The mansion is empty and echoing now, broom-clean for the real estate closing, and the ladies of the Washington Club are waiting patiently upstairs with a pitcher of ice water and a few more stories to share.
To meet them, take the elevator — one of the oldest in the city, elegantly paneled, sized like a telephone booth, a tad balky. Better yet, take the marble double staircase, a showpiece by renowned architect Stanford White, on which newspaper heiress Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson and countless Washington debutantes floated up to the ballroom.
Take in the French windows and the spectacular balcony overlooking Dupont Circle, then climb to the third floor, where Patterson, Calvin Coolidge and Charles Lindbergh once slept.
Up here is the boardroom, where some of the most influential women of Washington met for six decades.
“Time has marched on,” says club historian Edith B. Walter, who is seated with two fellow members at a small table holding archives of the club’s glory days. “You just outgrow your time.”
After 123-years, the private club is pulling its own plug with both a whimper and a bang. It has quietly ceased functioning as a social entity: no more Tuesday lunches, games of whist and bridge, lectures by authors and ambassadors. But it’s setting a real estate record: The club just sold the mansion known as Patterson House for $20 million — the most expensive noncommercial property in Washington this year. After taxes, proceeds from the sale will be divided among current members.
The mansion will carry on as 90 luxury “micro-apartments,” exquisitely diminutive crash pads-à-terre of modern urban living. From ladies’ club to luxe lair, the transformation could hardly be more emblematic of the latest reinvention of Washington. But the future, like the mansion, is inextricably linked to the past.
In an era when women were overshadowed by their husbands, Elizabeth Blair Lee — daughter and sister to presidential advisers — wanted a place to nurture social, intellectual and civic engagement of women. Such an organization was unheard of in the nation’s capital in 1891, when the club was launched. It was almost radical.
“The progress of our club has been more steady and far better than I anticipated, for we had many superstitious prejudices to live down, beside the suggested slur of uselessness,” Lee told members a few years after she became the club’s first president. “We learn to know each other and to enjoy a real social life, and to the amazement of most of mankind, with nothing more stimulating than a cup of tea.”
Early members included Mabel Hubbard (wife of Alexander Graham Bell); Elsie Bell Grosvenor, who led a protest at the Capitol for women’s suffrage; Edith Galt Wilson (wife of Woodrow Wilson), who was a dues-paying member as first lady and until her death in 1961. To be allowed to join, a woman needed two sponsors in the club, though the admissions committee made the final call. In the last few years, annual dues reached $2,500.
The club first met in prominent downtown hotels, then purchased two properties before settling on the Patterson House in 1951. “Since the club’s acquisition of the property,” a local newspaper reported at the time, “the D.C. mansion has become one of the favorite spots for debuts, and during the holiday season, hardly a day has gone by without luncheons, tea dances and other gala events scheduled there.”
But times changed. The days when most society women didn’t work outside the home gave way to women with professional careers. The working women who did join private clubs tended to prefer to integrate the retreats of their male counterparts or join the Sulgrave Club, Washington’s other well-known women’s club, which is going strong with a waiting list and millions in revenue.
Other issues: The Washington Club was primarily a daytime gathering place and did not have amenities like a gym, swimming pool or full-time dining. The costs of maintaining the mansion rose while membership faltered — dropping from 700 in the mid-1960s to just 94 this year. The women were getting older. (Most of the current members are of a certain age, none willing to provide a number.) And, as in most private clubs in Washington, almost all the members were white.
The club tried to boost membership and find new sources of revenue. Men were given “club privileges,” starting with the husbands of members in 1979. There was an effort to convert into a charity, which would have allowed it to receive tax-exempt donations. The club was rented out for weddings, and it even tried leasing air rights, which would have allowed developers to build taller structures nearby. But some members resisted more dramatic changes in the club’s activities to attract contemporary women.
“We tried, we tried, we tried,” says Walter, a member for decades, as was her mother. “We could not come up with a good answer.”
For the past several years, there’s been talk of dissolving the club, and there are those who still think innovative management could have saved it. “The closing has to be regarded as not inevitable and certainly not an indication of the general health of civic things in Washington,” says Paul Rich, who joined about eight years ago. “This is a sad day, and it’s a warning about relevance.”
Current president Priscilla Baker says it was just not possible to save the club. “Certainly in the last 10 years or so, anybody taking a good look at the books would know that the end was approaching rapidly. . . . We had to act quickly to bring things to a halt in an orderly fashion.”
A “last hurrah” formal dinner was held a year ago this month with relatives of Elizabeth Blair Lee, Cissy Patterson and Stanford White in attendance. The club’s archives are being transferred to the Washingtoniana collection of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
“It’s part of my life and I hate to lose it,” says Barbara Bowie-Whitman, who held her wedding reception at the club. “And so do women of my vintage who have daughters and hoped one day to have their daughter’s wedding reception here. That’s been lost.”
TTR Sotheby’s International Realty listed the mansion for $26 million last year, calling it suitable for an embassy, a foundation or “once again, as a personal residence.”
But today’s millionaires don’t live in the over-the-top style of the Gilded Age: 36,470 square feet and four stories of white marble and terra cotta designed by White for Robert Patterson, editor of the Chicago Tribune, and his wife, heiress Elinor “Nellie” Medill Patterson, daughter of the newspaper’s owner. Like most new homes, it went over budget, costing an extravagant $200,000 (about $5 million in today’s dollars) when it was finished in 1903.
Less home than showpiece, the house was built to impress and entertain: Grand salons, mirrored ballroom, 16 bedrooms, impressive art and antiques. Nellie kept a full staff but spent most of her time in Chicago, finally deeding the house to daughter Cissy in 1923. Four years later, Cissy loaned it to Coolidge while the White House was being renovated; the president and first lady hosted Charles Lindbergh there after his triumphant trans-Atlantic flight in 1927.
After Cissy’s death in 1948, the house went to the Red Cross, which sold the property and original furnishings to the Washington Club in 1951 for a reported $450,000.
When club members began to think about selling, they knew they were sitting on a prime piece of real estate. But it was tricky: buyers had to preserve the exterior (a protected landmark) but could update the interior and remove an undistinguished 1956 addition. Embassies looked at but eventually passed on the property. A deal to turn the mansion into a boutique hotel was rejected by the Historic Preservation Review Board.
Then SB-Urban, a company headed by local developers B.F. Saul III and Michael Balaban, submitted a proposal to turn the property into approximately 90 furnished micro-apartments: 400-square-feet luxury units, most located in a seven-story glass addition built behind the mansion. The home’s original two public floors would be preserved as common areas. Saul declined to comment on the project.
All things considered, it’s the best option for Dupont Circle, says Mike Feldstein, ANC commissioner and chair of the community involvement committee. “If it were up to me, I wouldn’t change a thing. I think it’s beautiful the way it is. But progress is progress.”
Who gets the money from the sale? The 94 current members. After taxes, fees and expenses, they’ll split about $8 million of the $20 million sales price, according to Rich. The 65 resident members, who paid higher annual dues, will receive larger shares than non-resident members.
“It’s not the kind of thing the founders would have approved of,” says Rich. “I don’t believe that the people who started it or worked for it through the years intended just to earn equity for a small group of people.” He says he plans to donate his share to charity.
John Matteo, the club’s attorney, would not confirm Rich’s estimate of $8 million, saying only that substantial capital gains taxes and other expenses will take a sizable chunk of the $20 million. Members say they supported the sale only after other solutions failed and thatpersonal profit was never the motive.
“We don’t have the vaguest idea what that money is going to look like,” says Baker. “Nobody’s rushing to the bank.”
Over the past year, the club emptied the mansion of the antiques and furnishings — many of them original to the Pattersons. The better pieces were auctioned off at Sloans & Kenyon: A Qing Dynasty celadon jade vase went for $16,000, two Queen Anne gilt-framed mirrors for $10,000, a Tiffany silver vase for $4,500. Less valuable items were sold off at a silent auction for members and their friends or donated to charity.
One morning this month, the mattress that Lindbergh — as legend goes — slept on during his famous visit to the mansion was piled near an exit with some other items to be hauled away. It was striped and pretty ordinary looking. Poster-size displays depicting highlights of the club’s history were stacked nearby. One was from the centennial celebration in 1991, which also marked the club’s 40th anniversary in the mansion.
It praised the women who had worked to purchase, renovate and maintain “this lovely house” and made the charge of the current members clear: “Our challenge today is to build on their example and ensure the continued maintenance and preservation of this unique treasure.”
They succeeded, although not in the way they expected. The property was turned over to the new owners Monday; 17 members of the Washington Club are moving to the University Club.
The mansion, says member Linda Glew, “will still be here as a showplace on the circle.”