Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Razor Sharp Gillett Mansion Near Dupont Circle

The prominent and distinctive corner house on the southwest corner of Connecticut Avenue and Hillyer Place at 1614 20th Street was completed and purchased in 1893 by a wealthy businessman Alfred S. Gillett.  He purchased the spacious townhouse at the advanced age of 75, and lived there along with his second wife, the former Ella Gratz, following a long and distinguished career in the insurance business.     

Gillett had been born in Hebron, Connecticut on March 17, 1818, the son of reverend Nathan Gillett and Lydia Jones.  Both his paternal and fraternal ancestors were early colonists of America, arriving before 1700, many of whom participated in building the block houses in Windsor, Connecticut to defend the inhabitants against the Native Americans and the French. 

As a young man, Alfred Gillett lived in western New York for a time, before returning to Connecticut to study business and join his brother in a counting (accounting) house.  In 1837, he took an opportunity to move to Georgia to work for a large counting business, where he amassed a large amount of various merchandise which he emigrated with to Texas in 1840; realizing handsome profits from its sale in that emerging State.  There, became close friends with the republic’s president, Samuel Houston.  Gillett first married the former Martha Fuller in 1841; they had two children that died in childhood, and Martha Fuller herself died in 1880.   

A short time afterwards, on January17, 1843, Gillet was appointed a postmaster at Haynesville, Georgia.  There he remained until 1847, when “the discontent and animosity which finally culminated in the civil war made it uncomfortable for a man of his temperament and determination, familiar with having ties which strongly bound him to both North and South” returned to New England.  He is pictured at right.     

In 1850, he established the Insurance Advocate and Journal, the earliest of the insurance newspapers in the United States.  He moved to Philadelphia that same year and began underwriting.  He soon gained financial backing of $200,000 to establish the Girard Fire & Marine Insurance Company in 1853.  Many legal cases today often cite cases naming the company, such as the definition of “loss by fire.”        

Gillett’s second wife was the former Ella Gratz, the daughter of well known Philadelphian merchant Edward Gratz.  They married in 1883, when Gillett was aged 65; with a thirty-seven year difference in their age, Ella having been born in Pennsylvania about 1855.  The Gillett’s were well traveled for the era, “and there is hardly a spot in the United States of interest that he has not visited.”  In 1893, they purchased and moved into 1614 20th Street.    

The 1910 census shows that the Gillett’s then lived at the house along with four white servants, including a twenty-one year old chauffeur named Edward Byron, a Washington native.  The three others had all been born in Ireland, and included maid Mary Elynn, 28; cook Teresa McGinn, 40; and ‘waitress’ Sarah McKinney, 24.      

The Gillett’s had three homes altogether, including 1614 20th Street.  They maintained a lavish and well landscaped 200 acre farm they called “Evergreen Lodge” outside Leesburg, Virginia “brought to the highest state of cultivation under his supervision,” that included a colonial era farmhouse.  In the summer months, the couple traveled north to their seasonal retreat coined “The Hermitage,” near Wallingford, Pennsylvania that had been built in the 1840s, and remodeled in the 1870s, which remain today.        

A brief biological entry in the 1903 City of Washington stated that “Mr. Gillett is replete with many charming anecdotes of the western life of those troublous times, and although he has considerably passed his fourscore years, he is a rare raconteur, his mind active and alert, supplemented by a keen sense of the ridiculous, which cannot fail to charm his listeners.”  He died in 1914 at the age of 96.    

Following a period of commercial uses in the 1760s and 1970s, the house at 1614 20th Street was owned today by the founders of the Sprenger & Lang law firm.  It was recently listed for sale via Sotheby's Realty for $6.8 million by agent Michael Rankin.  Recent pictures via the listing at    

Copyright Paul K. Williams