Sunday, April 06, 2014

Before there was La Tomate: the Sawyer mansion

Though a major commercial corridor today, Connecticut Avenue north of Dupont Circle and the Circle itself was originally developed as a fashionable residential neighborhood beginning in the early 1880s.  The large triangular lot at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue, R Street and 20th Streets is today occupied by a distinctive triangular building built in 1922, housing the La Tomate Restaurant at 1701 Connecticut Avenue  Before that, however, it was the site of a spectacular brown stone mansion built by Senator Philetus Sawyer in 1888.     

Philetus Sawyer (1816 – 1900), right, was an American politician of the Republican Party who had the unique title of representing Wisconsin in both houses of Congress.  He was born on September 22, 1816 in Whiting, Vermont, and moved to Crown Point, New York, as an infant in 1817.  He was the fifth child of Ephraim Sawyer and Mary Parks, and eventually attended rural schools there, worked as a woodsman and sawmill hand, and for a time operated a lumbermill.  In 1841, he married Malvina M. Hadley, and they would eventually have five children together: Ella, Earl, Edgar, Emma, and Erma.    

He moved to Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin in 1847 and soon thereafter became a millionaire in the lumber industry in Oshkosh, surrounded by thick forests of old growth.  Oshkosh became known as “Sawdust City,” and her sister cities on the Lake Winnebago-Fox River waterway soon became the center of early lumber milling and commerce. One of his best customers would eventually be the Diamond match company.   

Amusingly, his competitors in the lumber industry spread the rumor that he always signed his letters and documents P. Sawyer because he himself could not spell his first name.  Later in life, he seemingly changed his habit and signed his full name as if to prove his enemies wrong.  Sawyer amassed a fortune, which during the Civil War became even larger as his industry evolved from the sawmill and rough-hewn lumber stage to planing mill and finished woodwork.  

In 1878, Sawyer formed a lumber company with his son, Edgar P. and a former employee named William O. Goodman named Sawyer-Goodman & Co. that expanded operations into Illinios, Iowa, and Nebraska. They owned yards in Chicago and mills in the Menominee Valley, and were successful speculators in the Wolf and Chippewa valley timberlands, along with large investments in Wisconsin banking and railroad enterprises.  Sawyer’s daughter Erna eventually married Goodman.      

Sawyer's early political career included serving in the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1857 and 1861, and serving as mayor of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, from 1863 to 1864.  He ran for and was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1864 and served for ten years, from 1865 until 1875; he did not run for reelection in 1874.  He gained a reputation as being the “foremost logroller” of his time through his handling of river and harbor appropriation bills.

Sawyer apparently had strong feelings about his time in public life, writing in 1875 “As for me being a Candidate for Govr. or any other office I most emphaticaly decline. I will not except the the nomination for Any Office…I have kissed a--s enough for the privlage of doing peoples Chores and I have got through."  (Stated in a letter to Cadwallader C. Washburn, dated April 2, 1875, in the Washburn Papers, collection of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin)

However, Sawyer returned to Congress in 1881 as a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, and served two terms, from 1881 to 1893.  The US Senate was then a wealthy men’s club, whose members didn’t represent political entities so much as they represented economic empires.  From Nevada, for example, then hailed James G. Fair, known as “Bonanza Fair,” the wealthiest of them all; he had accumulated a fortune of thirty millions from silver mines. 

Sawyer’s stone mansion at 1701 Connecticut Avenue had begun to be constructed in March of 1888, and while he himself resided there, it was apparently built for his daughter Emma, then the wife of Syracuse, NY journalist Howard White.  The mansion was designed by architect William H. Miller and was built at an impressive estimated cost of $80,000, when the typical townhouse in Washington was built for less than $3,000.  It was built by William P. Lipscomb, who lost money on the elaborate construction, but Sawyer was so pleased with the house that he offered to pay beyond the contract price for the house.    

In 1891, as bondsman for two of the defendants in a Wisconsin treasury legal case, Sawyer offered money to Robert M. La Follette, Sr., brother-in-law of the judge scheduled to try the cases; La Follette denounced the offer as an intended bribe, while Sawyer maintained that his offer had been made only in the hope of obtaining La Follette’s legal services.  The resulting scandal split the state Republican party, and, after leaving the Senate in 1893, Sawyer spent his last years fighting the ensuing revolt of the La Follette, or Progressive, faction of the party which gained control shortly thereafter.   

Sawyer sold 1701 Connecticut Avenue just two weeks before he died in March of 1900 for the stunning amount of $100,000.  Its new owner was Henry Cleveland Perkins, a wealthy mining engineer and owner of the Oriental Consolidated Mining Company that owned mines in California, Alaska, Venezuela, Korea, and South Africa.    
Sawyer's house in Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Known as the “grand old man” of Oshkosh, in his later years, Sawyer performed various local philanthropic acts, many of them anonymous, and was a trustee and generous benefactor of Lawrence College.  Sawyer died on March 29, 1900 in Oshkosh at age 83, where he was also interred.  Sawyer County, Wisconsin, was named for him, and a book of his life entitled Pine Logs and Politics: A Life of Philetus Sawyer, 1816- 1900 was written by Richard Nelson Current, published by the Wisconsin State Historical Society in 1950.

Sadly, the Sawyer mansion was sold in 1921 and demolished after existing on the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and 20th Street for thirty-three years.  Architect George N. Ray designed the current building at 1701 Connecticut Avenue, which was begun in May of 1923.  Ironically, it too was built by the William Lipscomb company that had build Sawyers house on the site in 1888.  It was built as an office building, but subsequently housed the Regina Valet and today is home to the La Tomate restaurant.    

Copyright Paul K. Williams

Monday, March 17, 2014

Washington Nationals at the Swampoodle Grounds

Swampoodle Grounds.  Photograph courtesy Architect of the Capitol

Swampoodle Grounds, also known as Capitol Park (II), was the home of the Washington Nationals baseball team of the National League from 1886 to 1889.  The park was named for the surrounding  Swampoodle neighborhood.   The right field and the infield portions of the site are now occupied by the Union Station (Square 678). The left field portion was later occupied by the Main Post Office, which is now the National Postal Museum.

The owners of Square 678 in 1887 were listed as Thomas Galt and William Smith; they owned the west side together, and had split up the east side with Smith owning the top portion and Galt the lower half. On the 1887 Hopkins map seen here, there are just a few small wood frame buildings on the entire square (those yellow squares you see on the west side of the square).

One was built in 1887 as a "clubhouse" by the Washington Baseball Club, according to the building permit index.  It measured 10x30 feet, and had to be removed within 90 days upon request from the owner of the land.  That was all about there was in regard to physical structures.  Spectators apparently lined the edge of the field instead of sitting in grandstand seats.  

Swampoodle Grounds held 6,000. The Washington Statesmen folded after the end of the 1889 season.

Copyright Paul K. Williams

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

5609 32nd Street: Proof that every house has a history!

You never know what might be discovered when you are researching an older house in Washington, DC, and we had quite a surprise when we researched one recently in Chevy Chase DC at 5609 32nd Street for the current owners (left).  I think they were surprised as well!  

Construction began in September of 1931, and the house was built for an estimated cost of just $8,000.  It was designed by prolific architect George T. Santmyers.  It was sold to a government accountant named Frank Read.  The Read’s may have been a typical DC homeowner of the era, but it was who they sold the house to, and when, that was the real interesting story – along with their tragic demise.    

They sold the house on June 6, 1963 to Tran Van Chuong, who had resigned as the South Vietnam Ambassador to the United States shortly before the purchase (right).  Trần Văn Chương (c. 1898 — 24 July 1986) was the father of the country's de facto first lady, Madame Nhu (1924-2011). They would own the house for three years. 

He had married Thân Thị Nam Trân, who was a member of the extended Vietnamese royal family (left). Her father was Thân Trọng Huề, who became Vietnam's minister for national education, and her mother was a daughter of Emperor Đồng Khánh. They had a son Trần Văn Khiêm and three daughters, including Lệ Xuân, who became the wife of Ngô Ðình Nhu, the brother of South Vietnam's first President, Ngô Ðình Diệm. 

Chương's family alliances enabled him to rise from being a member of a small law practice in the Cochin-Chinese (South Vietnamese) town of Bạc Liêu in the 1920s to become Vietnam's first Foreign Secretary under his wife's cousin Emperor Bảo Đại, while Japan occupied Vietnam during World War II. 

As stated in the LA Times: “Chuong and his wife were near the center of a movement to create a new Vietnam, free of French rule. Their lives and the lives of their children were always part of the roiling pot that was the politics of Vietnam, forever filled with intrigue."

In 1945, when many believed that the way to independence was through Japanese support, Chuong was vice premier in a short-lived Japanese puppet government. Later that year, when the communist Viet Minh took control of the government, Chuong was arrested. His wife, whom the Viet Minh were willing to leave behind, insisted on going with her husband. 

The couple escaped, taking refuge in the south, and in 1947 they made their way to Paris. When Diem became prime minister in 1954 and then the nation's president, Chuong was named Vietnam's ambassador to the United States. His wife became Vietnam's permanent observer at the United Nations. He eventually became South Vietnam's ambassador to the United States, but resigned in protest in 1963, denouncing his government's anti-Buddhist policies. 

On November 1, 1963, Chuong's son-in-law Ngô Ðình Nhu and Nhu's brother, President Ngô Ðình Diệm were assassinated in a coup d'état led by General Dương Văn Minh. Chuong's daughter, Ngô Ðình Nhu's wife, the rather famous Madame Nhu (1924-2011), was in Beverly Hills, California at the time of the coup. 

Chương and his wife remained in the United States in Washington, D.C.  On July 24, 1986, they were found strangled to death at their home on Western Avenue NW.  Their son Trần Văn Khiêm (left), was accused but found unfit for trial.  The remains of Chương and his wife were interred at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.  

Copyright Paul K. Williams: Pictures courtesy The Washington Post

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Oldest House in Washington, DC

To the casual passerby, the large yellow and white Georgian styled house at 2401 Kalorama Road, NW in the Sheridan-Kalorama neighborhood might be mistaken for a recreation or a slightly out of place house built in the 1930s when Colonial-styled architectural revivals were popular. Its origin, however, dates from its initial construction in Danvers, Massachusetts in the middle of the 18th century, and is as authentic as its painstaking rebuilding in Washington between 1934 and 1936.

The Lindens was eventually named after the many Linden trees that originally surrounded it in Massachusetts. It was, however, first known as “The Great House” when it was built by wealthy merchant and English Loyalist Robert Hooper (right) whom his neighbors called “King Hooper.” It was built in 1754 as his summer house in Danvers, just outside Marblehead, where Hooper maintained a large town house.

By the 1930s, the Lindens was threatened with demolition after decades of neglect. In fact, its main floor parlor paneling had already been sold to the Kansas City Museum. After searching for a Colonial era house to move to Washington for years to house their antique furniture collection, the Lindens was bought in early 1934 for $10,000 by George M. and Miriam Hubbard Morris. It was documented with exquisite measured drawings and photographs in January of that year, carefully labeled, disassembled, and placed in six freight train cars for its move to Washington.

The Lindens pictured in 1934 at its original location in Danvers, Mass
The Morris’s hired Williamsburg craftsmen and architects to assist in the project, which took 34 months to complete. George Morris was a local attorney who eventually became president of the American Bar Association. While at Dartmouth, he became interested in antiques when he took a course by Homer E. Keyes, founder of Antiques magazine. His wife Miriam, a 1909 graduate of the National Cathedral School, was also keenly interested in antiques following a course of study in Paris (below).

The young couple married in 1918, and with Keyes as their advisor, began to collect American Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture and accessories. They eventually purchased a vacant lot in Sheridan-Kalorama on the northwest corner of 24th Street and Kalorama Road where they indented to build a recreation of the Byrd family’s 18th century manor, coined Westover, which was located along the James River. That dream ended with the 1929 stock market crash, according to Morris.
Instead, they located and purchased the Lindens five years later. Following a three year rebuilding to exact standards, the Morris’s moved into 2401 Kalorama Road with their three children in 1937. Miriam oversaw what was then considered an expert restoration, concealing lighting fixtures and phones, using electrified candles, and even built the radio into a false bookcase in the library to conceal its location.

The exterior paint was combined with sand to replicate a stone finish, a building material in short supply in the 1750s. The parlor walls were recreated from measured drawings from the original at the Kansas City Museum, but the remainder of the interior paneling and grand staircase was complete and had been moved intact from Massachusetts.

Miriam’s exhaustive research on every aspect of architectural and antique furnishings for the house led her to eventually become one of most regarded experts on the subject in the United States. She eventually lectured on early Americana in such far away places as Singapore, Thailand, and Japan. She served as the only woman on the State Department’s Fine Arts Committee, established in 1961 to study and acquire early American antiques for the departments Diplomatic reception rooms.
Miriam Morris’s collection of antiques wasn’t her only passion in life, however. In 1916, at the age of 25, she drew plans for a bright yellow convertible sports car with crab eye headlights that was made to order by the Biddle Brothers in Philadelphia. She was also an enthusiastic aviatrix, noted as the first woman to fly over Guyana’s Kaieteur Falls in a single-engine plane. She remained at the Lindens with her large and impressive collection of rare early American antiques until her death in June of 1982. The home’s contents were auctioned at Christies in New York the following January. The humble beginnings of the collection, purchased during the Depression brought more than six figures for many of the numerous furniture pieces.

According to public records, the Lindens recently sold for $7.165 million in February of 2007 and was featured in Architectural Digest in February of  2014.  

Copyright Paul K. Williams.
Photographs from Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division