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Remembering the benefactress of Johns Hopkins Children's Center

The Johns Hopkins Children's Center — originally founded as the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children — celebrated its centenary earlier this month.

Its endowment originated from the largesse of Harriet Lane, who during the mid-19th century was considered one of Washington's most glamorous women and hostesses.

Harriet Rebecca Lane — she later dropped her middle name — was born in 1830 in Mercersburg, Pa., the daughter of Elliott Tole Lane and Jane Ann Buchanan Lane, and raised in Franklin County, Pa.

Her mother was the sister of James Buchanan, who would become the 15th president of the United States in 1857.

In 1839, her mother died, which was followed two years later by the death of her father. While her three siblings went to other homes, Lane requested that Buchanan, a bachelor, become her guardian.

She spent her early years at Wheatleigh, Buchanan's estate near Lancaster, Pa., and after his election to the Senate, she went to Washington with him and attended the Academy of the Visitation Convent in Georgetown.

In 1854, she traveled to London when Buchanan was minister to the Court of St. James, and after he was elected president, she followed him to the White House.

"Although but 21 years of age when she entered the White House, she filled the duties of the position with the ease, grace and dignity of a matron of greater years, winning at once the admiration and love of all that met her," observed The Sun at her death in 1903.

"Few American ladies have been associated with more notable events than Mrs. Johnston, or met with more distinguished men and women," reported the newspaper, which described her as a "tall, handsome woman with dark wavy hair. She had fair skin with a deep rose-coloring and a veracity of expression that constituted her greatest charm."

She was married in 1866 to Henry Elliott Johnston, a Baltimore banker, and within 18 years, she lost her husband and two sons, James Buchanan Johnston and Henry Elliott Johnston.

So great was her grief that she "lived in retirement for some years" afterward, reported The Sun.

At Old St. Paul's Church at Charles and Saratoga streets, she commemorated the loss of her two sons in a memorial window on the "northern side of the edifice," reported the newspaper. She also founded Church Home, on North Broadway, in memory of her sons, which was a free ward for children.

"Her heart was big, and she showed the greatest anxiety and desire to aid those less fortunate than herself. It was related of her that her charities were far-reaching and lavish," said the newspaper.

A woman of substantial wealth, at her death she left bequests totaling $500,000 to numerous educational and religious organizations, and her art collection went to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington. She also endowed three $90,000 scholarships at the Johns Hopkins University and gave $100,000 for the establishment of what became the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children.

Her will stipulated that the home was to be for white children only, "without respect to creed, nationality or residence with a preference for boys and for children living in Maryland," reported The Sun in a 1906 article.

In 1909, contracts were granted to the Noel Construction Co. to build what The Sun at the time called the "Harriet Lane Memorial Home for Crippled Children," a five-story brick structure that had been designed by architects Wyatt & Nolting, and rose on Jefferson Street on the campus of Johns Hopkins Hospital.

At its dedication on Nov. 20, 1912, it was pointed out that Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children was unique in the United States because it was "connected with a large medical school" that is an "acknowledged leader in the country."

The Sun said it was the "last word in construction and it will help wonderfully lighten the burdens of those for whom it was erected."

Until the old building was closed in 1972, it had been the setting for many pioneering advances in care for children. It was demolished two years later.

She was 73 when she died at Narragansett Pier, R.I., and was buried in Green Mount Cemetery, where her grave is marked by a Celtic cross.

"This distinguished woman grew old gracefully and possessed charms of manner, the ease of conversation and glow of brilliancy in the sunset days of her notable life," reported The Sun.

As stipulated in her will, flowers were to be placed on her grave each year on her birthday, May 9.

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