HOUSE OF HISTORY
by Sonia Pressman Fuentes
As a member of the Board of the National Woman's Party (NWP), I am frequently at its headquarters, the Sewall-Belmont House. It is always an awesome experience to be among the treasures of the House, such as the desks of Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul, NWP's founder; the early American chair used by Elizabeth Cady Stanton; and the portraits, busts, and statues of pioneer feminists.
The Sewall-Belmont House is a red brick building with three dormer windows on a mansard roof at 144 Constitution Avenue Northeast. It's next to the Hart Senate Office Building on the corner of Second Street and Constitution Avenue. One might pass it by, unknowing of its rich past and active present, but it resounds with history. It is one of the oldest houses on Capitol Hill, and it was the residence of a number of prominent people: Albert Gallatin, our fourth Secretary of the Treasury (lessee); Reverdy Johnson, U.S. Senator from Maryland from 1845 to 1879 and Attorney General of the United States from 1849 to 1850 (lessee); Senator Porter H. Dale, U.S. Senator from Vermont (owner); John Strode Barbour, U.S. Senator from Virginia (owner); and Alice Paul, suffragist, NWP's founder and the drafter of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the Constitution (resident).
The history of the House begins with a royal connection, and it is closely associated with the early history of Washington, D.C., and Maryland. In June 1632, King Charles I of England signed a charter, establishing a new English colony. It was named Terra Mariae (the Land of Maria) -- Maryland -- in honor of Charles' wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. The grant for the Colony was given to the second Lord Baltimore, Cecil (or Cecilius) Calvert. Included in the vast tract of land granted to Lord Baltimore was an area known as Jenkins Hill, later known as Capitol Hill. That area included the site of what later became the Sewall-Belmont House.
The second Lord Baltimore never came to Maryland, but he sent his younger brother Leonard there to serve as Governor. Lord Baltimore developed the Maryland Colony by granting tracts of land of fifty to two thousand acres or more to various individuals. On February 12, 1663, he granted the first patent for land to George Thompson, a lawyer, who was Clerk of the Charles County Court. The patent contained eighteen hundred acres consisting of three tracts of land, including the site of the current Sewall-Belmont House. These tracts were known as Duddington Manor (also written as "Mannor"), Duddington Pasture and New Troy. Thomas Notley, who later became Deputy Governor of Maryland, leased these tracts from his friend George Thompson for a thousand years for forty thousand pounds of tobacco and an annual rent of one peppercorn, if demanded. On March 1, 1671, Notley's title was corrected, and he patented these tracts under the name of Cerne Abbey Manor, after an ancient Benedictine Foundation in Dorsetshire, England. Notley left the property to his godson, Notley Rozier (also spelled "Rozer"), who patented it in 1716 under the name Duddington Manor. In the late 1700s, Rozier's great-grandson, Daniel Carroll of Duddington II, inherited about half of Duddington Manor, including the part on which the Sewall-Belmont House now stands. It became known as the Daniel Carroll Farm.
Carroll was at one time the richest man in the District of Columbia and held civic posts to a degree unequaled in the District's early history. He was related to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and the wealthiest signer, and to John Carroll, the first Roman Catholic bishop (and later archbishop) in the United States and founder of Georgetown University.
The date when the first structure appeared on the site of the current Sewall-Belmont House is unknown. We do know that owners of land in this area did not inhabit it until the 18th century.
In 1791, George Washington, in accordance with an Act of Congress, declared that one hundred square miles in Maryland and Virginia (two-thirds from Maryland, one-third from Virginia) would constitute the District of Columbia (also known as the Territory of Columbia). Later that year, he chose an area of 6,100 acres in the middle of that District for "the Federal City", later named the City of Washington, in honor of the hero of the American Revolution and the nation's first president. (Toward the end of the 19th century, the city expanded to encompass the entire District.) The future site of the Sewall-Belmont House was in that City of Washington.
In 1800, the government of the United States officially moved from Philadelphia to the City of Washington. A year before, Robert Sewall, who came from an illustrious Maryland family, paid $1,000 for three lots, including the site of the Sewall-Belmont House. He purchased two from Daniel Carroll of Duddington II, his third cousin, and one from the District Commissioners. (Daniel Carroll had previously ceded that lot to the District of Columbia.) In 1799-1800, Sewall built a town house on these lots for himself and his family. Experts differ on whether there was a structure on the property when Sewall bought it, which he incorporated into his town house, or whether the property consisted only of the land. In any event, Sewall and his descendants continued as owners of the property for the next 123 years.
In addition to this town house, in 1801, Sewall inherited one of the finest houses in Maryland, Poplar Hill, in Prince George's County. It was also known as His Lordship's Kindness, because it was built by the Earl of Shrewsbury as a wedding gift for his ward and niece Ann Talbot and her husband Henry Darnall, Robert Sewall's maternal grandparents.
From 1801-1813, Robert Sewall leased his town house -- the Sewall House -- to the man who became its most notable resident, Albert Gallatin. Gallatin, who was born in Geneva, Switzerland, and came to the United States at the age of nineteen, has been referred to as "America's forgotten statesman." He served as a congressman, and from 1801 to 1814 as our fourth Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Jefferson and Madison, a length of service in that position that remains unsurpassed. Later, he became minister to France and Great Britain and one of the founders of New York University.
Gallatin was the only Cabinet member at that time who resided for any length of time on Capitol Hill; the others tended to select residences near the executive mansion. In both Jefferson's and Madison's administrations, during August and September when many government officials left Washington for more comfortable weather, Gallatin, conscientious in his duties, remained. He was thus often the only important officer in the city and the acting head of government.
Gallatin was President Jefferson's principal executive agent for congressional relations. Senators and congressmen who were supportive of the Administration frequently met in his home. Its proximity to the Capitol also made it a convenient gathering place for unmarried congressmen and those whose wives were not with them. Gallatin and his wife Hannah entertained friends, like Thomas Paine and the John Jacob Astor family, as well as politicians.
Neither of the Gallatins, however, cared for Washington. Mrs. Gallatin summed up her feelings as follows: "It is a place that never will be of any consequence, even if the national government should remain there."
Often, to escape the interruptions he was subjected to in his office and in the evening after his family had gone to bed, Gallatin worked in the House. While he was Secretary of the Treasury, he handled the financing for the Louisiana Purchase, which the United States acquired from Napoleon Bonaparte and France in 1803 at an eventual total cost of over $27 million. The Louisiana Purchase covered 828,000 square miles between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. Eight states were carved in their entirety out of this region as well as most of five other states. The Louisiana Purchase was the most important event in President Jefferson's first administration and the greatest land bargain in U.S. history. It doubled the area of the United States at that time and put the country in a position to become a world power.
Gallatin's statue is one of only two on the exterior grounds of the Treasury Building. It stands in front of the North Portico, and the other, of Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, stands in front of the South Portico.
While opinions differ on whether the Sewall House was totally destroyed during the War of 1812 or the kitchen survived, it is clear that, by and large, the house was demolished. At dusk on August 24, 1814, after routing the American Army earlier that day at Bladensburg, Maryland, then a decaying and declining port town northeast of the capital, the British came to Washington, D.C. Accounts differ as to their intentions with regard to the capital. According to Anthony S. Pitch, a writer on the burning of Washington, the British intended to burn down the public buildings, but not any private buildings unless they had military supplies or were used for military purposes. After they entered the capital, most of the soldiers camped at the extreme eastern section of the city. But an advance party consisting of Major General Robert Ross, commander of the British land troops, accompanied by Rear Admiral George Cockburn, second-ranking commander of the naval forces, and some officers, rode on. Moving down Maryland Avenue in the direction of the Capitol, they stopped to confer at a point about two hundred yards from the Capitol. The large brick Sewall House was directly to their right. At the time, Robert Sewall, who had resumed residence in the House after the Gallatin family left, was at Poplar Hill with his family for the summer. His son William, to whom he had left the care of the Sewall House, was in the militia and had been called into service.
Accounts differ as to what happened when the party came to the Sewall House. According to the reports of the congressional committees that considered the claim of Robert Sewall and his heirs for damages, shots were fired from the House by a group of American flotilla men from Commodore Joshua Barney's Chesapeake Bay flotilla. These sailors had occupied the House before the Ross party came by. Their shots killed one or two of General Ross's men, wounded several others, and killed the horse on which the general was riding. The British soldiers then overpowered the American sailors and took three of them prisoner; the rest escaped.
This is believed to have been the only resistance to the British in their march on Washington. In retaliation, the General ordered that the House be torched. It was the first house in Washington to be burned and the only private home that the British burned deliberately, although one or two others burned through flames spreading from the Capitol. Thereafter, the British burned the Capitol and the White House, then known as the President's House, and destroyed most of the public buildings in Washington.
Ironically, at the time the House was torched, Gallatin, no longer Secretary of the Treasury, was in Ghent, Belgium, as one of five American peace commissioners negotiating with the British to settle the War. In fact, the Treaty of Ghent, which was signed in December 1814, was considered largely Gallatin's personal triumph as he was the most effective of the American commissioners.
In 1815, Sewall filed a claim for reimbursement for the burning of his house and furniture. His claim was considered by the Secretary of War, the Commissioner of Claims, and the Congress. In 1819, it was denied by the Committee of Claims of the Senate on the ground that it was not established that the Sewall House had been occupied at the direction of a commanding officer. After Sewall's death in 1820, his heirs continued to press the claim, and in 1847 the Senate Committee of Claims found that Sewall's heirs were entitled to compensation for the burning. The Committee relied upon an affidavit from Lawson Ann Clark, an American, who stated that he was standing at the door of the house when three of Commodore Barney's sailors were taken out of the house for firing on the British, and that there was an officer of the flotilla with these three men. The committee inferred, therefore, that the house had been occupied by order of that officer. Therefore, the burning came within the Act of April 9, 1816, that authorized payment for property destroyed by the enemy while the property was in military service under the authority of an American officer. I was unable to determine, however, whether compensation was actually made.
Robert Sewall rebuilt the house in 1820 and lived there with his family until his death at the age of fifty-five in December of that year. In time, Sewall's granddaughters, Susan and Ellen Daingerfield, the daughters of his daughter Susan, became the owners of the property. Susan Daingerfield married John Strode Barbour, an executive with the Orange and Alexandria Railroad and senator from Virginia. While the Barbours lived in the house, it was a center for social functions and was one of the best known houses in Washington. After Susan died in 1886, Senator Barbour continued to live in the house with his sister-in-law Ellen and his nephew and personal secretary Richard Thompson. When Senator Barbour died in 1892, Ellen became the sole owner of the property. She was the last descendant of Robert Sewall to live in the house.
After Ellen Daingerfield's death in 1912, the house fell into neglect until 1922 when Senator Porter H. Dale of Vermont purchased the House for $40,000 from Ellen's executor, Richard Thompson. Senator Dale and his wife restored the House and gardens, and it was again one of the most gracious and hospitable homes in Washington. The Dales were the last owners to use the house as a private residence. On May 21, 1929, the Dales sold the house to NWP.
NWP's first permanent headquarters, opened in 1922, was in three large and historic town houses known as Trumbull (or Trumbull's) Row, which was part of the Old Brick Capitol. The Old Brick Capitol was the temporary Capitol used from 1815 until 1819 during the restoration of the original Capitol after it was damaged during the War of 1812. In May 1867, the federal government sold the Old Brick Capitol for $20,000 to George T. Brown, the sergeant-at-arms of the Senate. In 1869, Brown had the massive rear wing of the structure demolished and the main section was remodeled into three town houses. In the early 1920s, Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt Belmont, a socialite, multimillionaire, philanthropist, and militant feminist, who served as NWP's chairman and president, contributed $146,000 toward the purchase of Trumbull's Row. The three town houses were purchased from Charlotte Anita Whitney in 1921, and NWP converted them internally by numerous doors into one building. Most of the rooms were furnished with antique American furniture donated by state chapters of NWP. William Randolph Hearst completely furnished one drawing room as a memorial to his mother.
When the federal government took Trumbull's Row by eminent domain, so it could build the Supreme Court on the site, it paid NWP $300,000. NWP used part of those funds to purchase the Sewall House. Some of its members brought wheelbarrow loads of bricks from the Old Brick Capitol to the Sewall House.
Since NWP moved into the House, it has been a center for the struggle for ratification of the ERA. For forty-three years, it was the home of Alice Paul, who fought for suffrage and, after that was achieved, drafted and fought for ratification of the ERA.
In the 1930s, '50s, '60s, and '70s, there were repeated efforts by the government to condemn the House by eminent domain. Congress wanted the land for a new General Accounting Office (GAO) building, for expansion of the Senate's buildings, for parking space, and for underground security vaults.
On January 4, 1931, the House was dedicated as NWP's new headquarters and renamed the Alva E. Belmont House in honor of its principal benefactor. Twenty-four days later, the House of Representatives Committee on Buildings and Grounds held a hearing on a bill to condemn square 725, on which the House was located, to provide a site for a General Accounting Office (GAO) building. After testimony by NWP members and others, nothing more was heard about that bill. But the issue was raised again on July 23, 1935, when the Senate voted to condemn all the buildings on the block where the House was located to make room for the construction of a GAO building. After that vote, enraged members of NWP descended upon the Senate in force, buttonholing sixty senators and quickly getting them to change their minds. The women were incensed that after having lost their former headquarters to condemnation, they were about to lose this headquarters the same way. Twenty-four hours after voting to condemn the property, the Senate reversed itself.
In 1972, George White, Architect of the Capitol, came to see Elizabeth Chittick, NWP's president, and told her he intended to move the House to another site in Northeast Washington so the land could be used to build the Hart Senate Office Building. Ms. Chittick saw to it that this did not happen. On June 16, 1972, the House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places; on May 30, 1974, the Secretary of the Interior designated the House a National Historic Landmark. Then, on October 26, 1974, Congress enacted P.L. 93-486 (88 Stat. 1461) designating the House the Sewall-Belmont House National Historic Site. The Act also authorized the Secretary of the Interior, through the National Park Service, to enter into a cooperative agreement for the restoration, preservation, and maintenance of the House and authorized the appropriation of funds for that purpose. The House would not be moved or destroyed.
On December 12, 1943, the Florence Bayard Hilles Feminist Library was dedicated at the House. Ms. Hilles, whose father, Thomas F. Bayard, had been the first United States Ambassador to Great Britain and Secretary of State under Grover Cleveland, was a past chairman of NWP and of the committee that converted the Sewall-Belmont House's old carriage house into a library. A young woman architect, Elise Dupont, helped with the carriage house conversion. It was the first feminist library in the United States. Among the speakers at the dedication was Dr. Archibald MacLeish, Librarian of Congress.
The library remained an important aspect of NWP until the early 1960s. Thereafter, it fell into neglect and disrepair, and in the late '60s or early '70s it was closed because of water damage. In the late '90s, it was renovated, and, at a ceremony on September 17, 1998, the library reopened.
From 1993-96, the Sewall-Belmont House was the focus of a new kind of struggle, this one internal. A fierce legal battle was waged for control of the House and NWP's assets between NWP and the Woman's Party Corporation (WPC), an organization NWP had created in 1977 to manage the House and NWP's assets in trust. WPC claimed that it was independent of NWP and was entitled to manage the House and the assets on its own. The matter was settled in 1996 with the return of the House and assets to NWP and the dissolution of WPC. Since October 17, 1996, when the House was transferred back to NWP, NWP has been actively engaged in revitalizing the House as a site for women's rights activities and for receptions and other functions.
One can almost hear the voices from the past in the House -- the voices of the men and women who played a part in its history -- voices like those of Robert Sewall; Albert and Hannah Gallatin and the senators and congressmen who visited them; Alva Vanderbilt Belmont; Florence Bayard Hilles; Emma Guffey Miller, NWP's chairman from 1960 to 1965, its life president from 1965 until her death in 1970 and one of the most influential women in politics from the 1920s through the 1940s; and --above all -- for forty-three years, Alice Paul, NWP's founder.
The House reverberates today with the voices of those who continue to struggle for the inclusion of women in the U.S. Constitution through ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Although altered through various rebuildings, the Sewall-Belmont House remains. It stands as a reminder of our country's past and a precursor of its future.
Sonia Pressman Fuentes is a feminist, lawyer, writer, and public speaker. She was a founder of NOW and other women's rights organizations in the mid-'60's
and early '70s and the first woman attorney in the General Counsel's Office at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). She has traveled to many parts of the world as an American specialist on women's rights for the US Information Agency (USIA). Ms. Fuentes' memoirs, "Eat
First--You Don't Know What They'll Give You, The Adventures of an
Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter", have been published.
Information on ordering the book is available at the end of her website