It was said the pair had bought a house in Georgetown just for their cats. (Not true, Kuno says.) It was said they bought another in Potomac just for parties. (A little more true, as it turns out.)
Little about the Japanese couple was known beyond the fact that they had founded a company in Bethesda that makes a drug for chronic constipation and that it went public in 2007. They were rarely glimpsed at parties. Few in the community dominated by Washington’s old guard had heard of them. They declined interviews through an attorney, who described the couple as “very low-key” and “media-shy.”
The Maryland biotech tycoons stayed anonymous after the $22 million contract was signed on Evermay,
the Federal-style mansion with lush gardens that sits high on a hill on 28th Street NW and boasts a stellar view of the Washington Monument. And they offered little more information shortly after when they bought nearby Halcyon House for about $11 million.
“It did seem like they came out of nowhere,” says Leslie L. Buhler, executive director of the nonprofit group that runs Tudor Place, one of the neighborhood’s other historic homes. “Nobody suspected, imagined or knew of them, and they were people that had very little experience with Georgetown, so it was a surprise.”
Today the Japanese couple laugh off the “rumors” but admit they were not prepared for the level of scrutiny that came their way when they made their high-profile real estate purchases last year.
They are sitting side-by-side at a long, polished table in Evermay’s dining room for their first major interview together, conducted under the watchful eye of a publicist and an employee on hand to translate if needed. A marble fountain burbles outside, where the formal gardens are in full bloom. The freshly painted walls are hung with gilt-framed mirrors and antique Japanese screens.
Dressed in business attire, the couple — Ueno, 58, the brainy scientist, and Kuno, 57, his business-savvy wife — appear as formal and proper as their surroundings, even as they exhibit a gentle playfulness with each other. (At one point, Ueno joked that for a long time after they met, they were more interested in talking about “exciting chemical compounds” than romance.) They revert to Japanese only rarely during the conversation.
They are gracious but also reserved, reluctant to speak in detail about their personal lives. (It’s a good hour into the interview before they reveal that, although they’ve been friends and business partners since the 1980s, they did not get married until 2002, after each went through a divorce.)
“For the 15 years we’ve been here, we’ve been focusing on business issues and not going to parties or having big exposure,” Kuno said. “We didn’t realize or recognize that we had to be prepared to expose somewhat our names and what we are doing here. It’s a very big responsibility to keep these two wonderful historic houses, and we want to do our best to preserve them.”