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Society of the Cincinnati at Anderson House

The international headquarters for the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization established in 1783 to celebrate the legacy of the American Revolutionary War, is located at Anderson House. Completed in 1905 as the winter residence of American diplomat Larz Anderson and his wife, the author and philanthropist Isabel Weld Perkins, Anderson House contains objects that preserve and interpret the history of the American Revolution and the Society of the Cincinnati, as well as fine and decorative art objects and a research library.

We had known the best times of our century and had been active in the most fortunate era of a civilization that had touched great heights, just as today it is touching great depths. And in our life at home and abroad we had numbered among our friends all sorts and conditions of people.

Larz Anderson, 1936

Born in 1866, Larz Anderson was the son of the Civil War general Nicholas Longworth Anderson and Elizabeth Coles Kilgour. The Anderson family traced its fortune back to the post–Revolutionary War real estate ventures of Lieutenant Colonel Richard Clough Anderson, Larz Anderson’s great-grandfather and an original member of the Society of the Cincinnati.Society of the Cincinnati, Anderson House, National Headquarters and Museum, Washington, D.C.: A Memorial to General Washington and the Officers and Men of His Command Who Fought and Won the War for American Independence (Washington, D.C., 1939), 4. Online, accessed April 3, 2018, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015010966292;view=1up;seq=3. Though his roots were in Ohio, Larz Anderson’s lifelong connection with Washington, D.C., began in 1881, when his family moved to a home in the city designed for them by the architect Henry H. Richardson. He soon left Washington for preparatory schooling at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and later graduated from Harvard College in 1888.Stephen T. Moskey, Larz and Isabel Anderson: Wealth and Celebrity in the Gilded Age (Bloomington, Ind.: iUniverse, 2016), 12–15. During a tour in Europe after graduation, Larz met Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908), an American historian of Japanese art, who would foster in him an appreciation of Japanese art, architecture, and culture.Moskey, Wealth and Celebrity, 19. In 1891, when Larz began his diplomatic career as second secretary of the American legation in London, he became immersed in an environment of the arts, literature, and music and met personalities such as Oscar Wilde and John Singer Sargent. After three years in London, he was sent to Rome as first secretary of the American embassy. His career later culminated in posts as minister to Belgium (1911–1912) and ambassador to Japan (1912–1913).Moskey, Wealth and Celebrity, 23–31.

Isabel Anderson (née Weld Perkins) came from a family with a similar legacy of American military service. Born in Boston in 1876, she was the only child of the Civil War naval officer George Hamilton Perkins and heiress Anna Minot Weld. In the mid-nineteenth century, Isabel’s grandfather William Fletcher Weld established a fortune with his successful shipping business, which Isabel would later inherit. After completing her education at the Winsor School of Boston, Isabel made her society debut in Newport, Rhode Island, in the summer of 1895. At the age of nineteen, she embarked on a yearlong trip to Europe and Asia with her chaperone, Maud Howe Elliott (1854–1948), an American writer and Newport socialite.Moskey, Wealth and Celebrity, 33–39. The tour exposed Isabel to Egypt and Palestine, as well as to antiquity and biblical history, influencing her later collecting preferences. The trip also introduced her to Larz Anderson, who was on a diplomatic posting in Rome.Moskey, Wealth and Celebrity, 38–41.

Life in Washington, D.C.

Larz and Isabel Anderson, 1905. Photograph: Wikipedia/Society of the Cincinnati.

Larz and Isabel Anderson married in June 1897, and the couple traveled to East Asia on their honeymoon. They came to appreciate Japanese decorative arts and garden design, as well as the spiritual and philosophical components of the Japanese cultural traditions.Moskey, Wealth and Celebrity, 53–54. After several trips to Europe and one to India, the Andersons established homes in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. On May 23, 1901, two months after Isabel came into full control of her inheritance, the Andersons purchased one of the last remaining empty lots on Washington, D.C.’s prestigious Massachusetts Avenue near Dupont Circle, the so-called Embassy Row. They built a house on the property, later known as Anderson House, designed by the Boston architectural firm of Little and Browne.Moskey, Wealth and Celebrity, 98–101.

In 1898, while Larz Anderson was a captain and assistant adjutant general in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War, he became a member of the Society of the Cincinnati. The Society was founded in 1783 by American and French veteran officers of the American Revolutionary War, with a mission to promote knowledge and appreciation of the achievements of American independence and to foster fellowship among its members, who are comprised of descendants of Revolutionary War officers.“A Short History of the Society of the Cincinnati,” The Society of the Cincinnati, accessed April 2, 2018, https://www.societyofthecincinnati.org/about/history. When work on Anderson House began in 1902, Larz saw it as his right to use the emblem of the Society of the Cincinnati as his personal crest and incorporated its imagery into the house.Larz Anderson, Larz Anderson: Letters and Journals of a Diplomat, ed. Isabel Anderson (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1940), 628. It is possible that, even at this early stage, the Andersons intended that the house should eventually be the home of the Society of the Cincinnati.”Society of the Cincinnati, Anderson House, 4.

When it was completed in the spring of 1905, the couple’s home became one of Washington, D.C.’s most fashionable mansions—a “Florentine villa in the midst of American independence.”“The Society of the Cincinnati Archives,” The Society of the Cincinnati, accessed Jan 14, 2018, http://societyofthecincinnati.org/collections_highlights/sotc_archives. The house was a showcase for the Andersons’ art collection, a backdrop for high society galas, and a base from which the couple explored what they considered “the most beautiful of American cities.”Anderson, Letters and Journals, 628. The ninety-five room house was informed by European design, with eclectic interiors featuring carved wood walls, gilded papier-mâché ceilings, ornate iron staircases, and intricate marble floors. During the Washington social season between January and March, the Andersons held diplomatic and inaugural receptions and formal dinners and luncheons and hosted concerts and dramatic performances.Moskey, Wealth and Celebrity, 101–7.

Three of the public rooms in the house—the Choir Stall Room, the Cincinnati Room, and the Winter Garden—were decorated with murals designed by H. Siddons Mowbray (1858–1928). The murals in the Cincinnati Room document Anderson men within the military history of the United States. In the Winter Garden, two murals give bird’s-eye views of Washington, Virginia, and Maryland, tracing the journeys that the Andersons took during their marriage. A globe in the English Drawing Room similarly marks out the routes of the seventy-five trips that the Andersons took to different countries in the world.“Anderson House,” The Society of the Cincinnati, accessed April 2, 2018, https://www.societyofthecincinnati.org/collections/museum_collections/anderson.

Amassing a Collection

Key room
Dining room, after 1933. Photograph: Library of Congress/Historic American Buildings Survey, HABS DC,WASH,198--9.

Original library
Second drawing room, after 1933. Photograph: Library of Congress/Historic American Buildings Survey, HABS DC,WASH,198--8.

In their collecting, the Andersons drew inspiration from their sense of family heritage and their travels. To furnish their home, the Andersons collected European furniture, tapestries, and paintings, as well as Asian sculptures, ivories, and lacquerware. Among the few paintings they purchased were important works by artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, Peter Lely, Cecilia Beaux, and Philip de László.“Anderson House,” The Society of the Cincinnati. The Andersons also acquired religious and historical artifacts, including an eighteenth-century confessional from a church in Córdoba, Mexico, Japanese hanging scrolls (kakemonos), and Buddhist statues.

Philanthropy

The Andersons also were involved in philanthropy. Isabel, especially, supported clubs and organizational memberships related to causes and principles in which she believed. During the First World War, Isabel joined other prominent American women in the support of beleaguered Western European countries, working as a leader in Washington’s Red Cross activities and Belgian relief work. She spent eight months between 1917 and 1918 caring for the sick and wounded in France and Belgium. When Isabel returned home, she found the capital ravaged by an influenza epidemic and volunteered to assist the afflicted around the city. She also participated in the Daughters of the American Revolution society, serving as librarian general of the national society from 1923 to 1926. Isabel found a community for her own creative writing through membership in the National League of American Pen Women, an organization established in 1897 to bring together female writers, editors, artists, musicians, and performers.Moskey, Wealth and Celebrity, 117–18. Together, the Andersons supported St. Mary’s Chapel at the National Cathedral, where they were interred after their deaths, with a monetary bequest and donations of religious art and artifacts, including sixteenth-century Flemish tapestries.“St. Mary’s Chapel,” Washington National Cathedral, accessed April 2, 2018, https://cathedral.org/what-to-see/exterior/st-marys-chapel-2.

Entrance
Second-floor gallery, after 1933. Photograph: Library of Congress/Historic American Buildings Survey, HABS DC,WASH,198--7.
St Mary's Chapel
St. Mary’s Chapel, Washington National Cathedral, with two of six sixteenth-century Flemish tapestries donated by the Andersons. Photograph courtesy of the Washington National Cathedral.

After Larz Anderson’s death, Isabel Anderson edited a book of his letters, in one of which he wrote of their long partnership: “Always [Isabel Anderson] and I had pulled together. We had known the best times of our century and had been active in the most fortunate era of a civilization that had touched great heights, just as today it is touching great depths. And in our life at home and abroad we had numbered among our friends all sorts and conditions of people.”Anderson, Letters and Journals, 660.

The Society of the Cincinnati at Anderson House

At the time Larz Anderson died in April 1937, Anderson House had been mostly unoccupied for years. In 1938, Isabel Anderson donated the house to the Society of the Cincinnati, which had no national headquarters, and ownership was formally conveyed to the Society on April 20, 1939. The society inducted Isabel as an honorary member in gratitude for her gift, making her its first and only female member.Moskey, Wealth and Celebrity, 234–37. In addition to establishing Anderson House as the National Headquarters of the Society of the Cincinnati, her deed of gift also recorded the initial purpose of her house as a public museum, and it opened to the public in December 1939.“Society of the Cincinnati Archives,” The Society of the Cincinnati. Beyond showcasing the Andersons’ original collections, the museum also houses the society’s collections, including portraits, armaments, and personal artifacts of Revolutionary War soldiers. An exhibition gallery hosts changing exhibitions on the history of the American Revolution, the Society of the Cincinnati, and Anderson House and its occupants.“Featured Items: Society of the Cincinnati Porcelain,” The Society of the Cincinnati, accessed April 2, 2018, https://www.societyofthecincinnati.org/collections/featured/porcelain.

The society’s research library was established in 1973 to collect, preserve, and make available printed and manuscript materials relating to the armies and navies of the eighteenth century, especially the people and events of the American Revolution. Complementing the rare book collection are historical manuscripts, maps, graphic arts, and the archives of the Society of the Cincinnati.“Library,” The Society of the Cincinnati, accessed April 2, 2018, https://www.societyofthecincinnati.org/collections/library/about. The Society also hosts a variety of public educational programs to increase knowledge about the American Revolution and to share the Andersons’ lives in historic Washington, D.C.“Society of the Cincinnati Archives,” The Society of the Cincinnati.

Profile by Selina Xinyue Xu, 2018 Wintersession student, and Faye Yan Zhang, 2017–2018 Dumbarton Oaks Humanities Fellow.