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What Once Was

Parvenus and Buccaneers: The Leiters of Dupont Circle

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By Stephen A. Hansen*

The current site of the Dupont Circle Hotel at 1500 New Hampshire Avenue was once home to one of the largest and grandest mansions in Washington, built by Levi Zeigler Leiter (1834-1904).

Levi Leiter was born in Leitersburg, Maryland (just north of Hagerstown). The town had been founded by his grandfather, Abraham Leiter. While some of his ancestors were Mennonites, Levi Leiter was raised as Lutheran.

Levi Zeigler Leiter.  photo-- he Washington Times, 1904

Levi Zeigler Leiter. photo — The Washington Times, 1904

Leiter began working as a clerk in the Leitersburg village store, but in 1855 at the age of 21 he moved to Chicago to work as a clerk in a dry goods store. With fellow employee Marshall Field, he bought an interest in the store and 1865 sold it to go into business with Potter Palmer as Field, Palmer, Leiter & Co. In 1867, Palmer left the business and the company was renamed Field, Leiter & Co. Finally retiring from the dry goods business, Leiter sold his interest in the company to Field in 1881, and the company name was changed to Marshall Field and Company. Marshall Field and Company survived until 2005, when it was acquired by Macy’s, Inc.

Leiter developed an interest in real estate and invested heavily in the city, helping it to recover from the fire of 1871 and building his already immense fortune. While still in Chicago, he was associated with the Chicago School of architecture and was the builder of the first true steel skeleton building of 1889 (architect William LeBaron Jenney’s Leiter Building),  served as the second president of the Chicago Art Institute, provided a new building for the Chicago Historical Society, and donated generously to the Chicago Public Library.

William LeBaron Jenney’s Leiter Building in Chicago- the first true steel skeleton building. Erected 1889. Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

William LeBaron Jenney’s Leiter Building in Chicago- the first true steel skeleton building. Erected 1889. photo — Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

He married Mary Theresa Carver in 1866. She was the daughter of Benjamin Carver, a wealthy banker from Utica, New York and a descendant of John Carver, the first president of the Plymouth Colony. The couple had four children: Joseph, Nancy, Marguerite (Daisy) and Mary Victoria.

Like so many parvenus of the period, Leiter found it necessary to establish a presence in Washington in order to establish themselves socially. While not born poor, Levi Leiter was considered a self-made man and Mrs. Leiter, a school teacher, were not social successes in Chicago’s high society. In 1883, Leiter rented the Blaine mansion at 2000 Massachusetts Avenue for a whopping sum of $11,500 a year. Mary would eventually become one of the leading socialites and hostesses in the city.

In 1891, Leiter purchased a lot at 1500 New Hampshire Avenue, NW for $83,276.53. Shunning the architects of Chicago, Leiter chose Philadelphia architect Theophilus P. Chandler to design his own palatial mansion in DC. The original house was three stories plus basement, 55 rooms, 96 feet across the front, 75 feet deep, and 62 feet in height and cost $125,000 to construct. In 1909, Mary Leiter added a two-story brick addition to the rear (19th Street side).

Levi Leiter mansion on Dupont Circle at New Hampshire Avenue, NW under construction, ca. 1893.  photo – National Capital Planning Commission

Levi Leiter mansion on Dupont Circle at New Hampshire Avenue, NW under construction, ca. 1893. photo —  National Capital Planning Commission

In the spirit of Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers, all three daughters married Englishmen, sharing their fortunes to ensure their husband’s socio-economic standing while, at the same time, boosting their own. Mary Victoria married George, Lord Curzon, who became Viceroy of India; Daisy married the Earl of Suffolk; Nancy married Colin Campbell, a colonel in the British army.

View north to the Leiter mansion from Dupont Circle, ca. 1893; 19th Street is to the left.  photo – National Capital Planning Commission

View north to the Leiter mansion from Dupont Circle, ca. 1893; 19th Street is to the left. photo — National Capital Planning Commission

The Leiters were well-traveled and took many trips abroad to visit their daughters. Mrs. Leiter, prone to malapropisms, upon returning from one trip to Europe was reported as saying that she “was relieved to set my feet on American terra-cotta.”

Mary Victoria Leiter, Lady Curzon wearing her famous peacock feather dress.  photo-- author’s collection

Mary Victoria Leiter, Lady Curzon wearing her famous peacock feather dress. photo — author’s collection

Upon his son Joseph’s graduation from Harvard, Levi offered him one million dollars to see what he could do with it. He soon had $30 million dollars’ worth of properties. But, he did make one large financial miscalculation. In 1897, he tried to corner the wheat market, but with concerted efforts by his competitors, the wheat market collapsed the following year. He lost at least $10 million and was bailed out of the debt by his father. By the time of his death, he was reportedly earning about $1 million dollars annually.

Joseph Leiter attempted to corner the wheat market in 1897.  photo – Library of Congress,  Prints & Photographs Division

Joseph Leiter attempted to corner the wheat market in 1897. photo — Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

 

In 1904, Levi Leiter died of heart disease while vacationing at the Vanderbilt cottage in Bar Harbor Maine, which the Leiters had taken for the summer season. Mary Leiter continued to live in the house and continued to throw lavish parties there until her death in 1913. The house then passed to son Joseph and his wife who occupied it until Joseph’s death in 1932. The house was left to Joseph’s son Thomas, with the provision that the widow Leiter be allowed to live there until her death.

One of the drawing rooms in the Leiter mansion. The John Singer Sargent full-length portrait of Margaret “Daisy” Leiter hangs on the wall to the right. photo — Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

After she passed in 1942, the house was leased to the federal government for offices. In it was sold to Dupont Plaza, Inc. for $190,000, which razed it in 1947 to construct the current building on the lot, then an apartment building and now the Dupont Circle Hotel.

Architect T.P. Chandler.  photo—author’s collection

Architect T.P. Chandler. photo — author’s collection

Architect Theophilus Parsons (T.P.) Chandler (1845-1928) was born in Boston and educated at Harvard. After completing Harvard, he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts and worked at the Atelier Vaudremer in Paris. Led by Joseph-Auguste-Emile Vaudremer (1829-1914), the atelier also trained Chicago architect Louis Sullivan and Boston architect William Rotch Ware. After completing his training, Chandler returned to Boston to open a practice. In 1870, he moved to Philadelphia where, in addition to residential and commercial work, he was perhaps most noted for his ecclesiastical designs. Chandler also helped establish the School of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and served as its first director.

*Stephen A. Hansen is an historic preservation specialist, Washington DC historian, author of several books and of the Virtual Architectural Archaeology blog.

© 2013 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Stephen A. Hansen. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.