Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ June 2014

History Corner(s)

The Labyrinth in Four Corners

By Ken Hawkins

Part 2 in a Series

News of the death of Carolan O’Brien Bryant in September 1897, and the destruction by fire, a few days later, of the costly mansion he had nearly completed in Four Corners, made news in Boston, New York, and Washington.  Bryant was, according to the New York Times, “a breezy, picturesque character,” a Democratic journalist, and a one-time sidekick to Boss Tweed, who inherited a fortune through his late wife and moved to Washington with his two beautiful young daughters in the mid-1880s.  Their stay in Four Corners was brief but not soon forgotten:  “Old residents in that vicinity will tell you many stories about Mr. Bryant and his great house,” said J. Harry Shannon — writing in 1913 as The Rambler — “but they are too numerous and too long for telling in one ramble.”

Carolan O’Brien Bryant was born in Maine in 1833 but spent most of his life in New York City.  He was a writer and editorialist for James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald and later served as a Democrat in the New York Assembly.  An avid collector of furniture, prints, paintings, and books, he purchased a first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass directly from the author in 1855.

He married Amanda Anderson, daughter of a wealthy Broadway tobacconist and had two daughters with her, Agnes Clare and Amanda (Amy) Irving Bryant.  His wife died at the age of 23 in 1870, and Bryant never remarried, although he eventually inherited her portion of her father’s estate, which made him and his daughters quite wealthy.

Carolan O’Brien Bryant’s Four Corners estate “Labyrinth” appears prominently on G.M. Hopkins 1894 map of “The Vicinity of Washington, D.C.” (Courtesy Library of Congress).

He was active in Democratic politics, first in Tammany Hall and later as an advocate for presidential nominee Samuel J. Tilden.  When Grover Cleveland became President in 1885, Bryant moved with his daughters to Washington.  He worked with others to locate a site for the Cleveland’s summer home and it is said that a fine property he located in Four Corners was among those considered.  After a place above Georgetown was selected instead, Bryant made up his mind to buy the land in Four Corners for himself.

In June and November of 1887, Bryant bought two parcels of land from George N. and Elizabeth Beale, including the old Beale country estate known as Indian Spring farm (see the article in the Northwood News, February 2014).  The 177 acres in the transaction included lots surrounding the Four Corners intersection (excepting the Methodist Episcopal Church) on both sides of the Colesville Road, northward through fields to the large spring which gave the Beale property its name, and beyond to the rocky gorge of the Northwest Branch long known as “the Labyrinth.”  In this part of the property, Bryant “set great store because of its wild beauty,” and the name also denoted one of the eighteenth-century land patents named in the deeds making him the owner.  Henceforth, Bryant’s country estate in Four Corners was called “The Labyrinth.”

Agnes and Amy Bryant, who made their home at The Labyrinth estate in Four Corners in the late 1880s and early 1890s.  (Photos courtesy of Mildred H. Getty via Judy Hanrahan.)

Over the next several years, Bryant transformed the Indian Spring farm into an estate of landscaped grounds, gardens, stables, conservatories, dairy, and what was soon described as “one of the finest country houses in the state of Maryland.” A large pair of stone piers enclosed an iron gateway on the Old Bladensburg Road and a drive that curved for half a mile northward to the high ground near today’s Crestmoor Circle.  There, in a dense growth of trees, Bryant set up a sawmill from which the lumber for much of the house was cut.

He drew the plans for the house and personally supervised construction.  “The designs are original and artistic,” wrote the Washington Sunday Herald in 1891, with a porte cochère [a covered entranceway large enough for a vehicle to drive through and shelter alighting passengers] and a third-story observatory that revolved, “from which a magnificent view of the surrounding country can be obtained.”

The house was heated with steam, the ceilings were pressed metal, and walls were made with dressed oak boards instead of plaster.  It had 25 rooms, including a spacious hall, drawing and music rooms, and covered about an acre of land.  The cost of the house itself was estimated at $40,000, but the greatest value was doubtless in its decoration and furnishings.  Many of its doors and woodwork Bryant rescued from old Broadway mansions that had been demolished in New York, and carried significant historical interest.

The interior was “a veritable art gallery,” with room enough for Bryant’s extensive collection of oil paintings and engravings, while his library was filled with rare old books, prints, and curios.  For all this, however, Bryant never completed the house and he and his daughters lived in what was called “the cottage,” possibly the Beale’s old house, nearby.  In the winter, they lived in a hotel in Washington.

Nonetheless, Bryant and his daughters Agnes and Amy made the Labyrinth a popular center of aesthetic, sporting, and political activities in late 1800s Montgomery County.  Agnes and Amy, who were in their late teens and early twenties, oversaw the flower gardens and dairy, hosted their friends (such as the “Misses Stones of Brightwood”), dramatic plays, and several wedding receptions at the estate.  But they also had a mischievous side:  “The daughters were very fond of athletic sports,” recalled a writer a few years later, “and were noted for their fine and often reckless riding and driving.”

“The Labyrinth,” ca. 1891, country house built by Carolan O’Brian Bryant on the high ground north of today’s Crestmoor Circle.  Burned in 1897.  (Photo courtesy of Mildred H. Getty via Judy Hanrahan)

Bryant himself cut a unique figure in the rural area:  “He usually wore his hair very long, and in later years it fell in profuse folds about his shoulders.”

For several years in the mid-1890s, the family opened the grounds to the public for picnics, brass bands, baseball, and fireworks on Decoration Day and the Fourth of July.  Hundreds of families took electric cars to the Sligo station (in today’s downtown Silver Spring) and wagons and carriages conveyed them to the “Cascades of the Labyrinth owned by Mr. C.O. Bryant.”  There they enjoyed “these delightful grounds for their amusement, and the result of the day proved the wisdom of throwing open this romantic spot to those who enjoy a day’s outing in the country upon holidays when relieved from their daily toil.”  On one such occasion, probably in 1893, the visitors had the opportunity to hear a Fourth of July oration from Bryant’s personal friend (who summered there), Representative William Jennings Bryan (D-Nebraska).

In late 1896, Carolan O’Brien Bryant announced the wedding of his eldest daughter, Agnes, to Frederick Simpson, at the Epiphany Church in Washington.  The newlyweds moved to a large estate (the Empire Farm) in western New York, famed for its equestrian achievements.  Bryant remained in Four Corners.

The signature of Carolan O’Brien Bryant, 1880.  No photograph of him has been found yet.  He and his daughters are buried at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.  (Courtesy Samuel J. Tilden Collection, New York Public Library)

“Although some men said harsh and unpleasant things about him,” the New York Times recalled later, “the relations between father and daughters always appeared to be of the most tender nature.”  Perhaps Bryant associated the property with the youth of his now-grown daughters, but, within a few months, he sold the Labyrinth to a pair of investors from Washington for $70,000 and a large hotel at Third and G Streets, N.W., called Tavistock Flats.  He moved there with his younger daughter, Amy, and died there suddenly on September 8, 1897.  As if to erase the memory of the Labyrinth — or perhaps to realize profits on a level meaner than it signified to those who cherished it and may yet remember it — arsonists burned the magnificent house to the ground on the evening of September 13, 1897.  The house and its contents were a total loss.

Workmen employed by the new buyers were resting for dinner when they saw flames leaping from the top story of the mansion.  “The glare from the burning structure could be seen for miles, and brought the residents of the country in large numbers to the rescue.”  A lengthy intrigue of accusations, arrests, and indictments ensued, lasting into the early years of the 20th century, but no trial ever took place, and the property became derelict and overgrown.  The daughters held on to one or two small lots on the northwest portion of the Corners, but lived out their lives in western New York.

In the end, Ramblers like J. Harry Shannon and the Wanderbirds were the only ones to record the impressions — in the years leading up to when the Labyrinth was subdivided for a development called Woodmoor — of those who remembered the New Yorker and his daughters.  They “were beloved throughout the neighborhood.”  Now we know, and can remember, too.   ■

Read Part 1

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