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Many people have asked how I created The Mansion, especially because I started with no money, no business background, no art and/or design background—and still don’t have business cards. It started simply with a childlike openness to say “yes” to the visions God passed through me. You see, I believe that as artists we are essentially channels. Let me explain.
The best thing about any art form is that it provides an outlet to get your thoughts and ideas into the open. But the rewards of art don’t stop with the creative process, for art is an expression of love that has a lasting effect. Being a loving person is not just in the giving and receiving, but in the telling, the creating—and in the freedom to express one’s feelings.
My first job in Washington was as a nanny for seven children. Seeing our nation’s capital through the eyes of these children was wonderful, enlightening and life changing. I have loved every moment of all my various jobs, from working in a girl’s reformatory, to hospital assistant (that’s a nice way to say bedpan cleaner) to dishwasher, mental hospital caretaker, to waitress, short-order cook, to working with severely handicapped children, to secretary. The list goes on and on. Every job has contributed to my ability to balance vision with practical ways to get things done. And they taught me that no matter how glamorous a job sounds, in the end, no one is better than a nanny, fire fighter, dishwasher, street cleaner or garbage collector. We all serve others.
When I had the visions to create The Mansion, I abandoned all outside influences and focused solely on the steady “heart work” of seeking God, one day and one night at a time. And over the past 30 years, regardless what has happened, I always get up after I fall down. Always, I get up. And each night I forgive everyone, everything; each morning I forgive myself. Life is not about those things you have lost along the way, the spare change, pieces of paper with people’s names and numbers, jewelry, scarves, umbrellas, coats, buttons and keys. It’s about the very real friend you meet, just around the corner. And just as important, it’s about letting go of everything you thought you knew. Because nothing stays the same, not words, images, memories, people or places. And there is a reason things happen the way they do. Whatever you might think at the moment, there is a sequence for everything—and it is all worthwhile.
For me, life is simple. The future is predicated by all of us who create it. Today, it is enormously important to constantly remind ourselves that we are all here together, whether we are famous or anonymous, creators at some moments, receivers at others. We share this world. And if we open the sea of our eyes to wash away the walls protecting the shore of our heart, the sailcloth shrouding our life tugs away, and we are free. Again, it’s all about letting go. Taking risks. Opening your heart. Your past may not affect your future, but your future always creates your past.
With this philosophy as our cornerstone, The Mansion on O Street™ is a way of life, not a business. As a small private luxury hotel and club, conference center, and museum, we combine art, architecture, literature and inspiration to craft an exhilarating, entertaining experience. Having been a haven for heads of state, foreign dignitaries, business leaders, writers, artists, musicians, scientists, and members of the entertainment industry, The Mansion offers privacy, security, distinctive amenities and world-class cuisine, all in an environment that is nothing short of magical.
Since our doors opened on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1980 (you can tell I am a real romantic), novels, songs, paintings and even legislation have been created here. James Patterson devoted four pages to The Mansion (a sensual scene in the log cabin)—and even gave our exact address—in his best-selling novel Four Blind Mice.
While my proudest moments are the birth of my son Z and my marriage to Ted Spero, there’s one chance meeting that will stay with me the rest of my life, and really captures the essence of The Mansion. Within a few months of moving in, I discovered a musician singing in a thrift store and asked him to perform at The Mansion that night. Months later, he came and asked if he could sleep here for the winter. For the three winters Cordell lived here, he went from living on the street to learning to play the piano at The Mansion, to performing for $2,500 a night at a local hotel. If he were alive today, Cordell would have performed “Oh Holy Night” on our 25th anniversary CD "Realize Your Vision", as he incorporated the soul of The Mansion into his vocal arrangements, never singing a song the same way twice. Cordell (he needed no last name) performed every Christmas Eve here, until his passing. But we continue to smile with his memory knowing that Cordell’s soul truly is resting with God.
As an interesting footnote, the piano Cordell learned to play while he lived at The Mansion was later sold to sculptor Frederick Hart, who created the Vietnam Memorial sculpture of three soldiers on The Mall in Washington, D.C. and the sculpture on the façade of the National Cathedral. Creativity and artistry come together at The Mansion, sometimes in ways that we cannot fathom.
Over the past 30 years, many honors and blessings have come into my life. I met with Pope John Paul, was adopted by Mrs. Rosa Parks, and met with all Presidents since President Reagan (I even did the art for The White House during his presidency). I’ve traveled throughout the world for business and have had the good fortune to create iconic branding campaigns for multi-national corporations. Our work has won many international design awards and, from one chance meeting during a dinner at The Mansion, I was commissioned to redesign and be the general contractor on the first I.M. Pei building in Washington, D.C. (For someone who never studied design in college, this was an amazing opportunity!) I was instrumental in helping to create and implement cause-related marketing as a consultant to Ogilvy & Mather. And, on another important project, I literally wrote the first million-dollar check to the Statue of Liberty Restoration campaign for American Express.
Additionally, I was privileged to be asked by The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum to raise $500,000 for a major exhibit to commemorate John Lennon’s 60th Birthday (and 20th Anniversary of his passing). Three days later, I presented The Rock Hall with a commitment letter from one corporation for twice that amount, plus another $500,000 worth of networking equipment.
Yet I nearly flunked out of grade school (on an IQ test in 5th grade I rated as an “imbecile” and the school system asked my parents to take me out of school). I graduated from high school in the bottom ten of my class. Sadly today, we seem unwilling to measure creativity and spirituality and, therefore, fail to recognize untold numbers of children who have so much to give. But not here. At The Mansion, we never look at anyone’s resume; everyone has a clean slate, and gets an equal opportunity to work and thrive.
Although I conceived and created this place, The Mansion magic goes well beyond me, and will survive long after me. While I live and work at The Mansion, most people don’t know who I am—though I might valet their car or serve their meal or bus their table after dinner. Why do I still do this? It is the only way to get a true pulse of the business. Plus, The Mansion is not about me; it is about those who seek refuge here.
Most people assume looking at The Mansion that I am rich and that my children will be wealthy. On the level that I value, I am rich and my children Z, Sonny and Hannah will have a rich inheritance, but it won’t be monetary. Our wealth will be in what we give back. This spirit is captured by the lyrics Jim Schneider and I wrote for “Bring on the Music. “Sam Moore and Felix Cavaliere sum it up so perfectly when they sing on our album, “It’s not about the money… it’s all about soul.”
The Mansion’s philosophy is eternal, but it isn’t just mine, nor those who support it. Thirty four years ago we incorporated as a “not-for-profit” organization because of this philosophy. The Mansion is proof that business can succeed without “profit” and endure even when dollars do not flow to that imaginary bottom line. I am testament to the fact that one can start without money, achieve a vision and share a wealth that transcends a monetary figure. If we are true to our vision, committed to our path and willing to share ourselves, we all can achieve things beyond what we know.
Again, it’s the simple things, the small steps, the goals we choose, the way of life we want to live. And I breathe because God has so many things for me to do. We still have many things to accomplish. Thirty four years is only a start. And, as the new dawn approaches on our 31st year, my heart is young. I don’t believe in miracles; I rely on them. Magic exists, not just in the mind.