The Sewall-Belmont House & Museum has reopened after an 11-month overhaul of its rooms and displays.
The landmark headquarters of the National Woman’s Party, right in the shadow of the Capitol and the Supreme Court buildings, closed to bring the house up to date with accessibility laws, new technology, and new interior colors. Before it was rather dark but now it is dominated by a cheerful shade called Stuart Gold.
The new wall panels and cases enable the curators to outline a more complete story. “We now have 250 items out. It was 100 artifacts before and most of that was furniture which didn’t tell the story,” said Elisabeth Crum, the facility’s public programs and outreach manager. Removing much of the heavy furniture has given the rooms a welcome airy atmosphere.
The closure gave the staff time to search for new artifacts. They bought a set of china emblazoned with “Votes for Women,” commissioned by philanthropist and activist Alva Belmont. They are selling reproductions in the gift shop. They also found a set of “Votes for Women” playing cards and a sterling silver spoon created in honor of the 1912 North America Woman Suffrage Association convention.
A donor has lent them a portrait of writer and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman breast-feeding her child by Charles Walter Stetson. They went through their own collections and found some scraps of material that Natalie N. Gray signed in the Occoquan Warehouse in 1917 after her arrest for protesting at the White House.
The wall by the main staircase now displays a lineup of banner poles. “There were originally used to hold the signs during picketing. We have preserved around 50 of the poles. And people can touch them,” said Jennifer Krafchik, the assistant director and director of collections. The historic banners are hung around the house.
Each exhibition room now has substantial wall text that goes behind the individual stories of Susan P. Anthony and Alice Paul. “We want to bring our visitors into the community of women who lived in the house,” said Krafchik. Paul, who founded the party in 1922, lived in the house from 1929-1972. There was room in the mansion for at least 15 renters a night, regardless of political affiliation or lobbying purpose. “This was a place where women could stay when it was not acceptable to say in a hotel alone,” Krafchik said.
Also there’s more room for groups. Two new rooms for meetings and orientations are in the basement, where brick foundations from the 1800s are visible.
Congress paid for the $2 million renovation, and the National Park Service gives the house an annual stipend.
The house and museum at 144 Constitution Ave. N.E. is open from noon-5 p.m. from Wednesday through Sunday.