Anderson House Museum

Historic Site
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Editorial Review

Exhibitionist visits the Anderson House

By Jessica Goldstein
Sunday, Sept. 4, 2011

The Anderson House, formerly the winter home of Larz Anderson III, an American diplomat, and his wife, Isabel, has 50 rooms. The original property had tennis courts, a three-story stable, a carriage house and a walled garden. When it was built in the early 1900s, the house was considered state-of-the-art, decked out with the latest technology: electricity, telephones, elevators and central heating. A national historic landmark, it has been the headquarters of the Society of the Cincinnati since 1938. Today, the house is a museum, library and the society's central office.

Gimme shelter At the turn of the last century, the Andersons decided they wanted a place to host guests "during the season," when Congress was in session. They bought the house in 1905. Fully furnished, it cost $740,000. Larz, a longtime member of the society, intended to bequeath it to serve as the group's headquarters. He was survived by Isabel (10 years his junior), who saw to it that her husband's wish was fulfilled.

Big man on campus Gen. Henry Knox, who weighed 435 pounds and stood about 6-foot-2, founded the Society of the Cincinnati at the end of the Revolutionary War. He began the nonprofit group, now the nation's oldest patriotic organization, by taking up a collection for widows and orphans of the war. It provides free events for the public, including receptions and a concert series, and it maintains the library and museum at the Anderson House.

The society was named for the Roman soldier Cincinnatus. Despite being twice offered positions of power and leadership after battle, Cincinnatus chose to return to his life as a farmer. George Washington - whose refusal of total power recalled Cincinnatus's sacrifice - was elected the society's first president general. After he died in 1799, Alexander Hamilton took over the role.

It's a bird . . . The society's insignia was designed by Maj. Pierre Charles L'Enfant - the L'Enfant who designed the layout of Washington streets. It features an eagle, cast in gold, hanging from a ribbon whose colors are light blue for the United States and white for France, a Revolutionary War ally. Each side of the eagle bears medallions that tell the legend of Cincinnatus.

No girls allowed The all-male society has about 4,000 members. Membership is determined by the regiment in which an ancestor served, and each officer can be represented by only one descendant. Because the society is open only to direct descendants of officers, those who wish to join must provide a genealogy.

Fortune cookie In 1897 at the age of 21, Isabel inherited $17 million from her grandfather William Fletcher Weld, a shipping magnate, making her the richest woman in the United States. She became an active member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Girl Scouts of America and the Red Cross. In addition to her volunteer work, Isabel wrote 25 children's books and 15 travelogues. Every time she finished a kids' book, Larz got her a bronze model of the main character.

Baby, you can drive my car(s) Larz bought a new car every year of his marriage to Isabel - without ever dispensing of the old ones. By the time he died in 1937, he had amassed 33 vehicles.

Project runway Larz's diplomatic uniform, a bolero-style navy jacket trimmed in gold, is on display in the house. The garment is indicative of Larz's personal preference; at the time, American ambassadors serving abroad could design their own court dress.

Book in advance The Anderson House Library specializes in books on the art of war in the 18th century and is open by appointment for research from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. Keep an eye out for David McCullough, who has been known to browse the stacks while cranking out his own books on American history. Rare books, including a first edition of Diderot's Encyclopedia, are stored in the vault.