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What Once Was

The Washington Club Mansion at 15 Dupont Circle

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By Stephen A. Hansen*

In late March, the Washington Post broke the news that the Washington Club was putting its historic Patterson mansion on the market. The last of two, once private mansions still bordering on Dupont Circle (the Blaine mansion is the other), the gleaming Beaux-Arts-style mansion at number 15 Dupont Circle is probably best known as the former home of newspaper heiress Eleanor Josephine Medill (“Cissy”) Patterson.

1927 view of the Patterson house at 15 Dupont Circle.photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

1927 view of the Patterson house at 15 Dupont Circle.photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

The white marble palace, completed in 1903, was designed by prominent New York architect Stanford White for Elinor “Nellie” (Medill) Patterson of Chicago. White had also designed the Thomas Nelson Page House at 1759 R Street, NW in 1896.

First floor plan for the Patterson House by McKim, Mead & White. photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div

First floor plan for the Patterson House by McKim, Mead & White. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Nellie Patterson was the daughter of Joseph Medill, editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, who had Stanford White design his daughter’s house in Chicago. When Nellie decided to follow other Chicago parvenus to Washington at the turn of the 10th century, she asked Stanford White to design her new house there as well. Nellie had two children, Joseph Medill, and Eleanor (“Cissy”). In 1923, she deeded the mansion to Cissy, then the Countess Gizycki.

During her teenage years in Washington, Cissy, along with Alice Roosevelt (see, What Once Was, Sep. 2012, “Princess Alice’s Palace”) and Marguerite Cassini (the daughter of the Russian ambassador), were leading lights in Washington society and the press labeled the young trio the “Three Graces.” But, Cissy’s early friendship with Alice Roosevelt later developed into an ongoing, sometimes comical, sometimes bitter feud across Dupont Circle.

When Cissy’s uncle Robert McCormick was named ambassador to Austria-Hungary in 1901, she accompanied him to Vienna where she met and fell in love with Polish Count Josef Gizycki. The two were married in Washington on April 14, 1904.

Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson. photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

After they were married, Cissy returned with the Count Gizycki to his home in what was then Russian Poland. The Count turned out be a gambler and womanizer, violent with his servants, as well as with Cissy. When Cissy finally decided to call it quits, she fled with their only child Felicia to London. The Count had the girl kidnapped and hid her in an Austrian convent demanding a million dollars in ransom. Cissy filed for a divorce, which took 13 years to obtain. President William Howard Taft and Czar Nicholas II both intervened in the 18-month effort to secure the release of Felicia. The Czar ordered the Count to return the child to her mother. Gizycki was imprisoned, and reportedly never contacted Cissy or his daughter again.

In 1920, Cissy began writing for her brother Joseph’s paper the New York Daily News as well as working for William Randolph Hearst.  In 1930, her husband of only four years, Elmer Schlesinger, died and she legally changed her name to Mrs. Eleanor Medill Patterson. That same year, Hearst made her editor of the Washington Herald and the evening Washington Times. By 1936, the circulation of the Herald had doubled to 120,000. Cissy ultimately bought both papers from Hearst in 1939 and merged them into the new Times-Herald.

Cissy and Alice Roosevelt Longworth had maintained a tenuous friendship since their teenage years, One evening at a dinner party hosted by the Longworths, Alice supposedly caught Cissy and Alice’s husband Nicholas on the floor of an upstairs bathroom, with the light on and the door unlocked. Alice retaliated by having a lasting affair with Senator William Edgar Borah, with whom Cissy had also been having an affair, but Alice won out. The affair produced a child, Paulina.

Mrs. Calvin Coolidge on the front steps of the Patterson house. photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Mrs. Calvin Coolidge on the front steps of the Patterson house. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

During the summer of 1927, 15 Dupont Circle became the “summer White House” for President and Mrs. Coolidge while the executive mansion was undergoing extensive repairs. While at the house, the Coolidges hosted aviator Charles Lindbergh after his famous transatlantic flight.

Cissy Patterson knew how to run a successful paper. She broadened the audience of the Times-Herald and doubled its circulation. She hired women reporters and helped launch the careers of Adela Rogers St. Johns and Martha Blair. In 1936, she was invited to join the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

.   The library in 1971. photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

. The library in 1971. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

In 1948 at the age of 66, alienated from her friends and daughter, Cissy had turned to alcohol, and died of a heart attack at her Maryland home, the Mount Airy mansion near Rosaryville, in Prince Georges County. The Dupont Circle house was left to the American Red Cross, and in 1951 it was purchased by the Washington Club as its new headquarters.

Architect Stanford White was a name partner in the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, a pre-eminent firm of the Beaux-Arts architectural style. He designed private homes for the rich, and various public, institutional, and religious buildings. In addition to Nellie Patterson’s house in Chicago, White designed and decorated Fifth Avenue mansions for the Astors, the Vanderbilts (in 1905), and other high society families. His Washington Square Arch still stands in Washington Square Park. He also designed clubhouses, which were focal points of New York society: the Century, Metropolitan, Players, Lambs, Colony and Harmonie clubs. The Patterson house, while designed as a single family home, ultimately became a clubhouse as well.

Architect Sanford White (ca. 1892). photo--Wikimedia Commons.

Architect Sanford White (ca. 1892). photo–Wikimedia Commons.

Front page of the June 26, 1906 edition of the New York American reporting the murder of Sanford White and what would be dubbed the “Trial of the Century.” photo--Wikimedia Commons.

Front page of the June 26, 1906 edition of the New York American reporting the murder of Sanford White and what would be dubbed the “Trial of the Century.” photo–Wikimedia Commons.

White met an untimely death. Only three years after completing the Patterson house, White was shot dead at Madison Square Garden in New York by Harry Kendall Thaw, the jealous husband of Evelyn Nesbit, a popular American chorus girl, with whom White had earlier had an affair. William Randolph Hearst played up the murder in his newspapers, with it becoming known as the “Trial of the Century.” The story became the basis of the 1955 movie The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, starring Ray Milland as Stanford White and Joan Collins as Evelyn Nesbit Thaw.

*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.