When Timothy Caldwell, a wealthy businessman from Philadelphia, decided in 1806 to build “the handsomest house in the Capital City,” little did he dream that it would one day serve as home for President Monroe, ambassadors foreign and domestic, the nation’s first weatherman, and the city’s oldest club devoted to the arts. But that and more is what history had in store for the elegant Federal townhouse that the Arts Club calls home.
The Executive Mansion
Secretary of State James Monroe and his wife Elizabeth came to live here in 1811, and tastefully furnished their home with objects acquired in Paris where Monroe served as America’s minister. Following the burning of the White House during the War of 1812, the residence became the city’s social hub. Dolley Madison was a frequent guest.
In March 1817, it would gain greater luster when James Monroe was inaugurated as the nation’s fifth chief executive. During the first six months of the new administration, the president and his wife continued to make this their home until the White House was fully restored in September of that year. The first of Monroe’s Inaugural Balls was held in the spacious second-floor parlor.
Diplomats and a Meteorologist
Following the Monroes’ departure, the house became the British legation, and under Ministers Stratford Canning and Charles Vaughan, was the site of many lavish receptions and balls. Later it was home to former Congressman Charles Francis Adams, Sr. (son of John Quincy Adams), who burnished the house’s reputation as a residence where lively social gatherings, excellent food, and convivial company could be found.
A decidedly more cerebral aura was cast in 1877 when Cleveland Abbe purchased the house. A renowned meteorologist, Abbe oversaw the establishment of the United States Weather Bureau and served as its first director. Curiously, it is Abbe’s association with this house (rather than President Monroe’s) that led in 1976 to its designation as a National Historic Landmark.
The Arts Club Finds a Home
Inspired by London’s Chelsea Arts Club and the National Arts Club in Manhattan, Washington artists created their own club in May 1916 and purchased the Monroe House as its home. With a focus on painting, sculpture, music, and drama, the Arts Club provided a contrast to Washington’s more traditional clubs. It was also the first club in the city to admit women as charter members. Sculptor Henry K. Bush-Brown was the first president. His portrait (by his wife, Lydia) now hangs above one of the club’s first-floor fireplaces. The MacFeeley House, a Victorian structure, was joined to the Monroe House in 1929. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Early on, the Arts Club was a favorite destination for visiting New York and Hollywood luminaries, including D.W. Griffith, Claudette Colbert, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Tallulah Bankhead. From the Roaring Twenties to the Swinging Sixties, the club’s New Year’s Bal Bohème was the hottest ticket in town.
An Enduring Presence
Today, The Arts Club of Washington builds on its distinguished cultural, social, and architectural traditions as it continues to evolve as a presence in the nation’s capital.
As an art gallery…a site for performances and programs…a symbol of preservation in action…and an elegant and congenial gather ing place for Arts Club members and their guests, the James Monroe House’s link to Washington and its history endures.