From its debut, the Patterson Mansion became the social heart of Washington, where coveted invitations brought together prominent statesmen, politicians, journalists and industrialists.
Robert Patterson, editor of the Chicago Tribune, and his wife, Elinor “Nellie” Medill Patterson, daughter of Joseph Medill, the newspaper’s owner and the mayor of Chicago, sought to establish themselves in Washington’s fashionable social circles. The creation of a such a distinguished residence in such a prominent location in the capital’s most desirable neighborhood would be key to achieving this.
Designed by New York architect Stanford White, a partner in McKim, Mead & White, the residence is one of nearly 1,000 commissions the firm executed between 1879 and 1912. McKim, Mead & White garnered the most prestigious commissions of the era, including 11 branches of the New York Public Library, Boston Public Library, Rhode Island State House, The Manhattan Municipal Building, The Brooklyn Museum, The West Wing and East Wing of the White House and campuses of Columbia and New York universities and the Harvard Business School.
The firm’s residential clients included many of the most powerful figures of the Gilded Age – the Vanderbilts, Astors, Whitneys, J.P. Morgan and Joseph Pulitzer, among others – for whom the firm designed sumptuous town houses in New York, Washington, Baltimore and Boston and summer homes in Newport, Rhode Island, Long Island, New York. and the Hudson Valley.
Early in the 1920s, the property passed into the hands of the Pattersons’ daughter, Eleanor Josephine Medill “Cissy” Patterson, whose lavish parties and political connections ensured that her home remained at the epicenter of Washington social life. One newspaper account said, “the thing she liked most was a good argument, and she frequently had guests who were sure of getting into one. At one memorable party, she had six or seven presidential candidates together.”
Cissy followed her father and grandfather into journalism in 1920 by pestering her brother, Joseph, for a job at his New York Daily News. She also worked for William Randolph Hearst and published two novels. When Cissy tried to buy Hearst’s two Washington papers – the morning Washington Herald and the evening Washington Times – in 1930, he declined but agreed to appoint her editor – a first for an American woman. In that role, she hired many women as reporters, encouraged society reporting and made her papers popular with all strata of Washington society, eventually doubling circulation. In 1939, she succeeded in purchasing both papers from Hearst and merged them as the Times-Herald.
Cissy Patterson was the first women in the nation to lead a major daily newspaper and, in the 1940s Collier’s Weekly contended that she “… is probably the most powerful woman in America”.
In the summer of 1927, when Cissy was living in New York, she offered her home to President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge while the White House underwent renovations. During their residency at Patterson Mansion, the Coolidges hosted aviator Charles Lindbergh following his famous transatlantic flight.
Cissy Patterson died in 1948 and left the property and its furnishings to the American National Red Cross, which then sold it to the Washington Club in 1951. The Club, founded in 1891, was the first women’s organization to be incorporated in the District of Columbia. The Club added the two-story annex that houses the banquet hall and auditorium in 1956.
The Patterson Mansion was designated a District of Columbia Historic Site in 1964, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and became part of the Massachusetts Avenue Historic District in 1974.