By Steve Houk
On several levels, literally, the astounding Mansion on O is something to be experienced.
It’s a mesmerizing and unforgettable cross between, say, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Alice’s Wonderland. With maybe a dose of Downton Abbey thrown in, given its aura of grandness and formal majesty. And who knows what spirits may be wandering through the catacomb-like space.
As you carefully yet excitedly navigate the five floors, the over 100 rooms, sometimes via one of the Mansion on O’s 70 secret doors, you notice that nearly every open space is overflowing with everything from kitschy assorted trinkets to priceless art and music collectibles. You climb the meandering tight staircases (or use the mirrored elevator) and discover eclectic and stunning guest rooms like the Log Cabin room replete with a fish tank in the headboard, or the John Lennon Room with one of his guitars and his art everywhere. Maybe you wander into the Beatles billiard room with the rare Yellow Submarine juke box, or come upon the elegant sitting room with the uncommon acoustic bass.
Hey, what was that I just passed? Just a guitar signed by a dozen of the biggest rock stars of all time, ya know, Richards, Beck, Clapton, Guy, Young, etc.
Oh yeah….and nearly everything in the place is for sale. And they have cool rock concerts. No, I’m not kidding.
There are very few places you come across that live up to the moniker “you’ve never seen anything like it.” The Mansion on O near Dupont Circle in Washington is one of those places. An astoundingly unique series of five interconnected town houses, yes, on the one hand it is a music and curio collector’s paradise — items on display as you wander the massive space include a John Lennon letter he wrote to his laundromat, Bob Dylan & Bruce Springsteen signed guitars from their Hall of Fame inductions, original sculpture by Frederick Hart, all three signed Lord of the Rings film scripts, the list goes on.
But it is so much more than that — it’s also a high end B & B with the most unique guest rooms in town, a magical event and meeting space, and last but not least, the home of the O Street Museum Foundation that curates the collection and also serves to enrich the arts in different and unique ways.
I mean, this is one incredible place that, like the structure of the Mansion itself, is special on a number of levels.
Owner H.H. Leonards is the main reason the Mansion on O exists, it was her dream and her vision, and because of her passion and the subsequent magic of its contents, it remains by far one of Washington’s most special attractions, yet still also one of its best kept secrets. Leonard’s husband Ted Spero beams when he speaks of the long road H has hoed to get the Mansion to where it is today.
“In her brain, she pictured this place,” Spero said. “When H created the house, there was a purpose, and the purpose is she wanted to create a space where people can find their passion, get out of themselves, forget about who you are. That’s why she put in secret doors. She had no money, she got about 30 credit cards, took out all the cash advances she could, she found the one house here with a side garden, and it was perfect in her mind, they were actually going to sell it to someone else, they had a better offer. But when she explained what she wanted to do, to make it a bigger thing, they really wanted to sell it to her. ”
Spero recollects a moment when if not for the generosity of a stranger, the Mansion might not exist.
“H was on an airplane going from New York to DC, sitting next to what seemed to be a homeless guy,” Spero said. “She started talking to him, she was $40,000 short for the down payment, and when she got off the plane, she had a check for $40,000. He said, “What’s the address, I’ll see you in two years.” He’s a good friend to this day, he’s still under the radar, an anonymous guy, that’s how she got the first house. Every one of the houses is the same kind of story.”
Spero has been an integrally relied upon and very supportive right hand since he and H married 12 years ago. But he knows who really is the brainchild behind it all.
“It’s her, it’s all H. I’ve been here twelve years, she’s been here 36 years. She got the one house, then she built the second house in ’85.There were three original houses, so she originally bought house number three in a row, then she built house number four in a row, and then got house number one, then house number two, then house number five, that’s how they’re laid out. The second house she bought, which was house number two, #2018, was trashed, it was for sale forever, she finally bought it, she gutted it, restored it. And then she got the first house that was the original last of the three that were bulk at the same time. Each one has a different story on how she acquired ’em. It’s now 30,000 square feet.”
The musical connection to the Mansion is as organic and important a part of the place as anything, from its exceptional collection of memorabilia to its very intimate and direct involvement with musicians and artists. Leonards is on the board of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and along with Spero’s also-deep connections to the music industry, the pair has been able to create almost an East Coast version of the Hall right in the Mansion, with a stunning array of musically-related items placed throughout the house that are as rare as many in Cleveland. And through those musical connections, musicians themselves have found the Mansion to be a magical haven where they can marvel at their surroundings and concentrate on their craft while they get away from the normal drag of tour hotels. In fact, the musicians who stay there are encouraged to grab and play any of the dozens of collectible instruments strewn about the place. Spero said he has stayed up until the wee hours sitting around jamming with whomever may be staying there at the time.
“When musicians come here, you never know what’s gonna happen,” Spero continued. “Jackson Browne was here for a week, he took the whole house, his band, his crew, they rehearsed here, they lived here. Vanilla Ice was just here too. It was incredible for them because they usually stay in hotels. What’s a hotel, so impersonal. But here, they’ll never forget it. It’s just something about the house that allows you to be who you are, forget about that facade. You walk in here, it’s a home, pick up a guitar, do your thing, you know.”
The O Street Museum Foundation, a part of the Mansion on O family which offers a number of varied cultural experiences and holds court over much of the Mansion’s vast collection of artifacts, puts on several intimate concerts a month in the Mansion’s parlor, with talent as deep as Led Zeppelin cover band extraordinaire Lez Zeppelin, Eagles hit maker Jack Tempchin, Hootie and the Blowfish member Mark Bryan and others. It’s a rare treat to see musicians in such a small setting, where they often interact with the crowd as they provide a platform for the Foundation to raise much-needed funds to cover the high cost of keeping the Mansion alive. Ted and H feel that once people pay a visit to the Mansion, they’ll never forget it, and will keep coming back to see what’s new.
“We are a non-profit, we don’t have money ourselves, everything goes into this house,” Spero said. “This is our passion. And for us, every day when people walk in and we see their face, and they’re in this different place and they have this big smile on their face, and the experience they have in this house is different than anything they’ve ever had, that’s what does it for us.”