Victor Justice Evans (1865-1931) was one of those wonderful self-made men of the last century who put his nose to the grindstone as a young man, made tons of money, and then fulfilled the American dream by happily indulging his many and diverse eccentricities.
While largely forgotten now, Evans left one enduring landmark in downtown Washington: the Victor Building at 9th Street and G Place, NW, as much an icon of turn-of-the-century Washington as Evans himself was.
Evans was born in Delaware, Ohio, a town just north of Columbus, just as the Civil War was ending. He spent time as a child in Minnesota and then moved to Washington, D.C., when he was 15 years old. According to the National Cyclopedia of American Biography, he joined the firm of J. Henry Kiser as a patent draftsman at the age of 18.
He continued to work as a draftsman, running his own drafting business for awhile, as he learned the ropes of patent law. He founded Victor J. Evans & Company, Patent Attorneys, in 1898, and soon had a booming business.
It seems likely that his success was due at least as much to his business acumen as to his legal skills. His firm offered full refunds to inventors if they were unable to secure their desired patents, a strategy the Cyclopedia article says that Evans originated and that was perceived as a key to his success.
Evans built up an extensive, high-volume business. By the 1920s, his firm had offices in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago and San Francisco and was routinely touted as the “largest patent firm in the world.” An ad in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1916 listed the various departments of the Evans firm—Aeronautics, Electricity, Ordnance, Toys & Novelties—and urged readers to send for four inspiring booklets: “How to Obtain a Patent,” “What to Invent,” “Patents that Pay,” and “Foreign Patents.”
In 1907, Evans acquired an old mansion at the corner of 9th Street and Grant Place NW (now G Place), with the aim of building a headquarters for his business on the site. As constructed for $150,000 in 1909, his Victor Building is a handsome, six-story Renaissance Revival structure that projects the stature and success of the Evans company.
Evans chose Appleton P. Clark (1865-1955) as his architect, one of the most prolific in Washington. Although he had no formal education as an architect, Clark designed some 20 distinguished downtown buildings, many of which still survive. The Renaissance Revival style he adopted for the Victor Building was particularly in vogue at the time, reflecting the strongly neoclassical influence of the 1902 McMillan Commission.
The original building has a rusticated limestone first story, separated from the upper floors by a heavy limestone string-course. The entrance on 9th Street is framed by massive, banded pilasters and surmounted by a heavy, broken pediment, with the words VICTOR BLDG inscribed in the entablature, conveying an air of both dignity and self-importance.
The building was extended along G Place to the rear in 1911, also under the supervision of Clark. In 1925, a large addition was constructed to the north, along 9th Street, in a similar but not identical style, and two floors were added to the top of the original building at the same time. The designer of the 1925 addition was Waddy B. Wood (1869-1944), another prominent Washington architect.
For Evans, the Victor Building was not just a home for his patent business, it was also a real estate investment. His plan from the start was to rent out retail and office space in the building. Evans would go on to invest in a number of other D.C. real estate projects, particularly office buildings for government tenants. He built an office building for the Department of Commerce in 1913 at the northeast corner of 19th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW and a similar-looking building for the Interstate Commerce Commission a block away at 18th and Pennsylvania.
But real estate was just one of several pursuits that Evans took on beginning in the early 1900s. He dabbled in politics, at least for a while, being one of the organizers of the Washington chapter of the Independence League in 1908. Members of the League, known as Hearstites, supported William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) as an independent candidate for president that year. Evans was one of the D.C. delegates to the Chicago convention of the League, which didn’t last long.
The emerging field of aeronautics, ripe as it was for patents, fascinated Evans, so he jumped into that business too. In 1910, he partnered with another patent attorney, Rexford Smith (1862-1923), to establish the Rex Smith Aeroplane Company at the pioneering airfield in College Park, Maryland. The company manufactured biplanes designed by Smith and made a business of flying celebrities around the Washington area.
Also, in 1911, Evans put up $10,000 for star aviator Harry N. Atwood (1884-1967) to fly from Milwaukee to New York, a record distance in those days. In 1910, Atwood had won a prize from The New York Times for flying from Boston to Washington. His 1911 flight to New York took 11 days with 20 stops along the way and was considered a sensational success. Asked if he would next attempt a coast-to-coast trip, Atwood said it would be too risky.
Though the Rex Smith company lasted only until 1916, Evans had plenty of other interests to keep him occupied. The Washington Herald reported in June 1913 that Evans was planning to produce his own Independence Day Parade, a procession of 11 colorful floats depicting favorites from the comics sections of the Sunday newspapers. For the first time anywhere, or so it was claimed, Happy Hooligan, Gloomy Gus, the Katzenjammer Kids, Little Nemo, and several others would be represented in a carnival-like parade. There would even be a float with Uncle Sam and his performing animals, the donkey, elephant, and bull-moose.
Evans, who had long thought D.C. should have a raucous annual celebration like Mardi Gras, submitted his mini-circus to be included in the official Independence Day celebration. He was told that it was “out of harmony with the spirit and design of the pageant,” but he put his show on anyway. It departed from and ended at the Victor Building, of course.
Evans also developed a taste for Native American artifacts and, beginning in the 1910s, amassed an extensive collection of them, including “beaded clothing, ponderous saddles, fine needlework and basketry, implements of the hunt and war, peace pipes, rugs and blankets, gorgeous feather headdresses,” and more, according to The Washington Post. It was considered to be one of the finest in the world, and in 1923 Evans asked for a plot of land from the federal government, preferably at the National Zoo, where he could build a replica Mayan temple to house his collection as a gift to the nation.
Evans commissioned distinguished architect George Oakley Totten, Jr. (1866-1939) to prepare a design for this “Temple of the Tigers,” which won a medal in Paris but was never actually built. Nevertheless, at his death Evans left all his relics to the Smithsonian, which has been trying ever since to pinpoint exactly where and how they were collected.
The story goes that Evans one day arrived at his office at the Victor Building to discover a group of 40 Native Americans waiting for him. They wanted him to be their attorney. Evans supposedly answered that he knew nothing of Indian affairs, but the visitors insisted; how could he have such a fine collection of relics if he didn’t understand Native American life? Whether the story is true or not, Evans did represent Native American tribes in a number of important property claims against the federal government.
Perhaps most eccentric of Evans’ many personal indulgences was his collection of exotic animals. Post columnist John Kelly has written about Evans’ personal zoo, called Acclimation Park, located on his estate off of Foxhall Road in upper northwest D.C.
Evans was convinced that exotic animals kept at his zoo—there were 300 of them—would gradually become acclimated to Washington’s weather. He had several monkeys, a zebra, a mountain goat, many parrots, pheasants, and assorted other animals, and was always on the lookout for something new and rare.
Evans regularly donated animals to the National Zoo, so when Zoo Superintendent Ned Hollister learned in 1917 that a trader in Alaska was in possession of a rare Alaskan Blue Bear that he was willing to sell for $400, Hollister immediately telephoned Evans, who just as quickly sent a check to the trader on behalf of the zoo.
The blue bear arrived with much fanfare in August to become the only such bear in captivity. According to The Washington Times, Zoo officials planned to name the bear “Victor.” While the Alaskan Blue Bear was thought in those days to be a unique and rare species, it is now understood to be just an unusual “phase” of the common Black Bear.
Early in 1931 Evans was at Emergency Hospital recovering from a routine operation for gall stones when he suffered a heart attack and died suddenly. After his death, his animals were turned over to the National Zoo, and the property divided up; part became Battery Kemble Park, while another part was divided into large house lots.
Evans’ wife continued to run his patent business from the Victor Building into the 1940s. The building had many different tenants after that, including the iconic Central Liquor Store in the 1980s. After it was sold in the late 1980s, preservationists became concerned that much of the building would be destroyed in the process of being “renovated” and enlarged as a new office building. An extensive legal struggle ensued that fortunately ended with the most significant parts of the old building preserved.
The D.C. Preservation League filed an historic landmark nomination in 1990, citing the building’s architectural and historical significance. Of the three large Renaissance Revival office buildings that had been built close to the Patent Office (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) in the first years of the 20th century, the Victor Building was the only one still standing (the other two were the Ouray Building, on the northwest corner of 8th and G Streets, and the Barrister Building, on the north side of the 600 block of F Street—both torn down in the 1980s). The Victor recalled an important era in the city’s history when this busy neighborhood was dominated by lawyers and other professionals, of whom Victor Evans was clearly one of the most prominent and unique.
In 1992, the nomination came before the Historic Preservation Review Board for approval, and the board issued a somewhat ambivalent verdict. Calling it “an unusual and imperfect structure,” the board in its report expressed reservations about the 1925 addition designed by Waddy B. Wood, an “impure, even awkward architectural composition” that disrupted the balance of the original design, especially with the two incongruous stories added above the 1909 facade. Nevertheless, the board voted to landmark the entire building, including both the 1911 and 1925 additions.
The owner, Banyan Management Corporation had already submitted a proposal by Hartman-Cox Architects to preserve the 1909 and 1911 portions of the building but raze the 1925 segment and fill the entire site with a large, new structure. The D.C. Preservation League as well as other preservation organizations, including the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, opposed the plan, arguing that to destroy the 1925 building would be to lose the progression of history embodied in the entire structure. A selective preservation of only certain elements would be a distortion of history and a loss for the city.
While the legal process of weighing Banyan’s proposal against preservationists’ concerns began in a deeply antagonistic vein, as time went by both sides made concessions. By 1994, all parties signed a covenant that allowed Banyan to demolish the interior of the building but preserve the entire historic facade.
The building was purchased by the John Akridge Company in 1997, and Akridge undertook the planned renovations beginning in 1998. Then in 1999, Akridge sold the still-incomplete structure, fittingly, to the Smithsonian Institution, which had earlier been the recipient of Victor Evans’ largesse.
The Smithsonian moved offices into the building that had previously been in the old Patent Office building, thus freeing up space for exhibition use. Having paid $114 million for it in 1999, the Smithsonian then sold the Victor in 2005, at the height of the real estate boom, for $157 million, turning a tidy profit that was invested in the institution’s trust funds. The Smithsonian continues to lease office space in the building to this day.
Invaluable assistance for this article was provided by Kim Williams of the D.C. Historic Preservation Office and Rebecca Miller and Amanda McDonald of the D.C. Preservation League. Both organizations have archived extensive materials relating to the historic designation of the Victor Building and its renovations in the 1990s. Additional information came from period newspaper articles and biographical references.
Cross-posted at Streets Of Washington.