The late 1830s and early 1840s were a period during which the United States government embarked on a public building campaign on a scale unseen in the District of Columbia since its founding some five decades earlier. While much of the nation was mired in a depression sparked by the Panic of 1837, entrepreneurs doing business with the federal government in the capital city appeared to flourish. William H. Degges (1812-1883) was a second-generation Washington builder and he was well positioned to profit from the boom.
Projects to construct buildings to house the United States Treasury Department and Patent Office, as well as a new General Post Office and dwellings in which a growing federal workforce could live drew artisans and laborers from around the world to the capital city and provided mostly steady work for increasing numbers of native Washingtonians already in the building trades. The carpenters, bricklayers, and stonemasons who worked under contract to the Commissioner of Public Buildings were skilled mechanics and entrepreneurs whose client base included merchants, bankers, politicians, manufacturers, and military officers.
The summer of 1842 began as the nation was entering a third year in economic depression. Two of the builders working in the District of Columbia that summer were Washington carpenter William H. Degges and Philadelphia architect John Skirving.
The pair collaborated to design and build a new farmhouse for banker George W. Riggs Jr. The farmhouse became one of the District of Columbia’s earliest Gothic Revival style cottages. Riggs owned the farm in the hills north of Washington, which he named “Corn Rigs,” for a decade before he sold it to the United States for use as a home for retired and disabled soldiers. The Riggs cottage in 1851 became the centerpiece of the newly established Military Asylum and it housed the institution’s first residents.
In the ensuing 150 years, four U.S. presidents took advantage of the cottage as a summer retreat from Washington’s oppressively hot and malarial summers. The building gained an enduring legacy as the place where Abraham Lincoln in 1862 reportedly finalized the Emancipation Proclamation freeing enslaved African Americans. The Military Asylum and its successors used the cottage throughout its history as a hospital, quarters for a band, officers’ quarters, and it was where the institution’s first female nurses lived. In 2000, the former Riggs house was declared the “President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home National Monument.”
After extensive rehabilitation efforts, the National Trust for Historic Preservation rebranded the building “President Lincoln’s Cottage.” In 2008, the National Trust opened the property as a museum.
Despite its storied past and the many efforts by historians and historic preservationists to document the building’s architecture and its association with the 16th president, little was known about the lives and careers of the two craftsmen who designed and built the cottage.
George W. Riggs Jr. was 29 years old when he bought the farm of a bankrupt family friend. Reporter John Agg had accumulated nearly $14,000 in debt and in March 1842, he petitioned for protection under a new federal bankruptcy law. Among his assets were a “Farm near Rock Creek Church containing about fifty acres” which had been known as “Wheat Yard Heights” and “Evesham Lodge.”
The court granted Agg’s petition the following month and in June 1842 Riggs paid $3,400 for Agg’s farm. The next month the banker received a set of specifications from carpenter-cum-general contractor William H. Degges for a new house on the recently purchased farm. Degges was no stranger to Riggs. The builder’s family firms banked with the Corcoran and Riggs bank and William H., along with his father and brother had developed a solid reputation among Washington’s emerging business elite and middle class as well as with federal contracting officials.
Degges was an athletic 30-year-old with auburn hair and blues eyes when banker George W. Riggs Jr. hired him to design and build the farmhouse. The Degges family had lived in Washington since the first decade of the nineteenth century. His father, William Degges (1788-1845), was a master brick maker and builder, as was his brother, John O.P. Degges (d. 1847). His uncle, James Degges, was a ship carpenter and his sons followed him into the family trade.
By the time the elder William Degges first appears in surviving documents and legal instruments in the 1820s, he was already part of the District of Columbia’s middle class. He owned slaves and real property. He had amassed sufficient capital by 1829 to buy several lots for a brickyard and the rights to a brick-making machine patent. In June 1829 Ephraim Mayo of Maine, the inventor in 1826 of an “improvement in the machine for pressing of unburnt brick,” sold Degges the “full and exclusive right and liberty of making, constructing, using, and vending to others to be used” the machine in “one Brick Yard in the City of Washington.”
The Degges brickyard was located in northwest Washington between E and F streets NW and Second and Third streets (Square 568). When William in 1835 sold the property to his son, John, the brickyard contained brick kilns, press sheds, an office, and a stock of 150,000 “raw brick[s].”
William and John Degges appear to have conducted business separately as sole proprietorships. John was only in his mid-twenties when he bought his father’s operation. Fortuitously, one year after the transaction Andrew Jackson authorized the construction of a new fireproof building to house the U.S. Patent Office after an 1836 fire destroyed its predecessor.
John Degges in 1837 won a contract to provide 400,000 bricks for the new building and his father became the superintendent of bricklayers and masons. As the 1830s drew to a close William H. Degges, meanwhile, was working as a carpenter in the Treasury Building, which was under construction at the same time as the Patent Office. The federal building boom began just as the nation was entering the first modern economic depression begun in the wake of the Panic of 1837. While most of the nation’s private sector constricted under the depression, those doing business with the federal government prospered by executing congressionally guaranteed and appropriated contracts.
Around 1839 William H. Degges formed a partnership with fellow carpenter Beniah Willett. Trading under the name “Willett and Degges,” the firm bid unsuccessfully to do carpentry work on a newly ordered General Post Office building but did secure work from entrepreneur Benjamin Ogle Tayloe. Willett and Degges completed several projects for Tayloe between 1839 and 1842.
Among the projects completed for Tayloe were repairs to his “Mansion House hotel” at Fourteenth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue (it had sustained considerable property damage after a brief occupation by the Post Office Department) and the construction of an outbuilding on another of Tayloe’s properties. For the latter, Willett and Degges in October 1841 proposed to Tayloe,
We will put you up a wood house 46 ft. long by 12 ft. wide running north & south along the fence wall and a line of lattice work 3 ft. high on wall to conceal the wood house from the dwelling.
Tayloe’s note in the proposal underscored the firm’s hefty reputational capital and provides evidence for additional work they completed in the region: “I shall expect the work to be nicely done, planed & grooved, two coats of white paint with abundance of oil, with everything else to make quite as complete a job as Mr. Carroll’s.”
By 1842, Tayloe had done business with Degges the mason and Degges the carpenter. In recounting his efforts for compensation following the post office episode, Tayloe wrote to the Commissioner of Public Buildings, “Various mechanics have applied to me …. I embrace the occasion to add that Messrs. Degges, the father and son, would meet my approbation as bricklayer and carpenter.”
Willett and Degges dissolved their partnership in the spring of 1842 and William H. Degges became a sole proprietor and general contractor. He rented a lot in northwest Washington fronting Pennsylvania Avenue from his client, Tayloe, on which Tayloe allowed him to build a carpenter’s shop. In the lease executed March 16, 1842, Tayloe stipulated that Degges “shall and will within one year from the date of these presents erect and build a Carpenter’s shop of the value at least two hundred dollars.” The lease bound Degges to pay an annual rent of $48 with the option to buy it by paying Tayloe $800 within a decade.
Banker George W. Riggs Jr. and army surgeon Dr. William H. Van Buren were among Degges’s first house construction clients. Both jobs ensured that Degges’s work would be remembered long after the builder’s death. In August 1844, Degges executed a contract with Van Buren to build “a house, with office, back buildings, woodhouse, stable, and privies” on the doctor’s property at the corner of Eighteenth and North G streets Northwest.
The relationship between Degges and Van Buren soured when, after modifications were made to the contract for an additional story and other work to the new house, Degges had not completed the project to Van Buren’s satisfaction and the doctor withheld payment. Litigation ensued and Degges was awarded $1,223.21 in damages. Van Buren appealed and the circuit court decision was reversed in 1850 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
While the Van Buren case was working its way through the courts, war broke out between Mexico and the United States. Degges served as a captain in the army from May 1847 to July 1848. He returned to Washington from Mexico and resumed his building business. Little is known of his life in the 1850s besides the fact that in 1855 he received two patents for brick making machinery and one for a ship design.
Degges lived on L Street N.W. between Tenth and Eleventh streets until the outbreak of the Civil War. He re-enlisted in the army as a captain April 17, 1861, five days after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter. Degges injured himself while guarding the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks north of the District of Columbia and he was discharged from service April 1, 1862, serving less than a year in the war. “I was a strong healthy man free from disease and followed my trade which is that of a Carpenter and Builder for the five years immediately preceding my entrance in the military service of the United States in 1861,” Degges recalled in 1879.
Degges attempted to resume his building business after leaving the army. He also took the opportunity while recuperating in 1863 to patent three shipbuilding inventions. Suffering from various ailments, including rheumatism and chronic pneumonia, Degges’s health continued to deteriorate after the war:
Upon my quitting the military service of the United States I attempted in my old business as a Carpenter and builder employing my sons and others but being incapacitated from labor and a great part of the time confined to my bed and the house I did not succeed and had to give it up all this time I had to receive aid from my mother.
Margaret O’Neill Degges was the carpenter’s mother and she died in 1872 while living with her daughter, Laura Sutton, in Baltimore. She was 82 years old. Her estate included $6,800 in stock and a small amount of personal effects.
The money William H. Degges inherited allowed his wife to open a store. “Upon the death of my mother I inherited a small sum of money with which my wife opened a millinery and fancy store on 7th Street in Washington, D.C.,” Degges wrote. “I attempted to engage in my business again but had to desist at this time was entirely dependent upon my wife’s efforts for a support for myself and family.”
Degges’s first wife, Harriet, died shortly after the Civil War ended in August 1865 and in 1867 he married Ann E. Cox. Washington city directories dating to the mid-1870s show Annie E. Degges’s millinery shop at 1246 Seventh Street N.W. A fire in 1876 destroyed Ann’s stock and she was unable to recover from the loss. The business folded in 1877 and the family found itself destitute: “Since then a period of over a year I have had to receive assistance from friends and neighbors,” Degges lamented.
Ann and William H. Degges lived in an apartment above her Seventh Street store. Banker Samuel Norment rented the property to them. At that time William H. Degges was fully dependent on his wife. Norment wrote of the carpenter:
I am well acquainted with William H. Degges…. That Mrs. Degges, wife of the said William H. Degges in the year 1873 rented of me the premises No. 1246 7th Street N.W. which is my property and continued to rent the same until 1878. That during this time a period of five years Mrs. Degges, wife of the said William H. Degges, conducted the millinery and fancy business in said premises and paid me the rent, she being responsible for the same. In the year 1876, Mrs. Degges stock of goods was destroyed by fire. Having some insurance on her goods, she began business again, and continued for a time, but in a short time had to give it up. During this time Mrs. Degges was a tenant in my house, the premises above mentioned, and the period above stated. I called upon her once a month for the rental. When so calling I would often find the said William H. Degges sick and at one time I recollect that his life was despaired of. I would see him limping about and he complained of suffering from rheumatism and of great pain and soreness.
After losing the store and the apartment, William H. and Ann moved several times to various places in the District of Columbia. He died largely unnoticed March 20, 1883. His widow remained in Washington and she died there in 1915.
Read more about architect John Skirving in this follow-up post: John Skirving: From Bricklayer to Men of Progress
 Douglas E. Evelyn, “A Public Building for a New Democracy: The Patent Office Building in the Nineteenth Century” (Ph. D. diss., George Washington University, 1997), 251; Melissa McLoud, “Craftsmen and Entrepreneurs: Builders in Late Nineteenth-Century Washington, D.C.” (Ph. D. diss., George Washington University, 1988).
 The Military Asylum in 1859 was renamed the United States Soldiers’ Home. The institution was renamed again in 1972 (U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home) and 1991 (Armed Forces Retirement Home). The Armed Forces Retirement Home is an Executive agency and is therefore required to comply with federal environmental protections laws Elizabeth Smith Brownstein, Lincoln’s Other White House (Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2005); Paul R. Goode, The United States Soldiers’ Home: A History of Its First Hundred Years (Richmond, Virginia: The William Byrd Press, 1957); Matthew Pinsker, Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Matthew Pinsker, “The Soldiers’ Home: A Long Road to Sanctuary,” Washington History 18, no. 1-2 (2006): 4-19; National Park Service, United States. Department of the Interior, Special Resource Study, President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home National Monument (2003).
 National Archives Building, Washington, DC, Record Group 21, Records of the District Courts of the United States, Act of 1841 Bankruptcy Case Files, Case File 52, John Agg.
 Washington, D.C., Deed Book [DCDB] WB 25, 525. Mayo’s patent was issued June 24, 1826 and its documentation was destroyed in the fire that swept through the Patent Office in 1836. May also received a second patent in 1828 for brick and tile pressing machinery. U.S. Congress. House of Representatives. Patents for Useful Inventions in 1826, H. Doc. 27, 19 Cong., 2d sess. at 14 (1827); U.S. Congress. House of Representatives. Patents — 1828, H. Doc. 59, 20 Cong., 2d sess., at 19 (1829).
 DCDB WB 55, 1.
 R. Murray Havens, “Reactions of the Federal Government to the 1837-1843 Depression,” Southern Economic Journal, 8, no. 3 (January 1942): 380-90; Susan E. Hirsch, Roots of the American Working Class: The Industrialization of Crafts in Newark, 1800-1860 (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978), 88.
 Library of Congress. Manuscript Division, Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations from the Revolution through the Civil War, Series M: Selections from the Virginia Historical Society, Part 1: Tayloe Family, Reel 7: Tayloe Family Papers, Cont., October 23, 1841, Proposal from Willet & Degges to B.O. Tayloe.
 U.S. Congress. House of Representatives. Committee of Claims. B.O. Tayloe, H. Rep. 151, 30 Cong., at 11 (1848).
 DCDB WB 93, 265.
 Van Buren v. Digges, 52 U.S. 461 (1850).
 William H. Degges, “Soak-Pit of Brick Machines,” 12997 (Washington, DC, 5 June 1855); William H. Degges, “Brick-Machine,” 12998 (Washington, DC, June 5, 1855); William H. Degges, “Improvement in Ship-Building,” 38294 (Washington, DC, 28 April 1863) .
 William H. Degges, National Archives Building, Washington, DC, Civil War Pension Files, Application No. 273,023, August 25, 1879, Sworn Statement.
 William H. Degges, “Improved Propeller,” 38292 (Washington, DC, April 28,1863); William H. Degges, “Improved Rudder,” 38293 (Washington, DC, April, 28 1863); William H. Degges, “Improvement in Ship-Building,” 38294 (Washington, DC, April 28, 1863).
 Degges, Sworn statement.
 Degges, Sworn statement.
 Samuel Norment, National Archives Building, Washington, DC, Civil War Pension Files, Application No. 273,023, August 23, 1879, Sworn Statement on Behalf of William H. Degges.
© 2010 David S. Rotenstein