Historic Structures

The Townsend House (The Cosmos Club), Washington DC

Date added: December 8, 2010 Categories: House

Richard H. Townsend (1850-1902) was born in Philadelphia. Around 1892, after his retirement as President of the Erie and Pittsburgh Railroad, he moved to Washington. As stated in The Washington Post. January 11, 1950, Townsend and his wife, the former Mary Scott, commissioned the firm of Carrere and Hastings to rebuild the Hillyer mansion "in the style of the Petit Trianon." Shortly after the house was completed. Townsend fell from a horse, fracturing his skull, and died November 27, 1902.

Mary Scott Townsend (died March 1931), wife of Richard H., was the daughter of Colonel William L. Scott and the former Mary Matilda Tracy, who lived at 22 Jackson Place, N.W., on Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C.. Colonel Scott was a member of Congress (1884-1888) and a railroad and coal executive.

Because of the belief in a story told in childhood that she would encounter evil If she were to live in a totally new house, Mrs. Townsend. stipulated that the Hillyer residence (apparently only a portion of one of the basement walls) (see photograph) be incorporated into a new structure. ("In Haunted Washington" by Rene Bache) It was at her father's home that Mrs. Townsend began corresponding with Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., about the design of the gardens around her new residence on Massachusetts Avenue.

After her husband's death in 1902, Mrs. Townsend remained at 2121 Massachusetts Avenue, where she is said to have spent as much as $240,000 a year for lavish entertainment, including food, payroll for 34 servants and their uniforms, and heat and electricity.

Sumner Benjamin Welles (October 14, 1892 - September 24, 1961), who lived in the home from 1932-1939 and again in 1943, was born in New York City. After he was graduated from Harvard in 1914, he entered the State Department where in 1920 he became Assistant Chief of the Division of Latin American Affairs. In 1933 he served as Ambassador to Cuba, returning that December to his new appointment as Assistant Secretary of State under Cordell Hull. The following May he became Under Secretary of State. Welles kept the Government well-informed during the 1938 Munich crisis and during his fact finding tour of Rome, the Vatican, Berlin, Paris, and London in 1940. In 1941, he "accompanied President Roosevelt to the historic meeting with Sir Winston Churchill aboard the battleship Prince of Wales off Newfoundland, that resulted in the Atlantic Charter". Due to friction with Cordell Hull, Welles resigned his position in 1943.

Welles is remembered as an architect of the Roosevelt Administration's Good Neighbor Policy with Latin America - also, "as chairman of a State Department committee formed during World War II to outline post war international cooperation plans. Mr. Welles drafted proposals later used in modified form as the basis of the United Nations."

His marriage in 1915 to Esther Slater produced two sons and ended in divorce in 1923. In 1925, Welles married Mathilde Scott Townsend, the former Mrs. Gerry; and after her death in 1949, he married Mrs. Harriette Post in 1953. During his retirement, Welles divided his time between Oxon Manor in Oxon Hill, Maryland; 1840 24th Street, N.W, Washington; and his summer residence in Bar Harbor, Maine. Harvard University Press has published several of his books.

The Cosmos Club was founded by John Wesley Powell, a renowned explorer and scientist, after a meeting on November 16, 1878 with a number of gentlemen sharing similar interests. The auditorium of the present club was dedicated and named in his honor. The Club membership includes distinguished men in the fields of science, literature, and the fine arts.

The club was first located in rented rooms of the Old Corcoran building on 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. (now demolished). The Club leased the house at 23 Madison Place in December 1882; purchased the Dolley Madison House (number 27) on June 1, 1886 for $40,000; and then bought number 25 Madison Place in 1907. Number 25 and the adjacent house (number 23) were demolished, and in 1909-1910 the new building was added in their place. In 1917 further expansion resulted from the purchase of the Benjamin Ogle Tayloe house (now 25 Madison Place) An act of Congress approved March 31, 1930 gave authority to the Secretary of the Treasury to acquire all private property on Madison Place. In 1940 the Federal Government finally made the purchase after an offer of $1,000,000 was accepted by a full meeting of the Club on March 27, 1940. The buildings were then rented by the Cosmos Club for twelve years, during which time it sought to buy suitable quarters. Property on H Street between 17th and 18th Street, N.W. was subsequently acquired, but problems in obtaining materials in the immediate post war period resulted in inaction.

Finally, in September 1950, the Club bought the Townsend House, which appropriately had been designed by John M. Carrere, a member of the Club from 1905 until his death in 1911. The initial remodeling and subsequent alterations were also carried on by some members of the Club. Horace W. Peaslee, a member from 1926 until his death in 1959, was the architect and Charles H. Tomkins, a member from 1926 until his death in 1956, was the contractor for the 1951 work on the building. The 1961 and 1962 enlargements were handled by architect Frank E. Cole, who joined the Club in 1958, and builder George W. Lipscomb, who Joined in 1942.

As with similar large homes along Massachusetts Avenue, the Townsend residence has known various functions. During the first few weeks of 1933, Mr. and Mrs. Welles acted as hosts to Franklin D. Roosevelt before he entered the White House. In 1941, after the Welles family moved to Oxon Manor, the mansion was considered for use by the British Mission. (Times-Herald, 2-27-41) This apparently never occured, but in January 1942 the American Women's Volunteer Service was allowed to use the stables as a canteen. In 1943 the house was occupied by the Canadian Women's Army Corps Headquarters detachment, and the stables were vacated by the A.W.V.S., who were replaced by "British auxiliary territorials."

In late 1949 Sumner Welles indicated that he would be willing to sell the property. His wife, Mathilde, had died in Switzerland, and he no longer wished to retain the house. The Cosmos Club membership authorized the purchase of the building for $364,635 on January 10, 1950.

Alterations and Additions:
A 19'-0" by 24'-0", second-story, tin-roofed north addition was made to the house in 1904 by the architects, Carrfere and Hastings. Some modifications occurred in the building after 1915 as revealed in a comparison of the present interiors with photographs taken in that year. These changes include: the replacement or removal of the detailing in the first-floor [second-floor] reception and anterooms, and the replacement of the library mantel.

In 1942 the stable was converted into a Service Canteen by the installation of kitchens for the American Women's Army Corps in 1943, the house had to be modified in order to provide for the 150 women stationed there.Dormitory rooms were located on the [second] third, and fourth floors. The dining room became the combined mess and recreation hall, while the library was turned into the officers' dining room.

Extensive modifications were made after the purchase of the property by the Cosmos Club in 1950. Seventeen architect members of the Cosmos Club formed a group called "The Associated Club Architects." A contract dated May 10, 1950 provided for a design competition to be held in two stages with a winner to be selected within 60 days. Horace Peaslee was awarded the contract to convert the building for club use.

Peaslee's changes included a new roof, plumbing, wiring, heating, rearrangements of the interior, a modernized kitchen, an enlarged dining room and an auditorium - all for an estimated $390,000. Because of building code requirements, the doorways between the reception room and the ballroom were closed; and the open central stair was closed off from surrounding rooms. In addition, the building was subdivided into fire blocks.

In 1952, a five story north addition (with three third-floor dining rooms and an enlarged Members' Dining Room) was opened. At the time, a west entrance was provided for access to the Ladies Dining Room in the new wing. Eight columns in the Byzantine manner (which had earlier supported arches in a garden pavilion) and an Italianate fountain (which had earlier been set in the garden wall of the coach house) formed the major architectural framework of the new facility. Many parts of the original building were offered for sale after the remodeling was completed. These included marble mouldings, electric fixtures, oak-panelled doors, and ironwork, a list of which is found in the Cosmos Club Bulletin of May 1953.

In 1958 funds were voted to restore murals on the first [second] floor. Henri Courtais of New York was the restoration artist.

The 1960 remodeling for an estimated $408,000 included the modernization of the kitchen areas in the basement including an expanded dining room and lounge for staff; changed the board room and offices into a taproom; enlargement of the original dining room by addition of space for three private rooms covertible into one room; and on the 3rd floor six convertible dining rooms and a new board room.

The Cosmos Club purchased land at 2168 Florida Avenue and at No. 5 Hillyer Court to provide room for the east extension designed by the architect, Frank W. Cole, and completed in May 1962 by the contractor, George Llpscomb and Co.. Further remodeling in 1971 included alterations to the ground floor service area.

Overall dimensions: The three-and-one-half-story-plus-basement structure has flanking two-story wings. The three-bay central pavilion measures 48'-6" on Massachusetts Avenue and 123'-9 1/2" through the dining room to the north wall of the original pantry. The composite bay wings measure 38'-3 1/2" wide, with the east wing 57'-9 1/2" deep and the west wing 62'-8 1/2".

Floor plans: The ground-[first] floor vestibule breaks forward into the entrance hall which is the width of the central pavilion. The entrance hall, containing the main stair, is flanked by the southeast reception room (now partitioned for offices) a northeast storage chamber (now additional offices), the southwest reception room (now the ladies' lounge), and the northwest billiard room (now the ladies' entrance hall). At the north the laundry, storage, kitchen, pantry and servants rooms have been greatly altered by additions and remodeling to accommodate present needs.

The plans indicate the [second-floor] central stair hall was open (now closed) to the rectangular reception hall at the north. The stair and reception hall gave access to the ballroom in the west wing, the library and conservatory (which is now enclosed) in the east wing, the reception and anterooms at the south, and the dining room and pantries at the north.

The principal bedrooms occupy the [third and fourth] floors, with the major suites to the south and the [fourth-floor] servants' quarters to the north or rear.