A family’s hidden history is revealed after sale of their grand Georgetown estate

October 15, 2011

The weather for Peter Belin’s flight home from Europe was largely serene. It was early in May 1937, and as touchdown in New Jersey approached, the recent Yale graduate snapped photos of the airport’s three-story hangar, the ground crew, and the stark, oval shadow of his mode of transportation, the Hindenburg zeppelin.

Moments later, after the crew flung down the landing ropes, an explosion rocked the Hindenburg’s rear. Peter grabbed his things — his datebook, his camera — and leapt from the doomed craft. He survived the 30-foot plunge.

Soon, he returned to his family home in Georgetown, a magnificent estate known as Evermay, perched on a rise with a view of the Washington Monument and Rock Creek Park. Peter didn’t talk much about the Hindenburg, because that was the Belin way: Don’t draw attention to yourself; don’t be showy.

In fact, it wasn’t until just a few days ago that Peter’s son, Harry Belin, learned how his father escaped death when the airship burst into flames, killing 35 people aboard.

“He landed on a sandbank!?” Harry marveled, standing amid his basement archives, after finding a family letter. “I never heard about the sandbank.”

Untold thousands of people have seen or toured Evermay, the two-century-old, 31 / 2-acre estate famed for its Federal-style mansion and lush gardens. But few know the history of its occupants, the Belins, who for nearly nine decades resided inside the walled compound on 28th Street NW. A family of French immigrants who married into the du Pont dynasty and made a fortune in the gunpowder industry, the Belins populated some of the past century’s most significant moments.

Another family trait was to serve the country that had rewarded them so richly. But only now, when Evermay has passed from the family’s hands, are some of their stories being revealed.

In May, unable to afford the taxes and upkeep, Harry sold the estate after years of trying to keep it in the family. The $22 million sale — the second-largest home sale in city history — marked the fading of one Washington and the emergence of a new one: Ryuji Ueno and Sachiko Kuno, a Japanese couple who founded the Bethesda-based biotechnology firm Sucampo, got Evermay for less than half of the $49 million asking price.

Now Harry, 68, a retired horticulturist and Navy officer, spends his days at his Montgomery County home, where he has taken what he considers the most precious parts of the Evermay property: the six urns containing the ashes of his family members and the stashes of family papers that were scattered around the estate. He is paying a curator to help him research the archives; hundreds of family letters — typed and handwritten in cursive — reside in carefully labeled boxes.

Remnants of the past

The first Belin to own Evermay was Harry’s grandfather, Ferdinand Lammot “Mot” Belin, who, the files suggest, had a rendezvous with another great disaster of the 20th century. Ferdinand canceled his trip aboard the Titanic in 1912 and went on to become U.S. ambassador to Poland in the 1930s.

On the eve of the Pearl Harbor attack, Ferdinand attempted to coax secrets out of a Japanese envoy during dinner at Evermay. In the 1940s, he became a vice president of the National Gallery of Art and its landscape architect.

The folders held secrets, too — including one that Harry did not know until a reporter started rummaging through Folder 47. It turns out that his grandfather was a spy during World War II.

Harry saw for the first time a certificate that read in bold, cursive lettering: “F. L. Belin Honorably Served The United States of America As a Member of The Office of Strategic Services.” The award was signed in blue ink by William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the founder and director of the OSS, the nation’s first intelligence agency and precursor to the CIA.

And there was more: Ferdinand’s handwritten resignation letter to Donovan, scrawled on blue stationery with Evermay’s letterhead. “I am most sorry to have your letter of resignation,” Donovan wrote in reply on Oct. 5, 1944. “In your going I must tell you what real help you have been in the establishment and functioning of this organization.”

Harry stood over the weathered papers in silence. He said he thought maybe his father, Peter — a Navy intelligence specialist for the Joint Chiefs of Staff — might have been an OSS man, but he never suspected his grandfather.

Other mysteries linger in this basement. Family lore holds that Ferdinand skipped his trip aboard the Titanic because he contracted typhoid on his honeymoon. The archives contain a letter from Harry’s father saying so.

But more of Ferdinand’s papers must be combed to see whether he ever mentioned the canceled trip himself.

“If I don’t get all this right, we as a family have lost a lot,” Harry said.

Details of a disaster

Over in another corner is a box holding letters, a wallet and a datebook, bearing dark singe marks. One small piece of paper — the shape of a ticket — bears the penciled signature “P. Belin.”

The top of the ticket reads: “Luftschiff, Hindenburg.”

Peter rarely spoke about the day he leapt from the zeppelin as it was landing near Lakehurst, N.J., and became one of 62 survivors.

“Our style has always been to be humble and as quiet as possible,” Harry said.

Decades after the disaster, publishers and movie and television writers all wrote to Peter, entreating him to tell his tale. Each time, Peter refused to be interviewed.

He did just one extensive interview: In the files is a copy of the Yale Daily News from May 7, 1937, the day after the explosion. “Yale Man Leaps from Hindenburg,” says the headline over an article featuring an exclusive interview with Peter Belin, Class of 1936.

Peter described how the zeppelin plummeted from 175 feet to 30 feet above the ground. How his cabin in the front “lurched into a 45-degree angle,” throwing everyone in the back. How he grabbed onto a post that prevented him from being “thrown into the heap with the others.”

“Was there a panic? Naturally,” Peter told his school paper. “The people, as far as we could see, were trapped, and we had to jump because we couldn’t help them. . . . I started to look for Mother and Dad who I knew had been watching the whole thing. It took me almost 15 minutes to find them in that crowd.”

How exactly did the Yale Daily News get the big interview?

Harry happened to know.

“He ran and found a crank telephone,” he said. “His cousin was an editor of the Yale Daily News, and he wanted to give them the scoop.”

Losing a fortune

Harry thinks he, too, like his grandfather and father, enjoyed fate’s benevolence. After graduating from Tulane University in 1965, he joined the Navy and specialized in intelligence and psychological warfare during two tours of duty in the Vietnam War.

A week after he completed his second tour, Harry learned that a Vietnamese housekeeper had detonated a bomb one floor above his Saigon hotel room. He never found out how many were injured or killed.

In the mid-1970s, Harry and his wife, Susan, moved to Washington, eventually living at one of Evermay’s surrounding homes. Soon, he launched his own horticulture company.

By the mid-1990s, Harry and his wife were bracing for his mother’s death and their inheritance of the grand estate. His father had already passed away, and his mother — Mary Belin, a former Wimbledon player who liked playing recreationally at Evermay with Allen Dulles, a former CIA director — died in 1996.

That’s when Harry had to start paying the death taxes. In one fell swoop, he said, he lost half of his family’s fortune. On top of that, Evermay’s property taxes ran $100,000 and its annual upkeep $200,000.

“I had to think, ‘How do I begin to put Evermay in a mode that would allow us to support the place?’ ” Harry said.

He launched a nonprofit entity in 1999 called the Evermay Society and began renting the estate for corporate events, weddings, anniversary parties, even fundraisers for President George W. Bush, all for tens of thousands of dollars apiece. He also let nonprofits — Bible study groups, local preservation groups, human rights advocates and environmentalists — use Evermay for free as part of a campaign to brand it as “America’s Living Room,” where big ideas could be hatched and acted on.

But neighbors loathed the wedding traffic, the party noise and the periodic Secret Service restrictions on when they could enter or exit their own homes.

In fall 2008, after years of trying to get a city permit allowing dozens of parties a year, Harry gave up; he says even the sale of some of Evermay’s surrounding properties didn’t give him the money he needed to keep the estate, so he put it on the market.

Finally, in May, Ueno and Kuno, whose Sucampo Pharmaceuticals scored big with a drug for chronic constipation, scooped it up for $22 million.

(The Allbritton family paid the highest amount for a home in the city — $24 million for the Bowie-Sevier house on Q Street, which happens to be the home Ferdinand Belin originally wanted to purchase in the 1920s.)

“I felt like I did my best, but that’s not what the Lord wanted to be for the future,” Harry said. “I just didn’t have a prayer in the world of keeping Evermay.”

Through their attorneys, Ueno and Kuno declined to be interviewed.

The couple plans on hosting small events featuring artists at Evermay, the attorneys said, but will not rent it to the public.

Bidding Evermay farewell

On July 12, three days before the deadline to remove everything, Harry held a family service at Evermay, with an Episcopal priest delivering prayers.

Everyone gathered by the garden, near the fountain, by the brick wall holding the six urns containing the remains of Harry’s relatives: Ferdinand, Peter, Mary and Harry’s three siblings, who all died at early ages: Beverly Belin, who died in childhood of leukemia; Alan Belin, a rising second-year student at the Virginia Military Institute, who fell asleep while driving a car to Colorado and was killed; and Peter Graham Belin, a filmmaker, who died of complications related to pneumonia.

“Today, as to my side of my family, there’s nobody,” Harry said, referring to those in his generation. (He and his wife have three children.)

After the ceremony, masons repaired the brick wall, leaving no trace of what was once there.

The family urns now sit at Harry’s home in Potomac on the floor of a converted garage, in a cardboard box next to a touring bike, a wheelbarrow and some plants.

Eventually, Harry wants to place the urns at a cemetery near Waverly, Pa., where his grandmother Frances (Ferdinand’s wife) is buried in a coffin, and where other Belins are laid to rest.

Although the urns will be miles away from Georgetown, some of the epitaphs on their plaques will always hint at the past.

Ferdinand Lammot Belin: “Ever May He Live.”

Mary Cootes Belin: “Ever May Her Memory Be Strength, Elegance, Vitality.”

Peter Graham Belin: “Ever May his Love of Beauty and Tradition Be Preserved.”

Harry has not settled yet on what his epitaph will say, exactly, but he has a rough idea.

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Ian Shapira is a features writer on the local enterprise team and enjoys writing about people who have served in the military and intelligence communities. He joined the Post in 2000 and has covered education, criminal justice, technology, and art crime.
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