Harriet Lane Johnston, Founder of St. Albans School
As “the belle of the decade” in the 1850s, Harriet Lane showed a quality of originality that observers called “charm.” When she died half a century later, her will and its codicils released creative forces still to this day gathering momentum. St. Albans’ Lane-Johnston Building is one of her legacies.
Harriet Lane was acclaimed for the style and distinction she brought to the Court of St. James and the White House in her role as official hostess for her bachelor uncle James Buchanan. “A sort of American queen,” contemporaries called her. She was the “sweet Hallie” of “Listen to the Mockingbird,” a song dedicated to her. Her dignity and poise evoked praise and her sturdy blonde good looks were widely admired.
Chance and good luck brought her turn in the limelight. It was far from inevitable that a Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, orphan, no matter how winning, would cut so wide a swath. She was born in 1830 at the end of her “Nunc’s” (Uncle James’) 10 years in Congress. During his 11 years in the Senate she went to school in Lancaster and in Charleston, (now West) Virginia. Buchanan served four years as secretary of state in the administration of James K. Polk, during which time he brought his ward to school at the Convent in Georgetown. In 1850 Buchanan wrote her, “Many a clever girl has been spoiled for the useful purposes in life … by a winter’s gaiety in Washington.” He went to London in 1853 and the following year she joined him. They became as popular a pair as was ever there to represent the United States.
Harriet’s correct demeanor must have been gratifying to her uncle, for when she first came into his charge she was what they used to call “a handful.” She won many English friends and gained a lifelong love of English style. She collected British paintings, at her death leaving the Corcoran Gallery of Art works by Lawrence, Romney, Hoppner, Reynolds and Constable — unless, noted her will, “the government of the United States shall establish in the City of Washington a national art gallery.” In the ensuing lawsuit, the Smithsonian claimed it already had such a gallery and the court agreed. The Corcoran lost.
After three years in Britain, James Buchanan was nominated as a compromise candidate for the U.S. presidency and inaugurated in 1857. His niece was a star in his crown and served as his First Lady. From the 1901 sketchbook “Famous Belles of the Nineteenth Century” come these bouquets: “No woman has ever presided in the White House who roused so universal an interest, unless it was Mrs. Cleveland, as did Buchanan’s niece.
“Her countrymen honored her in every conceivable way, and her name was a household word. Vessels of war and peace bore it to foreign shores. Clubs, streets, houses and even articles of dress were named for her.”
Harriet’s pleasant manner, noted her uncle’s enemy, John W. Forney, “did much to assuage the asperities of (Buchanan’s) unfortunate administration.” When the Civil War began, they went to Wheatland, his country estate near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The fire that swept the country consumed what was left of Buchanan’s reputation. (This may have been why the rest of Harriet’s life was lived so privately.) In 1866, she married a Baltimore banker of whom “Nunc” wrote, “You have chosen the wiser part in selecting for your husband a gentleman of education, of good manners, and of excellent character … You must forget ‘the pride, pomp and circumstance’ of public life in which you have been raised. In truth it no longer exists.”
Buchanan died in 1868, leaving Wheatland to Harriet. She wore black much of her life, first for her parents, again for her siblings who all died young. Her sons, James Buchanan Johnston and Henry Elliott Johnston Jr. died in their early teens. Her husband, Baltimore Banker and railroad builder Henry Elliott Johnston, died in 1884. What brought such sorrow into her life also brought power, for as the survivor she had the right to dispose of the money. Though by no means fabulously rich, she commanded, at the end, enough money to create important things.
Harriet’s will left most of her funds to care for the invalid children in Baltimore. No facility had been available for her sons. The Harriet Lane Home at Johns Hopkins had few equals in [the 20th] century at pediatric care.
Harriet moved from Baltimore to Washington in 1890. She wrote her will in 1895 and lived another eight years, during which the country’s general prosperity greatly increased the value of her estate. Several Episcopal clergymen were friends. On that account, perhaps, she added a codicil in 1899 directing that a school building be constructed on Cathedral property and asked that it be called the Lane-Johnston Building “to the end that the family names of my husband and myself may be associated with the bequest made in loving memory of our sons.” A codicil of 1903 increased her gift by one third but said that only half the total was to be spent on the building. The remainder was “specially to provide for the free maintenance, education and training of choirboys, primarily those in service of the Cathedral.”
Why choirboys? Perhaps just an association with her angelic-looking sons. Perhaps a love of the Anglican style, engendered by those high-stepping days of the 1850s. Perhaps because her church in Baltimore, St. Paul’s, had a famous vested choir of men and boys, in the English fashion, instituted at Easter services in 1873, by the Rector, J.S.B. (for John Sebastian Bach) Hodges, son of the organist at Bristol Cathedral, a doctor of music from Cambridge. At first, the Johnstons were displeased by the shift from a choir of men and women in street clothes and left St. Paul’s. But they returned and became such enthusiasts of the vested choir that, according to a St. Paul’s parish history, they expressed regret that their sons had not lived to sing in it. (Mr. Hurlbut’s 1934 School history says the Johnston boys were choirboys at St. Paul’s. [Mr. Stephen Hurlbut was a master of classics at St. Albans from 1921 until 1947.])
Harriet Lane Johnston died in July 1903. Her funeral services were conducted by Bishop Satterlee and Canon DeVries of the Cathedral. She was buried in Baltimore at Green Mount Cemetery, her grave marked with a Celtic Cross like the Peace Cross on the Close. In 1905, guests were summoned to see the cornerstone laid for what the invitation referred to as “The Lane Johnston Choir School for Boys of the Washington Cathedral.”
The author of this Harriet Lane Johnston brief was the late Judith Waldrop Frank (NCS ’49), wife of the late Dr. Randolph A. Frank, who had several St. Albans relatives, including her brother, Andrew Waldrop ’57; sons Randolph A. Frank Jr. ’75 and J. Lanier Frank ’79; grandsons Jack Hazard ’06 and Shepherd Frank ’09; and nephew, Frank Campbell Waldrop ’89.
From “An Illustrated History of St. Albans School,” published in 1981.
Additional Writings about Harriet Lane Johnston:
During the School's 100-anniversary party on the evening of October 10, 2009, alumnus Paul S. Thaler ’79 honored the School—and its founder—in a very different way: by presenting gifts from St. Albans School to Wheatland, the Lancaster, Pa., home of President James Buchanan and his niece, Harriet Lane Johnston. Read about his visit by clicking here: Remembering Our Founder
Learn more about featured in the Spring 2006 issue of Harriet Lane Johnston’s Other Bequest: A National Art Museum The Bulletin - Click here: National Art Museum Bequest
To read an excerpt on Harriet Lane Johnston, from journalist Virginia T. Peacock’s book Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century (1901) - Click here: Beloved American Belle
The article below is posted on the web site of The Children's Hospital at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md.
Harriet Lane and Henry Johnston: Pediatric Medicine is Born of Grief
Baltimore banker Henry Johnston and his wife Harriet Lane Johnston bequeathed their estate to Johns Hopkins at the end of the 19th century to establish a curative home for ill children and advance the study of pediatric disease. Their own two sons had died in childhood from rheumatic fever. When the new Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children opened at Hopkins in 1912, it was a model of its time. The Home not only featured electricity and isolation wings for children with infectious disease, but incorporated laboratories in which to discover treatments for the era’s greatest pediatric scourges, such as rheumatic fever, polio and rickets. The Johnstons’ generous donation merged with Johns Hopkins Medical School’s initiative to create a center for children’s care that would propel the practice of pediatric medicine from relative medical obscurity into a prominent light.