Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “North Four Corners News”

North Four Corners News ♦ October 2023

History Corner(s)

The Silver Spring and a Lost Photo

By Ken Hawkins

Last year I bought from an eBay seller in Kansas an old photo that showed two men in front of a somewhat ornate entry to a house.  On the back was a single handwritten line:  “Silver Spring, Md.”  Sadly, it was lost in the mail and, although I acquired from the same seller a fine ca. 1950 aerial of the area, sent under separate cover, I thought the house photo was gone forever.

The Silver Spring country house built in 1842 by Francis P. Blair.  Cabinet photo, circa 1895, showing son-in-law Samuel Phillips Lee at the top of the steps of the house he had retired to with his wife Elizabeth Blair Lee in the 1870s.  She grew up there.  Courtesy Ken Hawkins.

Francis Preston Blair (1791–1876) came to Washington, D.C., in the 1830s at the invitation of President Jackson to edit a newspaper for Old Hickory’s party, the Democrats, and became a member of Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet.”  In the 1840s, he was scouting the Maryland countryside north of the capital for a country estate.  His horse strayed away and, in following it, he came upon a mica-inflected stream, located on the perfect spot.  He built his country estate there, including a large Gothic Revival house, named it the Silver Spring, and soon acquired added property nearby for his family.

The center of downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, view north and east over Georgia Avenue at the line with the District of Columbia.  The remaining Blair estates are outlined in white at the upper left.  M. Blair’s house at this location was demolished in 1958 for apartment towers and a small shopping center.  The location of his father’s earlier house was near the small triangle of land to the southeast of the parcel shown, which is the location of the old Silver Spring, today’s Acorn Park.  Commercial aerial photo circa 1955.  Courtesy Ken Hawkins.

While his son Montgomery’s nearby house was burned to the ground in 1864 by Confederate raiders, F.P. Blair’s house survived (as did his downtown abode, today’s Blair House).  He retired to the Silver Spring estate in the late 1850s and remained politically active, holding court at his rural retreat:  he and others founded the Republican Party there and Lincoln often visited the house.  After Blair died in 1876, the property went to his only daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband, navy officer Samuel Phillips Lee, who also kept a house next to the Blair House in Washington.  Elizabeth Blair Lee was close friends with Emily Beale, visited the Beales’ house in Four Corners, and counted among her Lafayette Square neighbors Edward F. “Ned” Beale.  The Lees made Silver Spring their country home until their deaths late in the century.  Their son, U.S. Senator Blair Lee, called it home in the 1920s.  The house stood southwest of the corner of today’s Kennett and Newall Streets until 1954.

1948 Klinge Atlas of Montgomery County Maryland (Volume 1, Plate 3).  Map showing the locations of the Blair estates and houses in 1948, shortly before their demolitions.  Courtesy Montgomery County Historical Society.

There’s a fair amount known about all the above people and happenings but history can obscure the past more than it sheds light on it.  Only a handful of photographs of F.P. Blair’s Silver Spring survive.  A full sixth months after I had given up the “Silver Spring, Md.” photo for lost, it arrived in the mail.  The image, in a handsome cabinet mount, sheds light on the above corners of history.  The mansion’s glass-covered porch on the driveway side is shown, with its distinctive twin dormers above.  The man at the doorway appears to be Samuel Phillips Lee — who incidentally served in the U.S. Navy while his third cousin, Robert E. Lee, led the Confederate insurrection — near the end of his life in 1897.

I don’t know how these two photos ended up in Kansas, but I’m glad they’re back in Four Corners where their owners and friends once lived.

[Hawkins holds a Ph.D. in history and lives in Northwood Park.]   ■

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