City Paper is not for tourists
Three years ago, Betty Brown Casey acquired a Foxhall property that was impressive even by Foxhall standards. Across the street from the German Embassy compound and bounded on two sides by federal parkland, the rolling plot had a majestic past. Here, cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post had entertained Washington’s elite. Piebald deer, rare creatures with mottled white coats, gamboled around knolls, down swales, and in wooded brush.
Casey bought the secluded 16.5-acre spread from a Qatari royal for about $16.5 million in order to build an official residence for the D.C. mayor and his successors in office.
The leader of the nation’s capital, she thought, deserved better digs than, say, the apartment Mayor Anthony A. Williams rented in Foggy Bottom. Nowhere did the District have spaces quite regal enough for the mayor’s ceremonial functions. Reception halls for dignitaries from around the globe. A room for state dinners. A grand terrace for summer soirees. The grounds of the estate were nearly as expansive as those at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.—but with better views.
She intended to call the new house she would build there the Casey Mansion, a name that would memorialize her late husband, Eugene Casey, a native Washingtonian. Everything else would monumentalize her own cultivated taste.
A fan of early Americana, the Maryland philanthropist favored a simple, classic look for the mansion. She started decorating.
“There was some furniture Mrs. Casey thought would be perfect,” says her attorney, Brendan V. Sullivan Jr. Nearly $2 million worth of furniture, fixtures, and “equipment,” according to tax documents, was purchased over two years. Sullivan surmises that his client saw some choice pieces at auctions that she couldn’t let get away.
Given the state of the property, Casey’s shopping spree was, at the very least, premature. The new mansion hadn’t even been designed. Nor had Casey consulted the people she expected to live in the mansion, the mayor and his wife, Diane Simmons Williams.
The Foxhall residence was a gift that the District hadn’t asked for, and hadn’t hoped for, but one that the mayor believed would be “political malpractice” to refuse.
Yet the furniture Casey stockpiled was for a mansion that would never be. For nearly three years, neighbors feuded over the project with Casey’s proxies, the city, and the National Park Service. The mansion project hardly got off the ground. This December, her limited patience spent, Casey pulled the plug on one of the biggest private gifts to the city in its history.
Eco-conscious Foxhall activists were one target of blame. The slow machinery of government was another. The mayor himself took some heat from At-Large D.C. Councilmember David Catania, who believed the whole issue “inappropriately consumed the time and energy of high-level officials.”
But if anyone is to blame for dragging out the mansion project, for putting obstacles in its way, it appears to be Betty Brown Casey.
Casey, who is 76 years old, lives on 6 acres in Potomac, Md., at the end of a street lined with stately neocolonials. Sullivan says her house “is in an ordinary neighborhood of nice homes that don’t show any sign of the fact that she is wealthy.” But in fact the home is ordinary only when compared with the cardboard castles and horse farms of Potomac. It’s a 7,000-square-foot mansion. Casey calls it Creekside. It may be the only property in the subdivision that bears “No Trespassing” signs.
A driver takes Casey to work at the Eugene B. Casey Building in Gaithersburg, a nondescript pile of terraced concrete. It was built on land adjoining Maryland Route 355 that was once one of her late husband’s many farms. Much of southern Gaithersburg was, or still is, in the Casey real-estate portfolio, which has also included vast holdings in the upper Midwest and rental properties in Rockville and Bethesda. Boosted by stock-market investments, Casey’s holdings represent one of the area’s larger personal fortunes.
Gene married Betty, his third wife, in 1955. In the years before his death, in 1986, Gene Casey handed over control of the business to Betty and gifted her half his estate. Most of the half he was going to give to his children from his previous marriages he instead willed to the Eugene B. Casey Foundation. He named Betty, who was childless, the foundation’s sole controlling trustee.
Today, Casey not only oversees the business, but she almost single-handedly runs the charitable foundation, which has about $170 million in assets. Unlike many other organizations that give away as much—between $7 million and $50 million annually—the Casey Foundation has no paid staff. Casey keeps it simple. She gives to three dozen charities a year—mostly causes she has supported in the past.
She gives to hospitals, hospices, colleges, and private schools. There’s the Eugene B. Casey Diabetes Education Center at Suburban Hospital. The Eugene B. Casey Swim Center and the Eugene B. Casey Academic Center at Washington College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The Casey Home hospice in Rockville. Casey has also donated tens of millions from the foundation and her personal funds to the Washington Opera, which honored her with philanthropy’s ultimate title: lifetime chairman.
For a hundred-millionaire, giving is easy. The challenge is the tedium. In 2000, Casey got the itch to do something unique for a change.
Casey, says her attorney, was fond of the mayor. And that spring, she let Williams know she was interested in funding new mayoral accommodations.
Before Casey’s offer, District officials were already contemplating the feasibility of an official residence. But they had envisioned rehabbing one of several less-than-palatial properties closer to downtown, such as the former Spanish ambassador’s residence on 16th Street NW or the old naval hospital on Pennsylvania Avenue SE.
The mayor’s office and the D.C. Council each had their favorites, but both agreed that the home should be appropriate to the city’s chief citizen, not a robber-baron’s hunt club. A mayoral residence commission, headed by former Mayor Walter Washington, was to recommend a site.
Casey, though, pre-empted the commission. She was uninterested in more modest proposals. After the Foxhall property came on the market that fall, she made it clear: If she was to contribute any money, it was Foxhall or nothing. “We had a commission that looked at a number of different properties, but Mrs. Casey, in her estimation, was interested [in the Foxhall site],” says Mayor Williams. “[I] did not try to move Mrs. Casey one way or the other,” he adds.
“It was not the mayor’s decision,” says Sullivan. “I believe the mayor would have preferred the property be located somewhere else in the city, because of the implication that the mayor was moving into a tony neighborhood. Mrs. Casey’s decision, made free from politics, was focused on where was the best site. And it was her belief that it was the last great piece of property in Washington, D.C.”
In January 2001, Casey purchased the estate. A month later, she officially announced her gift in a letter to the mayor: “The business of government is conducted on many levels not the least of which is social,” she wrote, evoking images of packed ballrooms and long receiving lines. A Casey foundation would own the property but would lease it to the city for free. Factoring in the costs of the land, design and construction, and the creation of an endowment to fund maintenance, Casey planned to spend an eye-popping $50 million. In an equally stunning parallel announcement, Casey pledged $50 million toward an endowment to help restore the District’s blighted tree canopy.
“This was a pure gift forever,” says Sullivan of the mansion plan. In the letter, Casey expressed hope that the mayor could move into his new home by fall of the following year.
“The thing that got me was that the site she chose was not one that any elected official in the District would have chosen,” says At-Large D.C. Councilmember Phil Mendelson. “It was much too isolated. But the difference for us is that it’s not polite to second-guess a $50 million gift.” In April 2001, Walter Washington’s residence commission weighed the merits of a fully funded estate in Foxhall against less grand, unfunded proposals. It made the only choice it could.
Casey never spoke with the media about the plan. Nor did she discuss it at any public forum. The shy, demure Casey is well-insulated, even within the cocoon that is high society. She shuns publicity in all its forms. You will never find her name inscribed in a wall—the buildings she has funded all bear the name of her late husband. She virtually flees from reporters and declines interview requests even for the puff pieces that follow her biggest donations. (She also declined to be interviewed for this article.) If Casey has something to say, her attorney will say it.
“She’s very modest, very low-key, quiet,” says Sullivan. “She’s a wonderful, caring woman.”
The mansion project tapped master-builder impulses. Few get to buy the house of their dreams. Fewer still get to build it from scratch. And it is a rare opportunity indeed to have a large estate as one’s canvas, with some $33 million left over after buying the property to cover building, furnishing, and landscaping costs.
Casey didn’t need some District planner to help site the mansion on the property. She didn’t need a traffic engineer to locate the driveway. Nor did she need some public panel to pick the curtains. To fulfill her singular vision, she consulted a commission of one: herself.
To judge by the recipients of her generosity, the privacy-minded Casey doesn’t think much of the public sector anyway. Casey’s foundation funds a number of libertarian think tanks, organizations that, broadly speaking, consider government to be a mortal threat to personal freedom.
The price of consensus is individual creativity. Taxation is comparable to theft. Affirmative action holds people down. “Freedom and choice do not threaten women,” claims ifeminist.com, a libertarian feminist group Casey supports. “Government and orthodoxy do.” The only political campaign Casey seems to have put any heart into in the last 14 years was the failed effort to keep Hillary Clinton—pigeonholed as the matron of many-tentacled government—out of the U.S. Senate.
“I was surprised when she gave the gift [of the mansion], given her feelings about government in general and the District of Columbia government in particular,” says Eugene S. Casey, Betty Casey’s estranged stepson. “I wasn’t surprised when she took it back.”
But filtered through the heroic-individualist ideal, the gift makes perfect sense: You can’t leave beauty to bureaucrats.
Casey’s last Fountainhead moment occurred in 1995, when the old Woodward & Lothrop building at 11th and F Streets NW went on the market. Common minds saw an ornate old department store. Casey envisioned an opera house.
“To be honest, we weren’t looking for [a new home],” says Patricia Mossel, the Washington Opera’s former executive director. “It was something you dream of, but it wasn’t a feasible notion.”
But then Casey called Mossel to share her vision, and offered to fund the building’s purchase. She wasn’t interested in any other sites. It was Woodie’s or nothing. Mossel was thrilled.
“In the mayor’s mansion, she probably felt the mayor deserved a mansion commensurate with his position,” says Mossel, “and she probably felt our opera company deserved a place commensurate with our position.”
With about two months between the opera board’s approval of the project, in January 1996, and the bankruptcy-auction sale of the building, architects and engineers were quickly dispatched to determine if it was even technically possible to squeeze an opera house into a turn-of-the-century steel-frame structure. The design team gave the OK. But a week before the auction, the proposal ran into regulatory trouble.
The site was zoned retail. Because District planners had targeted the Woodie’s building as the node of a future commercial resurgence, zoning officials rejected the opera’s proposal. Casey retracted the gift. Sullivan vented Casey’s frustration to the Washington Post: “We live in a city which doesn’t even know how to accept a multimillion-dollar gift from a generous donor. No wonder Washington is in serious trouble.”
But when the property went up for auction, Casey had a change of heart. She wrote out a check to the opera for $18 million—its largest gift ever—and the opera acquired a downtown department store without a guarantee that it ever would be allowed to become anything more. “She’s not afraid to stand up to do what she thinks is right,” says Mossel.
The gamble paid off. The D.C. Council unanimously requested the D.C. Zoning Commission to reconsider its decision, it did, and the fundraising for construction began.
But the dream that had once seemed out of grasp was still out of grasp. An initial estimate of $105 million was only about half of what builders now said a Woodie’s opera house would cost. Expectation far outstripped reality, and after three years and $75 million of the necessary funds pledged to the project, the opera sold the property for $28 million, which it put toward what was, until then, a small endowment.
“Talk about a win-win situation,” says Mossel. Before Casey’s gift, she says, the opera was largely a hand-to-mouth operation.
A couple of months after the opera house passed its zoning hurdle, Casey ran into more serious regulatory friction closer to home. Montgomery County officials remember it as the most hostile landlord-tenant dispute in memory.
In 1996, a fire that gutted a Rockville apartment building prompted a rigorous safety-code sweep of every apartment building in the city. The city’s oldest apartment complex was the 167-unit Blandford Apartments, built by Gene Casey after World War II. It was a ramshackle affair, but Casey kept rents low. It was one of a few affordable options in an increasingly unaffordable community.
Inspectors determined the property was extensively out of compliance with safety standards, says Charles Baker, Rockville’s supervisor of inspection services. Stairways weren’t protected, and fire alarms were lacking.
Instead of fixing the problems, Casey Management shut the Rockville complex down. Tenants, many of them elderly folks and low-income Latino families, received notices requiring them to remove themselves and their belongings within 60 days—the legal minimum. The 60th day was New Year’s Eve. If they weren’t gone by then, sheriffs would move them out.
“It happened hard and fast,” says Steven VanGrack, the former Rockville mayor who defended a number of Blandford tenants pro bono. Casey was within her rights, so the defensive strategy was to delay the process a few months to find every tenant an alternative place to stay, a trying task in the middle of winter.
For city and county housing officials, it was crisis mode. Montgomery had never experienced a mass eviction like this, and in the end, the county shelled out about $200,000 in relocation expenses. “Our whole plan was that no one was going to get put out,” says Ed Duffy, who was Rockville’s landlord-tenant officer at the time. “The other thing we did was make sure people got their deposits back. Sometimes that was difficult, despite the fact that [any new owner was] going to junk the apartments. They were very picky about how the apartments were left.”
At the property, it was a tense scene. Security guards were posted around the complex. Yards were full of abandoned belongings. Duffy recalls the very last tenant of the building, who camped out on the front lawn one day in May with everything she owned as county sheriffs arrived. Duffy located a hotel room for her to stay that night and loaded her furniture into a rental truck that he later secured in a city-owned parking lot.
“I felt strongly that the city had totally overreacted,” says Sullivan, whose firm worked the case for Casey. “And there was a bit of a feud mentality that the city decided to take on. I concluded myself that the city was way off base, that some of their allegations were totally foolish, and…many lived in apartments without paying rent, because she knew they couldn’t pay rent. And in the end, because of the city’s, in my view, irresponsible focus on the property, I think it was decided to sell them, because who needs the hassle?”
“[Casey’s people] were as flexible as an iron bar,” says Duffy.
In going about her business, Casey often governs by whim. One day she wants to remake downtown; the next, she wants to re-create Camelot. But in staying away from the media and other public contact, she shows little relish for the nitty-gritty of running a prominent philanthropy.
Perhaps that’s because, as Casey describes it, she was thrust into the role.
When she submitted to the strictures of marriage with Gene Casey, Betty Casey gave up her career in social work. The homemaker role she sank into was old-fashioned even by ’50s standards. Gene boasted to friends that he made 95 percent of the decisions in the household. He kept her on a meager allowance. Not until his health failed in the early ’80s, 30 years later, did she resume a measure of independence. But not even then, when she assumed titular control of Casey enterprises, was she following her own instincts. “[M]y husband didn’t ask me,” Betty later said of her promotion from housewife to executive, “he told me I had to come into the business.”
Betty Casey, who was in her mid-50s at the time, had no previous business experience. Eugene S. Casey, Gene’s oldest son, ran the company’s property-management and real-estate activities, and expected to take over for his father one day. But now he reported to Betty, and his father ordered him to show her the ropes. In short time, she made her presence felt. According to the court testimony of former office manager Win Blalock, she ousted Blalock after decades of service to her husband.
“I don’t like business,” she later said. “[M]y husband told me that you had to be hard, that it wasn’t like social activities, and that you had to let people, even if they were friends, know that you were tough and you were strong—and he was right.”
Gene’s death marked a sort of coming-out for Betty. When her husband was alive, Betty often drove him places in his Cadillac. Now she had her own driver to take her to work in a new white Mercedes 560SEL. At the Gaithersburg office, she moved more women into positions of authority. Within a couple of years, she cut Eugene S. Casey loose. She also let go the first president of the foundation and took over the presidency herself—reluctantly, she said. With hundreds of millions now at her disposal, she jumped into an active role at the opera. It became her central passion.
The transition into wealth wasn’t easy. In 1992, 10 of Gene Casey’s 11 grandchildren sued Betty Casey, motivated in part by what they perceived as bad treatment of Eugene S. Casey. With the support of their parents, the grandchildren claimed that Betty had exploited her sick husband’s failing health. “Steppy,” as Gene Casey’s grandchildren knew her, had given each of their parents $1 million tax-free on top of the $1 million Gene Casey had willed them. But that didn’t appease the young heirs (and some of their parents), who maintained that Betty had manipulated the family patriarch into cutting off his bloodline.
It was this titanic legal battle that committed details of Betty Casey’s relationship with her husband to the public record. To try the case, Betty hired Sullivan, the renowned litigator who had represented Oliver North during the Iran-contra hearings. Sullivan’s strategy was to play up Betty’s meekness and Gene’s orneriness.
A videotaped 1993 deposition shows Betty Casey in all her low-key diffidence. But we can hardly hear her. She wears a fruit-print dress and large round sunglasses, and cordially responds to the opposing attorney with “Mister.” She won the case.
The real fireworks, though, had taken place a few years before the court case was filed. On the evening of March 19, 1990, a bomb exploded in the trunk of Betty Casey’s car. She was being driven home from a downtown shopping trip and was nearing the entrance of her subdivision from the main road. Investigators determined that the explosive was a remotely detonated pipe bomb of a kind never before seen around here, according to William Seals, then the senior fire and explosives investigator for the D.C. field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.
The bomb blew off the sides of the trunk and its lid. But it didn’t pierce the firewall leading to the cabin. Casey usually rode in the back seat, says Seals, but this time she was in the front passenger seat, and she was only slightly hurt. The driver, Casey’s secretary, drove the damaged car the half-mile to Casey’s house. According to Seals, neither even went to the hospital.
“Whoever put it there didn’t realize how well-built a Mercedes is,” says Seals of the bomb. “If she had been in a Cadillac, she would have died, no doubt about it.”
Investigators speculated that the murder attempt somehow involved Casey’s fortune; they interviewed a number of potential suspects. But they gave up, reportedly because they couldn’t get interviewees, including Betty Casey, to fully cooperate. The case has never been solved.
“She didn’t talk about it,” says someone who regularly attends opera board meetings, recalling Casey’s first post-bombing board appearance. But her crutches and the security guard who accompanied Casey made an impression. The attendee “didn’t realize [Casey’s] significance as a philanthropist” until that point.
Casey didn’t give herself much time to overhaul the grounds of the Foxhall estate. So she went quickly, almost impulsively, to work. The site had been poorly maintained by previous owners, and it needed a good scrubbing.
Invasive vines were cleared from the trees. A new iron fence was installed. Disease-resistant elms were planted at the south end of the grounds. She demolished the termite-infested 30s-era mansion that commanded a height at the center of the property. The building site had been too secluded, anyway, hidden from Foxhall Road by pines and a rising contour. What good is a public building without a public face?
A second, bare knoll, much closer to the road, was more conspicuous and enjoyed better views, and after walking the property Casey chose it for the site of the new mansion. But the new site introduced another complication. Within gazing distance was a 4-acre thread of unmanicured federal parkland that abutted the property to the north. Casey thought it was ugly and needed landscaping. No longer did the 16.5 acres she already owned suffice. Now she needed the 4 acres of parkland, too. In fact, she insisted on it.
Developer Dick Carr, a mansion foundation trustee, was Casey’s public emissary during the prepping of the mansion site. Carr says he received initial indications from D.C. Council staffers that the land transfer wouldn’t be a big deal. “I didn’t think people would be so concerned about it as they turned out to be,” he says. But the parkland became the mansion project’s linchpin—and its unmaking.
Carr proposed acquiring the land from the National Park Service in exchange for waterfront properties the foundation would purchase in Georgetown. The complex rules that govern federal parkland transfers require that the federal government get parkland of equal value in return for whatever it gives up. In this case, the Park Service couldn’t have been happier about the proposal.
The parkland near the mansion was “a piece of property that was taking care of itself, if you will,” says John Parsons, assistant regional director of the National Capital Region of the National Park Service.
The Park Service knew it as the Whitehaven Parkway, a piece of land that was acquired by the government in the ’40s as a right of way for a road that was never built. Some people in the Park Service didn’t even know it existed, says Parsons. And if its transfer helped get a mansion built, all the better: A Casey Mansion staved off any notion of future development on the estate, which Parsons says would be harmful to Glover-Archbold Park, which bordered the estate to the east.
But even on the fastest timetable, Parsons says, the trade would have taken 18 to 24 months to execute. “It’s not something we do very often,” Parsons explains, “because it’s very time-consuming, and not the business we’re in, exchanging parkland.”
Then came the opposition. Soon after the transfer was proposed, a group of residents calling themselves the Casey Mansion Committee started meeting Saturdays at the Palisades Branch Library. The group unanimously endorsed a mansion at the Foxhall site. But if parkland were to be included in the mix, they thought better reasons were needed than aesthetics. Nor were they satisfied when Carr said the land was needed for a second entrance to the property. The whole process was too secretive, they said. Much later, when District officials came up with security and traffic justifications for the second entrance, the citizens’ group remained skeptical. It seemed District officials were merely parroting Casey’s request in order to get the deal done.
“We felt the justification that was given was not genuine,” says group member Alma Gates. “All of it was driven by absolute fear that [Casey’s] impatience would lead her to withdraw,” says fellow activist Howard Bray. The group said it wanted the mansion to go forward, but rational analysis regarding the parkland, they said, had given way to one woman’s whims.
For Jim Rosebush, who helped organize the citizens who lived closer to the estate, it didn’t matter why Casey needed the parkland, as long as the project moved forward. The alternative was too horrible to contemplate: as many as 144 new houses that zoning laws permitted to be developed on the site absent a mansion. The pro-park residents, Rosebush says, didn’t fully appreciate the green-space benefits of a mayoral mansion compared with the development that could occur without one. “We were alarmed by how strident and angry they were,” he says, “and we were fearful that a very antagonistic approach would drive Mrs. Casey away from the project.”
By most accounts, the parkland was vital because Casey thought it was vital.
“I think it was the opinion of many people, not just inside government but outside, that this extra property wasn’t really necessary,” says Tony Bullock, the mayor’s spokesperson.
For almost two years, the fate of the parkland was contemplated in public hearings, appraisals, an environmental assessment, and nasty e-mail exchanges.
Carr gamely submitted to the democratic hellfire called public input, but after making no headway with the opposition group, he seemed to sour on the process. Part of his job was to rebut the claims of the skeptical crowd that the deal would unnecessarily forfeit a precious urban wildlife area. When parkland supporters said a 1962 Life magazine article showed that Rachel Carson once studied migratory birds on the site, Carr dug up the issue in question. In the picture, Carr pointed out, Carson is standing on a well-maintained trail. But the disputed parkland, he said, has never had a trail.
Perhaps all hope of conciliation was lost when Casey broke all rules of Foxhall protocol by turning down the pro-park group’s invitation to lunch.
In March 2003, Casey issued an ultimatum to the Park Service and the District through Carr: She expected a deal within 60 days, or else. The threat initiated a new strategy for going around the angry residents: The Park Service would transfer jurisdiction of 1.8 acres of land to the city.
Some seven months later, in November, the D.C. Council gave final approval of the transfer of the parcel to District control, a prelude to leasing it to the mansion foundation. Members of the pro-park group conceded a bitter defeat. And then, five weeks later, on Dec. 12, the Salvation Army sent out a press release announcing that the property was now promised to it. Thanks to Mrs. Casey, the Army would sell the estate and use the proceeds to build a community center in Anacostia. “Mrs. Casey is not available for comment,” read the jubilant fax.
Carr says Casey had simply found another opportunity she was interested in. “There were several things that needed to be done” on the mansion project, he says, “and so here we are. It was time to move on.”
The District’s official reaction to the collapse of the mansion deal was a mixture of polite gratitude and thank-god-it’s-done-with frustration. The mayor complimented Casey on her generosity to the Salvation Army. “It’s actually a better use of the money,” says the mayor. “So I’m happy.”
“It just consumed a lot of time and energy of people at very high pay grades,” says the D.C. Council’s Catania. “All these people have better things to do with their time. This thing took on a life of its own.” Catania had often been critical of the project before, saying the mayor didn’t need a “castle on a hill.”
The community center was the kind of project that you couldn’t find fault with, although Casey’s gesture lost the gloss of originality when, a month later, the Salvation Army received $1.5 billion from the late Joan Kroc to build community centers nationwide.
One consequence of Casey’s pull-out is that the furniture she bought for the mansion, now in storage, will be sold for charity, says Sullivan. The biggest repercussions were felt in Foxhall, where the fight over the parkland divided the neighborhood. What exactly will happen to the estate, though, is still anyone’s guess.
“It was clear to me that the big part of the problem moving the mansion forward was her unwillingness to just sit down and talk to people,” says Councilmember Mendelson. “She has embarrassed the city, she has wasted a lot of people’s time, and she has presented the community with development as a fait accompli.”
At the time of the collapse, mayoral aides were within days of finalizing a lease for Casey and council approval. Ellen McCarthy, a deputy director of planning, and one of the people tasked with the mansion assignment, says that there were “no points of friction between the city and the Casey Foundation.” All outstanding issues, she thought, had been worked out.
“I never met Betty Brown Casey,” says McCarthy. “I never had any direct communication with her. So I’m really as mystified as anybody else what her decision making was at the end.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.