J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Dropping in on the Andersons

This is the ballroom at Anderson House, the headquarters of the Society of the Cincinnati in Washington, D.C. It’s the largest room of the Gilded Age mansion that Larz and Isabel (Weld Perkins) Anderson built for entertaining during winters while they were in the capital.

Larz Anderson was active in the Society of the Cincinnati, whose members are descendants of officers in the Continental Army (and allied French forces). After he died, Isabel gave this Washington mansion to the society. In addition to this ballroom, it has space for museum galleries and a specialized library on the Revolutionary War.

Last week I gave a lecture in the Anderson House ballroom; that photo shows my view of the room, more or less. Hanging above the fireplace behind me was a portrait of George Washington. Off camera to the left was a portrait of Henry Knox. I joked that those must have been put up for my talk, since it was about how Washington came to ask the Continental Congress to make Knox the head of its artillery regiment. But they’re fixtures; Knox was the chief founder of the society, and Washington its first president.

Around Boston, a lot of us know the name of Larz Anderson from the bridge across the Charles River at the old center of Cambridge. (There’s been a bridge at that site since the late 1600s: militiamen pulled up its planks on 19 Apr 1775, and Gen. Washington remonstrated with his troops about jumping off it naked that August.) The same Larz Anderson as in Washington funded the current bridge in 1913-15. Its official name is actually the Anderson Memorial Bridge, and the Anderson being memorialized was Larz’s father.

Larz and Isabel Anderson also commissioned a mansion and estate in Brookline and assembled a collection of vehicles, now the basis of the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Larz Anderson Park. They left the Larz Anderson collection of bonsai trees at Arnold Arboretum, a souvenir of Larz’s very short tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Japan.

The real source of all those funds was the fortune that Larz’s wife, the former Isabel Weld Perkins, had inherited. At the age of five, she had become the richest female in America. Her fortune allowed the couple to commission three mansions at once (there was another in New Hampshire), to collect, to travel, and to fund public works. So maybe we should unofficially refer to the Isabel Anderson bridge.

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