December 2008

Storied Past for the Newly Restored F Street House

Built in 1849, The F Street House was a fixture of Washington society for more than a half century.

By Julia Parmley

For more than 70 years, the historic F Street Club was the watering hole of Washington’s elite, drawing presidents, vice presidents, Supreme Court justices, and countless members of Congress. Eleanor Roosevelt called it a “charming house,” while President Eisenhower liked its “comfortable anonymity.” Its walls have been privy to key discussions on everything from the founding of NATO to the ownership of the Panama Canal.

Located at 1925 F Street, the former club is now The F Street House, home to GW President Steven Knapp and his family. After a year of remodeling, the three-story building is ready to entertain guests.

“We’ve completely renovated and restored the historic building with the purpose of it becoming a center for dialogue as well as having the presidential quarters,” says Alicia O’Neil, associate vice president for real estate.

Dr. Knapp and his wife, Diane Robinson Knapp, have already hosted a luncheon for the Board of Trustees; dinners for alumni and supporters; large open houses for students, faculty, and neighbors; and other receptions.

“For many decades, the house served as a venue for discussions of national and global issues, and we look forward to reviving that tradition,” says Dr. Knapp. “The house is incredibly flexible in terms of the variety of events it can accommodate.”

Executive Director of the Presidential Residence Dawnita Altieri says the open houses were “very successful.” “We had a great turnout especially from staff, faculty, and neighbors, and we hope to host students at other events over the coming months.”

According to O’Neil, the home’s original yellow paint, shutters, and steps have been restored as a nod to its historical past, with some modern improvements, including full disability access on the first floor, energy efficient windows, a private outdoor terrace, and a small green roof.

O’Neil says the first floor’s library, living room, and dining room are “very much what they were historically.” Items from GW’s permanent art and antique collection are scattered throughout the house, including a Girandole mirror from 1815 in the library and a 1912 lithograph of the Liberty Bell by Joseph Pennell in the living room.

The dining room contains an oak dining table and engraved chairs formerly owned by President Ulysses S. Grant, along with an oil painting of Grant’s donated by his grandson Major General Ulysses S. Grant III. Nineteenth-century Renaissance-style walnut armchairs from President Grant’s New York home sit in the library.

The Greek revival house was originally built in 1849 for Charles Steedman, an officer who worked at the Naval Observatory, and his wife, Sarah. After the Civil War, Washington businessman Alexander Ray, owner of Ray Mill in Georgetown and one of the largest Georgetown waterfront landholders, bought the home, and it remained in his family until the early years of the 20th century.

In 1920, American University purchased the property with an eye on expanding downtown. When the university put those plans on hold in the early 1920s, it rented the house to socialite Laura Curtis, wife of a prominent New York attorney and one of Washington’s most famous hostesses. Curtis, who was nicknamed the “uncrowned queen of the Republican party,” held countless luncheons and dinners for Washington’s political elite in the 1920s and early 1930s.

In 1933, the then-divorced Laura Curtis remarried. Although she moved to Bethlehem, Pa., with her new husband, she kept her lease on the F Street property. With the support of hundreds in her vast social network, she established the Curtis Club, later known as the F Street Club, at the height of prohibition.

Guests at the F Street Club were a virtual who’s who of Washington. In the late 1950s, Vice President Richard Nixon brought his Soviet counterpart there to debate the Cold War. After President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, friends of Jackie Kennedy held a cocktail party at the club to comfort the widow. And, in 1980, President-elect Ronald Reagan chose the club as the site of a candlelight dinner to introduce himself and his wife, Nancy, to Washington society. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Carter, Bush, and Clinton also attended events at the club.

In 1974, GW bought the house from American University and continued to operate it as a club. In 1976, there was talk of either razing the house to make room for a World Bank office building or moving it to a vacant lot on 21st Street, south of Strong Hall. But after a public outcry, the building remained where it was, continuing to serve as a club for another two decades. In 1999, the F Street Club closed its doors, and the building served for nearly a decade as the home of GW’s Office of Alumni Relations.

“The news that President Knapp will be living on campus has been very well received by our Foggy Bottom neighbors and the GW community,” says O’Neil. “Dr. Knapp will be able to host forums and private discussions that will reinforce the University as the center of great dialogue and thinking.”

“The house is remarkably situated: next to the World Bank, across the street from two student residence halls, around the corner from both the Elliott School and the Law School, and four blocks due west of the White House,” says Dr. Knapp. “This gives us an unprecedented opportunity to live in the midst of the GW campus and experience firsthand the rhythms of campus life.”


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