The immense popularity of the British series Downton Abbey in the U.S. shows that despite our commitment to the concept of equality, many Americans are fascinated by the lifestyles of those living in a society where the accident of your birth could grant you a life of oppulence or subject you to a life of servitude.
Fans of Downton Abbey would really enjoy a tour of Anderson House in Washington, DC, one of the few free museums open in DC at the moment. I greatly appreciated learning about the wealthy “gilded age” owners and their lifestyle during our tour, and that’s what most of the blog will discuss. But at the back of my mind, I still found it odd.
The reason Anderson House is open to the public is that it serves as headquarters for the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization dedicated to “remembering the service and sacrifice of the men who won American independence.” Our ancestors fought to be free from the old European order of class distinction and hereditary rule. So commemorating the fight for American liberty in a building designed to emulate an English aristocrat’s stronghold seems about as appropriate as putting a memorial to Bach in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. But I am just as interested in learning about the wealthy of the past as well as those less well-endowed, so I enjoyed the tour and recommend the house to others.
The Society was founded by American and French officers who served during the Revolutionary War, and its work was continued by their descendants. Larz Anderson was one of those descendants, and when he died in 1937, his wife donated their 50-room Washington mansion to the Society.
Finished in 1905, the mansion was one of three owned by Larz and Isabel Anderson. Larz was a diplomat back in in age when the job consisted primarily of hosting elegant parties, and their regal home served as the site of many gatherings during the Washington season, which ran from January through about the end of March. As you might expected, the mansion features a magnificent ballroom, a dining room that would comfortably seat the game-day roster of an NFL team, and priceless artwork collected as souvenirs from multiple trips to the far corners of the world.
The feature that interested me most was the second floor butler’s pantry, which was bigger than my whole kitchen. The designer floor was covered in a spongy surface so that if a servant dropped any crockery, the noise would not disturb the diners next door.
I also liked the winter garden, an indoor room painted to resemble the garden at one of the family’s other estates in New England. Isabel’s parrots used to fly around the room freely while the couple ate their breakfast.
Isabel was an interesting woman, though admittedly, it is easier to be interesting when you are as rich as she was. She was the first woman in Massachusetts to get a driver’s license. During World War I, she volunteered as a nurse for the red cross and insisted on serving wounded men on the front lines of Belgium and France for eight months. When the deadly Spanish flu epidemic hit shortly after her return to the U.S., she volunteered in hospitals treating the sick. She was a prolific writer and also keenly followed political debates. However, she did not favor giving women the right to vote because she thought it might make matters too complicated.
Her husband Larz might have been tough to like unless he considered you an equal. Keenly aware of his position in society and status as a diplomat, he suffered terrible indignation at a diplomatic gathering when one of the guests assumed him to be a waiter and asked him for a drink. The problem was his clothing. While European diplomats arrayed themselves in sparkling para-military finery, American diplomats traditionally dressed in a plain black coat. So he designed himself a fancier diplomatic suit more befitting his rank. Unfortunately, the U.S. government denied him permission to wear it, so the only people impressed by its glitter are the tourists coming through a hundred years later.
Stories like these really made the pieces of the Anderson House come to life. In addition, the house also features changing exhibits. The current exhibit focuses on small arms of the Revolutionary War era such as a the brown bess musket, Pennsylvania hunting rifle, Jaeger rifle, and massive quantities of swords.
Overall, the Society of the Cincinnati is well worth a visit, even when the Smithsonian museums are back in business. I’m not sure every American soldier who fought for independence would approve of this museum, but I’m sure George Washington would have—especially since his birthday was one of the Andersons’ favorite holidays. They even carried a portrait of Washington with them if they happened to be traveling on his birthday, so they could be sure to celebrate in proper style.
The Anderson House Museum is located at 2118 Massachusetts Ave., NW in Washington. The museum is open from Tuesday through Saturday from 10-4 and the library is open Monday through Friday from 10-4. The American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati supports education and preservation to promote the ideals of the American Revolution. For more information about the museum, visit https://www.societyofthecincinnati.org/anderson_house/history
If you enjoy stories about the ideals behind the American War of Independence or the life of servants in a big household, you might be interested in my book Restitution.