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Scenes from the Past...

A Short History of the Corner of Connecticut and K: 1871 to the Present

Unknown to most office workers today who traverse K Street and Connecticut Avenue is that up until the 1920s, what is now an area of high-rise office buildings was once the most socially important residential neighborhood of the city. Oversized mansions and spacious lawns lined K Street in the 19th century. Three of these were built at 1701 to 1705 K Street facing Farragut Square that were designed in 1873 by Adolph Cluss, who would occupy the center townhouse himself; the elaborate Second Empire corner mansion was built for Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, but purchased later by two very socially prominent families.

Much has been written and attributed to Governor Alexander R. Shepherd (1835-1902), who made a fortune in real estate speculation in the city following the Civil War. He became infamous during his tenure as the head of the Board of Public Works, beginning in 1871, directing $30 million in contracts to close acquaintances before becoming Governor of the District. However, the depression of 1873 and corruption charges by Congress led to his removal from office in 1874, followed by personal bankruptcy.

With the mansion being just a year old, it languished in the court system until 1876 when the owner of a $45,000 private mortgage note on the house, George Seckel Pepper (1808-1890) of Philadelphia, petitioned to obtain title to the house. The Shepherd legacy reappeared, however, when it was discovered that his note only covered the front portion of the house, and excluded a 29-foot extension of the house that featured a picture gallery. The court also discovered that Shepherd had also obtained a $35,000 mortgage from Mary J. Gray for the same property.

The legal situation took almost two decades to resolve, during which time the house was leased to the Russian Legation and as a residence for its Minister by Pepper and the court trustees. Pepper eventually gained title to the house, but not until 1890 – the year he died. He was a philanthropist and lawyer who had graduated from the College of New Jersey in 1827. He had been left a large estate by his father and devoted himself to its management and to philanthropic work focusing primarily on the financial concerns of Philadelphia. He also served as the president of that city’s Academy of Music and of the Academy of Fine Arts, and upon his death, bequeathed half of his $2 million estate to the University of Pennsylvania, the Free Library, and the Academy of Art.

Following Pepper’s death in 1890, the corner mansion was sold to General William F. Draper (1842-1910), the same year he married his second wife, the former Susan Preston. Draper was a well-known Union General during the Civil War; Susan was the daughter of William Preston of Kentucky, a Major General in the Confederate Army. This is perhaps the only case on record of a General of the Union Army marrying a daughter of a General of the Confederate Army. To tie the families even closer, Susan’s sister Jessie married William’s brother, George Albert Draper.

William’s first wife was Lydia D. Warren Joy Draper, whom he married in September of 1862 and had five children: William Franklin Draper Jr., George Otis Draper, Edith Draper, Arthur Joy Draper, and Clare Hill Draper. Lydia died in 1884.

Draper spent four years during the Civil War in a remarkable career that eluded both serious injury and death. In the Burnside Expedition he became signal officer on the General’s staff, engaging in the battles of Roanoke Island, New Berne, and Fort Macon when he was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and returned to his regiment. In August of 1862 he was commissioned Captain in the 36th Massachusetts and went through the rest of the Antietam campaign and battle of Fredericksburg, and was then sent to Newport News. In June, 1863, he joined Grant’s army at Vicksburg, taking part in the capture, and subsequently in the march to Jackson and the fighting in that locality. His regiment was reduced, from fighting and sickness, from 650 in June to 198 in September.
The war over, he then engaged in the manufacture of cotton machinery, forming a company with his father called George Draper & Sons. A mechanical expert, he received a record 50 patents on various implements and machinery that earned him a fortune.

He served as Colonel on the staff of Governor John Davis Long of Massachusetts from 1880 to 1883, and then was elected as a Republican to the 53rd and 54th Congresses, serving from March 4, 1893 to March 3, 1897. He was also served as Ambassador and Minister Plenipotentiary to Italy between 1897 and 1899. His daughter Margaret from his second marriage met and married Prince Andrea Boncompagni-Ludovisi-Rondinell-Vitelli of Italy in a lavish ceremony at the K Street house in 1916.

William Draper, unfortunately, did not live to see his daughter marry, having died six years previously, on January 28, 1910. He was interred in Hopedale, Massachusetts, where he maintained a summer house. The K Street houses were all converted to office uses in the 1920s, and were razed in 1952 for the construction of the present day office building.