstone for many buildings near the quarry, but it was the opening of the C&O Canal that enabled this heavy redstone to make it to the Washington market in a day. The quarry owner who first made the Seneca quarry a commercial success, John Parke Custis Peter, initially fought the canal seizing his riverfront property, but later embraced the canal as a waterborne highway for his stone. And whenever the canal shut down from floods, such as the massive 1889 flood, the quarry shut down as well. The quarry’s history is thus intertwined with the canal.

4. If you could rebuild any building around town in Seneca red sandstone, which would it be? The White House becomes the Red House?

I would love to have seen Trinity Episcopal Church, leveled in 1936 and now in the Judiciary Square area. It was a beautiful Gothic church constructed of Seneca redstone, and it graces the cover of James Goode’s book Capital Losses. James Renwick designed the church. In fact, it was based on one of two designs he submitted for the Smithsonian Castle competition (the Building Committee obviously chose the other one, the Romanesque submission).

But even more than the church, I wish a single document still survived. James Renwick visited the Seneca quarry in March 1847 to ensure that the redstone was appropriate for his design. Both he and his fellow traveler, geologist David Dale Owen, each reported back to the Building Committee and included a hand-drawn map of the quarry. Can you imaging finding a James Renwick-drawn map?! It would have been a researcher’s dream. Alas, the maps were likely destroyed in the 1865 fire at the Smithsonian Castle.

5. There’s still some sandstone left. Think anyone will ever use it to build something new?

No. The Seneca quarry closed for good in 1901. Today, the quarry itself is part of the C&O Canal National Historical Park, while the buildings immediately around it – the quarry master’s house, the school house and the stonecutting mill – are part of Seneca Creek State Park. The good news is that all of this is parkland and it can never be developed. But being parkland means that the quarry can never be reopened again. Buildings that require new redstone for preservation purposes have to look elsewhere; fortunately there are a number of redstone quarries out there.

And if I might add, I’m leading tours of the quarry on March 16 through Politics & Prose, and March 23 through SideTour (click on the links to register). Winter is the ideal time to visit the quarry, as the dense underbrush is dormant. Come springtime, the quarry becomes inaccessible until November. So it’s now or November! You can also follow news about the book and events on the book’s Facebook page.
5+. Seriously, what’s your next book project?

I’ve got several projects in the works. Most immediately is a book called The Lost Decade, a journalistic history of this past decade in America. My editor at The History Press wants me to write a history of Washington brewing, a book that I refer to as The Sodom of Suds. And at some point I’d like to write a history of the two (count ’em) naval observatories in Washington, DC. Hooray for history!

If readers have any questions, I’ll be happy to answer them. There’s a contact me feature on my website at www.garrettpeck.com. Once it gets warmer this spring, I’ll start up leading the popular Temperance Tour of Prohibition-related sites in DC. Which is followed by happy hour (or the hour of intemperance, as I like to call it).


About Rick

Rick Snider is a native Washingtonian, long-time journalist and licensed tour guide since 2010.
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