|Big Old Houses: Very U
by John Foreman
A cultured lady I know, of the Republican persuasion, lectured me recently for using the word, "foyer." "Very non-U," she said, adding, "The word is 'anteroom.' I don't really know why, it just is." Back in 1954 Nancy Mitford did a humorous piece for the magazine Encounter on British linguist Alan Ross's division of words into "U" for upper, and "Non-U" for non-upper class. Almost immediately, Mitford's gag reportage, in the secret souls of many, acquired a deadly cultural resonance. Even my own mother, hardly a stickler for upper class conventions, would have shot me dead if I'd said the work "drapes."
The peculiarly shaped, uber-luxurious house in today's post is located in Washington DC, at 1618 New Hampshire Ave., NW, 2 blocks north of Dupont Circle. Completed in 1909 for Perry Belmont (1851-1947) and his wife, the former Jessie Ann Robbins Sloane (died 1935), it is a very U house for a very U couple. The architect was a famous Frenchman named Paul-Ernest Sanson (1839-1918), whose many European palaces included Boni de Castellane's famous — and now lamentably demolished — Palais Rose in Paris. During Belmont's 1889 tenure as American ambassador to Spain, he either lived in or admired — depending on the source one consults — a very fine Sanson-designed house, so when it came time to build in Washington, he went direct to the master. Sanson drew up plans, but flatly declined to travel to Indian country — namely, the U.S. — to oversee the job. Ergo, an associate architect was hired, none other than that palace-building Philadelphian, Horace Trumbaer, who entrusted the Belmont job to his Beaux-Arts trained African-American chief designer, Julian Abele.
|The lot is an odd one, a right angle triangle with the base on 18th Street, short side running along R Street, and an hypotenuse paralleling New Hampshire Ave. The front door is under a porte cochere extending from the building's narrow southern tip. The view below looks from north to south down New Hampshire Ave.|
|A reader tipped me off about this place, said it was grand, but I was unprepared for what I found.|
|I always want to know who lived in these places, so here's some preliminary background. This is August Belmont (1813-1890), nee Schonberg, the legendary Jewish banker who arrived in New York at the behest of the Rothschilds in the midst of the Panic of 1837.
Belmont may have provided the cash, but Commodore Perry (1794-1858) supplied the sort of national distinction money alone can't buy. Perry fought the invading British in 1812, invaded and seized Key West himself in 1822, attacked the Mexicans in 1846 and, perhaps most famously, pried Tokyo Harbor open in 1854, thus exposing the Empire of Japan to the profit-seeking juggernaut of Western commerce. Perry was a forward thinking warrior who is remembered as the Father of the America Steam Navy.
Caroline Belmont's was a mild personality that lacked the piranha instincts requisite to a Leader of Society. Plus which, the ascendance of Caroline Astor coincided with a decline in her husband's health. She was relieved to focus on him and leave Society — and its "leadership" — to the ascendant Mrs. Astor.
|This hot looking young guy below is the Belmonts' eldest son Perry, photographed probably when he was at Harvard (Class of 1872). Unlike many of his peers, Belmont spent the majority of his life in public service. He earned law degrees from both Columbia and the University of Berlin, served as a U.S. congressman from 1881 to 1888, resigning in order to become U.S. ambassador to Spain.
This is Perry Belmont Belmont's wife, Jessie. Their marriage on April 29, 1899 took place at night, in a small Connecticut church, with little ceremony and no attendants. She had been divorced from Henry T. Sloane, her husband of 17 years, for approximately 6 hours. There is more than a little Anna Karenina in this story. The vengeful Sloane who, it should be noted, was not taken by surprise (he and Jessie were already living apart), exacted draconian concessions in exchange for agreeing to the divorce.
According to The New York Times, the Sloanes' decree granted him "custody and full control of the children." Little Jessie was 15; her sister Emily was 10. "(T)heir mother is to have no right of access to them until they shall have attained the age of 21 years." Nor was she even permitted to acknowledge them on the street.
Perry Belmont was 48 years old at the time of his first and only marriage. Worth noting is the fact that his brother Oliver had in 1896 married the divorced Alva Vanderbilt. Unlike Henry Sloane, the gentlemanly Willie K. Vanderbilt did everything he could — legally and socially — to assure Alva's future was as easy as possible.
Unlike the doomed Anna and her useless Vronsky, Jessie at least had Perry Belmont, who publicly and doggedly fought for her honor. The papers of the period are full of either thinly disguised snubs (denials that so-and-so refused to receive, observations on the Belmonts peculiar absence from certain social events) or outright scandals (Perry's blackballing at the Chevy Chase Club, Ambassador and Mrs. Henry White's refusal to acknowledge their visiting cards). This is not to say they lived like outcasts; they certainly did not. Jessie Belmont reveled in grand entertainments, and she and her husband gave and went to many. However, given Belmont's long standing entree in Washington plus the city's cosmopolitan society, settling here seemed a better choice than New York.
|The house is in magnificent condition, which fact is clear the moment you step inside.|
|Notable on the first floor plan:
1) The front door is on the far right, leading into the oval entrance hall.
2) The stairs lead to the 2nd floor, not to the rooms on this plan.
3) A project that never came to pass would have converted the house into a club. The floor plans were marked up by someone who was thinking how to re-purpose the rooms.
4) Building this place, let alone designing it, was a triumph of complex geometry. It is simply amazing how these gracefully proportioned rooms have been arranged inside a right angle triangle.
|My exploration began along the western corridor, 18th Street being outside the windows on the left and the library doors dead ahead. That contraption in the left corner at the end of the hall is a cane holder for visiting guests, each slot protected by a security key.|
|Perry Belmont's library which, according to the first floor plan, might have become the club office, is, like everything else here, in very good condition. It even has a few pieces of original furniture, including Perry Belmont's desk. The portraits on the walls are of past officials of the Order of the Eastern Star, owner of the house since 1935.|
|The first floor is the family floor, distinct from the 2nd floor which was dedicated to big entertainments. The image below shows the view from a center hall into the library. Mr. and Mrs' Belmonts' bedroom suites are on the other side of this hall, overlooking New Hampshire Ave.|
|This view looks south in the hall to the underside of the grand marble stair. The door beyond the arches — a not very good modern insertion — leads to an ornate marble and wrought iron stair that leads down to a basement squash court.|
|See the clock on the north wall of the hall? To the right of it is a door leading to the Belmonts' bedroom suites. We'll look at his first, on the other side of the, um, anteroom.|
|The Eastern Star has been a loving and attentive steward of this fine old house. There is such a thing as too much love, however, especially when it results in throwing out beautiful old things, like the vintage fixtures in Mrs. Belmont's fabulous circular bathroom, and replacing them with what is "new and modern" but otherwise unexceptional.|
|We're back in the central hall, where we'll take the door on the left of the fireplace to the one and only guestroom, or suite, actually. In an unhappier world this would have been demolished to make way for a ladies' room.|
|Please! Stop with the improvements!|
|The grand rooms upstairs are far too vast for evenings home alone. Eastern Star has scrupulously repainted every panel and molding in the first floor family drawing room, however, today's palette is way stronger than the original would have been.|
|Adjacent to the drawing room is a small, elegantly paneled family dining room. The modern kitchen beyond it was originally the serving pantry, connected by dumbwaiter to the kitchen in the basement.|
|Let's head down this corridor to the central hall, continue to the front entrance, then take the marble stair to the piano nobile.|
|Four main rooms on the second floor — small salon, picture gallery/ballroom, dining room and large salon — have been fitted brilliantly into a weird footprint. Our first visit is to the small salon, located at the top of the stairs directly above the entry hall.|
|Most top drawer mansions of this period have a white and gold room. This is a good one in perfect condition. However, the gilded moldings have been painted over with gold paint, which has impaired the room's original delicacy.|
|That's Bill Bane under the arch on the left, waiting to lead me down the western corridor, which overlooks the main stair, to the picture gallery, which doubled as a ballroom. The fireplace is on the gallery's north wall. With the exception of 4 chandeliers over the main stair, all the others in the house are gifts from the members of various Eastern Star grand chapters.|
|Here's the south wall of the gallery. A musicians' loft is located above the middle and left side arches. There's a view through the middle arch of the small salon on the opposite side of the main stair.|
|Here's a nifty survivor, which I doubt lived in this room.|
|Yes, there is an elevator, connecting this floor to the family level and basement below.|
|How about this dining room, located beyond the picture gallery in the upper left hand corner of the plan. What a place.|
|The adjacent duplexed serving pantry is in a gratifying state of preservation. Note the twin dumbwaiters, a needed aid to efficient service between a dining room and a kitchen located two floors apart.|
|A corridor runs west from the dining room to the large salon.|
|To my eye, the large salon is the nicest room in the house, primarily because it hasn't been renovated. The wall panels haven't been repainted; the original pale gilding on the moldings is untouched; the intended subtlety of the decor is intact, and it shows.|
|The only way to the third floor is via the service stair, whose door opens onto the corridor between the large salon and the dining room. On the way up I detoured to the pantry mezzanine.|
|At the center of the third floor is a pair of large covered bulkheads protecting skylights over the main stair and the picture gallery.|
|Surrounding the skylights on all three sides are servants' bedrooms, occasional bathrooms, sitting areas, and long long hallways. Today these bedrooms are used by Eastern Star leaders visiting Washington for quarterly trustee meetings.|
|Here's the skylight over the picture gallery.|
|And the balustrade outside the third floor.|
|The "Future Plunge" pencilled in on the basement plan below is actually the squash court. The original kitchen, if you overlook the "rec room" furniture, is another remarkable survivor.|
|Next door is the prep pantry, its dual dumbwaiters no longer operable.|
|The door from the kitchen to the servants' hall (under the clock) is locked. We'll have to detour into the corridor outside, admire the servants' dinner bell en route, then inspect the room where the help took their meals. (Think: Downton Abbey).|
|The rest of the basement is largely unchanged, save for the former laundry, now a modernized office.|
|I think we've seen it.|
|Would that man could realize when life has reached its zenith. By comparison, the downward slide is soon obvious. The Belmonts gave up on Washington in 1925, closed their New Hampshire Avenue mansion, and stayed mostly in Paris. In the dark Depression year of 1932, Belmont returned to the States to auction off the furniture — at least such of it that got bids. In March he went to Newport to rescue his late brother Oliver's house, Belcourt, from a tax sale. Perry had inherited a life tenancy in Belcourt when Oliver died in 1909. He and Jessie used it as a summer place. By 1932 Oliver's widow, the ferocious Alva, who had lived in France for many years, was so diminished that she had neglected to pay her Newport taxes. Alva died in 1933, Perry bought Belcourt in 1937, and though he sold it in 1940, he stayed in town and became a Newport resident.|
|I don't know how old Jesse Belmont was when she died in 1935. If her eldest daughter was 15 at the time of her 1899 divorce, she must have been in her mid-70s. The pressed lips, scored forehead, and beseeching look of the eyes in this haunting candid speak to a life marked by a lot pain. I don't know if she ever managed a rapprochement with her children, but I hope so.|
|By the end of his life, Perry Belmont had become a grand old man and a Newport fixture. His 90th birthday in 1940 witnessed a flood of cabled congratulations from FDR, the Duke of Windsor, Harvard president Nicholas Murray Butler, Under-Secretary of State Sumner Welles, etc., etc. Belmont died in 1947 at the age of 96, alert and hearty to the end. For the last 78 years, his Washington house has been the International Grand Chapter headquarters of the half-million member Order of the Eastern Star, a fraternal organization founded in 1850, related to Freemasonry, and open to men and women alike. Eastern Star welcomes visitors to the Belmont house; the link is www.easternstar.org.|