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Historical Marker Plaque Dedicated at Cosmos Club; Prototype for More to Come

By Anthony L. Harvey

Images accompanying this feature can be viewed in the current issue PDF

January 30th saw the celebration by local historic preservationists of the installation of an historical plaque on the front fence of the Cosmos Club, Washington’s pre-eminent social and intellectual organization located on Massachusetts Avenue between Q Street and Florida Avenue. Gathered in front of the club for the occasion were Dupont Circle Conservancy members led by the conservancy’s president, architect Rauzi Ruhana Ally — recently nominated by Mayor Vincent Gray to membership on the DC Historic Preservation Review Board — and Cosmos Club member and Chairman of its Garden Committee, Catholic University architecture, landscape, and urban planning professor Iris Miller.

Located in the magnificent, historic former Townsend mansion, this structure was built at the exact turn of the 19th century between 1899 and 1901 on the foundations and one basement wall of the 1873 Curtis Hillyer mansion by Mary Scott Townsend and Richard Townsend. According to family lore, retention of the Hillyer foundations and basement wall were necessitated by Mary Townsend’s superstition that bad things would come to anyone who built — and lived in — an entirely newly constructed home!

The Townsend mansion was designed in the fashionable Beaux-Arts manner by famed New York architects Carrere and Hastings, whose constructed work includes the New York Public Library building at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan, Washington’s Carnegie Institution on 16th Street NW, and the first Senate and House office buildings on Capitol Hill — now named, respectively, the Russell and Cannon Senate and House Office Buildings. Landscape plans for the new dwelling on its one-acre site were provided to Mary Scott Townsend by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.

The Cosmos Club was formed in 1878 in the M Street, NW home of John Wesley Powell, a Civil War hero who lost an arm at the Battle of Shiloh and who, following the war, achieved extraordinary success as a pioneering explorer and geologist, mapmaker, noted naturalist and Smithsonian Institution ethnographer, and author of scientific and natural history and ethnographic volumes papers for Smithsonian Bureaus and Federal agencies. Powell also served as the director of both the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnography and the U.S. Geological Survey. It would be 72 years before the Cosmos Club occupied its present quarters in the modified and expanded mansion, where Mrs. Townsend lived until her death in 1930.

The Townsend’s only child, daughter Mathilde, and her husband Sumner Welles –- President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Undersecretary of State during Roosevelt’s second and third terms — occupied the mansion in the 1930s and 1940s. Upon daughter Mathilde’s death in 1949, Welles sold the mansion to the Cosmos Club the following year.

What we today would be called a design competition for the adaptive reuse of the house as the Cosmos Club’s new residence — its quarters on Lafayette Square having been sold to the federal government at its request — was awarded to architect Horace W. Peaselee, a long-time Cosmos Club member who was well known in Washington for his much admired design of Meridian Hill Park. The renovation and adaptation of the building together with rear additions was completed in 1952, whereupon the club formally occupied its new home.

The Cosmos Club historic plaque, in a blue, color-coded palette, is hoped to be the first of many Washington historic site plaques. The second plaque being worked on is proposed for the Washington Club located on Dupont Circle, with a third site being contacted shortly. All sites are being selected from structures and sites listed on the DC Register of Historic Places, according to Jane Freundel Levey, Chief Historian and director of Cultural Tourism’s Heritage Trail program. Levey noted in an e-mail to The InTowner that this new signage program has been inspired by the success of Cultural Tourism DC’s African Heritage Trail program, which has 100 historic signs located all around the city. And among those actively supporting Cultural Tourism’s program are the District’s Historic Preservation Office and the Dupont Circle Conservancy.