top of page

Funkstown – Foggy Bottom’s “Home for Fallen Women”

By Frank Leone


The House of Mercy, a “home for fallen women,” which played a (minor) role in one of the greatest scandals of the Gilded Age, was located near K and 24th Streets, off Washington Circle. The Women’s Auxiliary of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington established the House (2408 K St., now incorporated into the Varsity Apartments) in 1884 as “a house of refuge and reformatory for fallen and outcast women,” i.e. unwed pregnant (white) women.  During the Victorian era job opportunities drew single young women to Washington, but if they became pregnant outside of marriage, they often lacked support. 

House of Mercy, 1898 (DC Preservation League nomination, originally Moore, Joint Select Committee Report, 140)  

The House of Mercy was located in a three-story light grey residential row house.  Although administered by the Episcopal church, over time it also received congressional funding. The home admitted unwed mothers for a term of one year. It housed 20-30 young women at a time. The House provided physical and emotional support, but also had moral goals of teaching skills and “improving the women’s characters.” The sisters and lay assistants taught sewing, cooking, laundry, religious instruction, and a night school. With these skills, the “inmates” could work as domestic servants and avoid being drawn into prostitution or other vices. Most women joined the House voluntarily, but others were committed by their relatives or the local court system. The House had an iron gate in front and a six foot high back brick wall, inlaid with broken bottles.


A critical view of the conditions at the House of Mercy in the 1890s is set forth in Bringing Down the Colonel. The (excellent) book tells the story of Madeline Pollard, a young woman who was seduced by powerful Congressman Col. W.C.P. Breckenridge (D-KY). She successfully sued the Colonel for breach of promise to marry, and was awarded damages.  Although Pollard was not able to collect damages, the controversy ended the Colonel’s political career. The case was a major attack on the Victorian Era double standard that allowed men to engage in extra-marital affairs with impunity, while women were “ruined.” 

Madeline Pollard and Col. W.C.P. Breckenridge

For a brief time prior to the trial, Pollard stayed at the House of Mercy, saying that she intended to devote her life to charity work.  Pollard was visited there by Jennie Tucker, a spy hired by the Colonel’s legal team to obtain information. Tucker barely lasted the week probation before she left the House.


Tucker claimed that the House had very strict rules - she would have to wear a uniform (“a very ugly blue gingham dress,” apron of same blue, and a white cap), could not leave the house by herself, and could have no contact with the outside world.  The dormitory reminded Tucker of “the woman’s ward of a prison;” a “large bare whitewashed room, with rows of narrow iron bedsteads.”  She slept on a bed that “felt like the soft side of a pine board” on a mattress stuffed with corn husks. Supper was bread, butter, and bad tea, breakfast was coarse oatmeal, bread and worse coffee; for lunch liver (Tucker hated liver) and mashed potatoes.  There was music and singing the evenings, however.  Tucker reported “it was in every way a dreadful experience.”  She was able to make the acquaintance of Pollard, but failed to gather information helpful to the Colonel’s case.


In 1911, seeking more space “in the country,” the House relocated to Mt. Pleasant. The House of Mercy evolved into the Rosemount Center, which offers early childhood education and family support services to pregnant women, infants, toddlers, and preschool children and their families in its center-based and home-based programs. The DC Preservation recently nominated the Rosemount Center as a DC Historic Landmark.

The House of Mercy property on K Street, as well as adjoining lots, was purchased by the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore for the use of St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church, located at the corner of Pennsylvania and 25th St. It operated as St. Stephen's parochial school, the Immaculate Conception Academy, and a convent. The building was sold, demolished, and replaced by the current apartment building in 1985.

Sources:  DC Preservation League Nomination, The Rosemont Center; Patricia Miller, Bringing Down the Colonel:  A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age and the “Powerless” Woman who took on Washington, Sarah Crichton Books: 2018; Anna Diamond, “The Court Case That Inspired the Gilded Age’s #MeToo Moment,” Smithsonian Magazine, Nov. 2018; FBA Historic District Walking Tour Stop (including 24th & K Streets); FBA House History Map, 24th St. Overview; 950 24th St.; FBA History Project.



bottom of page