The Legacy of Charles Bond

Born in Saugus, Massachusetts, Charles Henry Bond (1846-1908) became fabulously wealthy and successful in the latter part of the 19th century. He made his fortune in the cigar business, as president of Boston-based Waitt & Bond, Inc., manufacturers of Blackstone and Totem brand cigars. A cameo biography of him in Samuel Eliot's 1909 Biographical History of Massachusetts notes his energy and enterprise and that "[b]oth he and his partner were firm believers in printer's ink. Honest goods and ample publicity finally made the name of Waitt and Bond famous throughout the country. This house was among the largest and best known cigar manufacturers in New England, and so successful were they that both partners amassed ample fortunes."

Postcard view circa 1923.

Though he never moved from the Boston area, Bond developed strong connections with Washington. His second wife, Belle Bacon, was a prominent Washington socialite, and the couple reportedly visited Washington several times a year. She seems to have been the same Belle Bacon Bond who later wrote a semi-autobiographical children's book entitled Drusilla And Her Dolls. Charles bought a house on 19th Street NW for her parents. By 1900, he was ready to invest in Washington real estate, and he hooked up with up-and-coming developers John and Bradley Davidson. Together they erected a splendid—indeed, rather ostentatious—Beaux-Arts office building on the southwest corner of 14th Street and New York Avenue NW, right in the heart of Washington's surging new financial district.


The Bond Building, completed in 1901 for an estimated $300,000, was designed by George S. Cooper, who had learned his trade in part as an apprentice in the prestigious Washington firms of Hornblower & Marshall (The Phillips Collection) and Alfred B. Mullett (The Eisenhower Executive Office Building). Cooper reflected his Beaux-Arts training in the elaborate classical ornamentation that he chose to articulate the five ascending stages of the building's imposing facade, which rise from a white marble first floor through a soaring arcade in the third through fifth floor, and are crowned by a massive swagged entablature, heavy dentilated cornice, and surmounting balustrade. Our early 21st-century eyes, weary of the plainness of contemporary buildings, tend to be quite taken by this riot of Gilded-Age decoration. However, because it's all just ornament, it's hard to make a case for it being great architecture. In fact, former Washington Post critic Benjamin Forgey called it a "rather hectic wedding cake of classic revival motifs," although he nonetheless deemed it a "treasure." "The Bond has a lot of personality," he wrote, "a sort of highfalutin street-wise charm." Indeed!

The handsome Bond building was highly successful, especially in its early years. According to its Historic Landmark Application, submitted by the D.C. Preservation League in 1979, the building's early tenants included 48 attorneys, 16 brokers and insurance agents, 8 insurance companies, 6 notaries public, 5 physicians, 2 newspapers, and the Union Savings Bank. The early emphasis on financial and legal professions slowly gave way to more press and associations. After a dry spell during the Depression, even a few government agencies, such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics, set up offices in the Bond.

Charles Bond from The Biographical History of Massachusetts (Source: Google Books)

With "Bond Building" prominently inscribed on both sides of its facade, the structure's principal investor is difficult to ignore. Bond was apparently not by any means your typical, ruthless Gilded-Age industrialist. In fact, he apparently did not have much interest in the cigar business once he had made his fortune. His real love had always been for music and the performing arts, and he took it as his personal mission to support aspiring young singers. Quoting again from the 1909 Biographical History of Massachusetts, Bond "had ever a listening ear and an open hand for young men and women struggling for an education." He gave prizes to promising students in a number of schools, including prizes specifically for African-American students at the New Orleans University. An article written for The Washington Post at the time of Bond's death gives more specifics: "Through his aid several young women attained fame as singers, for whenever a voice interested him and the owner could not afford to cultivate it he paid her expenses for training in this country and abroad. Among these were Geraldine Farrar, May Pendergast, and Ada Chambers, of New York. He allowed them $100 a month for their living expenses and gave them a thorough training by the best European masters." By 1907, Bond was also investing heavily in construction of a grand new performing arts venue in Boston, to be called the Lyric Theatre.

Undated early photo of the Bond (Source: Library of Congress)

All good things must come to an end, and for Charles Bond troubles began to mount after the Panic of 1907 set in. The financial crisis unfolded rapidly in October, when a bungled attempt to corner the market in copper failed spectacularly, ruining several New York banks and creating a domino effect of runs on banks and trust companies and a nearly 50 percent drop in the value of the stock market. The specific effect of the crisis on Bond is not clear, but the change in his financial condition by early 1908 is. The rich Mr. Bond was now in trouble, but he seemed not to want to face his problems. Despite the financial straits, he bought a townhouse next to his Back Bay mansion in early 1908 in order to double the size of his already posh residence. Then he mortgaged the Bond Building for $350,000—"one of the largest loans made on Washington real estate in years," marveled the Post—in order to free up funds to invest in his Lyric Theatre project. Reality began to catch up with him when when a trustee was named for his holdings on May 18, 1908, taking control out of his hands. Then, as reported in the Post, on July 3, 1908, he was found dead in a half-filled bathtub at his Swampscott, Massachusetts summer home, called Peacehaven. In the adjoining bedroom was a note:

I have been killed by my friends and enemies. It is more than I can bear. I can stand it no longer. My heart is broken. I leave everything to my wife.
                                                                 CHARLES H. BOND

Bond's Lyric Theatre project was sold to the Shubert Organization, which opened it as the Shubert Theatre in 1910. It still stands on Tremont Street in Boston. Meanwhile, the Bond Building in D.C. saw several decades of prosperity and then, like so many other buildings, suffered as downtown Washington began to decline. The Bond changed hands many times in the 1940s and 1950s; owners included the Metropolitan Museum of Art; John Loughran, president of the D. J. Loughran Tobacco Company; and the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. By 1956 the building was showing its age; one fine May day, a 200-pound concrete dentil from the structure's cornice plunged to the sidewalk, spraying two passerby with shards of block and sending them to Emergency Hospital in shock. The Bond's grandeur was dimming.


By the late 1970s, there was enough confidence about a coming turnaround in the old downtown that funding for office buildings began to become available. A developer bought the Bond in 1979 for a reported $1.5 million, promptly evicted all the tenants, and then applied for a permit to demolish the venerable structure. Propelled by the efforts of Don't Tear It Down, Inc., predecessor to the D.C. Preservation League, the plan was quashed. D.C. Superior Court Judge William E. Stewart, Jr., blocked the initial attempt in 1980, and then the Mayor's agent, Carol B. Thompson, ruled in 1981 that the developers had not proven the infeasibility of rehabilitating and reusing the existing structure and thus could not tear it down. The development proposal had been to retain the old facade and build a new structure behind it; this was rejected. The old building had to be saved in its entirety. Thompson's ruling, along with a similar ruling protecting the old Masonic Temple building at 9th and F Streets, NW, were seen as landmarks proving the strength of the city's recently-enacted historic preservation law.


The victory, however, was fleeting. A Post article from July 1984 quotes Artis Hampshire, the new Mayor's agent, as stating that "numerous efforts have failed to return [the Bond Building] to the market," and that "as a result, the building has deteriorated and become an eyesore in the midst of revitalization throughout the area."  Given these distressing facts, Hampshire effectively reversed Thompson's earlier ruling, allowing the developers to build a new office building behind the restored facade of the old Bond. Don't Tear It Down, Inc., which had led the struggle to save the Bond, apparently agreed at this point to give up the fight. The Post article quotes Peter Smith of that group as saying, "The interior was not significant because it was made to have walls moved around. After the construction, the average person walking down the street is not going to be able to tell the difference."

I would give the average person a little more credit. As finally completed for approximately $14.5 million in 1986, the structure has new construction all around—above, and on both sides—of the old facade. The result looks exactly like what it is, an old facade glued on to a much larger, newer building. To my eyes, the four stories added by Shalom Baranes overpower the old facade and proclaim their dominance over it too forcefully. But in his Post review of the building in 1987, Benjamin Forgey found much to like about the additions. "A good case can be made that with them the building looks better than it ever did," he wrote. He especially liked the two "buildings" that flank the original facade on either side, which he found read successfully as separate structures even though they are not.

What would Charles Bond think? We cannot end this narrative without discussing his ghost. As reported in The Saugus Advertiser on September 25, 2008, strange goings-on have been noted recently by employees at the Saugus, Massachusetts Town Hall. Several times a year the distinctive smell of cigar smoke permeates the town clerk's office. A gate in the office has been known to swing open of its own accord. Likewise a light in the tower has been seen persistently burning even after the custodian makes a point of shutting off the electricity. —In short, all of your typical paranormal activities. The Advertiser reported that one explanation was that the occurrences were the work of the ghost of Charles Bond. Bond had been very generous with the town, subsidizing musicians, providing scholarships, and donating property for construction of the Cliftondale School, which was supposed to have been named in his honor but, in the end, wasn't. The theory is that Bond's ghost wanders Town Hall seeking the recognition he deserved for his many philanthropic acts. Well, here's hoping he finds at least some fleeting solace in this brief article about his legacy in Washington.

Comments

  1. I'm sure Mr. Bond would be most pleased with your piece. He's not likely to be hiding at his namesake building, though. He might get arrested by the DOJ, which keeps offices there.

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  2. The July 6, 1908 Washington Times mentions the suicide note...
    http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1908-07-06/ed-1/seq-7.pdf

    The July 7, 1908 (p.18) Evening Star article, "Owned Realty Here / Charles H. Bond Also Wedded Washington Girl" quotes the note as did the Post.

    It added, "Last month all of his properties were placed in the hands of trustees. It is said his dissatisfaction with their conduct prompted him to end his life."

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  3. Ok, this is rather gruesome, but is there anything about HOW he died in the bathtub? I'm guessing if it was half-filled that he didn't drown (and is it even possible to drown yourself in the bathtub?)

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  4. I loved this, being a girl who considers Boston my permanent home and all. I knew about Bond and the Schubert, one my favorite theaters here, but not extent of his DC connection. Interesting stuff.

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  5. The press accounts do not provide any details about how Bond died, other than that he was in the tub. Despite the presence of the note, they state that the police had not determined whether it was accidental or a suicide. One could surmise from this that details about the event were being closely held.

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  6. The medical examiner was quoted in the Lynn Item of July 6, 1908 that it was drowning, not suicide. His trust still gives about $25,000. to music training for minority kids in Boston every year.

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  7. Nathaniel Bond, grandson of CHBOctober 13, 2012 at 6:00 AM

    Our family has never learned exactly how CHB died in the bath tub. As a minor correction of the story, his death did not occur in his Boston home on Commonwealth Avenue , but rather in his Swampscott, Massachusetts "summer home" called Peacehaven.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you very much for the correction. I have corrected the main text.

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    2. Hello. I live in Saugus Massachusetts, and lately my team and I have taken it upon ourselves to research the life and death of Charles Bond. I would love to be able to speak with you, Nathaniel Bond. I can be reached at tebeakesse@comcast.net. Hope to hear from you.
      Jim Bentz

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    3. Hello James, Great Grandson of CHB Earle P. MacGillivray III, I just came across this by googling my Great Grand Father. I was interested in wether you ever wrote anything from your study's of his life and death. terrymacgillivray@gmail.com

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