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What Once Was

The Blaine Mansion at Dupont Circle

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By Stephen A. Hansen*

The grand red brick mansion just west of Dupont Circle at 2000 Massachusetts Avenue, NW was designed by architect John Fraser and built in 1881 for James G. Blaine, one of the most prominent and powerful politicians of the 19th century. While the house still bears his name to this day, Blaine occupied it for less than two years.

Blaine mansion at 2000 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, circa 1900. photo – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Blaine mansion at 2000 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, circa 1900. photo – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

James Gillespie Blaine was born in West Brownsville, Pennsylvania in 1830 and graduated from Washington and Jefferson College in 1847 at the age of 17. After a brief teaching career in Kentucky and Philadelphia, Blaine moved to Augusta, Maine in 1854.

James G. Blaine. photo – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

James G. Blaine. photo – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

While in Maine, Blaine served as editor of the Kennebec Journal and later the Portland Advertiser. His home in Augusta is still known as the Blaine Mansion and serves as the official residence of the governor of Maine.

Blaine won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1862 and quickly emerged as a rising star in the Republican Party. Blaine was an enthusiastic debater and outspoken politician and became known by various epitaphs, including “The Continental Liar from the State of Maine,” “Slippery Jim,” and “The Magnetic Man.” Blaine became Speaker of the House for three terms between 1869 and 1874. During his time as Speaker, he purchased a large residence at 821 15th Street, NW.

Blaine mansion in Augusta, Maine, circa 1892, now the official mansion of the Maine governors. photo – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Blaine mansion in Augusta, Maine, circa 1892, now the official mansion of the Maine governors. photo – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Blaine was elected to the Senate in 1876 and that same year also sought his party’s nomination for president. But the “Mulligan Letters” scandal, which implicated Blaine in accepting bribes from the Union Pacific Railroad, cost him the nomination.

During the 1880 presidential election, Blaine again sought the Republican nomination, which ultimately went to Garfield. After Garfield won the general election, he offered Blaine the position of secretary of state and Blaine resigned his Senate seat in 1881 to take the position.

Probably feeling quite secure in his new position as secretary of state, Blaine commissioned Philadelphia architect John Fraser to design the massive red brick, Queen Anne/Second Empire-style house at 2000 Massachusetts Avenue, which stood southwest of Stewart’s Castle (1873). The house was constructed at a cost of $48,000. That same year, Fraser designed another home at 1800 Massachusetts Avenue for Senator Charles Van Wyck, but was built at the significantly lower cost of $19,000.

When the Blaine mansion was built, it was located at the outermost limits of the city, with all the land beyond to the west still open country. But by the mid-1880s, the area boasted an increasing number of palatial mansions, and with the 1886 westward extension of Massachusetts Avenue towards what would become Sheridan Circle, Dupont Circle was in the process of becoming the most exclusive neighborhood in the city — a reputation it retained until the beginning of the Second World War.

Ground for Blaine’s new mansion was broken in June 1881, and Blaine moved in the next winter, but he did not live there long. Blaine’s fortunes had changed suddenly in September 1881. Strolling through the 6th Street B&O railroad station with President Garfield, Garfield was struck by an assassin’s bullet and later died. Blaine only lasted three months in the Chester Arthur administration.

Depiction of President James A. Garfield's assassination, with James Blaine is shown on the left of the stricken President; published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, July 16, 1881. photo – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Depiction of President James A. Garfield’s assassination, with James Blaine is shown on the left of the stricken President; published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 16, 1881. photo – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

By 1883, Blaine had rented out the Massachusetts Avenue house, purchasing and renovating the Seward mansion (also known as the Rodgers house) on Lafayette Square at 17 Madison Place, NW. The 24-room house was built by Commodore John Rogers in 1831. During the Civil War, it became home to William H. Seward, who served under Lincoln and Johnson as secretary of state. It was there that an attempt was made on Seward’s life by the Lincoln assassins. After the Civil War, the house was used as a government document repository. Blaine’s interest in the Seward house may have been the result of the need to scale back on his lavish lifestyle after Garfield’s assassination, the fact that it had been occupied by another famous Republican secretary of state, or that it was in spitting distance of the White House and the object of Blaine’s political ambitions.

Blaine's second home in Washington, the Seward house on Lafayette Square, now the site of the Court of Claims Building. photo – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Blaine’s second home in Washington, the Seward house on Lafayette Square, now the site of the Court of Claims Building. photo – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.


One prominent tenant of the house at 2000 Massachusetts Avenue was Mr. and Mrs. Levi Leiter of Chicago, who rented the house when they first moved to Washington in 1883, remaining there until their grand mansion at 1500 New Hampshire Avenue was completed in 1891. [Ed. Note: See, “Parvenus and Buccaneers: The Leiters of Dupont Circle,” InTowner, September 2013 at http://tinyurl.com/mpkvbsr.

Blaine finally won the Republican Party nomination for President in 1884, but lost to Grover Cleveland in a very close and bitterly contested election. After the election, Blaine was absent from Washington political life, traveling and lecturing, but returned in 1889 to serve once again as secretary of state under Benjamin Harrison and to live once again in the Seward house on Lafayette Square. Blaine’s health had been continuously deteriorating since his return to Washington and he died in January 1893 in his home.

1884 presidential campaign flyer of Blaine with vice presidential nomination John A. Logan. photo – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

1884 presidential campaign flyer of Blaine with vice presidential nomination John A. Logan. photo – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

 

In 1901, Blaine’s widow Harriet sold the Massachusetts Avenue house to George Westinghouse, the inventor of the railway air brake for $190,000. The high price reflected the skyrocketing value of real estate around Dupont Circle at the time. Westinghouse owned the house until 1914 and entertained there lavishly. During his tenure in the house, it became known as the Westinghouse mansion.

George Westinghouse bought the Blaine mansion in 1901. photo – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

George Westinghouse bought the Blaine mansion in 1901. photo – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1917, Blaine’s Massachusetts Avenue house became the new headquarters for the United Service Club, which now has its headquarters on Farragut Square. In 1921, it was leased by the Japanese Embassy for use by the ambassador and his staff as their headquarters during the conference for the limitation of armaments. By the following year, it had become a high-end apartment house. In 1941, it was taken over by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia for use as the headquarters for the Civilian Defense Office, at which time the original chandeliers were taken down, the floors covered with linoleum and green carpeting, and the fine paneled walls were painted over. In 1955, the house served as the home of the United Nations Information Center. The house continued to change ownership over the years. The current owner, the law firm of Phillips & Cohen, renovated the property, adding an underground parking deck, an adjoining six-story building, and a remodeled earlier commercial addition on P Street now occupied by a restaurant.

Blaine mansion, circa 1920. View from the corner of 20th and P Streets. photo -- DC Public Library Commons.

Blaine mansion, circa 1920. View from the corner of 20th and P Streets. photo — DC Public Library Commons.

Architect John Fraser

John Fraser (1825–1906) was a Scottish-born American architect who practiced in Philadelphia and Washington, DC. In 1856 he and civil engineer Andrew Palles established Fraser & Palles in Philadelphia. By 1861 Fraser’s partnership with Palles had ended, and Fraser had returned to private practice. In Philadelphia, Fraser’s best known surviving building is the Union League of Philadelphia (1864–‘65), a High Victorian, Second Empire brick and brownstone gentlemen’s club.

In 1867, Fraser, Frank Furness (a former student) and George W. Hewitt established the influential firm of Fraser, Furness & Hewitt. This firm continued for nearly four years before Fraser relocated to Washington, where he served as superintendent of the new building for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and later the Acting Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury during the suspension of James G. Hill. He also created a master plan for the U.S. Capitol grounds, and served on the commission to complete Robert Mills’ Washington Monument. During his time in Washington, in addition to the Blaine mansion and Senator Van Wyck’s house, Fraser also designed the Brodhead-Bell-Morton Mansion (1897) at 1500 Rhode Island Avenue, NW (renovated in 1912 by architect John Russell Pope) and many smaller and more modest single family homes, most of which are gone; Fraser’s Italianate-style 900 block of French Street, NW, constructed in 1877, still stands.

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Upon returning to Philadelphia, Fraser entered into partnership with his son Archibald. Archibald Fraser died in 1895, but John continued to run the firm until about 1904 when he retired to Riverton, N.J.

Fraser was one of the founding members of the Pennsylvania Institute of Architects and Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects, as well as the T-Square Club, American Institute of Architects (elected March 1869), Franklin Institute, and the St. Andrews Society.

 *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.