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Dupont

     During the last quarter of the 19th century, grand private residences sprang up around newly created Pacific Circle (now Dupont) with the efficient singlemindedness of their industrialist owners. The homes “grew” from their sites with such “dynamic” consistency that no chroniclers seem to have more to say about them than that they happened – to paraphrase Henry Hobson Richardson, whose dramatic “Romanesque” creations influenced much of Dupont architecture. Yet for those of us thrilled by our beloved city’s rich past, the Circle’s architectural abundance has an equally abundant history, thoroughly worth exploring and inextricably intertwined with both DC’s birth as the nation’s capitol and the Civil War.

     Where to locate the U.S. capitol city was at the core of political intrigue and manipulations for more than 50 years with not much more than a tenuous victory won by our young city. The huge resources committed to the Capitol building’s construction in the 1860s certainly implied that the government was here to stay. However the city suffered so badly from the fiscal burdens left by the Civil War along with local mismanagement that, until the 1870s, the District of Columbia was one large muddy mess – mostly dirt roads and absent of all but the most primitive infrastructure. Congress once again discussed a new home, in St. Louis, at the time the country’s greatest industrial city.

     The notorious and charismatic plumber turned real estate developer turned Republican politician, Alexander Robey Shepherd, was the city’s savior. He was steadfastly, not to mention brilliantly, devoted to the District. I imagine Shepherd seated at his huge desk poring over the glorious city plan created by George Washington’s friend, Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant. It was, indeed, Shepherd who translated the plan into actuality. During the course of his reign, first as the force behind Washington’s five-man Board of Public Works and then as the second Governor of the new territory of the District of Columbia, “Boss” Shepherd poured public funds into urban development that included graded roads, streetlamps and 60,000 trees. His infrastructure ended talk of the Capitol’s move to St. Louis and provided the foundation for a 25 year real estate boom by wealthy families from across the country – most onto Dupont’s broad and elegant avenues.

     L’Enfant’s intention was that (quoted on the front page of my site) "The plan should be drawn on such a scale as to leave room for the aggrandisement & embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the Nation will permit it to pursue at any period how ever remote". Nonetheless, prior to the construction of the graceful bridge proceeding north up Connecticut Avenue in1886, Rock Creek Gorge and the big hill that climbed behind it into miles of forest were insurmountable barriers to the city’s growth. Thus the plan ended at Boundary Street, renamed Florida Avenue in 1893.

     Pacific Circle was at the outer reaches of the plan’s borders … and only great force of politics and will got paved roads and streetcar tracks out that far. Boss Shepherd’s municipal ardor was powerful enough to build the Circle and the lovely park at its center. In 1871, the Army Corps of Engineers began construction.

     Unfortunately Shepherd’s projects were rife with contention. To fund them he raised taxes so astronomically that citizens were forced to sell their homes. Streets were often so severely graded that front doors sat 15 feet above the street or, alternately, amid piles of dirt rising to the houses’ second floors. Of course, the lovely street level facades of the Dupont homes of Shepherd’s wealthy and favored cronies were spared any anomalies. Did the grading, I wonder, cause the raised gardens walled by stone and surmounted by long staircases that climb to many DC front doors and that we now find so characteristic and charming?

     When the Boss’ expected $6.25 million expenditure grew to $9 million, public pressure generated an audit. The actual cost, the audit discovered, was $13 million (only a couple of million more than Georgetown’s most expensive condo today). Congress declared bankruptcy on the city’s behalf and put Shepherd on trial. In the end, none of his actions were deemed illegal but he was unseated as Governor.

     Over the years, even as recently as Marion Barry’s mayoral administration, controversy has raged as to whether Shepherd was villain or visionary. Mayor Barry first removed Shepherd’s statue from its Pennsylvania Avenue post near 14th Street NW and put it into storage then unearthed it but placed it in front of the Public Works building in Anacostia. It’s now back on Pennsylvania Avenue in its original home.

     The irony of Barry’s actions is that without the “colored suffrage” won as a result of the Civil War, Shepherd would probably have had far less power. Shepherd was a dedicated advocate for the rights of the “colored race” and much of his clout came from the earliest black voters, who, in return, supported him politically. Remember, at that time Republican was Lincoln’s party, the party of the abolitionists, the party “of the people”, as it were.

     I, personally, vote for visionary.

 

 

Castle Stewart Being Restored
to More Than Original Splendor

     Castle Stewart, built by the former Senator of that name from Nevada, on Dupont circle, when that now fine neighborhood was in its infancy, and burned some three years since, is being remodeled. The exterior will resume the imposing appearance possessed before the flames destroyed the upper story altogether, and ruined the plaster and woodwork of the interior. Mr. Robert I Fleming, the architect and builder, has the work in hand, and will make the restored mansion much handsomer that it ever was, and, what is more important, not liable to burn on such slight provocation, at least. The work, which is estimated to cost $25,000, is being done by Mrs. Stewart. In addition to the restoration, three dressing rooms, to be used in connection with the stage when private theatricals are to be given, are being erected; also a conservatory and a balcony on the Connecticut avenue front. Washington Post 1/18/1883

   

     In 1873, Adolf Cluss, one of Shepherd’s close friends and associates, built the first Pacific mansion at the Circle’s apex facing south for Nevada Senator William Morris Stewart.

     Stewart’s fortune came from California gold. He put together a “California Syndicate” to buy up a big chunk of the new Capitol for his peers and their families. Where to put the community? Affluent Georgetown did not have enough land and the best of it was already controlled by several old and very exclusive families. The area now called Dupont was close enough to breathe Georgetown’s rarified air and surrounded by verdant forest but with room to spread out. So Dupont it was. What the California Syndicate began, wealth from across the nation rapidly continued.

     The Industrial Revolution created a vast and burgeoning class of “nouveau riche”. Many fortunes approached – and probably surpassed – those of the “old money” American aristocracy but were created with the focused industry and efficiency of men of business. So when these industrialists decided to build their new community they brought the same energy to it that they’d used to build their new millions. In an era before giant combustion-engined construction equipment, a scant quarter of a century saw the completion of the greatest accumulation of grand and splendid homes in our city to this day.

     For whatever reason, the Stewarts only occupied the “castle” until 1886, when it became a Chinese government legation. In 1901, the house was sold to Montana Senator William A. Clark, who demolished it to build a new residence. Instead the land remained vacant until he sold it in 1921. The beautiful old Riggs Bank building, now PNC, was constructed on the site.

 

     Pacific Circle was renamed Dupont Circle by Congress on February 25, 1882. A statue was authorized in memory of Samuel Francis Du Pont, who served as a rear admiral during the Civil War. The circle was thickly landscaped with trees and planted with unusual varieties of flowers as befitted the neighborhood’s elegance. In 1921, the Dupont family took the statue home to Rockford Park in Wilmington, Delaware. Daniel Chester French and Henry Bacon, creators of the Lincoln Memorial, designed the new fountain. Three classical figures representing sea, stars and wind are set into the shaft to hold the fountain’s large bowl.  

     Of the original mansions, only one, the Robert Patterson House, remains at 15 Dupont Circle – and it was built in 1901 toward the end of the explosion of development. In that era, residing on stately circles and avenues held most prestige, a cultural phenomenon leaving us with the long row of palatial embassy mansions of Massachusetts Avenue. Why (another musing) was vacant land left around the circle for 30 years? Or perhaps it was someone’s garden sold to fund life’s necessities or his own simple greed, as has occurred in every real estate expansion throughout DC’s history? Today the original lot has been whittled down until the house is squeezed between commercial neighbors akin to those that destroyed all the other original homes. I plan, one of these days, to spend numerous hours in the Washington Historical Society and the Library of Congress to attempt to catalogue all the first houses on the circle.

     Mr. Stanford White built the home for Chicago Tribune Editor Robert Patterson and his wife, the daughter of Joseph Medill, the Tribune’s owner. White, a New Yorker, created Gilded Age New York mansions for Astors and Vanderbilts as well as Madison Square Garden. He was renowned as much for his “debauchery” as for his abundant talents and may well have left a wider mark socially than architecturally in the District despite his one beautiful and interesting creation. Whether by need or inspiration, the white marble Italianate mansion does not face the circle directly. The splendid columned entryway, set back in between two symmetrical wings, angles toward P Street with only the left wing abutting the circle. The interiors were suitably lavish for Mrs. Patterson’s powerful family, with Tiffany Studios designing the dining room.  

AMERICAN BRIDE FOR COUNT

Miss Eleanor Patterson Becomes the Countess Gizycki of Poland.

WASHINGTON, April 14. -- The first of the several notable international marriages announced for the Spring season took place to-day at noon at the Dupont Circle residence of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Patterson, when their only daughter, Miss Eleanor Medill Patterson, became the bride of Count Joseph Gizycki of Poland…

…No cards of invitation were issues for the marriage, which, by the bride’s desire, was attended by great simplicity and witnessed by less than forty guests, who were the immediate relatives of the bride, with the Russian and Austrian Ambassadors, and some close personal friends from official and resident circles, Miss Alice Roosevelt being one of the younger guests present.

Count and Countess Gizycki left for New York at 3 o’clock. Their journey to the railway station was made in a carriage decorated with beauty roses tied with white ribbon. They will sail Saturday for Europe, going first to Paris, then to Vienna, where they will be guests of the American Ambassador and Mrs. McCormick, the latter being an aunt of Countess Gizycki. In the early Summer they will go to the bridegroom’s estate near Narvosielica, in Russia. The New York Times, April 15, 1904

     In 1923, Mrs. Robert Patterson gave the mansion to her daughter, Eleanor aka “Cissy”, who remained the Countess Gizycki despite a “sensational failure” of her marriage to the handsome Count. She moved in with their daughter, Felicia. Eventually, Cissy returned to Chicago and took the name of Eleanor Medill Patterson, after both sides of her illustrious media family, and became owner/editor of the Times-Herald newspaper.

     Patterson House is now home to the Washington Club, which was founded ten years prior to its construction in 1891 for “literary purposes, mutual improvement and the promotion of social intercourse”, to quote the Club’s charmingly well-spoken website. The Club was the first incorporated DC women’s organization, only allowing men as members in 1979. Until their move to Patterson House in 1951, members seemed to prefer Foggy Bottom locations. The family home of the Club’s first president, the ethereal Mrs. Elizabeth Blair Lee, is now guest house to United States Presidents – Blair House, directly across the street from the White House.


Mrs. Coolidge visits Patterson House

     Among the magnificent and often eccentric mansions from Senator Stewart’s era still scattered and, in some instances, clustered through Dupont, I’ve singled out 1701 20th Street NW at R Street north of the Circle for two reasons. First, it is a remarkable example of how the neighborhood’s fortunes have changed even in the past 15 years. Also, I attempted to sell the 18,000 square foot, pink granite and brick building in 1994 when it was a bargain basement (well, almost) derelict prior to its sale to the Church of Scientology. Its previous incarnation, The Four Ways, a nightclub and restaurant, had closed when its owner, restaurateur Walter Sommers’ plan to attach a seven story condominium to the house’s rear was nixed at the hands of Dupont’s always vigilant community organizations. After putting a total of $5 million into the property, Sommers stripped and sold the beautiful chandeliers and almost all the intricate carved wood trim. I vividly remember the disconnected power since the building had several sub-basements used for kitchens, heating plants, storage and the like, which became darker and spookier with each descent. I think that’s the only time I’ve ever experienced the total absence of light and I still shudder when I think of it – or maybe it was 100 year old ghosts. I never looked up the sales price and it’s no longer in the tax records but I’d be willing to bet it was a steal. Not much more than one million, I’d bet.


In the 1890s a tranquil Connecticut Avenue fronted the Fraser mansion


     George S. Fraser, a New York “merchant”, commissioned the elegant square of the house with its multi-columned portico at an exorbitant cost of $75,000 from the noted DC architectural firm of Hornblower and Marshall around 1890. Fraser died in 1896. In 1901, his widow sold the mansion to Pennsylvania Congressman Joseph Earlston Thropp, whose fortune came from the manufacture of pig iron, so critical to the Civil War thirty years before. His wife, Miriam, was the daughter of Colonel Thomas Alexander Scott who was President Lincoln’s Assistant Secretary of War. Mrs. Thropp would most probably been quite displeased to see her home debased after her death in 1930 into a series of restaurants.

     I think it’s interesting to note that, despite the widespread influence of Henry Hobson Richardson, his only DC “Romanesque” creation, in 1885 one year before his death at age 47, was the Benjamin H. Warder house originally located at 15th and K Streets NW. Warder’s company is today known as International Harvester. The house was to be sacrificed to K Street’s business and commercial development when George Oakley Totten, an architect who worked farther north on 16th Street, walked past and fell in love. He lugged it in his Model T, brick by brick, to his own front yard on 16th Street above Meridian Hill Park, where it now sits, a (hopefully soon to be renovated) disintegrating pile surrounded by a chain link fence.

The effulgent Mr. Richardson
     Dupont is populated with Romanesque “Revival”, most by Thomas Franklin Schneider. Schneider built the row of ornate homes called “Schneider’s Row” on the 1700 block of Q Street NW and, more historically sensational, his “residential skyscraper”, The Cairo at 1615 Q. The Cairo was built in 1894, in the middle of Dupont’s real estate boom, as a swank apartment building complete with grand ballroom and, later, a bowling alley. Society apartment buildings were popular around the turn of the century. The Gothic Chastleton at 16th and R Streets, home to Wallis Simpson prior to her infamous marriage to Edward, the Duke of Windsor, is another.
     At 164 feet high, the Cairo towered over its neighbors – who were not at all amused. Even before completion, as the building’s stories grew to twelve, outrage erupted. Neighbors called it "Schneider's Folly". They aggressively lobbied Congress to stop the construction and then, when they failed in that attempt, to prevent any such future abuses. The result was the 1899 Heights of Buildings Act, which instituted DC’s pervasive height limits for residential buildings.

     The Cairo’s façade bears the high carved archway and squat columns characteristic of Richardson. Its many whimsical elements include an Egyptian theme with winged griffins, gargoyles and elephant heads. The building was converted to condominiums in 1979 after a shameful decline of almost 20 years that most residents would find unbelievable in today’s market. One tale described a dead body being casually carried out the lofty front doors.

     Despite its grandeur and extensive renovations the Cairo still has some awkward elements. Hallways sometimes have that old apartment house feel and units can be not only small but oddly shaped, often with only one bath. Nonetheless, a unit with charm and spectacular southern views just simply can’t be beat. Two of my clients, a couple, own three units and consider them their retirement fund. These days, even with the real estate market’s decline, the Cairo commands significantly more per square foot than virtually all other Dupont buildings.


Cairo lobby in 1900

     So many other remarkable properties are situated in the Dupont Circle Historic District that one could quite literally write a book. I’m certain that several, at least, on the subject can be found in the Library of Congress. The Circle itself is under the care of the National Park Service. Their National Register of Historic Places website has extensive descriptions of Dupont’s historic buildings including suggestions for a variety of self-guided walking tours.

 

     I will mention just one more home – mine. Sited on a miniscule sharply pointed triangle of land at the far northwest corner of the Historic District is a tiny, vertical, eccentric and beautiful house. It is, in my obviously biased opinion, unique to the District and most likely everywhere else as well. I am extremely grateful to the former owner, who lavished love and attention on the house. He and his wife not only gave it meticulous care, they also commissioned its history. However, since the original building permit is missing, the historian was not able to determine who built the house. I think this a great misfortune. I would love to know what manner of person came up with this incredibly odd and wonderful structure and ask that if any readers have any information they pass it on to me.

 

 

 

 

 


Historic American Buildings Survey No. DC-700, Florida Avenue, National Park Service, 1993


     
The first owner still noted in public records was Arthur D. Curtiss, a civil engineer. I find it interesting that, in 1910, he and two other Curtiss men, either sons or brothers, moved into the house from 1013 Lamont Street in Columbia Heights, a significantly larger home. Did the move indicate an elevation of the family’s social status? What does this say about the ebbs and flows of the DC real estate markets at that time? Do any living Curtiss family members know the answers to these questions? Please tell me.

     My partner, Richard Urban, describes the house as a children’s playhouse on a large estate. From the front, the house reminds me of a Mediterranean villa with its monochrome walls, odd shaped windows and green tile mansard roof. The variety of exterior architectural detail includes chequered brick work on bays and on the eccentric turret, a beautiful carved wood decorative cornice and intricately framed hipped dormers that pierce the roof, to name only a few. The house confounded the appraiser for a whole slew of reasons. Primarily, however, because the official lot size is 268 square feet but the house has a footprint the appraiser estimated at 400 thanks to several bays that extend into the airspace over the city sidewalks. Most of the garden actually belongs to the Federal Reservation to which I pay annual rent.

   

 

     I am thrilled to be living in Dupont. My intention is to happily inhabit my wonderful jewel box of a home until I am too old to climb the four flights of stairs … and then to give it to my three boys, who are already completely charmed by it.

   


Florida Avenue, rarely quiet during the Blizzard of 2010