Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine

A Golden Era

The saga of the Walsh-McLean house is one the greatest rags-to-riches stories from Washington's Gilded Age By Donna Evers

Thomas Walsh emigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1869 at the age of 19 with empty pockets and a drive to succeed. He went out west to seek his fortune, and he found it. He struck gold, of all places, in a silver mine in Colorado in the late 1880's. At its peak, the mine was producing $5,000 worth of gold daily. In 1903, he sold it for $5 million, plus a percentage of its phenomenal annual output, and moved to Washington, D.C. 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 the government and make a social splash. Many years later, in her autobiography "Father Struck It Rich," their daughter Evalyn Walsh McLean said the house expressed "the dreams my mother and father had when they were poor in Colorado."

Evalyn Walsh McLean in fur, c. 1910
The Walsh family, c. 1910 .

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 a 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 one of the earliest in-home elevators to wisk guests up to the fourth floor theater and ballroom. To top it off, Thomas Walsh 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 Theodore 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 recounted 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 Edward Beale McLean and the two of them managed to spend their combined fortunes of $100 million. Among their purchases was the 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 it 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 also 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 had 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 it during the Depression to pay bills.

Some people have claimed to see the restless spirit of Evalyn Walsh McLean 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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