By Elliot Carter
You may have walked by this stately Beaux Arts mansion on New Hampshire Avenue. That's the Perry Belmont House, built in 1909 for the eponymous millionaire congressman from New York. This pre-WWI aristocratic palace was once a favorite gathering place for Washington's elite and served as a 'guest house' for foreign dignitaries before the government purchased Blair House.
The mansion was designed by renowned Parisian architect Ernest Sanson and constructed for a cool $500,000 (more than $12 million in 2016 dollars). The mansard roof and distinctive second story ironwork give the building an international air that blends nicely with Dupont Circle's embassies.
As far as private residences go, the house is enormous. The three story limestone facade occupies an entire (triangular) city block and sits atop an equally sized basement and subbasement, complete with an underground squash court. When it was built, reporters said that it made the White House look tiny.
The residence's primary function was for entertaining and the Belmonts only lived there during the winter, which was considered Washington's "social season." The Belmont's relatively small living quarters on the first floor were dwarfed by the 25-foot second floor that housed dining rooms and ballrooms.
These reception spaces were decked out in Gilded Age luxury. The ornate ceiling in the state dining room was taken from a Venetian palace and according to the Washington Star, the “800-year-old mantel was taken from another palace in Italy.” Persian rugs, Tiffany vases and hundreds of thousands of dollars in gold leaf trim complete the look.
Perry Belmont was the grandson of Commodore Matthew Perry, and the son of August Belmont, a financier for the House of Rothschild. His wife Jessie was an active Suffragette. Perry was a successful banker, and served in the House of Representatives for seven years on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Perry's signature legislative priority was domestic, not foreign. He was an early advocate for campaign finance reform and the "publicity of election expenditures.
The Belmonts were most active in Dupont Circle during the 1880s when Perry was in Congress. The New Hampshire Avenue mansion was frequently closed up in later years as they split their time between Newport, New York City, and European travel.
Old money families like the Belmonts were hard hit by the 1929 stock market implosion. That same year the Washington Post tactfully noted that the Belmont's had retired from "the ballroom and the receiving line for more restful pursuits close to nature." The mansion at 1618 New Hampshire Avenue quietly went onto the market.
Four years passed without any takers. In 1933 the Washington Post reported that Perry personally lobbied the District Zoning Commission in an attempt to subdivide the house into apartments.
“Declaring that he did not want to see the handsome structure … stand as ‘a monument to the Depression,’ Mr. Belmont explained that he wished to convert it into a half-dozen deluxe apartments for use of a restricted clientele without altering the building’s distinctive, architectural design. Mr. Belmont said he could neither rent nor sell the spacious mansion … and his project would provide temporary work for a few unemployed men.”
The Zoning Commission blocked his request and a year later Perry sold the property at an enormous loss to the Order of the Eastern Star (a social order like the Freemasons that conducts charitable work.) The OES acquired the $500,000 house for a bargain $100,000.
Under the OES, the Perry Belmont House was transformed into the “world headquarters of the General Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, or more succinctly, the International Temple.
They use the building for social events, office space, and as a residence for the Right Worthy Grand Secretary. They refurbished the interior decades ago and have maintained the house's historical look. In 2015 the DC Preservation League presented the OES with an Award of Excellence in Historic Preservation for their stewardship.
John Foreman from New York Social Diary got a peek inside a few years ago and took dozens of beautiful photos, a few of which are below: