With this story on the disappearance of the estate known as Highwood, Cate Toups Atkinson debuts a new blog about the intrigues of Chevy Chase DC’s past. Read a new posting every couple of weeks about our community’s houses, people, and streets. She can be reached at email@example.com
On Stephenson Place, halfway between Broad Branch Road and 33rd Street NW, is the second highest elevation in the District after Fort Reno. On this spot, amid the cows and cornfields and patches of tall oaks, Gen. Henry Clark Corbin built his retirement home in 1907. He and his socialite wife Edythe Patten Corbin called it “Highwood.”
Now long gone, the handsome “country” home is mostly remembered around Chevy Chase as Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing’s residence after the Great War. Few are aware of its impressive credentials. Highwood was designed by world renowned architect, Daniel H. Burnham of Chicago, whose legacy includes Union Station in Washington, DC (1907); the Chicago Columbian Exposition site (1893); and the Flatiron Building in New York (1901), along with Wanamaker’s, Gimbels, and many more. His buildings don’t usually disappear without a trace.
So, what happened to this grand residence, Highwood? Newspapers were mostly silent on its demise, and people who grew up in the area tend to have only a vague notion of where it once stood. The tight grid of new homes replaced it so thoroughly that nearly every vestige was obliterated.
In an alley off Rittenhouse Street and 34rd Place, peeking above a fence, is an eponymous cement gatepost, announcing itself as “Highwood.” For decades it has stood mostly forgotten in someone’s backyard, withering and cracking through the winters, watching over an alley where Model Ts once rumbled by looking for an elegant lawn party.
“We’ve always wondered if it has some protected-landmark status,” joked Rebecca Post, who owns the house at 3361 Rittenhouse with the gatepost in the backyard. She and partner Steffan Frey, who bought the house in 2014, have treated the post respectfully but are as mystified as most people in the neighborhood about what it’s doing there. This past year they widened their fence opening to accommodate their daughter, who uses a wheelchair, and in the process provided a sort of community service — this little bit of history is now unobstructed for all to see.
Rebecca Post is not alone in in her limited knowledge of the true story behind the gatepost in her backyard. The estate hardly made the papers when it was razed. Only one small caption under a photo of the abandoned estate in the Sunday, July 4, 1937, Washington Post serves as its obituary: “Pershing’s Former Home Razed for Development.” All other headlines on the page were dominated by real estate deals and super-charged housing sales.
This was pre-war Washington after all. Progress was of the steam-rolling suburban variety. No matter that this elegant home was barely 30 years old when the wrecking ball came. In its place would soon be 25 Mikkelson-built homes with modern GE electric kitchens and knotty pine libraries over two-story garages. Built to sell at $15,000 a pop, the brick colonials are now far older than Highwood ever was, and they carry price tags that would make the Corbins turn over in their shared Arlington Cemetery grave. Most are priced at $1.3 million or more.
A Military Hero and a Socialite
The mystery of Highwood’s demise begins with the story of the family that birthed this special home. Henry Clark Corbin was born in Ohio in 1842 and was studying law when the Civil War broke out. He volunteered in the 79th Ohio Infantry and eventually rose to the rank of infantry major, with distinguished service in the battles of Decatur and Nashville. He married young to Frances Strickle Corbin and they had seven children together, three of whom made it to adulthood, before Frances died in 1894.
By 1877, Corbin was serving at the White House as an aide to Rutherford B. Hayes and in 1881 he was present at the deathbed of James A. Garfield, killed by an assassin’s bullet. Corbin fought Native Americans in Arizona, served in the Spanish American War and was posted to the Philippines before he retired in 1906.
Highwood was the product of Corbin’s second marriage to Edythe Patten Corbin, a wealthy heiress and the fourth oldest of the famous “Patten sisters” of Dupont Circle. After 44 years in the military, Gen. Corbin wanted to build a dream home where he could enjoy his retirement with his new young wife Edythe, 27 years his junior. The land where Corbin chose to build Highwood had belonged to his wife’s mother, Anastasia Patten. She had married Edmund Patten, a California pioneer, who struck it rich on the Comstock silver lode at Gold Hill, Nevada. Soon after winning the lottery his luck ran out and he died of typhoid fever, leaving behind an immensely wealthy wife and five young daughters. After getting her husband’s affairs in order, Anastasia Patten whisked her girls to France for a proper education and returned to Washington eight years later, ready to launch them as debutantes.
Of the five sisters, only one — Augusta — had married by the time Anastasia died in September 1888. Anastasia’s will specified that if any sister married without unanimous consent of all the others, she would not maintain her inheritance. It is said that Edythe Patten, the fourth daughter, had become engaged to a man five years before marrying Gen. Corbin, but the sisters did not approve of him and she broke off the engagement. The sisters consented to Corbin, however, and “adjusted their private affairs so that the future Mrs. Corbin will hold her own wealth separate and distinct from the rest. Family belongings, jewelry, etc., have also been equally divided among them.” (Evening Star, June 29, 1901, page 5) The other three never married.
Although Edythe’s 1901 wedding was to have been a “simple affair” in light of the recent death of President McKinley, 600 oversized invitations were sent out and “hundreds of gifts filled several large rooms,” including dozens of gold plates, a gold-lined silver punch bowl, gilt clocks, Persian rugs, and a gold toilet seat. Edythe’s sisters gave her a “dog collar of diamonds and pearls.” Corbin gave her a “brooch of diamonds surrounding a turquoise.” (The Evening Star, Nov. 5, 1901, page 5)
Upon returning from a lengthy sister-trip to Paris for her wedding trousseau, Edythe and Gen. Corbin were married at the baronial Patten family mansion at 2122 Massachusetts Ave., often called the “Irish Castle” for its over-the-top splendor and its Catholic chapel where a priest said mass for the sisters. The Dupont Circle mansion, so solid it took three weeks to knock down in the 1960s, has been replaced by apartments.
The wedding drew President Roosevelt and dozens of senators, representatives, Supreme Court justices, admirals, generals, ambassadors, royals, and Corbin’s father, Shadrach Corbin “hale and hearty” at age 90. Edythe’s wedding gown was stunning, trimmed with lace inherited from her mother. “It was built on graceful lines, impossible outside of Paris,” a society columnist gushed. (Evening Star, Nov. 5, 1901, page 5)
Although the newlyweds had built a house on 22nd and R Street NW (now the Brazilian Aeronautical Commission), Corbin wanted a retirement home in the country, and in 1903 he announced his intentions in the press. The site of this home would be a 30-acre parcel near Chevy Chase Circle, which Anastasia had purchased from Horace S. Jones shortly before her 1888 death. It must have been only a portion of the original Horace S. Jones farm, as Jones continued to live in the family farmhouse (where he was born) – south of the parcel he sold to Anastasia – until he died in 1910. That house, built in 1862, still stands today at 3326 Quesada St., and is the oldest house in Chevy Chase. (Evening Star, June 29, 1910, page 3)
Anastasia owned a considerable amount of property, and had invested heavily in suburban real estate, especially along Massachusetts Avenue that extended into Washington “County” beyond Florida Avenue. When the Corbins bought the Chevy Chase parcel from the Patten estate in 1903 they began “cleaning and grading” the grounds. (Evening Star, May 15, 1903)
An 1887 map that has Horace S. Jones still listed as the owner shows a long driveway with a circular park that leads to a house. There is no mention of what happened to that original structure, but it is in the approximate spot where Highwood was eventually built. We know this because the wide knoll, at 390 feet above sea level, was a natural place to site a house, and it was the highest elevation where Highwood was built. Plus, the old driveway leading up to the house was unchanged for Highwood. The high point was later marked with a U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey marker and remains there today on the curb in front of 3351 Stephenson Place. Nearby Reno Park is 410 feet.
The next map that exists of that area is dated 1891, and by that time the ownership of the Horace S. Jones parcel was listed as belonging to Anastasia Patten’s heirs. While this was still considered far out in the country, the nascent suburb of Chevy Chase was already in high gear. Francis G. Newlands, a young lawyer, rich with his late-wife’s inheritance, had secretly accumulated more than 1,700 acres along Connecticut Avenue and had laid rail for a streetcar line. Corbin reported that he intended to capitalize on this later by carving off part of his 30-acres parcel and building handsome homes for purchase that would have city water and sewer.
But at the turn of the century, most of the area remained peaceful farmland, a place where boisterous summer religious revivals were held without bothering any neighbors. An 1897 newspaper article announced one such gathering in a patch of woods near Rock Creek Ford and Broad Branch roads, the vicinity of Anastasia’s property. The Rev. H.S. Hestor and his assistants stood on a raised platform and the congregation was seated on rough plank benches. “From that point of vantage, they easily wrought the audience into a high pitch of fervor with their earnest and impassioned words,” the report stated.
Construction of Highwood commenced in 1906 with designs created by Corbin’s personal friend, Daniel Burnham. The two had met in the Philippines while Corbin was stationed there, and Burnham was mapping out a master design plan for Manila. It was there that they sketched Corbin’s dream house: a two-story, southern-facing spread to be built of reinforced concrete with a dark green tile roof. It was to have 22 rooms with a formal porte cochere on the west and a large covered garden veranda on the east where meals in the summer could be taken outdoors. He specifically did not want the house to be too pretentious, but big enough to “entertain his friends.”
True to the original plans, the home was 126 feet wide and shaped like a “T,” with seven rooms for servants in the back wing. “For light, Gen. Corbin will use electricity, and the water supply will be derived from an artesian well sunk directly beneath his house. By means of a compressed air pump, the water from the well will be pumped throughout the building,” a newspaper reported. The ultimate cost of the house was a whopping $40,000.
An Evening Star reporter visiting the construction site in early 1907 described it as a “French chateau with a Japanese tile roof.” Marveling through the rapturous reporter’s eyes, you can almost see the terraced lawns with views of the far-off city, a fragrant rose garden behind a Chinese gate, and the stately row of oaks standing guard along a macadamized driveway that opened onto Rittenhouse Street, then called Rock Creek Ford Road. The last sentence of the article has a gold nugget: the newspaper reported that the driveway ended at a “gate supported by two massive cement pillars.”
The Highwood gatepost!
A Hilltop Place in High Demand
A Washington Post article of July 14, 1907 pointed out that the General had the best of both worlds — fresh country air and a quick commute, a goal not out of style today. “Gen. Corbin’s new house occupies a splendid site for a country home, and yet it is within easy distance of the heart of the city. For within 10 minutes and without violating the speed regulations, Gen. Corbin can go from his new home to the White House.”
Highwood was made for entertaining. It had two large, open fireplaces in the drawing room and was finished in hardwoods and furnished with French imports. In the study was a desk that had been owned by Thomas Jefferson. The horses and cows got their own matching house to the northwest on a side hill that permitted box stalls for the animals and a garage on the first floor, with three “mens’ rooms” on the second floor. The stables backed up to Stuyvesant Street.
By 1907, a couple dozen houses had already been built by the Chevy Chase Land Company on the Maryland side, but building was only just starting on the DC side. Although the maps show a patchwork of farmhouses in the vicinity, newspaper reports noted that Corbin’s “nearest neighbor” was Rudolph Max Kauffmann, editor of the Evening Star, whose summer residence was where St. John’s College High School sits now. Other farmhouses were closer, but they were likely discounted as they did not share Corbin’s social class.
That same year, a nearby house, which came to be known as “Edgewood,” was under construction by attorney George S. Rees. Although a street grid had been mapped, Edgewood was plopped in the lower middle of an entire city block of four acres on Rittenhouse and 33rd streets. That house remains today, its old gentility tucked far back from the street and its front door now facing the back yards of a row of 1940s-era houses on Rittenhouse. (More on Edgewood in another blog.)
In the first two years that the Corbins lived at Highwood, they were busy throwing parties and traveling, according to society reports. Edythe was the General’s constant companion, and together they were received at Buckingham Palace and by the Empress Tsuhsi in China. But his health was deteriorating due to a renal condition. In June 1909 they traveled to Carlsbad, Germany, “where he hoped the waters would affect a cure,” but after initially feeling better his health worsened. Doctors in Paris recommended he return to New York City where emergency surgery at Roosevelt Hospital was performed immediately upon his return. He failed to rally and died 24 hours later at age 67. (Washington Post Sept 9, 1909)
At Corbin’s funeral, his body was borne through Arlington Cemetery on a caisson, followed by his horse, now riderless, and with Corbin’s boots placed backwards in the stirrups, an old military custom. Leading the charge was “Sgt. Alexander Oglesby, colored, who served in Gen. Corbin’s old regiment, the Fourteenth United States colored infantry, in the Civil War.” (Washington Post, Sept 10, 1909, pg 16)
Corbin was laid to rest near the grave of Maj. Gen. Henry Ware Lawton, under whom he had served. He reportedly told Edythe on their drives through Arlington Cemetery that he wanted to spend eternity next to Lawton, but when she went to make the arrangements, she was told all the space near him was taken. But a happy coincidence occurred — a growth of shrubbery just happened to be removed at that time — and Gen. Corbin got his plot. (Washington Post, Sept. 25, 1907, pg 7) The earthy bottom of his grave was strewn with heliotropes and roses, clipped from the home garden he had been cultivating for his young wife. Some of the telegrams of condolence that “deluged” Highwood upon his death now sit in archival containers at the Library of Congress.
In 1910, a few months after Corbin’s death, at least 12 acres to the west of Highwood were sold by Edythe for $50,000, and houses started going up to Chevy Chase Land Company specifications. Meanwhile, Edythe moved back to the family mansion on Dupont Circle to live with her sisters and rented Highwood to dignitaries. A receipt on file at the Library of Congress indicated it was rented in 1909 for $500 a month, with unfettered access to the produce from the vegetable gardens, poultry yard and milk from the cows, plus three groundskeepers. Add an extra $100 for a chauffeur, with car.
Highwood’s most famous tenant was Pershing, who moved in after his victorious return from France in 1918. He stayed more than two years, making it his headquarters for the U.S. Expeditionary Forces and reorganizing the American Army to prepare it for its next engagement. The Chevy Chase Historical Society writes about one memorable tea Pershing hosted for a group of girls at Chevy Chase Junior College http://www.chevychasehistory.org/excursions-tea-general in the sunny drawing room.
Since it was primarily rented as a summer residence, the widow Corbin occasionally moved herself and her prize dogs into the home when it was free of tenants, which is what she was doing in December 1923 when it caught fire. The newspapers said she was inside “playing Mah Jongg with Mrs. Henry Spencer of New York and Mrs. Lynn of Washington” when a close neighbor, Mrs. H. B. Myers, discovered sparks hitting the roof and telephoned to announce the house was on fire.
While a growing crowd helped pull furniture and war relics gathered by Gen. Corbin to safety — even Chevy Chase Country Club patrons came running — the three-alarm response was hampered by Highwood’s elevation. “Firefighters were compelled to run their hose lines more than a quarter of a mile” to the nearest hydrant, a newspaper reported.
The fire caused significant roof and water damage inside, but six months later a Mr. and Mrs. Golden Donaldson were tenants (possibly R. Golden Donaldson, president of Commercial National Bank in 1924), so all must have been promptly rebuilt, and apparently expanded, as later pictures of the house show that a second story had been added to the east wing.
During these years newspaper society columns breathlessly covered the counts and ambassadors and VIPs who held salons and soirees and “at homes” at Highwood, such as Prince de Bearn, counselor at the French Embassy; Japanese Ambassador Matsudaira and his wife; the Argentina Charge d’Affaires Racedo, and U.S. Secretary of War George H. Dern. All these VIPs navigated their way up Connecticut Avenue and Rittenhouse Road before swinging left and following the “twinkling lights” of the estate.
Meanwhile, Edythe sold another slice of the property in early 1935 — the southern half that fronted Rittenhouse — to G. F. Mikkelson and Son to build 70 homes. Stephenson Place would be cut through directly in front of the house and Highwood acquired a new address — instead of 3301 Rittenhouse it would become 3333 Stephenson Place. (That address today is assigned to a house further east of the Highwood site.)
The macadamized driveway must have been moved at that time to open onto Stephenson Place, while the previous long driveway was knitted into the street grid with only the small entrance section repurposed as an alley for the new Mikkelson homes. That is also likely when the old gate posts found themselves adrift. No mention of them is found in the available records. It is likely that the lone survivor is the eastern post, while its mate gave way to either the alley or to the first house on the west side of the alley.
Within a year, the new Mikkelson homes were slowly squeezing Highwood out of existence. Their efficient modernity stood in stark contrast to the Old World charm of Burnham’s creation. They touted super-suburban mores, such as all-electric kitchens with steel cabinets, linoleum floors, washable wallpaper, and a “servant’s toilet” in the basement for live-out maids.
Ads invited prospective homeowners to tour the model home at 3311 Rittenhouse. When that sold, the model home became 3361 Rittenhouse — the house where the Highwood gate post stands today in the backyard. No ad mentions this oddity or the historical significance of what must have seemed strangely out of place to prospective buyers. The ads for this home commented only that it was “situated on a beautiful lot.” Perhaps they decided to leave it up to the buyer to decide whether to get rid of the post? If so, we have a succession of six owners to thank for hanging on to this piece of history.
Secretary of War George Dern proved to be Highwood’s last resident. He and his wife Lottie — incidentally they are great grandparents to actress Laura Dern — installed themselves at Highwood in the fall of 1933. Dern served in the Roosevelt administration during the Depression years, when the U.S. had a more isolationist approach to foreign policy, so his tenure wasn’t particularly consequential. But the papers were full of the couple playing host on the diplomat circuit. After he died in office in August 1936, the death knell started ringing for Highwood as well.
A small classified ad whispered the news. “Entire contents of one of Washington’s most beautiful old homes known as ‘Highwood’ for sale at once on premises. All to be sold before July 1st,” so stated the Evening Star on June 12, 1937.
I have found no surviving record of who attended the estate sale, or what was sold. When Edythe Corbin died in 1959 — the last of the Patten sisters to go — she had many treasures to bequeath, including a portrait of Corbin painted by Swiss-born American artist Adolfo Muller-Ury, which she gave to the National Gallery of Art. Two high-back armchairs once owned by Pope Pius X (now Saint Pius X, making them infinitely more valuable!) were given to Georgetown University and placed in its Hall of the Cardinals. Many of Edythe’s papers are on file at Georgetown.
There’s no easy way to trace what became of a table that had belonged to Thomas Jefferson, which was reportedly part of the “rich furniture” at Highwood. It may well have been sold to a high bidder at the estate sale announced in June 1937. The only thing around that witnessed it was the gatepost. And it’s not talking.
Cate Toups Atkinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Does your house or street have an intriguing past? Tell me about it!