Sunday, July 08, 2012

Alexander Graham Bell Mansion, 1331 Conn Ave

Noted American telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) built his house at 1331 Connecticut Avenue beginning in June of 1891 at an impressive cost of $31,000.  Like many inventors, he integrated new technology and experiments into the design, including what was one of the earliest experiments in household air conditioning. It was located on the block just south of Dupont Circle.

Bell had been born in Scotland, but immigrated along with his parents to Canada in 1870, when he had already been working as a teacher to deaf mutes through his 1864 “invisible speech” method.  Several years later, young Bell began to teach at Boston University, where he met his future wife, Mabel Hubbard.  She had become deaf due to scarlet fever, and was the daughter of wealthy lawyer Gardiner Green Hubbard (1822-1897), who owned a house nearby about the time he became the first President of the National Geographic Society.    

In 1877, after their marriage, Hubbard became Bell’s business manager and the first President of the Bell Telephone Company.  Alexander and Mabel first moved into a newly purchased house at 1500 Rhode Island Avenue, just a year after becoming internationally famous for demonstrating the telephone in public at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition with the word “Watson, come here, I want you” to his lab assistant Thomas Watson.  After 1500 RI Avenue was damaged by fire they sold it to Vice President Levi P. Morton, after they had it rebuilt, and then began construction of 1331 Connecticut Avenue. 

Bell established the Volta Bureau in Georgetown in 1880, where much of his inventing and experiments were undertaken.  He had architects Hornblower and Marshall design a wing on the Connecticut Avenue house for his famous “Wednesday Evenings” that entertained scientists and society for decades.

 At the house, Bell also experimented with an early form of air conditioning: on a hot summer day, he placed a block of ice in the attic covered with salt, to which he connected a large diameter tube extending to his office; by opening the upper windows, he reduced the temperature of the room from 90 degrees to 65 degrees.

The house was also designed with a large rear yard that led to the two houses of his daughters, facing 18th Street.  After his death, the house was inherited by his daughter, Mrs. Gilbert Grosvenor (wife of the founder of the National Geographic Society), who ran it as an antique shop and tea room.  It was razed in 1930 for an office building.                     

John Witherspoon Park

Located near where the Bell mansion stood is the John Witherspoon Park, bordered by Connecticut Avenue and N Street, the park is named after Patriot and signer of the Declaration of Independence John Witherspoon (1722-1794), who also unified and led the Presbyterian Church in America.  His statue was erected at this intersection by the Church of the Covenant (later renamed the National Presbyterian Church) when it was located at the intersection of Connecticut and N Street beginning in 1887.

The statue was sculpted by John Couper.  Witherspoon was born in Scotland and served as a Presbyterian minister in New Jersey.  He was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence and said that America “was not only ripe for the measure, but in danger of rotting for the want of it.”  He also served in the Second Continental Congress.  After the war, he worked to build the academic standing of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).   Incidentally, actress Reese Witherspoon is one of John Witherspoon’s direct descendants.

Copyright Paul K. Williams

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