By Jonny Grave
Dominating the awning of an immense mansion on Massachusetts Ave. are three flags: The French tricolor, the American flag, and a blue and white-striped flag with the same layout as the American counterpart. The field that would hold the stars on the American counterpart is white on this peculiar flag, filled in with a crested eagle insignia. The stone wall facing the street reads “Society of the Cincinnati,” with a small sign stuck in the grass before it, reading “Open Monday through Saturday, 1pm to 4pm.”
And from the gravel walkway, visitors may enter the house that was once home to Larz and Isabel Anderson, and now serves as the headquarters for the Society of the Cincinnati.
I’ve been here before. I made my first visit to the Anderson House last year, because their museum had original drawings and plans of the District of Columbia from the pages of Pierre L’Enfant. After seeing the exhibit, I found the building irresistible and I couldn’t help but stick around for a tour of the entire house.
The tour typically follows the path that a visitor would have walked on the night of one of the Andersons’ ridiculous parties. In their own day, these parties were beyond what most would consider a gathering of the elite. Isabel and Franz were one of the District’s first power-couples, and a party at their house off Embassy Row was akin to a dinner with John and Jackie in Martha’s Vineyard.
If you take the tour, just try to imagine yourself in a ball gown or tuxedo, walking first through the Florentine choir chairs, then into the grand hall with the fireplace. The walls are adorned with what looks like carved limestone. But as you get closer, the ornamentations become increasingly two-dimensional. This is a method called “trompe l’oeil,” (literally translated: “trick of the eye”). The intricate carvings are not carvings at all; just a series of highly detailed brushstrokes to make a flat wall look three-dimensional. That’s right. The Andersons are fucking with you.
It’s evident at every turn on the tour through the house. This place was built to entertain guests, and part of the entertainment was being fooled without even realizing it. The stately dining room features a false door built into a wall, just to add symmetry to the room. The embellished crenelations on the ceiling aren’t plaster. They’re papier-mâché. Even the picture-perfect Versailles-style furniture in the receiving room is fake– Isabel hated antique furniture because it never lasted. If you were to turn the chairs upside-down, the underside of the seat would read “Boston, Mass.”
But, were the Andersons just mindless millionaires who had nothing to do with their time but entertain guests? Quite the contrary. Larz was the first American to rise from the bottom-most rung in the Diplomatic Corps to the top. He started as the second secretary to the American legation in London, and finished as an ambassador to Japan. Similarly, Isabel was born into a wealthy family, but was awarded the Red Cross Service Medal, the Croix de Guerre, and the Medal of Elisabeth for her efforts in caring for the wounded during the Great War. The Andersons never had children, and instead spent their better years traveling the world, and bringing back what they found to their home in Dupont.
Larz also belonged to a somewhat secret society called the Society of the Cincinnati, the organization to which Isabel donated their home after Larz’s death. Would the readers hailing from the Buckeye state care to venture a guess as to how Cincinnati, Ohio got its name? I grew up thinking it was an American Indian name. In fact, the city of Cincinnati is named after the Society of the Cincinnati, which was named after Roman Magister Populi, Lucius Quincitus Cincinnatus.
The Society of the Cincinnati was founded shortly after the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783. American and French officers decided that the bonds of friendship and alliance should not end with the defeat of England, and set up an organization to preserve these bonds, and to preserve the memory of the American Revolution. With these bonds, the members sought to develop the fledgling nation into a developed, sustainable, and thriving country.
If one were to look back at some of the key figures in early American history, they will never be too far from a member of the Society. 32 Society members signed the Constitution. Much of the territories west of the Appalachians were settled by the Society. Even Washington himself was the first President General of the Society, a title passed on to Larz Anderson as he rose through the ranks.
You’ll see portraits of Larz all over the house, but rarely is he by himself. He’s flanked by portraits of his father and great-grandfather in the study, but he’s usually seen next to his wife, Isabel. The couple was undoubtedly very much in love. There are gold figurines, adorning a credenza in the dining room– each statue is modeled after characters from Isabel’s award-winning children’s books. Larz was proud of his own accomplishments, but he was evidently equally proud of his wife.
Anderson House is not just a mansion built to show off the wealth of its inhabitants. It was a home for a couple that loved nothing more than traveling the world, collecting art, entertaining guests, giving to charitable organizations, and being together. It is now a home for an organization that strives to preserve and protect the history of this nation’s Revolution.
Oh, and keep an eye out for the secret passageway before the dining room. Not even kidding– just look for the small knot in the door frame.