Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Bleak House

The Country home of Alexander R. Shepherd

All that remains of Bleak House is a 3-car garage in an alleyway.

Bleak House was at the center of what is today the Shepherd Park neighborhood in northwest Washington, DC.  Goode 1979, describes the house as “the wooden Italianate, mansarded country home of Gov. Alexander R. Shepherd.” Wikipedia identifies Shepherd this way:

Alexander Robey Shepherd (January 30, 1835 – September 12, 1902), was one of the most controversial and influential civic leaders in the history of Washington, D.C., and one of the most powerful big-city political bosses of the Gilded Age. He was head of the DC Board of Public Works from 1871 to 1873 and Governor of the District of Columbia from 1873 to 1874. He is known, particularly in Washington, as "The Father of Modern Washington." 

See The Portrait Gallery for a look at Alexander Robey Shepherd.

John P. Richardson, in his 2016 biography notes that Alexander Shepherd and his wife Mary (Mary Grice Young Shepherd) built the house in 1867. 

In 1867, when Alexander and Mary Shepherd decided to build an out of-town home for their growing family, they returned to the vicinity of the old family farm in the county north of Rock Creek Cemetery. Consistent with his new wealth and embrace of conspicuous consumption, Shepherd built an elegant house that the family named “Bleak House” from the title of the Charles Dickens novel the children were reading at the time. A family account described the approximately 260 acres as the highest spot in the District, with old apple trees, meadows, and woodland running back to Rock Creek.40 The Second Empire–style wooden main house was one of the showplaces of this remote suburban district and considered large in its time. The estate contained a bowling alley and gymnasium, a barn and overseer’s house, as well as trout ponds and a cherry orchard. The formal entrance to Bleak House was a stone porter’s lodge on Seventh Street Road (today Georgia Avenue) at some distance from the residence. Bleak House was to hold many memories— both happy and sad— for the Shepherd family.

Daughter Grace Shepherd Merchant later described Bleak House as meaning much more to the family than the mansion Shepherd later built on Farragut Square. -- Richardson, 2016, Chapter 3, Pages 52-53.

The house on Farragut Square mentioned above is the towered left-most of the three town houses in what was called “Shepherd Row” at Connecticut Ave. and K Street, where Farragut North metro station is today.

The Rambler, Harry Shannon, visited Bleak House just before it was torn down in 1916.  He found the 260 acre estate reduced to 4 acres. “Bleak House and its garden is bounded by four new streets. Alaska avenue on the east. Holly street on the north. Geranium street on the south and 14th street on the west.” 

Bleak House, The Home of Alexander R. Shepherd, Off Georgia Avenue.

I've outlined in red the block occupied by Bleak House (square 2776) on this 1911 map of “16th Street Heights” the development that preceded Shepherd Park. Since the streets that were prospective in 1911, and still new in 1916, are still there, this gives us the location of Bleak House, in modern terms. 

The original entrance to the estate from the 7th Street Road, later Georgia Avenue, was marked by an ornate porter's lodge at what would become the northwest corner of Elder Street and Georgia Avenue.

Goode describes the architecture of “this delightful service building.”

 The entrance porch and door itself reflect the Gothic Cottage taste of the pre-Civil War period, while the slender chamfered piers, which supported the lacy gable, hint at the stick style then coming into vogue. The rough ashlar walls meld well with the lodge's rustic setting. The mansard and hood-molded dormers, however, were the only features that unified the lodge with the design of the main house.

The lodge's location became the northeast corner of the property that until recently was Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  In 2023 it is a construction site. 

Georgia Avenue and Elder Street.

All that remains of Bleak House is the Carriage House in the alley behind 1332 Holly Street.

The Carriage House of Bleak House.

Kim Williams writes that “The site plan for a new house at 1332 Holly Street, filed in 1929, as part of its DC building permit, called for the retention of the ‘old stone carriage house to be used as garage on premises.’” The 3-car garage is identified as “The Carriage House of Bleak House” by a plaque on the door.

The Carriage House of Bleak House
Estate of Alexander Robey Shepherd ca.  1868.
The Ward 4 Heritage Guide says this outbuilding was “Built before 1878, remaining building of the estate owned by Gov. Alexander ‘Boss’ Shepherd, the architect of the District’s infrastructure and its only governor.”

The house at 1332 Holly (lot 27, square 2776) was designed for real estate agent E. W. Snoots by Luther R. Ray in 1929, at a cost of $16,000.  See Architects Approve Plans for Projects in the Evening Star May 11, 1929, page 18. The Ward 4 Guide remarks that it was “Designed by Luther R. Ray in 1929, who was also the designer of several Little Tavern Shops.”

1332 Holly Street

The ad below appeared in The Evening Star,  November 2, 1929.

The text mentions the 3-car garage and Alexander Shepherd's house but does not connect them.


Van View
[Not Bleak House]

The Shepherd Mansion seemed to return from oblivion in 1963 when an article in the Washington Post Real-Estate section identified 7714 13th Street NW as “The Old Shepherd Mansion”. Ralph Fertig, sociologist, lawyer and civil rights activist, who lived at 7714 13th street in the 1960s mistakenly believed that his house had been Governor Shepherd's house. He passed that misinformation on to Post Real-Estate Editor John B. Willmann who wrote an article entitled   “Gov. Shepherd Should See It Now.”  Fertig makes the same claim in his 2018 memoir A Passion for Justice.  Actually, 7714 13th Street is Van View, another second-empire house built about the same time as Bleak House by Shepherd's neighbors John and Mary Van Riswick. It's on the National Register of Historic Places. A 1939 article in the Sunday Star about Silver Spring by John Claggett Proctor included this photo of Van View sporting a front porch and a cupola. Proctor's address is off-by-one, a type of error familiar to us old programmers. 

The Fenwick-Lambert home, 
17713, Thirteenth street, N.W.


  1. Hi Mr Browne my name is John Bennaman and I'm interested in the history of Waters Mill in Black Hills Regional Park. I've taken some shots of the mill ruins and the tail race but I wanted to know where specifically in the park or trails was the foundations of the millers house that was blown up by Guy Vernon Thompson on November 18th 1920 that claimed the lives of Hattie Shipley's two young children and the owner of the mill John Bolton.

    1. It looks like you know a lot more about Waters Mill than I do. I think my wife has your phone number I'll call and we'll see if I can help at all.