With its Beaux Arts/Villa design, 50 rooms, lavish appointments, a history of hosting lords and ladies, serving as a home to the Society of the Cincinnati, and a prime spot on Washington’s famed Embassy Row, the Anderson House at Massachusetts Avenue is quite impressive.
We’ve been several times and have always stood in awe. Other times we went to listen to a lecture on some aspect of George Washington or the Revolutionary War.
So maybe all that explains why I had never bothered to learn about the couple who built the house and lived there for a handful of decades.
Ironically, my crash course on Saturday didn’t take place there. Instead it was at the Woodrow Wilson House, a short walk up Massachusetts Avenue in the Kalorama neighborhood.
The pairing of the Andersons with the Wilson Home was a bit odd. On the opposite end politically, Larz Anderson was not a fan of the President and Moskey said it is likely he never set foot in Wilson’s house. Nevertheless, the audience of about 20 enjoyed the setting, a second floor room just steps from what was Wilson’s private office.
I should get right to the Anderson's, but some of the Wilson’s story connects locally and goes beyond the usual ways and norms of presidential administrations.
Born in Staunton, he is the only President to be interred in Washington (Kennedy and Taft lie in Arlington, just outside the District). After serving two terms as our 28th President, Wilson lived in his Washington home for the last three years of his life (1921-1924). His widow Edith lived there until her death in 1961. Edith Wilson donated the Georgian Revival style house and its furnishings to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Born in Wytheville, Virginia, Edith assisted the President after he suffered a stroke in 1919.
Ok, on to Larz and Isabel Anderson, another couple the newspapers in Washington loved. At the Wilson House on Saturday morning, Moskey, the author of, “Larz and Isabel Anderson: Wealth and Celebrity in the Gilded Age," touched on the fascinating story of these news-making bon vivants.
In his book, Moskey writes that three institutions - the White House, Congress and the elite party circuit – made life go round in Washington during the Gilded Age. The Andersons were part and parcel of the latter.
Beginning in 1905, the couple gave hundreds of dinners, luncheons and tea parties at their luxurious house. Unlike today, when it takes place in the fall, the social season in Washington in that era ran from New Year’s Day to Easter. The Anderson’s guest lists included generals, royals, envoys, diplomats and in the parlance of today, other “A-listers.” The couple rubbed shoulders with the likes of John Singer Sergeant, Cecilia Beaux, Henry James, and Robert Todd Lincoln.
A book like this invites you to stop and learn a little bit about these players. Lincoln was the only member of the family to carry the name into the 20th-century and served as the Secretary of War and Ambassador to the United Kingdom. For the last dozen or so years of his life he lived in Georgetown at a home (3014 N Street) the late Ben Bradlee lived in. Lincoln rests in Arlington Cemetery.
Isabel, one of the wealthiest women in the United States, was active in three groups – the American Red Cross, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the National League of American Pen Women. She also wrote dozens of books. Long before travel became routine and affordable, she traveled extensively - long voyages around the world that took months and wealth to complete.
Likely raising eyebrows elsewhere, Isabel described Washington as “the most beautiful of American cities.” The homes the wealthy built were certainly part of the beauty, but as the author points out, much is owed to “Boss” Sheppard. In the 1860s, widespread grumbling about the muddy and Southern city led to some wanting the capital moved to the center of the country. Sheppard sprang into action, paving roads, installing street lights, filling in the wretched canal, planting trees and creating park space. His transformation led to some calling him “The Father of Modern Washington.”
Larz was born to American parents in 1866 in Paris. Like Edith Wilson, his family tree reached back to the pioneers of the Virginia colony. One of his forebears fought beside Virginians in the Revolutionary War, witnessed the Boston Tea Party and had Patrick Henry's ear. His father rose to the rank of Major General during the Civil War. Larz spoke French, a skill he no doubt put to good use while hosting in Washington and traveling.
Like many before and many after, Larz’s parents moved to Washington at the start of a new administration. During the Spanish-American War, he wore the bars of a captain and served at Camp Alger, whose built over site is located near the crossing of the Beltway and I-66 in Dunn Loring.
Larz soon joined the diplomatic corps, first in London, then in Rome where he met Isabel in 1897. Her stories ran through Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Isabel inherited a family fortune valued at $17M. As we say today, Larz "married up."
Like President and Edith Wilson, Larz and Isabel Anderson rest in peace in Washington in St. Mary’s Cathedral at the Washington National Cathedral. They gave $500,000 and other precious items to the church.
On a promotional postcard for Moskey’s book, a quote describes it as “the book everyone has been waiting for.”
I wholeheartedly agree. It was a pleasure to finally learn about the couple who built the Anderson House, and helped improve the city they loved. Finding out about the Wilson's was a pleasing and unexpected bonus.