There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Towering above O Street NW in a renovated mansion, H.H. Leonards is a source of pleasure and relaxation for everyone who spends time at the funky club—its members, owners, and invited guests. Everyone, that is, except for its neighbors.
The club, operated by the nonprofit H.H. Leonards Associates (HHLA), is fighting some of those neighbors for its liquor license. Hostile neighbors want the license pulled and the neighborhood restored to the way it was pre-HHLA—sans its alleged parking problems, crowds, and noise. In the ongoing battle, HHLA has already spent more than $100,000 in legal fees to stay alive.
“The issue is that [HHLA] is operating a major business in a residentially zoned block,” says Henry Fernandez, president of a Dupont Circle Advisory Neighborhood Commission.
Opponents doubt the legitimacy of HHLA’s status both as a private club and as a nonprofit, in part because HHLA also runs a bizarre mishmash of ventures from the mansion: retail outlet, art-framing store, bed-and-breakfast, and restaurant, among others. Literally everything inside the multimillion-dollar home, from its priceless antiques to its eclectic artwork—even the glass chandeliers—is for sale. According to club applications, membership fees start at $200. To apply, applicants must write a short essay about who they are. Once admitted, H.H. Leonards’ patrons tend to be committed to the club.
But some Dupont Circle neighbors say that only bad things have happened as the club’s membership has grown. While D.C.’s NIMBY residents often oppose new bars, homeless shelters, and even grocery stores, they’ve never encountered a place quite like H.H. Leonards.
The fate of the club now depends on a bill introduced last November by Councilmember Harold Brazil (D-Ward 6). The bill would exempt some private clubs, including H.H. Leonards, from the neighborhood moratorium on liquor licenses in effect since July 1994.
Opponents contend the legislation was tailor-made for HHLA and may have been written in collusion with the club. They say only a tiny number of clubs would fit the language of the bill. At its February meeting, Fernandez’s ANC voted unanimously against passage.
“H.” (Helyn H. Leonards, according to voting records), who owns H.H. Leonards, maintains the legislation targets a common problem in the District. “This is not an H.H. Leonards issue. It is a citywide issue.”
Although there are hundreds of private clubs in D.C., the bill would pertain only to those that failed to secure liquor licenses before the moratorium was enacted. The Sewall-Belmont House on Constitution Avenue NE, for example, is in the same boat as H.H. Leonards.
The bulk of the protests are “wild claims from the anti-liquor establishment,” says Brazil’s executive assistant, Rob Robinson. He says clubs like H.H. Leonards were simply overlooked when the liquor license moratorium was passed in neighborhoods like Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill. The bill would allow such private clubs to “regularize their situation by getting a license,” Robinson says, adding that the moratorium was originally designed to keep corner grocery stores from proliferating. Such stores, he says, “foster dysfunctional behavior. We haven’t seen a significant problem with private clubs.”
But that’s not the issue, according to Dupont Circle activist Marilyn Groves. “There seems to be a cap on the number of licenses but not a cap on the amount of alcohol expansionism.” The Dupont Circle area has seen numerous heated fights over this issue in recent years involving neighborhood spots like J.R.’s and the Fox and Hounds.
H.H. Leonards neighbor Margaret Young also opposes the club’s exemption. “What’s to stop anybody from setting up a club in any residential neighborhood?” she asks.
In reality, not much, Robinson says, and he sees no problem with that. “We don’t want to send a message to businesses that we don’t want you,” he says. “The District is not in a position to tell any taxpayer to hit the road.”
Walking into the club on a weekday, it’s hard to fathom what all the hullaballoo is about. The eccentric four-story house/gallery/museum/conference center blends elegant antiques with ultramodern furnishings. Fireplaces and fancy brass fixtures grace the downstairs parlors. An unusual collection of art blankets the walls.
Extravagant dining rooms and kitchens are scattered throughout, and each of the 12 bedrooms that comprise the bed-and-breakfast features a different theme. There’s a room with country French designs, and one with a rustic cabin feel; several are equipped with Jacuzzis that lend them the aura of a love-nest. Some of the upstairs rooms function as offices or conference spaces for retreats. There’s also an outdoor swimming pool and a charming terrace.
“Granted, she has created this very interesting place, but I wish it were on Massachusetts Avenue, not O Street,” Fernandez says. District laws allow people to run small businesses out of their homes, but “she’s running more than just one business out of her home.”
Leonards says she bought the first segment of the mansion—a brownstone at 2020 O St. NW—with credit cards in 1980. “I started this business with no money, no design background, no art background, and no practical business experience.” In 1990, she set up HHLA as an unincorporated, not-for-profit membership association.
What started out as a small bed-and-breakfast has grown rapidly. After Leonards renovated 2020, she built on the adjacent vacant lot at 2022. Then she acquired 2018 and continued to gradually expand the number of enterprises. In January, H.H. Leonards purchased 2024 for roughly $700,000.
This latest purchase piqued the neighbors’ ire. “First, she purchased one property, and now she’s taking over a block,” Fernandez says. Many of the neighbors would like her to “publicly indicate her intentions for the new building.”
Leonards now insists that her “recent purchase of 2024 O St. was for my son Z. and myself” to live in. But some neighbors say that’s what she said about 2018. And at a February ANC meeting, Leonards stated for the record that she didn’t know what her intentions were for the property—a claim neighbors found hard to believe.
Still, not all HHLA’s neighbors oppose the club. Jay Bothwell, president of the Dupont Circle West Association, and his wife Pam say the club enhances the community. In fact, Bothwell—who lives two doors down—maintains that “if I give a party, I probably cause the neighborhood more fits” than HHLA.
What’s more, the mansion brings in tax revenues and creates jobs, its advocates say.
The battle between HHLA and its disenchanted neighbors has raged for several years now, though neither side quite remembers how it all began. In 1992, neighbor Susan Menzer, a Justice Department attorney, filed a complaint because valet parking attendants had closed off the street for a shindig at the mansion. According to court documents, Menzer complained that visitors would leave empty glasses in her garden. After investigating, Menzer learned that no liquor license had been issued to anyone at the mansion.
To fix the problem, HHLA incorporated as a nonprofit in late 1992 and applied for a liquor license five weeks later. In December 1993, the club was granted both a certificate of incorporation and an ABC license, despite protests by a handful of petitioners.
Opponents appealed the ABC decision on the grounds that the club had been incorporated only five weeks before applying for a liquor license; the city requires a three-month waiting period. Last July, the D.C. Court of Appeals agreed, revoking HHLA’s license. Leonards says it’s unfair that the court revoked her license on a mere technicality, especially since the moratorium keeps her from reapplying.
And anyway, she argues, then-Councilmember James Nathanson (D-Ward 3) told her in 1994 that she would be exempt from the moratorium. Leonards says she has collected more than 6,000 letters and signatures from District residents in support of her liquor license.
In January, HHLA requested a rehearing of the case, which the court denied. Undaunted, Leonards appealed to the ABC Board, and the license was finally reinstated. In turn, the disgruntled neighbors have asked the D.C. Corporation Counsel to overturn the license, this time on the grounds that Leonards applied under the name of her for-profit corporation, not HHLA. The neighbors may try to return to the Court of Appeals.
The mansion, Leonards says, “is truly my life, and I am heartsick that there should be so much controversy when we have so many supporters.”
Somewhat ironically, Leonards keeps a low profile in the castle she has built. “I am painfully shy and extremely reclusive,” she says. “Up until a few years ago, I was unable to leave my house. It is ironic—but true—that I am not comfortable going upstairs to meet the people who visit the mansion, and that I work behind the stage I have created, not in front of it.”
Leonards says her motivations are pure and simple. “I never liked the world the way I found it, so I created my own.”
Still, in the near future, Leonards may need to heed the sign that hangs on the inside of the mansion’s door: “This is a residential property, please exit quietly.”—CP