Rodgers House / Belasco Theater


A command performance by the first African American opera star.


The Rodgers House, formerly at 717 Madison Place, was constructed in 1831 by Commodore John Rodgers, a high-ranking naval officer. Rodgers is known to have owned slaves because one of them, a man named Henry Butler, was identified as Rodgers' slave in an 1827 entry in the Marriage Register of St. John's Church, also located on Lafayette Square. In the image above you can see the buildings at the rear of the Rodgers residence where both free and enslaved African Americans lived and worked.  The buildings shown in the map are not unlike the slave quarters still standing today at Decatur House on the opposite side of Lafayette Square.  At least two maps from the 1850s show that most of the homes facing the Square once had similar types of structures located behind them, forming small compounds that were connected to one another by cobblestone alleys.

On the night of April 14, 1865, the house was the site of an assassination attempt on Secretary of State William Seward. His African American domestic servant William H. Bell (different accounts list Bell as a doorman, butler or waiter) answered the door. Lewis Payne (Powell) pushed past Bell into the house and attacked Seward and his family, as well as a soldier and male nurse. Payne drew a knife and slashed at Seward, who avoided more threatening injuries due to the braces and bandages from a carriage accident nine days earlier.

Payne fled, but Bell had gone next door for help and yelled after him "There he goes on a horse!" Four days later Bell was brought to the headquarters of Gen. C.C. Augur, commander of the military department of Washington, to identify Payne and in an account stated: "As soon as I saw him, I put my finger right on his face and said, 'I know him; that was the man.'" Other details that Bell provided also helped to positively identify Payne, who was tried and hanged as part of the conspiracy that also involved the assassination of President Lincoln, killed at Ford's Theatre at about the same time as the attempt on Seward.

The Belasco Theater, originally known as the Lafayette Square Opera House when it opened on September 30, 1895, was an impressive six-story building with an auditorium that seated one thousand people. In March 1932, after being barred from performing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, African American opera star and Washington native Madame Lillian Evanti gave a recital on Lafayette Square at the Belasco. A 1917 graduate of the Howard University School of Music, Evanti was the first African American to forge a professional career as a professional opera singer and she went on to perform across the Square at the White House in February 1934.

In August 1940 the Belasco was purchased by the Treasury Department for use as a warehouse. After the United States entered World War II, the theater became the Washington, DC location of the American Theatre Wing's Stage Door Canteen, which opened its doors to all Allied servicemen in uniform—no matter their race or nationality—on October 3, 1942. During the Korean War, it became the Lafayette Square USO. The building was demolished in 1964 and is now the U.S. Court of Claims.




Related Pages:

»  Lillian Evanti (1890-1967)




STOPS:

The Rodgers House

The Rodgers House. Library of Congress


An isometrical map from 1857 showing the Rodgers House and its slave quarters.

An isometrical map from 1857 showing the Rodgers House and its slave quarters.


The site of the Rodgers House is now the location of the U.S. Court of Claims.

The site of the Rodgers House is now the location of the U.S. Court of Claims.