The Genius of Anderson House: Entertaining on a Regal Scale

By Skip Moskey

The Saloon of Anderson House, Washington, DC, furnished for after-dinner musical performances. Though sometimes called the “ballroom,” the Andersons never gave balls or dances. They called it the “Saloon”, an anglicized form of the Italian “salone” (salon, or drawing room). (Source: Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection, Library of Congress)

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I reviewed the relationship between the architectural form and intended social function of Washington, DC’s Anderson House, which from 1905 until around 1930 was the winter party palace of Larz and Isabel Anderson.  It was a house that was designed, first, to make sure that all who saw or visited it understood that its owners were powerful people of good taste; and second, to entertain select individuals drawn from Washington’s elite society at teas, dinners, cocktail parties, and musical performance.  The house was designed to move guests through an ever-changing interior “landscape” of spaces, rooms, views, and experiences that enhanced the social and gastronomic elements of an evening dinner party or late-night musicale.  Now, Part 2 of this series on “The Genius of Anderson House” shows how that relationship between form and function played out on one particularly glamorous dinner party that the Andersons gave in 1917.

A Dinner Party for Italian Royalty

The lights in and around Anderson House burned brightly on the evening of Friday, May 30, 1917. More than two-dozen servants stood ready to attend to the needs of the thirty very select guests who had been invited to what was without doubt the most important social event of Washington’s social season that year, in the loveliest of Washington’s great houses.  Readying the 50,000-square-foot mansion had been a colossal endeavor. The kitchen had been crowded for days with cooks and scullery girls preparing a menu of delicacies both savory and sweet, all to be served on Friday evening with great formality by livery-clad footmen under the supervision of the English-born butler.  Now all the work was done, and the staff and their master and mistress were ready for the exalted guests to arrive.

The entry way in the forecourt of Anderson House. Guests arriving here were protected from winter winds, overhead precipitation, and the eyes of the general public. (Photo by Skip Moskey.)

One by one, elegant horse-drawn carriages pulled up to the mansion’s front door, protected in an elegant forecourt that provided protection from prying eyes on the sidewalk.  As they alighted from their carriages, footmen helped them to the front door, where they were greeted by the Andersons’ butler.  Larz and Isabel may have been host and hostess for this evening, but the Butler was in charge!

As guests arrived, they were ushered through the mansion’s broad paneled door into the vestible.  There, they came face-to-face with a giant Buddha flanked by bronze Japanese temple lanterns.  If you did not know anything about the Andersons before this moment, you knew at once that they had exotic “Oriental” interests and tastes.

The front vestibule of Anderson House in 1910. The entry hall was intended to immediately convey to visitors that the Andersons were collectors with exotic tastes. (Source: France Benjamin Johnston Collection, Anderson House)

But they did not linger long in the entry way.  They were immediately whisked away through a room called The Choir Stall Room, with old Italian church furnishings arranged around the wall.  But the choir stalls were not the highlight of the room.  The visitors’ eyes were drawn from the dark sombre walnut panels below to bright, colorful ceiling decorated with dozens of medallions, coats of arms, emblems, and cartouches.  I always think of this as Larz’s “bragging room,” where he could show off academic degrees, memberships in academic and patriotic organizations, awards, and decorations.  Though the meaning of these medallions and cartouches might be a bit vague for modern visitors, in 1917, their significance would have been immediately apparent to guests.

Part of the ceiling and frieze of the Choir Stall Room of Anderson House, where Larz made sure visitors knew he was an important and highly-decorated man. (Photo by Bruce Guthrie. Used with permission.)

Once they passed through the “bragging room,” guests arrived in the Grand Staircase Hall, where maids would help the ladies with their coats, and footmen would help the gentlemen. (See photo below.)  The arched doorway in the far left corner led to a ladies lounge, and the one on the right, to a gentleman’s lounge. Once they were ready, guests were escorted up the grand staircase, to begin the evening’s festivities.

The Grand Staircase Hall, Anderson House, 1910. (Photo: Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection, Anderson House)

As guests ascended the grand stairway, they could contemplate the pomp and circumstance depicted in

The mansion’s mahogany-paneled dining room, adorned with priceless Belgian tapestries commissioned by the French King Louis VIII as a gift to the pope’s emissary, Cardinal Barberini, would be an elegant setting for the event.

FBJ-AH-Dining.Room.LOC.3b27281u 2 copy
The Dining Room of Anderson House, Washington, DC, during the Andersons’ lifetime. (Source: Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection, Library of Congress)

The master of the house, former U.S. ambassador to Japan Larz Anderson, had personally selected the wines and cordials from his vast collection in the cellar. The valet and seamstress had been fussing over the Andersons’ formal attire for days, and Isabel Anderson’s massive three-emerald brooch fashioned from a 19th-century Indian turban clip had been polished and waited in the safe. Fresh flowers had been shipped down from the Andersons’ year-round heated greenhouses in a tony Boston suburb, timed to be at their peak of bloom for the party.

Mrs. Larz Anderson in her gown by Charles Frederick Worth (1912).

His Royal Highness The Prince of Udine was to be the guest of honor at this evening’s dinner party. A cousin of Italy’s reigning monarch King Victor Emmanuel III, the prince was one of the most important visitors to the nation’s capital during the 1917 social season. World War I was raging in Europe and the presence of an Italian royal at the Andersons’ dinner table had both political and social import. Twenty years earlier Larz Anderson had served as first secretary at the American Embassy in Rome. He would have been very pleased indeed if any of his guests speculated idly among themselves that he was in some way involved in the conduct of the war – in a behind-the-scenes kind of way.

An Anderson House Menu (Anderson Collection, Society of the Cincinnati)

The prince, accompanied by his country’s ambassador to the United States, Count di Cellere and his wife the Countess, was met by the Andersons at the front door. With great decorum they escorted their honored guests to the reception rooms above, perhaps stopping along the way to admire the monumental painting that dominated the two-story grand staircase, The Triumph of the Dogaressa Marina Foscari by the Spanish artist Jose Villega, a friend of the Andersons. The prince would surely have been pleased by the magnificent scene of 15th-century Venetian pomp and protocol, a metaphor for the elaborate event being staged this evening by Mr. and Mrs. Anderson in his honor.

Ambassador Larz Anderson.

The Andersons, the prince, and the count and countess greeted each guest as they were announced at the top of the staircase. Guests then assembled in the mansion’s elegant drawing rooms to enjoy cocktails and wait for the Andersons and their noble guests to join them. After dinner, the guests descended the mansion’s famous “floating staircase” from the dining room to the vast ballroom below for entertainment. Many more guests had been invited to arrive after dinner to meet the prince and his entourage. Coffee, cigarettes, and cordials added to the late evening’s conviviality.

The “floating stairway” that leads from the dining room of Anderson House to the room that the Andersons called the “Saloon”
(Photo by Skip Moskey)

The next morning, the Washington Post called the Anderson dinner party “a particularly interesting function” because of Larz’s diplomatic past. Larz’s publicist made sure the reporter did not forget other details of his biography. The brief article reminded readers that Larz had married into Boston wealth, had been part of the Taft administration, and had been decorated by the Italian king.

Anderson parties always made good copy.

To learn more about Larz and Isabel Anderson and their fascinating Gilded Age lifestyle, please read Larz and Isabel Anderson: Wealth and Celebrity in the Gilded Age by Stephen T. Moskey, available on Amazon Prime and from your local bookseller.