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Leon Emile Dessez

Leon Emile Dessez, Architect [1858-1918]

Leon Emile Dessez [†] was a native Washingtonian who studied architecture in the office of the prestigious local firm of Hornblower and Poindexter, later Hornblower and Marshall. Dessez's mentor, Joseph Hornblower, was one of Washington's most influential and active architects in the 1880s and 1890s, and much of his early work was in the Colonial Revival style.

In the early 1880s, Dessez was employed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the production of drawings for the Washington Monument and spent three years as assistant to the architect at the Navy yard. In 1886 he opened his own office in the Corcoran Building at 15th and F Streets, N.W. and quickly developed a reputation as both a skillful designer and a fine architectural engineer.

The late 1800s was a period of rapid growth in the capital, and an auspicious time for an architect to go into private practice. Dessez was kept busy designing private residences for well-to-do clients, including former Senator Francis Newlands, the founder of the Chevy Chase Land Company and the developer of the suburbs of Chevy Chase, D.C. and Chevy Chase, Maryland. Impressed with his work, Newlands hired Dessez as Chief Architect for the Land Company, and he remained associated with it in that position (and, later, as Director) until his death 29 years later.

One of Dessez's most important private commissions in the 1890s was the Raleigh Hotel at Pennsylvania Avenue and 12th Street, N.W. A luxury hotel, similar to the Willard in size, grandeur, and style, it was demolished in the early 1960s. Dessez was also the architect of the Admiral's House on the Naval Observatory Grounds in 1893, now in use as the vice-President's residence.

Beginning in the late 1890s, Dessez became increasingly involved in the design of public buildings in the District of Columbia, a role which eventually caused him to work closely with Municipal Architect Ashford Snowden. He provided designs for a number of firehouses and hospitals, and, in 1915, prepared initial studies for the "Psychopathic Ward" of the Gallinger Municipal Hospital, erected in the early 1920s and only recently demolished. Like the design for the Miner Building, the Colonial Revival plan for Gallinger was clearly "emblematic of the conservative municipal architectural expression envisioned in the design policy of the Commission of Fine Arts." As an architect, Dessez was concerned with designing buildings with a maximum amount of light and air, a concern evident in his plans for a new District of Columbia prison at Occoquan, Virginia. As Snowden Ashford notes in his tribute to Dessez in the April, 1919 issue of The Journal of the American Institute of Architects, written after Dessez's death:

"In 1918 he was employed with the Municipal Architect in preparation of plans for the workhouse at Occoquan, which has revolutionized the architecture of penal institutions and was the beginning of the so-called 'open-air' treatment for prisoners, who are housed in dormitories with abundant light and air and no cells, locks, or bars to suggest the ordinary, old-fashioned prison."

Dessez was also a pioneer in the use of new construction techniques and is credited with designing the first office building in Washington constructed entirely of reinforced concrete, the Century Building, at 412 5th Street, N.W., in 1899; it has since been demolished.

Dessez's buildings exhibit a wide diversity of styles, but he had a particular affinity for Colonial Revival.

  1. Lois Snyderman, Historic Preservation Consultant, Miner Normal School (Washington Normal School #2), nomination document, 1991, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

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