The Townsend House is important both as the work of a renowned architectural firm and for its place in Washington’s history. Its preservation is also important to retaining the character of the Dupont Circle and Massachusetts Avenue Historic Districts of which it is part.


Dupont Circle became Washington’s most fashionable address in the last quarter of the 19th century. The development of what had been an outlying area of working class shanties, slaughterhouses, and a brickyard was spurred by the public works improvements inaugurated by “Boss” Alexander R. Shepherd in the early 1870s, including street paving, tree planting and the laying of water and sewer lines.

Among the first investors was a syndicate of California mine owners, one of whom, Curtis J. Hillyer, built a house on the site now occupied by the Townsend House. The social cachet of the area was set with the building of the British Embassy just south of Dupont Circle at Connecticut Avenue and N Street in 1875. Within the next several decades Dupont Circle was ringed with the mansions of families who had made their fortunes elsewhere but wished to establish a social presence in the nation’s capital.

The Townsend House is one of five surviving, exceptionally grand, residences that were built around 1900 within two blocks of Dupont Circle. Although the side streets of the Dupont Circle area are lined with townhouses of varying sizes and degrees of individuality, houses built on Dupont Circle and along the near blocks of Massachusetts Avenue were generally freestanding and much larger. They were designed for entertaining on a lavish scale and their hostesses were important figures on Washington’s social scene.

The Townsend House was built by Mary Scott Townsend, daughter of William L. Scott, a Pennsylvania railroad and coal magnate who became a Member of Congress. As an heiress to his fortune, she was a woman of great wealth. She became one of Washington's social leaders, known for her elegant entertaining. Mrs. Townsend's husband, Richard H. Townsend, died shortly after the house was completed, but she continued to live there until her death in 1931.

Mrs. Townsend's only child, Mathilde Townsend Welles, and her second husband, B. Sumner Welles, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Under Secretary of State (from 1937 to 1942), maintained the mansion until World War II when it was leased to the Canadian Women's Army Corps. The Cosmos Club purchased the building from Mrs. Welles's estate in 1950.

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Mary Scott Townsend bought Curtis Hillyer’s substantial residence and property at 2121 Massachusetts Avenue in 1898. She hired a leading New York firm, Carrère and Hastings, to enlarge and so completely rebuilt the house that none of the original 1873 structure is visible, although some of its walls were incorporated. Construction of the Townsend House was begun in 1899 and essentially completed by 1900, although some modifications were made over the next decade.


Like its contemporaries along Massachusetts Avenue, the Townsend House is a product of the Beaux-Arts school. Of design and architecture, John Merven Carrère and Thomas Hastings, both received their architectural training at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. After stints as draftsmen with the prominent New York firm of McKim, Mead and White, they formed a partnership in 1885.

By the time the Townsends selected Carrère and Hastings to design their Washington residence, the firm had built hotels, churches and estates along the East Coast from Massachusetts to Florida and had won the competition to design the New York Public Library. In Washington the firm is also represented by important institutional buildings: the Senate and House Office Buildings (1905-06), the Carnegie Institution (1906) and the Memorial Amphitheater at Arlington Cemetery. The historic Townsend House interiors, still largely intact, were designed by the Parisian firm Jules Allard & Sons, famed for its high style French interiors, working in collaboration with Carrère and Hastings. The Foundation guided and largely funded the meticulous, award-winning restoration of the Townsend House ballroom. It has also funded restoration of the entrance lobby and replicated in kind the deteriorated original flooring of the adjacent reception room and the dining room.

The Foundation works with preservation and community organizations in the Dupont Circle area, and has contributed to the restoration of the Q Street Bridge buffalo sculptures, the enhancement of historic call boxes and the installation of historic markers. The Foundation funded the high-resolution scanning of the Library of Congress’s collection of forty circa 1910 historic photographs of the original Townsend house so that they would be available to the public online through the Library’s website.

Exterior of the Townsend House after the renovation




Official Recognition

The Townsend House’s architectural and historic significance is formally recognized. It is individually listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is also included in the Historic American Buildings Survey District of Columbia Catalog and is designated as a District of Columbia Landmark.

Cosmos Club Legacies:
The Land and Townsend Decorative Arts

The Cosmos Club’s physical environment includes the Club’s buildings, land, and gardens, the interior design of its elegant rooms, and historic decorative arts, which embellish the property. This paper, prepared for the History Committee, documents the acquisition of the Club’s land and early 20th century decorative arts, which are now over a hundred years old.

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Committed to preserving and protecting one of the city’s most beautiful examples of Beaux-Arts architecture and the historic setting in which it stands.

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