The Whittemore House, home of the The Woman’s National Democratic Club, is an elegant historic mansion located in Washington's Dupont Circle neighborhood. Built between 1892 and 1894 as a private residence, it was designed by Washington architect Harvey L. Page (1859-1934) for opera singer Sarah Adams Whittemore, a descendent of the well-known Adams family of Massachusetts, and William C. Whittemore, her second husband.
Chartered in 1922, the Woman’s National Democratic Club purchased the Whittemore property in 1927 for its use as a clubhouse. The New York Sun reported in May of 1927 that the purchase of “one of the finest old houses in the heart of Washington’s most exclusive residential sections” was the “last word in putting the ‘Ritz’ into politics.” The club has hosted every Democratic president and presidential candidate since 1927 except one in addition to innumerable senators, congressmen, cabinet members, diplomats, government policy makers, world leaders, and well-known lecturers.
The Whittemore House has a kinship to both the English Arts and Crafts movement and American “Shingle Style” architecture. It shares with these movements a turning away from the beaux-arts style that dominated the Washington, DC landscape in the late 19th Century. The design of the Whittemore House suggests that Page was in tune with the most advanced architectural thinking of his day, which emphasized the elimination of non-essential decorative details in lieu of simplicity of form and an open free flowing interior plan. The house was also one of the first in Washington, DC to be electrified.
The detailing of the Whittemore House is exquisite. A punched-and-tooled copper-covered oriel bay hangs over the New Hampshire Street entrance, its dull patina a compliment to the richly mottled Roman Brick. The brick is unique, taken from a small rare clay deposit in New Jersey that can never be produced again. Doors and leaded glass windows are set deeply into brick walls without additional ornamentation. Variety is achieved from subtle variations in the finely crafted brickwork, producing flat rarely interrupted surfaces that are associated with the Shingle Style. The flat walls meet to form angular towers and bays in the asymmetrical facades of the house. The flowing convex cape-like curves of the high roof covering the polygonal towers, bays, and eyelike dormer windows recall a more organic building form, the thatched roof, but one constructed of dark gray English slate, outlined by a superbly crafted copper gutter.
The bold contrast of the light orange-brown angular brick walls and the free flowing convex curves of the dark high roofs make this irregularly shaped mansion a focal point on New Hampshire Avenue. In its abstraction and use of materials it has an affinity with the architecture of the Arts and Crafts movement and provides a highly successful solution to the challenge of building on a triangular lot. Modern architect and critic Philip Johnson has described the Whittemore House as an architectural masterpiece
Several well-known occupants have lived in the house. In 1903 Senator John F. Dryden (1839-1911), a Republican from New Jersey and one of the founders of Prudential Insurance Company, rented the building. Dryden was a member of Congress from 1902 to 1907. Theodore P. Shonts (1859-1919), a wealthy railroad magnate who Teddy Roosevelt appointed Chairman of the Isthmian Canal Commission, occupied the mansion during the winter of 1906-1907 for the debut of his two daughters. The best-known tenant was banker John W. Weeks (1860-1926), a Republican Congressman from Massachusetts (1905-1913), who leased the Whittemore House from 1907 to 1911. Later he was elected a Senator from Massachusetts (1913 to 1919) and served as Secretary of War under Harding and Coolidge (1921 to 1925). Mrs. Whittemore died in 1907, and left the property to her son and daughter. Her son, Walter D. Wilcox (1869-1949), an explorer, travel author, and photographer, moved his family into the home in 1919, living in the mansion until 1926. The house has been known as the Weeks House and as the Wilcox House in its history.
During World War II the building was leased to the British Service Club from July 1, 1943 to February 15, 1946, with the proviso that the club have reasonable use of the building for meetings. They left behind the celadon ceramic umbrella stands that are used today in the entrance hall, a reminder some club members say of “the British occupation.”
WNDC Adapts the House to its use
Page designed an open free flowing plan but he continued using decorative elements culled from many late 19th Century styles in the interior spaces of the Whittemore House. The house is famous for having no square or rectangular public rooms, most of which remain in tact today although the club has modified and modernized the building for its use several times, including the addition of an elevator and the Q Street handicap entrance ramp. Most notable from the exterior is the 1967 addition to expand the dining space into a ballroom by architect Nicholas Satterlee (1915 -1974). He designed a formalist structure built of striated cement that was deliberately set apart from the original house. It is a fine example of one approach to historic structure expansion: using a contrasting modern style that pays homage to the original building through placement, form, and scale. The addition is visible from Q Street but not from the original New Hampshire Avenue entrance.
Museum & Archives
The Woman’s National Democratic Club has preserved the Whittemore House for more than three-quarters of a century and is actively engaged in continuing conservation efforts to preserve its historic home. In 1973 the building was listed as an individually-designated-landmark of national significance on the National Register of Historic Places by the Department of the Interior. The house is located in the Dupont Circle Historic District. The Woman’s National Democratic Club was granted museum status in 2000.
From the Right to Vote, the Power to Lead
After women won the right to vote, the founding members of the Woman’s National Democratic Club, a group of prominent Democratic women, lead by Daisy Harriman and Emily Blair, envisioned a club to encourage women’s expanding role in politics and to help them seek public office by appointment and election. The Archives documents what came next for women in politics, from the suffrage movement to the present day. The Woman’s National Democratic Club Archives conserves all club records, publications, photographs, oral histories, artifacts relating to the Democratic party, related political memorabilia, and audio/video tapes of WNDC speaker programs.