The Secret of the Cosmos

by Editorial

Mary Scott Townsend's living room

Mary Scott Townsend's living room

Curtis Hillyer was one of the group who built his opulent home at 2121 Massachusetts Avenue. This street became known as the “street of palace builders,” as famous families from all over the country were drawn to the area, hiring the most prominent architects and using these new homes to wine and dine each other and the powerful people who ran the country and gave funds and favor to whichever regions and companies seemed most deserving.

Mary Scott Townsend and her husband, Richard, were among the palace builders of their era. They both sat on huge railroad fortunes, so they decided to build a home that would make a statement, even among the already fabulous homes that were popping up in the neighborhood. In a move that could be described as “early mansionization”, they purchased the Hillyer House and its acre of land, and hired the renowned architectural firm of Carrere and Hastings to tear it down and start over.

John Merven Carrere and Thomas Hastings were “rock stars” of architecture in the early 1900’s. They built everything from the New York Public Library to the Cannon Office Building on Capitol Hill to the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia. Mary and Richard Townsend chose these architects specifically to build a Beaux Arts mansion that would easily outdo any predecessors.

Tearing down the house would have been a simple job, except for a particular requirement of  Mrs.Townsend. Because Mary Scott had been warned by a gypsy fortuneteller that evil would visit her home and “she would die under a new roof”, she instructed the architects to incorporate some of the foundation and walls of the old house under the new structure. As the house took shape, Carerre and Hastings hired landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., to design the grounds. With no expense spared, the magnificent home that emerged was a copy of the  Petit Trianon in Versailles.

In her heyday, Mary Townsend gave one fabulous, record-breaking party after another in her grand villa. Perhaps because of her special construction precautions, she lived a long life and died of natural causes in 1931. Her daughter Mathilde inherited the house and was soon offered $1,000,000  (about $10,000,000 in today’s money) by the French government, but she wasn’t in the mood to sell and turned it down. When she finally sold the property to the Cosmos Club in 1950, it went for just under $365,000!

The illustrious Cosmos Club, whose members have included the most accomplished leaders of  government, science and the arts, was founded in 1887, by the larger-than-life  adventurer, John Wesley Powell. Although he lost an arm in the Civil War, Powell went on the become a scientist, philosopher and explorer. He was the first to explore and map many parts of the Wild West, including the Grand Canyon, experiencing death-defying adventures that would have put Indiana Jones to shame. It’s fitting that the club he founded 110 years ago can claim among its many honors to have been the birthplace of the National Geographic Society.

On the other end of the spectrum, the most unusual society spawned by Cosmos Club members was the Society for Psychic Research, a group that focused on their own brand of  psychology and anthropology, and blended this with the then-popular trend in spiritualism and psychic phenomenon. Their meetings featured seances with dead family members and visits to haunted houses.

This quirky society would have been in complete sympathy with Mrs. Townsend’s respect for the occult. It could even be a comfort to present day Cosmos Club members to know that under their building’s tons of stone and plaster ornamentation is a supernatural insurance policy, the remains of the old house that Mrs. Townsend insisted on keeping for the sole purpose of warding off evil spirits. It might not be a bad idea, just in case the gypsy was right.

Related Articles