Four Corners was a sleepy Montgomery County, Maryland, crossroads hamlet in the late 1880s when Carolan O’Brien Bryant began buying large farm tracts from an old Washington family, the Beales. Bryant’s Gilded Age effort to build a large estate marks a false start in the transformation of Montgomery County agricultural communities into inner-ring Washington suburbs. Though nothing remains of Bryant’s sprawling estate, it is an intriguing chapter in Silver Spring history.
“That Infamous Villain, Carolan O’Brien Bryant”
Born Carl Bryant sometime in the 1830s, his entire family changed their names in 1859 adding the O’Brien middle name. Bryant first appears in the historical record in the 1860s working as a journalist in New York City. He became part of the Democratic political machine, serving in municipal office and the state legislature before running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1864. During the 1870s Bryant found himself on the edges of Tammany’s Tweed ring as a self-described confidant of William “Boss” Tweed.
Bryant lived a life shrouded in mystery and bedeviled by controversy. In New York he made a living as a journalist, yet people wondered whether he was an attorney or a real estate speculator. Even his appearance was a topic ripe for gossip. “He possessed an uncommon personality, and for a long period affected an oddity of attire and manner that accentuated his otherwise unique appearance,” wrote the New York Times in Bryant’s obituary. “He usually wore his hair very long, and in later years it fell in profuse folds about his shoulders.” A witness in a lawsuit against Bryant once told the court, “He is a peculiar looking man, and any one who had seen him once would know him again.”
Though Bryant had friends and relatives among New York’s elite business and political crowds, most people beyond his immediate family described him as a dishonest and untrustworthy cad. In Bryant’s obituary, the New York Times did concede,
Although some men said harsh and unpleasant things about him, the relations between father and daughters always appeared to be of the most tender nature.
Bryant in 1866 married the daughter of millionaire Manhattan tobacconist, John Anderson. She died less than a decade into their marriage and Carolan began raising their two daughters and son alone, splitting his time between homes in Tarrytown and the city. Anderson died in late 1881 leaving two wills and kicking off more than a decade of legal battles over the estate, most of which turned on Anderson’s alleged insanity. Anderson’s granddaughter and daughter separately challenged his wills claiming that he was not competent when they were drafted. among the evidence they provided were people who had heard Anderson claim that he had had conversations with ghosts and who had heard Anderson’s paranoid claims that friends and family members were trying to kill him. One legal scholar in the 1950s described the litigation as “the most interesting contests over wills of which I have knowledge.”
Anticipating his windfall via his daughters, Bryant moved with them in mid-1882 into a Manhattan hotel. The owners extended Bryant credit for room and board in exchange for a promise of payment with interest once Anderson’s estate settled. They also fronted money for the children’s education, clothing, medical care, and other expenses. “I well recall the circumstances under which the defendants, Bryant, father and daughters, came to [the] Grand Union Hotel,” owner James Shaw testified in a New York court in 1885. “They were in destitute circumstances.”
Bryant lived well but not large at the Grand Union Hotel. Employees testified that he and his daughters dined daily in the hotel restaurant, ordering off the regular menu and rarely indulging in expensive dishes. Sarah Scott, an employee in the hotel’s dining room, testified, “Generally, they lived plain; but occasionally they indulged in extravagances.” She added that the Bryants occasionally ordered the more expensive game and wines instead of the “ordinary articles of food” listed in the establishment’s menu.
The Bryants, and the children’s governess who also lived there and who received the same accommodations as her employer, were like any other guests at the hotel except for the remarkable tab that they ran up.
A Large and Expensive House
After three years, in 1885, the hotel owners tried to collect the debt, which they claimed exceeded $19,000. They had learned through newspapers that funds from Anderson’s estate for the Bryants were available and Bryant had refused to settle his accounts.
The Bryants left the hotel in April 1885. By late 1887, as the hotel lawsuit was working its way through New York appellate courts, Bryant was in the Washington area. He bought two large tracts in Four Corners at the intersection of Bladensburg (now University Blvd.) and Colesville roads.
Bryant quickly began preparing the land to build a large mansion. He constructed a sawmill and used an existing home on the property as temporary lodging while construction proceeded. Local legends preserved in early 20th century newspaper stories suggest that Bryant salvaged stone and wood from New York mansions and recycled the materials in his new estate. The New York Times described it as a “large and expensive home” and the Washington Evening Star wrote that Bryant had built “a costly and elaborate house [with] fine grounds all around it.” Others described it as a “palatial residence.”
No photographs of Bryant’s Four Corners mansion are known to have survived. Observers described it as lavishly furnished with a full library and art works. As for the grounds, one account noted that Bryant had built a conservatory. Though Bryant reportedly never actually lived in the mansion, stories circulated about lavish parties held there and visits by such notables as William Jennings Bryan.
In 1894, Bryant lost the final Grand Union Hotel appeal and newspapers across the country reported on his “$22,000 Board Bill.” Despite the legal and financial setback, Bryant continued work on the Four Corners property. Three years later, he decided to sell the unfinished manse to a trio of Washington speculators.
The sale was completed August 13, 1897; less than a month later, Bryant died in Washington. Bryant was in his sixties when he died. His daughters, Amanda and Agnes, inherited what was left of his estate and the lived the remainder of their lives in Allegany County, New York.
A “Statutory Burning” in Silver Spring
As for Bryant’s Four Corners mansion, it burned to the ground one week after his death. Officials determined that the fire was arson. After three years of investigations by county officials and the property’s insurer, the new owners were arrested in Washington and brought to Rockville for trial on charges of “statutory burning.” Shortly after their arrest, two additional men were arrested and charged with conspiring to blackmail one of the accused arsonists. The criminal and civil cases spanned more than a decade.
Bryant and his daughters are buried in Rock Creek Cemetery. By the second decade of the twentieth century, the former mansion site was little more than an overgrown ruin. The property passed through several owners until the 1930s when a Washington developer bought it and began developing the Woodmoor subdivision. Once conceived as a grand Victorian suburban retreat, Bryant’s property became an ordinary residential subdivision with no physical clues to its storied past and flamboyant owner.
© 2016 D.S. Rotenstein