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If Walls Could Talk: a Look Inside the Incredible Walsh-McLean Mansion on Mass Ave

Get a peek inside the incredible Walsh-McLean Mansion on Mass Ave, built by gold-mining magnate Thomas Walsh and filled with untold tales of what took place behind its walls. Learn about the royal visitors, soirees, and the long-lost golden nugget.
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This is our first “If Walls Could Talk” guest post. Marty wrote a great bit on one of the incredible mansions on Mass Ave.

Walsh-McLean Mansion in 1970 (Library of Congress)
Walsh-McLean Mansion in 1970 (Library of Congress)

The stately mansion at 2020 Massachusetts Ave NW surely must be one of DC’s greatest real estate bargains ever. The Indonesian government bought it back in 1951 for $335,000, less than half of what it cost Thomas Walsh to build in 1907.

But the untold tales of what took place behind the walls of what now is the Indonesian Embassy would be pure gold. Literally and figuratively.
That’s because gold-mining magnate Walsh installed a gold bar in the archway over the front door. He also included gold-flecked marble in the mansion’s pillars and supposedly buried a gold nugget in the foundation.

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The mansion, known as the Walsh-McLean house, was occupied by Thomas (who died in 1910) and his wife Carrie Bell Reed and their daughter, Evalyn Walsh McLean, up until 1932. Alice Roosevelt, daughter of Teddy, and Florence Harding, wife of the 29th President, were frequent visitors as were many other political and business luminaries of the time. The royal family of Belgium stayed there during a U.S. visit in 1919.

Thomas Walsh commissioned the house in 1903. Word around town at the time was that it was destined to be the most costly house ever constructed in the nation’s capital.

Walsh built it for his daughter, the flamboyant socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean. The estimated $853,000 cost of construction is 1907 translates to more than $20-million today.

Walsh told architect Henry Anderson that he wanted the staircase to resemble that of an ocean liner, according to a 1997 account on embassy.org. He created an open deck promenade through three floors of carved mahogany.

The fourth floor featured a large ballroom and a theater with guests brought up aboard early elevators.

Some major soirees were held there during the 1920s. The New York Times reported on a legendary New Year’s bash where the guests drank 288 fifths of Scotch, 480 quarts of champagne, 40 gallons of beer, 35 bottles of liquors and 48 quarts of assorted cocktails. (Talk about in-depth reporting.)

Indonesian embassy (Walsh-McLean Mansion)
Indonesian embassy (Walsh-McLean Mansion)

Evalyn Walsh McLean inherited the mansion following her mother’s death in 1932. But the house was vacant for a time as she and husband Edward Beale McLean were living at their Friendship Estate at what now is McLean Gardens off Wisconsin Avenue in Upper Northwest.

During the New Deal, Evalyn rented her mansion first to the Rural Rehabilitation Settlement Administration and later to the U.S. Rural Electrification Commission. During World War II, she let the Red Cross use it rent free.

Red Cross women made surgical dressings there and set up classes to train nurse’s aides, all part of the war effort.

On Dec. 19, 1951, Ali Sastromidjojo, the Indonesian ambassador, bought it for the bargain basement price of $335,000. The new owners searched the place for the missing gold but never found anything.

Best guess is that the McLeans may have sold the gold bar over the front door to help pay the bills during the depths of the Depression. (After all, Ned McLean’s Washington Post had been forced into bankruptcy in 1933.)

In 1982, the Indonesian government built an addition to the mansion, set back further from Massachusetts Avenue, opening up many of the large rooms on the main floor for entertainment and reception purposes.

Tours are available by arrangement with the Embassy. If you go, you might want to carefully check out the foundation for that long-missing golden nugget.

Walsh-McLean Mansion drawing room in 1970
Walsh-McLean Mansion drawing room in 1970
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