Perry Belmont House

1618 New Hampshire Avenue, Washington D.C.

Completed in 1909, for Perry Belmont (1851-1947) and his wife, the former Mrs Jessie (Robbins) Sloane (1858-1935). It was the first American commission of the internationally acclaimed French architect, Ernest-Paul Sanson, while the build itself was entrusted to Philadelphia's rising star, Horace Trumbauer. Its unusual design both inside and out allowed it to fit on a triangular wedge of land off Dupont Circle and it was purposefully built with a mind to entertaining on a grand scale. It is an "Hôtel Particulier" (the French expression for a grand townhouse) in its own right and would blend seamlessly onto any of Paris's most fashionable avenues. Since 1935, it has been immaculately maintained by the Order of the Eastern Star and is undoubtedly one of the most distinctive and grandiose of all the mansions built during America's Gilded Age....

This house is best associated with...

Perry Belmont

Perry Belmont, U.S. Congressman from New York

1851-1947

Jessie (Robbins) Belmont

Mrs Jessie Ann (Robbins) Sloane, Belmont

1858-1935

Perry Belmont was the eldest son of the man that the all-powerful Rothschild family paid handsomely to manage their financial interests in America, and having established his own bank to do so he didn't do too badly when it came to his own investments. Like his father, Perry Belmont was a Democrat and he served in Congress for seven years. Among the petitions successfully passed by him was one, “signed very numerously by a certain class of people from New York,” that saw all import taxes scrapped on, “foreign paintings, of every kind, and all foreign statuary”. No doubt Belmont found himself the receiver of many a hearty back-clap and several sage nods back in the clubrooms of Manhattan! By 1888, he was Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, resigning that year to fill-in as Grover Cleveland's Minister to Spain after the premature departure of Jabez Curry.

His wife, Jessie, was the daughter of the man who walked 80-miles from Poughkeepsie to Manhattan to answer a "help wanted" advert for a drug importing company. Twenty years later, he was a made a partner in what then became McKesson & Robbins and is now known as McKesson Corps, ranked 8th on the Fortune 500 last year. As for Jessie, in 1899 she and Perry sent shockwaves through Gilded Age New York when they were married just five hours after her husband of the previous 17-years, Henry T. Sloane, divorced her.

Iron-Walled to Washington

In 1902, they purchased 580 Fifth Avenue in New York for the unobstructed view it enjoyed down 47th Street. But, when they began adding extra windows to take advantage of the view and the extra light it afforded, their neighbor - Mrs J.P. Gouin - took offence at this incursion on her privacy and promptly applied to have an iron fence erected that would negate every reason for which they'd bought the house in the first place! Despite assurances that the wall would be "an architectural triumph," the Belmonts did not share this optimism and began to spend increasingly more time in Washington and Europe.

In 1906, Perry Belmont was elected President of the National Publicity Bill Organization that fought for campaign finance disclosure. Having become, "so attached to Washington as a place of residence," it then came of little surprise when in the same year they announced their plans to build something spectacular in the capital over New York.

Sanson Signs On

It is often said that Belmont chose to employ the famous French architect Ernest Sanson because as U.S. Minister to Spain in 1888-89 he had been "elegantly housed" in the magnificent Sanson-designed Palacio de los Duques de Montellano in Madrid. While the palace did serve as the U.S. Embassy in Spain, that was in the 1930s and 1940s and it was only designed by Sanson in 1900. As Belmont himself put it, his decision to use Sanson was because, "during our visits to Europe we had seen many (of his) residences".

Belmont went on to say that, "Sanson at first refused to undertake the project as he did not wish to engage in work so far away from his office and he did not believe he could trust his design to others for execution". But as it happened, Sanson's son, Maurice, had been practicing as an architect in Philadelphia for over a decade and was well-acquainted with one Horace Trumbauer; and, so it was that Sanson Jr. recommended Trumbauer to Sanson Sr. who recommended him to Belmont - quite unaware that Trumbauer was the same architect employed by Belmont in 1902 for his renovations at 580 Fifth Avenue!

Washington à la Paris

In 1906, Belmont paid $90,000 for a triangular wedge of land bounded by New Hampshire Avenue, Eighteenth & R Streets - one of the last remaining slices of undeveloped real estate in the vicinity of Dupont Circle. Having more than sufficiently recompensed Sanson Sr. for both his designs and concerns, his work was converted into an architectural plan by Trumbauer's new assistant, Julien Abele (one of the country's first African-American architects), and this was in fact the first task assigned to him in his new role. Trumbauer himself oversaw the build personally (particularly welcome to have had the work after the Banker's Panic of 1907) while Maurice-Pierre Sanson took care of all the administrative details. Construction started in April, 1907, and it was finished by Christmas, 1909.

The end result was not limited to admiration merely on this side of the Atlantic. The Belgian Prince Henri-Florent de Ligne (Secretary of the Belgian Legation in Washington D.C.) was very familiar with Sanson's work in both Belgium and Paris and on visiting the Belmont house declared that it was equal to anything that Sanson had ever done. Martin Becker of the acclaimed interior decorators, Alavoine of Paris, heaped his praise for the house on Abele: "Every line he drew had an authenticity you didn't expect to find in this country... He had that rare kind of taste you trust absolutely; he and Trumbauer both". 

The "Upside-Down" House

The 54-room mansion cost $1.3 million and stood three-stories high over a two-story basement, maintained by a team of 34-servants. It was unusual from several perspectives: all but perfectly triangular in shape, there is only one square room in the house and despite its many rooms there are only three bedrooms: one for Mr Belmont, one for Mrs Belmont, and just one guest room. It was often referred to as "the upside-down house" due to its layout: the Belmont's lived and slept in their private quarters on the 1st (Ground) floor while the four State Rooms from which they entertained were on the 2nd ("Piano nobile") floor. The third floor was the domain of the live-in servants with 14-bedrooms and further rooms for storage etc. Beneath all of this was the double basement, the upper floor of which contained the kitchens - and a squash court - while the sub-level was given over to the mechanics of the house and yet more storage. Despite its outward hue of antiquity, the Belmont House was the first to be fully electrified in the capital.

"Le Goût Rothschild"

The interior followed what was known as "Le Goût Rothschild" - "the preferred taste" of Europe's pre-eminent banking dynasty, the Rothschild family - which brought together the French styles of Louis XIV, XV and XVI in one decadent display. Through Belmont's father's long-standing business connections with the Rothschilds and his insistence on hiring the most sought-after French architect, this choice was not a coincidence for the man who spoke, wrote, and read French, "like the most cultivated Parisian".

The detailed facades are made of Indiana limestone and every feature seen is hand-carved. Sanson was well-known for his magnificent staircases, and the one seen here at the Belmont House does not disappoint. The main entrance on New Hampshire Avenue leads into a domed, circular hall and onto the marble staircase both of which are encased in highly-prized Caen stone. Sanson had instructed the stone to be granulated and pulverized in France before being shipped to America and then reconstituted and moulded on-site.

While there was precious little green space left to landscape after the house had been built, it is testament to Belmont's dedication to authenticity that he hired the services of Achille Duchêne, the French landscape artist who had already collaborated with Sanson at the Palais Rose in Paris and would do so later again at Carolands in California.

Inside, the Piano nobile - the principal (second) floor - with 25-foot high ceilings throughout is comprised of four State Rooms and is dedicated entirely to entertaining: the marble and red silk walls of the Venetian Dining Room are crowned by a ceiling taken from a Venetian palazzo and the 500-year-old marble mantelpiece also originates from Italy. The 78-foot long Ballroom with musician's balcony doubles as an Art Gallery, and the stunning domed, coffered, and gold leaf trim Music Room is supposed to be the finest example of a Neo-Rococo room in the city, inspired by the early 18th-century 'Salon de la Princesse' at the Hôtel de Soubise in Paris. In the Grand Salon, artists were shipped over from Paris just to complete the exquisitely painted birds in the chinoiserie-style on its panelling while the crystal chandelier above is one of the largest in the capital.

Even the elevator that glided between its five floors oozed wealth: oval in shape, it was panelled in gilded oak and it's amusing to consider that perhaps the chaplain sent here every Sunday to perform an Episcopal service in the Music Room might have sat there whistling to himself on his way up to administer to his flock! As for the Belmonts, for two months every winter they didn't so much as live here, they reigned here.

Powerful Enemies

The Belmont's first big splash onto the social scene - "one of the most expensive entertainments known to Washington society" - took place in 1906 from their rented house on Scott Circle while construction of their show home was still taking place. But, with Perry leading the fight for finance disclosure; Jessie holding aloft the banner of suffragism; and, the more rigid members of the aristocracy still smarting about the circumstances behind their marriage, not everybody was enamored with the Belmonts and 'everybody' in this case meant First Lady Mrs Theodore Roosevelt and her inner circle.

From Scott Circle, the Belmont's hosted a musicale with the acclaimed Italian tenor Enrico Caruso; internationally renowned Operatic Soprano Bessie Abbot; and, Belgian cellist Jean Gérardy who played with the world-famous 1711 Stradivari - the most valuable cello in the world, valued today at $20 million. Three hundred highly-prized invitations were sent out, but the "smart set" of Dupont Circle (Mrs Roosevelt etc.) were noticeably not included.

Politically, Perry Belmont had long been a vocal opponent of Theodore Roosevelt. So, coupled with the scandal that had surrounded their marriage, the First Lady never extended an invitation to receive the Belmonts at the White House, and not only that, she also forbade the wives of her husband’s Cabinet members from attending anything hosted by the Belmonts. In 1907, when he was "blackballed" from entry into the Chevy Chase Hunt of which his brother-in-law, Samuel Shaw Howland Jr., was a co-founder and should have been a shoe-in for him as one of the country's most prominent names in all things equine, Belmont's suspicions fell upon the Roosevelts: he suspected the hand of Mrs Roosevelt's private secretary (who as editor of the Social Register had already ensured their omittance from that year's publication) and the President's friendship with Thomas Nelson Page whose austere mansion happened to overlook theirs on R Street. It was unlikely a co-incidence that the Belmont house was built with its rear facing Page's!

"The Opening Wedge"

The city's long-standing aristocracy jokingly referred to the Belmont home as "the opening wedge" in reference both to its shape and that it allowed them to 'wedge open' their entrance back into society. That may have been the case, but for two months of winter every year through Washington's social season there was certainly no shortage of the world's most influential people queuing up here to enjoy the famously lavish hospitality laid on by the Belmonts - which included getting a glimpse of Mrs Belmont's jewellery. Aside from the value of her own collection, she was also asked to model Tiffany's finest diamonds and on another occasion she wore the legendary Hope Diamond.

In the days before Blair House was the Presidential guesthouse, the Belmonts frequently offered their home to visiting dignitaries. Among those who stayed here were the Prime Minister of Italy, the President of Brazil and a Naval mission from Japan - when no doubt Perry Belmont took great delight in serving them on the silver dinner service awarded to his grandfather, Commodore Perry, for opening up the ports of Japan to U.S. trade!

If the Belmont's had once struggled for social acceptance, by November, 1919, their position was unassailable after they played host to the Prince of Wales for his 10-day visit to Washington. The young Prince had been invited to stay at the White House but Woodrow Wilson fell ill and the Prince chose to stay at the Belmont's rather than at the old British Embassy on Connecticut Avenue. Aside from the general social whirl as he blew from party to party, a ceremony was held at the mansion to honor several American veterans of the Great War that Britain wished to award with medals of gratitude.

Its Saving Star

From about 1919, the Belmonts began to extend their stays in Paris so that each year their season in Washington became progressively shorter until they stopped coming for good in 1925. Four years later, the Wall Street Crash hit Belmont's investments hard and the house then quietly made its way onto the market, followed by an auction of much of their furniture and art in 1932. But, the Depression being what it was, their home was too expensive even for an embassy and in 1933 Belmont pushed to have the zoning laws changed so that he might convert the mansion into six luxury apartments. 

Nothing changed by 1935 and whether by now embarrassed or being truly public-spirited, Belmont - now permanently ensconced in a suite of rooms at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris - was determined that the house should not, "stand as a monument to the Depression". That same year (1935), he finally arranged its sale for a mere $100,000 to the Order of the Eastern Star - a Masonic order open to both men and women, as well as those of all faiths. As a freemason himself he was reported to be delighted, particularly as part of the agreement stipulated that the Right Worthy Grand Secretary must live here, ensuring its preservation not only as the Order's headquarters, but also as a private home.

The mansion remains in superb condition as a venue and for arranged tours. Although some small changes were made over the years, The Order have now dedicated themselves to returning the mansion to precisely how it appeared when the Belmonts held court.
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Contributed by Mark Meredith on 03/06/2021 and last updated on 26/06/2021.
Main Image (cropped) Courtesy of David, CC BY 2.0. For a full photographic tour, see Very-U by the late great John Foreman. I am also deeply indebted to Larry von Weigel at the Perry Belmont House Foundation for all his help, fact-checking, and contributions. Quoted sentences are sourced from: Kate Field's Washington, Volume 10, 1894; Paris on the Potomac (2013), by Cynthia R. Field; the Archives of The New York Times & the Washington Star; Julian Abele, Architect & the Beaux-Arts (2019), by Dreck Spurlock Wilson; and, the Perry Belmont Memoirs (1940), by Perry Belmont.

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