The Wadsworth House is an enduring reminder of the elegance of Washington society at the turn of the century.
In the early 20th century, it was the winter residence of millionaire gentleman farmer, Herbert Wadsworth from Western New York, and his accomplished wife, Martha Blow Wadsworth from a distinguished St. Louis Family. At the time it was completed in 1902, the Wadsworth House was one of the largest and grandest of the new residences on Massachusetts Avenue. The house was used in 1918 by the local chapter of the Red Cross and thereafter, only sporadically by the family, until it was purchased in 1932 by a group of prominent Washington Women. Through the efforts of Mabel Boardman and the organizing committee, the house was purchased for $125,000 and converted into the Sulgrave Club.
Herbert and Martha Wadsworth were married in 1888, and life on their estate in Avon, New York combined country living with extended stays in Boston, New York City, and Washington. Herbert's life centered around the vast family landholdings in the fertile Genesee Valley. Diminutive with striking red hair, Martha was a remarkable woman, both determined and adventurous. An exceptional horsewoman, she was also a talented pianist, watercolorist, a prolific photographer, and a participant in several rugged expeditions exploring western territories, including Alaska.
Herbert and Martha Wadsworth's decision to build a winter residence in Washington in the 1890's coincided with the interest of many other wealthy Americans in the moderate climate and the social and political vitality of Washington. In the case of the Wadsworths, the longstanding involvement of close relatives in national politics was an additional attraction. Correspondence and newspaper reports indicate Martha was intimately involved in the design, execution, and furnishing of the Beaux-Arts style house. She even went so far as to list herself as the architect on the building specifications. It was believed for a long time that she had hired a draftsman to develop the drawings from her ideas. However, the actual architect responsible for the design, plans, and specifications was George Cary (1859-1945), a prominent Buffalo architect. He was a longtime friend of the Wadsworths, and the architect of a conservatory added to their large, rambling house in Avon.
George Cary was the first Buffalo architect to attend the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He designed many Beaux-Arts style residences in Buffalo and the surrounding area, as well as the Buffalo General Hospital, the Administration Building for the Pierce-Arrow Motor Car Company, and the Buffalo Country Club. At the time he designed the Wadsworth's House, he was one of the most prominent architects in Buffalo, where he is best remembered for his New York State Pavilion at the Pan American Exposition of 1901.
Herbert bought the land on Dupont Circle for $30,000 in 1896. The property was surveyed and the plat sent to George Cary on January 31, 1899. Construction of the house began in February 1900, and was overseen by Charles A. Langley, one of the leading residential contractors in Washington.
The Beaux-Arts style house was built of light yellow Roman brick and cream colored molded terra cotta. Conceived for entertaining, it was cleverly devised to fit its narrow triangular site with bow fronts at the east and west ends, and a primary façade on Massachusetts Avenue. The tripartite division of the principal façade with its rusticated base was highlighted by a large Palladian window over the arched entrance on Massachusetts Avenue. Decorative details, such as the Greek key belt course, heavy egg and dart projecting cornice, and rooftop balustrade gave added dimension to the impressive façade. The house was entered through a porte-cochere which ran through the center of the first floor of the house. Opposite the main door was an "automobile room," one of the first internal garages in the city.
Herbert maintained an office on the first floor of the house, the west oval room facing onto Dupont Circle. On the east side, he had a billiard room and a smoking room, clearly reserved for gentlemen, which Martha referred to as Herbert's "east office." Following the precepts of Beaux-Arts design, the interior grand public spaces were located on the second floor or piano nobile, and the private apartments on the floor above.
At the center of the piano nobile was the great hall which led to the dramatic two-story ballroom with a musicians gallery. This large mirrored room was decorated with Adamesque plaster details and Tiffany-style pendant light fixtures. Also on the piano nobile were the dining room, drawing room, and morning room. The large east oval room on the third floor was Martha's bedroom and adjacent was Herbert's smaller bedroom, as well as three guest rooms, four bath rooms, a sewing room and servant's quarters, which were also located on the fourth floor. The interior of the house was designed with the most modern amenities, and furnished with eclectic decorative details popular at the turn of the century. The colonial Revival details of the reception and morning rooms, contrasted with the Arts and Crafts appearance of the entrance hall with its carved cypress paneling and stained-glass windows in the staircases. Tiffany style light fixtures were used throughout the house.
One of only two remaining mansions on Dupont Circle, the Wadsworth House embodies the elegance of Massachusetts Avenue, and is a significant contributor to both the Massachusetts Avenue and Dupont Circle Historic Districts. It is individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Wadsworth-Sulgrave Historic Preservation Foundations wishes to thank Sharon Collins Park and Judith Lanius for undertaking the research and writing the brochure on which this description was based: "An Historical Perspective: The Wadsworth House."