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Streets of Washington Presents: The Alexander Shepherd Mansion, Icon of Washington’s Gilded Age

by Prince Of Petworth March 28, 2017 at 3:30 pm 12 Comments

Streets of Washington, written by John DeFerrari, covers some of DC’s most interesting buildings and history. John is the author of Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats, published by the History Press, Inc. and also the author of Lost Washington DC.

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Shepherd’s Row, circa 1880. The Shepherd Mansion is on the left. (Source: Library of Congress).

The stately former mansion of “Boss” Alexander Shepherd on the northeast corner of Connecticut Avenue and K Street NW was one of the most prominent of the great houses that lined K Street during the Gilded Age. Designed by famed architect Adolf Cluss, the house was an emphatic expression of wealth and power. While Shepherd lived there for only a few years, its prominence in Washington’s social life endured for another half century as diplomats and industrialists made it their home and held lavish parties in its ornate reception rooms. “Palatial in size and fittings, magnificently furnished, an example of the union of great wealth and noble tastes,” The Washington Post concluded in 1899.

Alexander Shepherd

The rise and fall of Alexander Robey Shepherd (1835-1902), one of the most important figures in D.C. government in the post Civil War era, is a well-known story, but only recently has a complete biography of this complex individual been published. John P. Richardson’s Alexander Robey Shepherd: The Man Who Built the Nation’s Capital offers a balanced and clear-eyed view of a man who has been vilified as often as he’s been celebrated.

A native Washingtonian, Shepherd was the son of a lumberman who died when Alexander was ten yeas old. Young Shepherd’s lucky break came when he joined the city’s largest plumbing and gas fitting company at age 17. A naturally hard-driving businessman, Shepherd eventually took over the company and made a fortune, much of it from government contracts during the Civil War. After the war, he branched into real estate, making more money by constructing hundreds of rowhouses in the rapidly expanding city. He became involved in local politics and was a strong advocate for consolidating the separate jurisdictions of the District of Columbia under a single territorial government. As head of the newly established territory’s Board of Public Works, Shepherd oversaw a vast effort at renovating and modernizing the city’s infrastructure, including grading and paving roads and installing sewers and other utilities. Though there was much cronyism, shoddy work, and wasteful spending, Shepherd’s initiatives went a long way toward transforming the city into a modern metropolis.

Alexander Shepherd

The year 1873 marked a turning point for Shepherd and the city. Shepherd’s massive infrastructure projects had torn up streets around the city and were drawing intense Congressional scrutiny. At the same time, newly re-elected President Ulysses S. Grant named Shepherd governor, cementing (albeit briefly) his de facto position as the city’s most powerful leader. It was at this point that Shepherd turned to his Board of Public Works associate, the prominent German-born architect Adolf Cluss (1825–1905), to design a house for him on K Street opposite Farragut Square.

Shepherd’s Row

Cluss filled the short block with an elegant row of three grand townhouses designed in the highly fashionable Second Empire style, with somber façades of blue-gray Ohio freestone, steep mansard roofs, elegant classical detailing, and sharply projecting bays. The grandest of the three was the corner house, Shepherd’s mansion, its rounded 70-foot corner tower contrasting sharply with the angled bays and cupolas of the rest of the row. Cluss himself owned the center townhouse, which he apparently kept as an investment, and Hallet Kilbourn, another real estate developer, took the house on the far end. All three owners were members of the Board of Public Works. The row cost more than $150,000 to construct, an enormous sum in 1873.

Shepherd's Row (Picturesque Washington 1885)
Shepherd’s Row as seen from Farragut Square (Source: Picturesque Washington, 1887).

Shepherd’s home, by far the largest of the three, was typical of Washington mansions of that era, designed above all else for lavish entertainment during the social season (Fall to Spring). Impressive stone steps rose to the main entrance on the second floor, where large, ornately decorated parlors and drawing rooms connected to form an elaborate reception space. Newspaper columnist Emily Edson Briggs commented that “The Shepherd drawing rooms are furnished in white and gold, upholstered with scarlet and blue satin. Curtains are Brussels and point lace. It takes the whole time of one servant to polish the mirrors.” A large library, paneled entirely in walnut, adjoined these rooms as did a spacious porch and picture gallery to the rear. A giant spiral staircase, topped by an oval skylight, spanned all five floors of the building, with fourteen bedrooms on the floors above and kitchens, pantries, offices, and a billiard room on the first floor below. “Skylights shed tinted light on the interior, walnut balusters were inlaid with bronze, and wainscoting mingled sandalwood, silverwood, laurel, and spotted maple,” according to Richardson.

Shepherd and his large family lived in the mansion for only a few years, as his fortunes took a dramatic turn for the worse around the time the mansion was finished. Shepherd’s role as governor ended in June 1874, when the territorial government was abolished and replaced by a commissioner system, and it was probably around the same time that his family moved into the K Street house. However, the Panic of 1873 had ruined his finances, and he seems to have begun renting the house out, at least for short periods, as early as late 1874. He managed to hold a “grand reception” at the mansion for President Ulysses S. Grant and other dignitaries in February 1876, but later that year announced that he was bankrupt.

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Illustration of the February 1876 reception at the Shepherd Mansion. Alexander Shepherd stands by the doorway, greeting guests, who are lined up the stairway waiting their turn. Mrs. Shepherd is in front of him greeting President Grant (Source: Harper’s Weekly via Library of Congress).

Terms of the bankruptcy included sale of the K Street mansion, although complicated financial liens on the property meant that its status remained in dispute for years to come. Shepherd had taken out a loan on the property from one George Pepper of Philadelphia, who sued for non-payment, but he took out other loans as well and in 1874 had transferred title of the property to his brother-in-law and lawyer. Legal squabbles over the property would drag on for almost two decades.

The Chinese and Russian Legations

Meanwhile, a succession of new tenants took up residence beginning in the late 1870s. First was Senator Simon Cameron (1799-1899), the wealthy leader of the Pennsylvania Republican Party who had served as Lincoln’s first Secretary of War. Cameron retired from the Senate in 1877. Next to take the mansion was the Chinese Legation, at the time the largest foreign legation in Washington. Lower Connecticut Avenue, from Farragut Square to Dupont Circle was fast becoming a diplomatic enclave in those days. The Evening Star noted in 1881 that the “block between K and L streets on Connecticut Avenue might fairly be called diplomatic row. The Chinese legation is at one corner, the French at the other, and between the two are the Swedish, Russian, Austrian, Turkish, and Italian legations. The British legation is but two blocks distant on the same avenue.”

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The Russian Legation building, circa 1887 (Author’s collection).

In 1883, after the Chinese moved to Stewart’s Castle on Dupont Circle (another mansion designed by Adolf Cluss that was larger but similar in style to the Shepherd house), a judge authorized renting the Shepherd mansion to the Russian Legation, which made alterations to the interior. The minister, Baron Karl von Struve (1835-1907), an accomplished pianist, “entertained handsomely” in the mansion. He and his wife regularly held evening receptions as well as a Sunday salon for diplomats and influential politicians. When he first moved in, his chargé d’affaires apologized to the press for the lack of artwork on the walls, saying the Russian government had not appropriated any funds for pictures. The problem undoubtedly was quickly resolved. Powerful California Senator Leland Stanford, a friend of von Struve’s, lived in what had been Hallet Kilbourn’s house on the other end of Shepherd’s Row. Between the two of them, parties, dinners, and receptions for the rich and powerful were a continuous occurrence during the social season. Von Struve remained in the mansion for ten years, until his term as minister in Washington was over.

Mrs. Washington McLean and Admiral George Dewey

The new Russian minister decided to move, and the mansion next came into the hands of Mrs. Mary L. McLean (1827-1900), widow of Washington McLean, owner of The Cincinnati Enquirer. Washington and Mary McLean were the parents of John Roll McLean, owner of The Washington Post, who lived in an immense mansion just south of McPherson Square and who also owned the majestic Friendship Estate in what is now Friendship Heights.

Mrs. McLean redecorated the Shepherd Mansion with a distinctly feminine touch, adding many antiques and draping alcoves with gold-embroidered, yellow silk. “A perfect fairyland,” the Star observed. According to the Star, she turned the ballroom into “one of the daintiest of salons.” The room featured low, ivory-colored wainscoting topped with an unusually large chair rail, wide enough to hold small objects. “On this are arranged clear round the room photographs of persons and scenes, none very large, but all framed somewhat similarly in narrow gilt borders. Follow the band all the way around and it reflects the pictured world of today, its celebrities, their autographs and the places of particular interest in the realm of beauty and fashion.” The Star noted admiringly that “Photography has added a new charm to house furnishings, but it takes considerable taste and skill to display its results to good advantage.”

Admiral George Dewey (detail)
Admiral George Dewey receives a sword at a U.S. Capitol ceremony during his 1899 visit (Author’s collection).

The highlight of Mrs. McLean’s time in the Shepherd Mansion came in 1899 with the visit of Admiral George Dewey (1837-1917), the “Hero of Manila,” who had defeated the Spanish in the Philippines the year before and was returning to an unparalleled outpouring of adulation in the States. Lavish celebrations were held in his honor and the press breathlessly reported every detail of his Washington stay. Dewey was a close family friend of the McLeans, and Mrs. McLean turned over the entire mansion at Connecticut and K for his use, and an elaborate reception was held in the grand ballroom. The ultimate macho war hero of his era, Dewey had the privilege of sleeping in Mrs. McLean’s immense bedroom, where the tall bay windows featured “the finest of lace and pink silk curtains,” the mantelpiece was crowded with “Dresden vases and bric-a-brac,” and the bureau was “loaded down with toilet articles in silver, gay enough for a lady’s boudoir,” according to The Washington Post. The following month Dewey, a widower, married Mrs. McLean’s daughter, who was also widowed, in a private ceremony.

The Draper Years

Mary McLean passed away in the house in 1900. Two years later the mansion and all its furnishings were sold for $150,000 to General William F. Draper (1842-1910), a veteran of the Civil War. Draper was also a successful New England businessman who held 50 patents on devices for processing cotton. After making a fortune manufacturing textiles, Draper served in the 1890s as a congressman from Massachusetts. The Draper family’s tenure in the Shepherd house would be long and noteworthy; for decades to come the house would be known to Washingtonians as the Draper Mansion.

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The house circa 1903. Note that the front terraces and grand staircase have been removed from the Shepherd mansion. The new entrance is at ground level and a driveway has been added. (Source: Eighty Views of Washington and Its Neighborhoods, 1903).

In place of Shepherd’s picture gallery at the rear of the mansion, the Drapers constructed a large 50-by-60-foot ballroom. Turkish rugs covered the parquet floor, and Italian Renaissance decorations adorned its walls, included a replica of a grand fireplace from the Louvre. When serving as ambassador to Italy Draper had collected many rare antiques that now decorated his 16th Street mansion, including Renaissance tapestries that used to hang in a Roman palace. The family’s fondness for Italy was evident in the prominently hung portraits of the Italian King and Queen.

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This photograph, from the early 1930s, shows the mansion from the Connecticut Avenue side. The Draper ballroom extends from the rear of the house (photo courtesy of The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.)

The Drapers’ daughter, Margaret (1891-1974), who had been born in Rome and named after her godmother, Queen Margherita, became the social focal point of the household after her father passed away in 1910. The following year she held her coming-out party (a “debutante cotillion,” as it was called), an extraordinarily lavish event. Having inherited $5 million, Margaret was the wealthiest unmarried young woman in Washington, and her party showed it. Though it was December, she had live hummingbirds brought up from Florida and butterflies transported from California to create an exotic garden inside the Draper Mansion blooming with daisies and rare flowers. The fancy costume ball she held reportedly cost $25,000. Another costume ball at Christmas that same year made the news when it turned out that one of the beautiful young debutantes “about whom foreign attachés and young army officers raved” was actually millionaire clubman and actor Preston Gibson in drag.

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Margaret Draper in 1916 (Source: Library of Congress).

Perhaps the most celebrated event during the Draper years was Margaret’s wedding to Prince Andrea Boncompagni of Rome in October 1916. Mrs. Draper and her daughter made frequent visits to Italy, and the Prince had been wooing Margaret for some time. According to the newspapers, the fact that he had been wounded in fighting against Austria in 1915 added significantly to his appeal, elevating him to the status of a “war hero.” The Roman Catholic wedding of the Prince and Margaret Draper, to be held at the Draper Mansion, was as grand an event as any in Washington.

The Draper Mansion’s interior was buried in a veritable forest of floral decoration. “As they entered the doorway the guests were greeted by sheaves of American Beauty roses and clusters of great white chrysanthemums, with their background of tall palms, Australian ferns, Southern smilax and asparagus fern, the red, white and green of the Italian colors…. Vases of American Beauty roses filled each corner and here the wedding cake, an elaborate heart-shaped confection, crowned with lilies of the valley, has a place of honor. Here too, the guests caught their first glimpse of the great chimney pieces of the ball room, wreathed in smilax and trailing vines and studded with orchids, where a beautiful bust of the bride has the place of honor,” according to an account in The Washington Times.

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Margaret as Princess Boncompagni, in front of the Wardman Park Hotel in 1922 (Source: Library of Congress).

An altar was set up in the ballroom, borrowed from nearby St. Matthew’s Cathedral, with white and satin prayer desks for each of the dozen celebrants of the nuptial mass. Margaret naturally wore a stunning white silk dress. Around her neck was the famous necklace of priceless pearls that her father had given her. The Prince crowned her with a diamond coronet, a family heirloom that required special permission to be transported out of Italy. Thousands of butterflies were released to flit over the heads of the assembled guests. The newlyweds then immediately embarked on their honeymoon and new life in Italy.

Transitions

The fairy tale wedding marked a turning point for the venerable old mansion. There turned out to be little love in the marriage, which was annulled a few years later. Princess Margaret returned to the U.S. but never lived again in the mansion on K Street, which was sold in 1922 to Masonic Mutual Life Insurance Company. The company planned at the time to tear down the mansion and replace it with an eleven-story office building, to serve as company headquarters, but ultimately decided to build a new home office building on land near Union Station. In the meantime, the Draper Mansion was rented out for commercial use.

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A circa 1924 view of the District National Bank branch in the former Draper Mansion. Note the “For Rent” signs for other spaces in the building (Source: Library of Congress).

The house had been modified sometime around the turn of the century to remove the raised terraces and entrance stairs that fronted on K Street and Connecticut Avenue. The house’s new main entrance was an awkward opening on the ground floor on K Street that had formerly been a basement entrance. Beginning in 1922, the ground floor space was divided up for use as retail stores, while offices occupied the larger upstairs rooms. “The sight of the spacious Draper mansion at Connecticut avenue and K street northwest, devoted to business purposes, with shops beneath the beautiful ballroom, recalls to mind the advancing tide of commerce which threatens to engulf too many of the landmarks of Dupont circle and its vicinity,” the Post remarked in September 1923. Early commercial residents of the mansion included a branch of the District National Bank (with convenient automobile access via the mansion’s driveway), a high-end apparel company, Stokes, Inc., which showed off fashions in the mansion’s old reception rooms, and the Corona Typewriter Company.

The Supper Club Era

In 1926, the Club St. Marks moved in to the former ballroom, establishing an exclusive dining and dancing spot that was frequently rented out for private events among the city’s elite. It was the first of a succession of supper clubs that capitalized on the opulence of the old mansion to convey an atmosphere of exoticism and romance. In 1931, the St. Marks was replaced by Club Montmartre, which in turn gave way in 1932 to the Silver Slipper, “a smart new playground for the evening hours,” according to a notice in the Post. The new club featured subtle indirect lighting and a striking silver and black paint scheme for the old ballroom. But the Silver Slipper didn’t last long either, closing in less than a year.

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Menu from the Troika dated December 30, 1933 (Author’s collection).

Then, in 1933, the Club Troika opened, a supper club destined to be one of the most popular of its era. In keeping with the mansion’s legacy as the home of the Russian legation in the 1880s, the new restaurant offered “a little bit of old Russia, reflecting the glamour of the Czarist regime,” including authentic dances and songs performed by Russian entertainers, as well as American performers. Dinner offerings were likewise a mix of typical American dishes and Russian delicacies, including pirojok, syrniki, Eels Ecossaise and Broiled Shashlick of Baby Lamb Caucasian. Mischa, an ex-artillery officer of the Czar’s army, became a fixture of Washington nightlife as the Troika’s colorful head waiter.

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Matchbook cover from the Troika (author’s collection).

The Troika was open seven days a week in the mid-1930s and managed to skirt blue laws prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sundays by creating appealing cocktails with just a very small—and allowable—amount of alcohol. Helen Hamilton, a charming and gifted hostess, took over management of the Troika in 1936, after the death of her husband, and the supper club came to be a celebrated gathering place for diplomats and social leaders. “During the war years, wealthy industrialists and high-ranking members of the Allied military could be seen there nightly,” the Washington Times-Herald later observed.

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Menu from the Troika dated September 14, 1940 (Author’s collection).

In 1942, fire department inspectors ordered removal of the silvery canopy covering the ceiling of the Troika’s dining room, an embellishment that had been installed for the short-lived Silver Slipper club. To everyone’s amazement, removal of the false ceiling revealed the beautiful, hand-carved, gilt-leafed ceiling of the Draper ballroom. Also removed at the time was paneling that hid the room’s grand Italian Renaissance fireplace. The restored elegance was short-lived, however. The fire-prevention measures that led to the restoration of all this finery were not enough to prevent a serious fire in February 1946 from ruining the building’s interior. Damage to the gold-leaf ceiling alone was estimated at $40,000, while two crystal chandeliers worth $20,000 were completely destroyed. The Troika never reopened.

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The former Draper Mansion in 1950, shortly before it was demolished. A sign for “The Crystal Room” (the dining section of Club Troika) still hangs over the entrance even though the club had been closed for four years. (Photo courtesy of The Historical Society of Washington, D.C.).

Destruction and Replacement

After the fire, the main floor of the building remained unrepaired and unoccupied for five years. In late 1950, the building was a sold to a group of developers who planned to build a new 12-story office building on the site. These days no one would dream of destroying such a significant historic landmark, but with no historic preservation laws on the books in 1951, the old mansion’s fate was sealed. Demolition began in March. In May, the Post helplessly lamented the ongoing destruction:

It’s going fast now, this earlier-day scene of big events, this old house. they ripped the cupola off the other day. They’re working down the walls, pulling them apart little by little. Out back, rubble covers the yard.
The great crystal chandeliers are gone, and the high-ceilinged rooms are stripped of their tapestries. The stripped center hall leads to a staring ballroom. Outside, the gasoline engines of this days spew up and down the busy street and progress beats its way farther west, farther north. Inside, there isn’t a ghost to be laid.

After the mansion was razed, a temporary parking lot appeared on the corner. The National Production Authority, a legacy of World War II that controlled development in the city, finally allowed work on the planned new office building to begin in 1952. The new building, designed by Edwin Weihe (1907-1994) and built by the John McShain Company, was in a distinctive Mid-Century Modern style with streamlined window ribbons wrapping around the angled corner. In the early 1970s, the southern entrance to the Farragut North Metro station took the place of the retail space at the corner of the building. More recently, odd metal ribs and tinted glass panels have been added to the façade, marring its clean horizontal lines.

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1001 Connecticut Avenue, constructed in 1952, as it appeared before alterations were made to the exterior (photo by the author).

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1001 Connecticut Avenue as it appears today (photo by the author).

In 1951, when the Shepherd Mansion was being torn down, historian James H. Whyte, a D.C. bookshop owner and future author of The Uncivil War: Washington During the Reconstruction 1865-1878, wrote a letter to the Star pointing out the significance of the house and its builder: “It is to be hoped that any new building on the corner of Connecticut avenue and K street will at least contain a plaque to commemorate the residence of Gov. Shepherd, a man who, for all his faults, did more to rehabilitate the National Capital than any one who was born and brought up in Washington.” No such commemorative marker was ever erected, however, and no trace remains of the rich legacy of the elegant mansion that helped define this neighborhood and the city for so many years.

* * * * *

Special thanks to Jessica Smith of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., for her assistance with historic photographs. Some of the material for this article previously appeared in Historic Restaurants of Washington D.C.: Capital Eats (2013). Other sources included Mary Clemmer Ames, Ten Years in Washington (1882); Eighty Views of Washington and Its Neighborhood (1903); Henry H. Glassie, “Victorian Homes in Washington” in Records of the Columbia Historical Society (1965); Constance McLaughlin Green, Washington, A History of the Capital, 1800-1950 (1962); Kathryn Allamong Jacob, Capital Elites: High Society in Washington, D.C., after the Civil War (1995); Junior League of Washington, The City of Washington: An Illustrated History (1977); Alan Lessoff and Christof Mauch, eds., Adolf Cluss Architect: From Germany to America (2005); Mary S. Lockwood, Historic Homes in Washington: Its Noted Men and Women (1889); William M. Maury, “Alexander R. Shepherd and the Board of Public Works” in Records of the Columbia Historical Society (1972); Joseph West Moore, Picturesque Washington: Pen and Pencil Sketches (1887); John P. Richardson, Alexander Robey Shepherd: The Man Who Built the Nation’s Capital (2016); James H. Whyte, The Uncivil War: Washington During the Reconstruction 1865-1878 (1958); Paul Kelsey Williams, “Scenes From The Past” in The Intowner (2010); and numerous newspaper articles.

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