Stone pillars hint at something special behind the gated entrance: an Elizabethan fantasy of a house set at 1 o’clock on Chevy Chase Circle and hidden from view by high rows of evergreens.
The expansive Tudor revival home was one of the first houses built in the exclusive enclave of Chevy Chase, a rhapsody of leafy streets, large lots and stylish residences orchestrated by Nevada politico Francis Newlands and his Chevy Chase Land Company in 1890. Newlands was as slick as his silk hats, a major operator with suspect associates, but he managed to create a home and community that flourish to this day.
Born to Scottish parents in Natchez, Miss., in 1846—his father was a physician—Newlands moved north after the Civil War, graduating from the Columbian College Law School (today’s George Washington University) before heading west to find his fortune. He hit pay dirt four years later, in 1874, when he married the daughter of William Sharon, a Californian who had accumulated millions through land and mine speculation in Nevada. Newspapers reported that Clara Sharon came with a $1 million dowry.
Newlands slipped comfortably into the world of Western wealth, becoming lawyer to the elite and confidant to civic and political leaders, including notorious Nevada lawyer William Stewart. Nevada’s first senator after its admittance to the union in 1864, Stewart was a mouthpiece for mining interests and on the dole of the Central Pacific Railroad. He later became embroiled in an international scandal, duping English investors out of millions of pounds by selling shares in a worthless Utah silver mine.
He also speculated heavily in Washington, D.C., real estate, profiting nicely from a $600,000 deal involving properties around Dupont Circle in 1871. Nowadays, such doings by members of Congress would attract special prosecutors, but in 1870s Washington, nary an eyebrow was raised.
In 1888, Newlands and Stewart formed a real estate partnership, targeting the undeveloped northwest quadrant of the District. Stewart quietly shepherded through Congress the charter of a new trolley line—the Rock Creek Railway—to be controlled by Newlands and to run from Florida Avenue north to the city limits. At the same time, the two began buying land along the projected trolley line, concluding with the purchase of a 305-acre parcel called Chevy Chase, straddling the Maryland-District border.
By 1890, the newly created Chevy Chase Land Company had amassed more than 1,700 acres. Trolley construction was under way, and the adjacent road—Connecticut Avenue— had been extended. Plans called for a vast suburban community at its northern end, with luxury houses set well back from the road and equipped with running water, sewers, electricity and telephone service, making it by far the region’s most desirable suburb.
Funding came mostly from the Sharon estate, of which Newlands was trustee after his father-in-law’s death in 1885; Newlands’ wife, Clara, had died delivering their stillborn son two years earlier. Newlands spent the trust money freely—more than $1.5 million went toward the trolley alone—justifying the expenditures as “sound investments” for the Sharon heirs.
Described by The Washington Post as having “suave, graceful manners with a fondness for frockcoats, silk hats and white vests,” Newlands returned to the nation’s capital in 1893 as the newly elected representative from Nevada. By the following year, he had built a commodious suburban house for himself and his second wife, Edith.
Located on Chevy Chase Circle, at the gateway to the community, it was a conspicuous example of what Newlands envisioned as the typical Chevy Chase home: opulent and ample. Leon Dessez, a noted Washington architect who served as consultant to the Chevy Chase Land Company, designed the house, working in the Queen Anne style with its exuberant use of porches, gables, pediments, balustrades, dormers, decorative chimneys and more.
Three stories high, the house was stone on the lower level, clapboard and shingles above. Guests entered the main hall of the house through a triple-arch portecochère centered on the façade and topped by three corresponding windows.
“The Newlands live the life of the landed proprietors in their big house at Chevy Chase,” the Post noted in 1900.
Yet while domestic life seemed bucolic, the relationship between Newlands and Stewart had crumbled. Stewart, the minority stockholder of the Chevy Chase Land Company, complained of being treated as an outsider and denied a promised position as manager.
In 1898, the antagonism would escalate when the men squared off in a bid for the U.S. Senate. The Nevada State Journal reported that Newlands was ready to spend $150,000 on bribes for votes, while Stewart traveled with “a gang of professional gun and knife fighters,” intimidating his opponent’s supporters.
Stewart won. But Newlands eventually secured Nevada’s other Senate seat in 1903. By that time he had moved out of his Chevy Chase home and into an estate known as Woodley, within the city limits. Off Connecticut Avenue in the present-day Woodley Park community, the house now serves as the centerpiece of the Maret School.
In 1909, the Chevy Chase Circle house would be purchased by Washington businessman William S. Corby. Corby and his brother, Charles, had founded the Corby Baking Company in Washington in 1891, which would become one of the largest bakery enterprises in the region.
The brothers’ fortunes turned on the invention of a revolutionary machine that could mold dough into loaves much faster than a person. They leased their patented machine to bakeries around the nation. More innovations followed, increasing the brothers’ wealth. Eventually the bakery employed more than 450 people in plants in the District and in Alexandria and Richmond, Va., “bringing hot bread to every neighborhood store in time for the family meals,” an early ad declared.