A Golden Era

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The Walsh-McLean residence housed the Federal Writers Project during the New Deal, was used by the Red Cross during World War II, and became the Indonesian Embassy in 1951. The 60-room mansion was designed in the Beaux Arts style and completed in 1902. Photograph, Deedy Ogden.

Thomas and his wife Carrie built the grandest house they could imagine near Dupont Circle, then a mecca for the rich and powerful who came to town to lobby government and make a social splash. Many years later, in her autobiography “Father Struck It Rich,” their daughter Evalyn Walsh-McLean said that the house expressed “the dreams my mother and father had when they were poor in Colorado.”

Costing $850,000, the Walsh house was the most expensive ever built in Washington at that time. The four-story, 60-room Beaux Arts mansion, with its grand central staircase patterned after those seen in great ocean liners, had three floors of open promenades under a huge stained-glass skylight. It also featured the earliest in-home elevators to whisk guests up to the fourth floor theater and ballroom. To top it off, had a slab of gold imbedded in the arch over the main entrance of the house, to show where the money came from.

The Walshes became leaders of society. Their most famous parties included a ball honoring Miss Alice Roosevelt, the daughter of President Teddy Roosevelt, and a dinner for the King and Queen of Belgium. Their parties were always described with great relish in the newspapers. The Evening Star described a “gold theme” dinner party where the tables were set with rare yellow orchids and “service made from glittering gold nuggets.” Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times coverage of a Walsh New Year’s Ever party: “…the 325 guests downed 288 fifths of scotch, 480 quarts of champagne, 40 gallons of beer, 35 bottles of liqueurs and 48 quarts of assorted cocktails.”

The Walshes’ flamboyant, free-spirited daughter, Evalyn, married the wealthy and the two of them managed to spend their combined fortunes of $100 million dollars. Among their purchases was famous 46-carat Hope Diamond, which they bought for $180,000. Even though Evalyn didn’t believe in the gem’s legendary curse and wore the diamond everywhere, the jewel seemed to cast a shadow over the lives of both the McLeans and the Walshes.

The litany of their tragedies seems never-ending. The Walshes son died in an auto accident; Thomas Walsh was plagued with alcoholism and depression in his later life; Evalyn and her husband lost their 9-year old son in a bizarre auto accident in front of their famous “Friendship” estate; Edward McLean died of a heart attack in a mental institution; the family newspaper, the Washington Post went bankrupt; and Evalyns’ daughter died of an overdose of sleeping pills.

After Evalyn’s death, the Walsh-McLean house was sold to the Indonesian Embassy for $355,000—less than half of what it cost to build fifty years earlier. When the embassy purchased the mansion, they looked through the house for stray gold nuggets, but found nothing. As for the gold bar over the front door, it was speculated the McLeans had probably sold itl during the Depression to pay bills. Some people have claimed to see the restless spirit of still haunting the mansion, drifting up and down the massive staircase and through the many grand rooms of the fabulous house that was built by a man who was clever enough to look for gold in a silver mine.

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