Florentine Flair

Florentine Flair

Potomac's Kentsdale is an elaborate Italian-style villa with a colorful past.

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On a hilltop in Potomac stands an old Italianate villa, the vestige of a palatial estate that was home to a fortunate man toasted by America’s high society—and the vanguard of a wealthy surburban movement that now tightly rings the historic house.

In the early 1900s, Lyman Kendall was a lion on Wall Street. The Hancock, Md.-born financier had partnered with successful New York banker and broker Eugene Meyer Jr. to devise a statistical approach to economic forecasting that revolutionized the world of investing—and filled his coffers. By the onset of World War I, Kendall’s estimated worth would exceed $20 million. (Meyer would go on to purchase and resuscitate The Washington Post in 1933.)

From Wall Street to Park Avenue, Kendall’s name was spoken with awe. Not so that of his wife, Nellie, who scattered money all over town in a vain attempt to gain the respect of New York’s social elites. She had grown up in Boise, Idaho, the daughter of a rancher and miner, and when she met and wed Kendall in 1895, he was a simple surveyor, mapping Western hills and valleys and pinpointing promising lodes of precious metals and minerals. Kendall parlayed his knowledge of mining into detailed, statistic-driven reports of investment possibilities that would garner him a staggering fortune. But once in New York City, high society snubbed his small-town wife. Desperate for acceptance, Nellie sank millions into their ritzy Park Avenue home and a summer house among the rich of Bar Harbor, Maine, only to be dismissed as a nouveau climber.

In time, reported The American Weekly, Kendall became “fed up with Nellie’s social ambitions and with the persons who filled his homes, ate his food and bored him stiff.” In May of 1919, the two agreed to divorce on the grounds of incompatibility. Kendall then stunned New York society by lavishing on his ex-wife what The New York Times reported as “one of the most generous settlements under a divorce decree ever made.” The settlement was estimated at $4.5 million, including the Park Avenue and Bar Harbor homes, $1 million in cash, and an annual income of $100,000. His largesse won him the moniker of the “Alimony King.”

Kendall quickly turned his attention elsewhere. Even as his marriage faded, blueblooded Park Avenue became absorbed in the spectacle of the financier paying “assiduous court” to the beautiful and enchanting actress Betty Lee—Elizabeth Welsh—who gained acclaim as a society chanteuse, giving private performances in the parlors of the wealthy. Kendall’s friends noted that wherever she performed, “he was always in the forefront of those who applauded her crooning melodies.” One month after his divorce, Lyman and Elizabeth were married. Afterward, Lyman announced that he was adopting his wife’s 10-year-old daughter, Jane, the offspring from Elizabeth’s previous marriage.

The newly formed family rode the high life of the 1920s, dividing their time among the lofty social colonies of New York, Miami and Washington, D.C., where the Kendalls purchased a palatial New Hampshire Avenue home and hobnobbed with the nation’s political power brokers. But the nearby countryside beckoned, and in 1925, Kendall purchased a 1,000-acre tract on which to build a country estate, an expansive parcel stretching east of the intersection of Bradley Boulevard and River Road in Potomac. The property was close to Congressional Country Club, which opened a year earlier.

THE MANSION

To design his manor house, Kendall hired Washington architect Wolcott Clarke Waggaman, a 24-year-old rising star classically trained in Paris and Rome. Together, they set out to transform a 400-foot-high hilltop into a vision of medieval Italy. Waggaman turned to early Florentine architecture for his inspiration, designing an imposing yet graceful villa that rose above terraced gardens. The mansion “dominated one of the most splendid vistas of natural scenery in this part of the country,” The Washington Post declared, with a sweeping view to the west and a large valley to the east, where Cabin John Creek twisted its way against a background of hills. “Although it is only 12 miles from Washington,” The Post noted, “one can easily imagine himself hundreds of miles from civilization. No sound disturbs the silence, and there is no human habitation in sight.”

A winding avenue fringed with cedars led from Bradley Boulevard to the hilltop villa. Built on a solid rock foundation, its two-story concrete and brick walls were covered in earth-tone stucco, its roof in variegated half-round tiles. The main block spanned 100 feet by 100 feet, with stone quoins at its corners and casement windows piercing 18-inch-thick masonry walls that kept the interior cool during the often-oppressive Washington summers.

Crossing a wide piazza flanked by terraces, visitors passed through the main entrance—its massive wrought-iron door modeled after the Badia Fiorentina church in Italy—into a 40-square-foot grand hall. A high arched ceiling, hand-troweled walls, flesh-color marble floors, pillars of cream marble, and an imposing stairway leading to the second-floor bedrooms created a space that welcomed
guests royally. Antique appointments collected during the Kendalls’ Italian tours abounded: two artistically painted double doors of 18th-century Venetian workmanship, tall wrought-iron candle sprays that originally served as altar lights, a marble mantel and fireplace from an ancient Florence villa. Throughout the first floor, ceilings were beamed with exposed, rough-hewn, worm-eaten wood.

Upstairs, the villa’s nine bedrooms featured imported marble fireplaces, and the six baths—each with a different color scheme to match the fixtures—were finished in imported, handmade Italian tiles. On the north side of the main facade, at the second story’s end, a loggia with a slender colonnade offered views of the rolling, expansive estate.

To quarter an army of butlers, maids, chauffeurs, personal attendants, groundskeepers and farmhands, Kendall built a small village: a huge, two-story garage that featured space for five cars and a sixroom, two-bath apartment; seven other dwellings with six rooms each; and a modern dairy with a tile silo and a barn fully equipped for 36 milk cows.

As work progressed through the winter of 1925, the Kendalls sold their New Hampshire Avenue home and moved into a suite at the Mayflower Hotel in D.C. By the time Elizabeth and her daughter returned from a European tour in the fall of 1926, the house and grounds were complete. Kendall christened their new home “Kentsdale,” a reference to his family’s English origins in Kent, England.

That same fall, 17-year-old Jane made her formal debut in Washington society. She had grown into a stunning young woman and, after a visit with Grace Goodhue Coolidge, the first lady declared her “the most beautiful girl ever to enter the White House.” The following year, Jane wed George Grant Mason Jr., himself heir to a multimillion-dollar fortune. Their lavish wedding ceremony and reception, held at Kentsdale, was breathlessly reported in Ladies’ Home Journal under the title, “What Every Bride Should Know.” The newlyweds divided their time between New York and Cuba, where George became head of the Pan American World Airways office in Havana.

Meanwhile, Kendall was busy expanding his Potomac holdings, eventually amassing more than 3,100 acres. In January of 1929, he announced plans to subdivide a portion of his estate—the old Bradley Farm at the crossing of Bradley Boulevard and River Road—and to create a new suburban town to be called Kentsdale. His plans were grand. He wanted to build an English village that featured a town center filled with shops and stores. Ringing the center would be small country homes and large villas, fringed with natural green areas “carefully protected in their surroundings by beneficial restrictions.” Ten acres of the property had already been sold to the National Capital Horse Show Association, which planned to build a large arena, judges’ stand, viewing boxes and paddock; the Bradley family’s old stone farmhouse was to be remodeled into a clubhouse for the Riding and Hunt Club.

Kendall never saw his vision of planned suburbia materialize. In March of 1929, he had a heart attack and died in his new Park Avenue apartment. He was 59 years old. Kendall left the Kentsdale estate to his wife, and a huge inheritance to his adopted daughter, who soon became a fixture on the nation’s society pages.

SCANDALOUS LIFE

Seemingly every move of the rich, young heiress was traced, her beauty displayed in countless photos and illustrations. She appeared in an ad for Pond’s Cream, which described her as “clean cut as a cameo in her Botticelli beauty of pale gold hair and wide set eyes like purple pansies.” She was captured in oils by famed portrait painter Howard Chandler Christy, who declared her “one of the very best types of the American girl.” She modeled for the renowned Italian sculptor Edgardo Simone.

Jane had studied sculpting and painting, and had set up a studio in her home in Havana, but most of her energy was devoted to her love of shopping, entertaining, horses, gambling—and extramarital affairs. She adopted two sons, and both were raised by nannies in England. She threw fantastic parties, once regaling guests with pigeons dyed different colors and fresh flowers sewn to tablecloths. She went on safari in Africa, hunting big game and bringing down a rare and endangered white zebra, the skin of which she indulgently sent home to be made into a rocking horse for her adopted children.

In 1931, Jane met Ernest Hemingway on a cruise and the two became lovers. She was 22 and still married to the unassuming Mason; Hemingway was 32 and married to Pauline, his second wife. Hemingway introduced Jane to deep-sea fishing, and Jane introduced him to her fast-living, hard-partying Cuban social circle. For two months in Havana, they carried on a torrid and tempestuous affair that ended with Jane’s attempted suicide; apparently the balcony from which she leapt was not high enough. At the news, Hemingway cruelly joked to a friend that Jane had literally “fallen” for him; to another, he called her a “bitch,” adding that he would like to give her “a burst of gunfire.”

Spitefully, Hemingway ridiculed Jane in three of his works, using her as the basis for some of his most repugnant characters. In his novel To Have and Have Not, she was Helene Bradley, the bottled-blond, sex-obsessed vixen married to a rich but impotent husband. In his play The Fifth Column, she was Dorothy, a stupid, spoiled and oversexed young woman. And in the story The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, she was Margot, trapped in a miserable marriage to a wealthy but spineless American she accidently shoots in the head while on safari. Mean-spirited, Hemingway sent Jane drafts of his work, taunting and tormenting her with his venomous and thinly veiled portraits.

In 1940, Jane divorced Mason after 13 years of marriage. One month later she married John Hamilton, former executive director of the Republican National Committee. That marriage was brief and, following an affair with Paul Palmer, editor of Reader’s Digest, she wed George Abell, a popular newspaper columnist for The Baltimore Sun and Washington Times-Herald. They, too, soon divorced. Jane’s fourth and final husband was Arnold Gingrich, founder of Esquire and editor of Coronet magazines. Jane died of cancer in 1980 at her home in Ridgeway, N.J. On her tombstone is her self-penned epitaph: “Talents too many, not enough of any.”

In 1930, one year after Lyman’s death, Elizabeth Kendall married money again, this time J. Lawson-Johnston, scion of a wealthy English family. The following year she sold Kentsdale and a surrounding 1,000 acres to the Sisters of Mercy of the Union for use as a “Mother House” and convent school for the Roman Catholic order. The sisters would later build a massive dormitory on the sprawling property, far northwest of the manor house. Today, that building off Democracy Boulevard serves as the U.S. Postal Training Facility.

In 1959, the sisters moved from the villa, selling it and 15 surrounding acres to the Franciscan Friars, who would use it to house the Academy of American Franciscan History. The next year, the friars connected the house to a 1,500-square-foot chapel. Gradually, the sisters sold off the remaining acreage to various developers; the Franciscans left Kentsdale in 1990, decommissioning the chapel.

The manor house, its terraces leveled and now surrounded by modern homes, is today in private ownership. Though altered, the old villa retains its grace and dignity, a stately hilltop reminder of Potomac’s wealthy suburban beginnings.

Mark Walston is an author and historian raised in Bethesda and now residing in Olney.

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