Sunday, February 12, 2017

59 Rooms: The Spectacular Firenze Mansion in Cleveland Park, built in 1927

One of the largest, if not the largest, private homes in Washington is nestled behind a dense row of trees between north Cleveland Park and Forest Hills, at the intersection of Broad Branch Road and Albemarle Street.  Known as Firenze House since 1941, it was constructed between 1925 and 1927 for Mrs. Blanche Estebrook O’Brien with a total of fifty-nine rooms.  Its address today is 2800 Albemarle Street.   

            O’Brien was the widow of Paul Roebling, a member of a New Jersey family that had been responsible for financing and building the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883.  When the house was begun in 1925, O’Brien was married to Colonel Arthur O’Brien.  She choose architect Russell O. Kluge for its design, and former Army Corps of Engineers General Richard Marshall as the contractor.  Upon its completion in 1927, the house was coined ‘Estebrook.”

            Like many homes of the era, the Tudor styled residence featured rather dark interior rooms, furnished with Jacobean style furniture.  O’Brien purchased fine paneling and mantels designed by noted architect Sir Christopher Wren in London, and had them incorporated into the house during its construction.  The house itself, set among 22 acres, was constructed of gray fieldstone, quarried on the site, and limestone trim.  A variegated slate roof, green shutters, and leaded glass windows completed the design. 

            Several outbuildings also graced the estate, including a large gatehouse on Broad Branch Road, garage with servant’s quarters, ninety foot swimming pool, tennis courts, and an art studio.  It was estimated that over ten thousand trees originally existed on the grounds. 

            The home’s interiors reflected a variety of styles, dominated by an enormous three story grand hall with carved oak beams and stairway.  Following the Great Depression, the property was leased to the Minister of Hungary until it was sold in 1941.  The buyers that year were Colonel and Mrs. Meyer Robert Guggenheim, who had been residing on their yacht ‘Firenze’ before it was lent to the government for wartime use.  The renamed their new estate ‘Firenze’ in its honor, a name that has remained to this day.

The Guggenheim fortune stemmed from the M. Guggenheim and Son Mining and Smelting Company in 1925, and later from the Guggenheim Exploration Company.  He retired from business in 1929.

            The Guggenheim’s changed much of the dark interiors into a lighter shade, by pickling the oak staircase, for example.  They installed two Waterford chandeliers in the drawing room, and filled the house with priceless art, including Jacomo Victor’s “Barnyard Scene,” dated 1672, Van Dyck’s “Earl of Arundel,” and Murillo’s “Salvatori Mundi.”  They also furnished the mansion with period American and European furniture of the utmost quality, mostly in Queen Anne and Hepplewhite styles.  They entertained up to 600 guests at a time!

            Unfortunately, a fire in 1946, destroyed two Titian portraits, and a large amount of original paneling.  Interior decorator Michael Rosenaur was hired that year to restore the interiors of the house.   M. Robert Guggenheim died in 1959, and his widow later married John A. Logan, and together they resided at the estate until the mid 1970s.           

               Since 1976, Firenze House has been owned by the Government of Italy and used as their Ambassadors residence.  Its rumored to be valued at nearly $50 million.

Copyright Paul K. Williams

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