On this lunchtime bike ride, as I was riding near Scott Circle in northwest D.C., I saw what looked like commemorative brass plaques on the side of a building. Wanting to find out more about the plaques and the building, I stopped to look into it. According to the plaques, the mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and once belonged to Alexander Graham Bell. Whetting my appetite to find out more about the house, I researched it later when I got back from my ride.
Originally designed in the Victorian style by John Fraser, with construction finishing in 1879, the house was built for John. T. Brodhead and his family. Based on a subsequent series of prominent owners, it has come to be known as the Brodhead-Bell-Morton Mansion, and is located at 1500 Rhode Island Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s DuPont Circle neighborhood.
The Brodhead family did not live there long, however, In 1882, just three years after construction was completed, Brodhead sold the home to lawyer and financier Gardiner Green Hubbard, the father-in-law of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell. According to the home’s National Register of Historic Places registration form, the Hubbards “offered the house to the Bells as an inducement to relocate from the Boston area, and Bell allowed himself to be persuaded.”
However, the original house was not large enough for Bell and his wife Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, so they added a two-story addition on the northeast corner and then a third floor with a steep slated roof. Bell also made other changes to the house, the most interesting of which was the installation of the city’s first electric burglar alarm system. It was composed of an elaborate system of wires and bells that connected every door and window in the house to a room Bell referred to as the “central office.” Indicators in the central office would show instantly whenever a door was opened or shut, or only partially opened. And if anyone tried to enter the house at night, bells would sound.
It’s too bad that Bell installed a burglar alarm system rather than a smoke detector, however, because a fire destroyed much of the building in 1887. Although it was insured, the damage from the fire was more extensive than what the policy covered. Bell was able to have the mansion restored anyway.
Then in 1889, just a couple of years after the fire, Bell sold the mansion to Levi Parsons Morton just prior to Morton’s swearing in as Vice President under President Benjamin Harrison. Morton immediately had the building enlarged with a new east wing, that was designed by John Fraser, the home’s original architect. Some years later, Morton remodeled the house, converting it into the neoclassical Beaux-Arts architectural style that was all the rage at that time. Under the hand of prominent American architect John Russell Pope, who later designed The Thomas Jefferson Memorial, The National Archives and Records Administration Building, and the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, among other important buildings, Morton had the house transformed into its present-day form.
The mansion would go on to have a number of additional prominent owners and residents, including the Embassy of Russia, U.S. Secretary of State Elihu Root, Massachusetts Congressman Charles Franklin Sprague, and Count Arturo Cassini, the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. It then became home to the National Democratic Club, who sold it to the National Paint, Varnish and Lacquer Association. Finally, in February of last year, it was purchased by the country of Hungary, which moved the Embassy of Hungary there late last year.
I’m glad I noticed the house during this bike ride, and then looked into it later. The house turned out to have quite a history. Of course, D.C. is full of history and interesting stories, if you just take the time to look for them.