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The Fosters: Three Generations of Secretaries of State

By Stephen A. Hansen*

John Watson Foster was born in Petersburg, Indiana in 1836. After graduating from Harvard Law School, he served in the Civil War under both Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Sherman, entering the army as a major and eventually rising to the rank of general. After the war, Foster returned to Indiana and became editor of the Evansville Daily Journal.

During his second term as president and in gratitude for his political support, Grant launched Foster on a life-long diplomatic career with an appointment as Minister to Mexico in 1873 and again in 1880. President James A. Garfield then appointed Foster Minister to Russia, a post he held for only a year. After a brief return to private law practice, President Chester A. Arthur appointed Foster Minister to Spain, where he served until 1885, whereupon he returned to private practice and served as counsel representing foreign diplomatic legations in the United States.

John Watson Foster. photo--U.S. Department of State.

John Watson Foster. photo–U.S. Department of State.

In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Foster Secretary of state to replace James G. Blaine during the last eight months of his administration. Returning again to private practice, Foster represented clients with sealing interests in Alaska.

In 1900, Foster made the move to the Dupont Circle neighborhood and contracted locally prominent architect Clarence Harding to build a four-story home at 1323 18th Street, NW. Five years later, Alexander Graham Bell’s daughter, Daisy, moved just across the street from her father and next door to the Fosters at 1331 18th Street after her marriage to David Grandison Fairchild.

The Foster home at 1323 18th Street, NW. photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The Foster home at 1323 18th Street, NW. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1890, Foster’s daughter, Eleanor, married a legal advisor working at the State Department, Robert Lansing, who would replace William Jennings Bryan as Secretary of State in 1915, when Bryan resigned in protest of Woodrow Wilson’s approach to U.S. neutrality in the war in Europe. The Lansings made 1323 18th Street their permanent home as well, and lived there during Robert’s term as Secretary of State. Foster’s widow, Mary, remained in the house with the Lansings until her death in 1922 at the age of 81. Robert Lansing died in the house in 1928.

Robert Lansing. photo--Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Robert Lansing. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Another of John Watson Foster’s daughters, Edith, married a Presbyterian minister, Allen Dulles, and their children included John Foster Dulles, who also served as U.S. Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Allen Welsh Dulles, the founder and longest-serving director of the CIA. Their daughter Eleanor Lansing Dulles went on to become a noted economist and diplomat.

By 1934, the Foster residence at 1323 18th Street had become home to the Inter-American Institute of Columbus University, and later to the Catholic University School of Law. In 1964, the law school moved to a new building constructed on the university’s campus, claiming that the Foster house was too old and too small. The house was razed in 1974 for a 123-unit apartment building, now known as the Palladium. Unlike the fate of the Foster home and so many other houses in Dupont Circle, the former home of Daisy Bell Fairchild still stands today, adjacent to the Palladium Condominium.

Site of the former Foster residence now occupied by the Palladium. The Fairchild house still stands at 1331 18th Street. photo--Google Street View.

Site of the former Foster residence now occupied by the Palladium. The Fairchild house still stands at 1331 18th Street. photo–Google Street View.

Editor’s note: For more on Dupont Circle’s historic sites, be sure to check out the author’s latest book, A History of Dupont Circle: Center of High Society in the Capital (History Press, August 2014).

*Stephen A. Hansen is an historic preservation specialist, Washington DC historian, author of several books and of the Virtual Architectural Archaeology blog.

© 2014 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Stephen A. Hansen. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.