James Monroe House Thrives Thanks to Arts Club of Washington
At 2017 I St., NW, on the short stretch that merges into Pennsylvania Avenue, a federal-style house of extraordinary historical significance stands sandwiched between two looming modern high-rises. That seemingly out-of-place dwelling is the James Monroe House—home of the fifth American president, the place where U.S. foreign policy was defined through the Monroe Doctrine, and the temporary White House where President Monroe held his inaugural reception following the destruction of the White House by the British in 1812.
But the Monroe House might not be standing there at all except for the efforts of a group of artists seeking a place to paint, perform and play. In 1916, the Arts Club of Washington purchased and took up residence in the house, enabling this historic property’s survival through America’s urban renewal movement. That survival was ensured when the James Monroe House was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1969. As beckoning as it was almost 100 years ago, the Arts Club—the oldest nonprofit arts organization in the city—today is an oasis in the heart of Washington for painters, sculptors, writers, musicians and anyone who simply loves the arts.
James Monroe, U.S. president from 1817 to 1825, was not an artist but rather a highly respected soldier. According to club historian Hal Matson, Monroe never owned the I Street property but rented it from a Philadelphia owner who did not want to sell it. A Virginia native, Monroe would develop strong tastes for foreign finery and custom. As the first U.S. minister to France in the late 1700s, Monroe came to love all things French, including art, furniture, china, food and the language—a penchant that was criticized in his own country.
Indeed, after George Washington recalled Monroe from his post, he and his wife, Elizabeth, supposedly rarely spoke English to one another, preferring to use French. Elizabeth Monroe was an important hostess and a friend of Dolley Madison, wife of U.S. President James Madison, who often spent the night at the Monroe House. The small bedroom Madison used is now the club library.
The Monroe House consists of the original house, built in 1802, and an addition that was created in 1806. The original house faced K Street and had six outbuildings, including a bakery, latrine, ash house, stables and a yard that extended all the way down to K Street. With the 1806 addition, the front door opened onto I Street, and what was previously part of the front yard is now an outdoor patio and garden with large shade trees, which the club uses for outdoor performances and other social events.
The Arts Club has maintained the décor from Monroe’s days as much as possible. White walls on the first floor were painted over with the preferred colors of the early 1800s, including aqua blue and a dark red that is almost maroon. Mrs. Monroe’s dinner parties were legendary in Washington society, and today the Arts Club serves its members lunches and dinners on china copied from one of the patterns used by the Monroe family. For perhaps the ultimate time travel, members and their guests can rent overnight accommodations in two upstairs bedrooms with windows facing I Street.
After Monroe’s time there, the house was leased to the British Legation from 1820 until 1831, after which it became a fashionable boarding house. Then in 1908, it housed the St. John’s School for Girls. Finally in 1915, the Art and Archaeology League of Washington and the Society of Washington Artists met to discuss combining their clubs, culminating in the purchase of the Monroe House in 1916 with funds raised from an auction at the old Willard Hotel.
From its inception, the Arts Club was one of the most important art venues in Washington—not just in visual arts, but for sculpture, music, drama and poetry. Unlike many other groups, the Arts Club immediately admitted women as full-fledged members.
Henry K. Bush-Brown, considered the father of American sculpture, was the club’s first president, and his huge bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln sits in the club library, while Bush-Brown’s own portrait is in the lower front parlor. Painted by his wife Lydia, the portrait is considered a significant American painting. The Arts Club also owns portraits by important American artist Mathilde Leisenring.
Throughout the years, notables such as actresses Tallulah Bankhead and Claudette Colbert visited the club. During the Prohibition Era of the late 1920s and early ’30s, for those uncomfortable in a speakeasy, the private Arts Club was a safe, more upscale haven to drink alcohol. Bankhead was known to bring her friend F. Scott Fitzgerald to visit the club for that purpose.
Today, the Arts Club offers a stunning range of activities for members and the public in a setting that is meant for socializing and discussing the arts. Juried art shows, including submissions from the public, are exhibited each month, and each year for several months, members’ works are also displayed throughout the club. In addition, an annual book award is given to a writer for an outstanding layman’s book about the arts. A free noon concert series each Friday features vocalists and chamber musicians, a number of which have international backgrounds. The club also has two grand pianos for use by members and an art studio in the attic of its adjoining Victorian townhouse. Frequent lunches and dinners are given at the club for members and their guests, and the Arts Club offers rental and catering services to the public.
Legend has it that President James Madison once rode his horse through the front door of the Monroe House and out the back door to join his wife Dolley and the Monroes in their flight to Virginia to escape British troops invading Washington that day. But perhaps there’s an easier way to escape political turmoil—by focusing on the arts—and no setting could be better for that than the revolutionary Monroe’s own house.
The Arts Club of Washington 2017 I St., NW For more information, please call (202) 331-7282 or visit www.artsclubofwashington.org.
About the Author
Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.