Thursday, June 6, 2013

Katharine Graham, Georgetown

A late Edo period Japanese screen is mounted
flat on the damask-covered wall above a George II
style side table flanked by Irish armchairs in the
Entrance Hall of Katharine Graham's home in the
Georgetown district of Washington, DC.
Photo by Derry Moore for Architectural Digest.
People often ask who has been my favorite client or my most memorable client.  That is impossible to answer definitively, but certainly the name of Katharine Graham would come to mind.  My architectural work for Mrs. Graham was of a relatively small scale, but it involved her apartment at United Nations Plaza in New York City as well as her house in the Georgetown district in Washington, D.C.  Although the names of the clients are not usually associated with the photos and drawings of my John Tackett Design projects that are shown here at The Devoted Classicist, the interiors of Kay Graham's Georgetown house were featured in the December, 1994 issue of Architectural Digest, so they are presented with the owner identified.

Katharine Graham in the Entrance Hall
of her Georgetown residence.
Photo by Derry Moore for Architectural Digest.
Probably best remembered as the publisher of The Washington Post newspaper during the famous period of Watergate coverage that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, Katharine Graham was an important figure in the realm of international politics for years.

Katherine Graham at The Washington Post
with Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.
Photo via
Her multi-millionaire father, Eugene Meyer, had bought the newspaper at a 1933 bankruptcy auction, and when he was named the first president of the World Bank in 1946, he named his son-in-law Philip Graham publisher of The Washington Post.  Philip Graham was very active in political policy-making in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a practice that would be unacceptable in journalism today.  The Grahams became an important part of the Kennedy-Johnson campaign and administration, and their Georgetown home, unusual because it was on a large parcel at the top of the hill known as The Dumbarton Rock, became one of the social-political centers of the time.
The garden elevation of the Graham residence.
Photo by Derry Moore for Architectural Digest.
Bought in 1946 with her father involved in the negotiations, the Grahams and their children lived in the house pretty much as it was until a 1960 renovation that was completed in time to give a party for President and Mrs. Kennedy the night before the inauguration.  (Intended as a drop-by cocktail buffet for 600, a snowstorm turned it into a trek with about 200 arriving by foot).  Among the changes were combining two rooms to become one large Dining Room capable of being divided by folding doors, and replacing the rear porch with a large terrace accessed by new French doors.  The former stables, slightly down the hill, were converted to garages with staff quarters above.  Legendary decorator Billy Baldwin was among others over the years who established a chic interior for what would become the site of many high-profile gatherings, making Katharine Graham one of the most notable hostesses of the Capitol.
Katharine Graham (right) with Jacqueline Kennedy.
An undated, uncredited photo from USA TODAY.
Adding Newsweek magazine and television stations, Philip Graham continued to develop the media conglomerate until his 1963 suicide, at which point Katharine Graham took the helm.  After her parents' death, a number of antiques came from the Meyers' house on Crescent Place in 1972.  Mrs. Clayton "Polly" Fritchey and Joseph Alsop helped incorporate the inherited furnishings;  both were more noted in terms of hospitality and party-giving than taste in decoration, however.  (Joe Alsop was later portrayed in the Broadway play "The Columnist," and the 1994 Architectural Digest article was written by Joe Alsop's wife, Susan Mary Alsop, a member of Jacqueline Kennedy's Special Committee for White House Paintings, pictured on a previous post here).
Jacqueline and President Kennedy arriving at the
Georgetown home of Joseph and Susan Mary Alsop in 1961.
Photo by William Smith/Associated Press
via The New York Times.
Despite all of her accomplishments, particularly unusual at the time for a woman, it was not until reading all of the coverage of the famous 1966 Black and White Ball that The (young and impressionable) Devoted Classicist first took notice of Katharine Graham.
Katharine Graham with Truman Capote
greeting guests at the entrance to
the Black and White Ball
New York Times Photo.
Flush with cash from the success of his book IN COLD BLOOD, Truman Capote was at the height of his popularity as an author/celebrity and wanted to celebrate with a memorable party for his society friends.  Inspired by a 1964 black and white ball given by his friend Dominick Dunne and also the 'Ascot scene' from "My Fair Lady", he decided on a masked ball with the dress code limited to black and white. As most of the guests were among the most famous in the world, the idea of masks added a dimension of fun.  (It also allowed a mischievous factor for Capote to relish as he also invited some not-so-famous acquaintances such as his U.N. Plaza doorman and elevator operator to mix anonymously).  Fearing that throwing a lavish party for himself would be seen as vulgar, he avoided potential conflict among his "swans", as he called his beautiful society lady friends, by choosing Katharine Graham as guest of honor.  In George Plimpton's 1997 book on Capote, Mrs. Graham is quoted to say, "Truman called me up that summer and said, 'I think you need cheering up.  And I'm going to give you a ball.' . . I was . . sort of baffled . . I felt a little bit like Truman was going to give the ball anyway and that I was part of the props."  Held in the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel on November 28, 1966, the event remains a highlight in the history of social gatherings, often referred to as the Party of the Century.
The Dining Room of Katharine Graham's
Georgetown residence.
Photo by Derry Moore for Architectural Digest.
A pair of George III dining tables with a collection of George I and II walnut chairs furnish the double Dining Room.  The armorial porcelain is circa 1815 Flight, Barr & Barr.  These items are among those inherited from the collections of her mother, Agnes Meyer.
A circa 1775 George III giltwood mirror
and a circa 1810 to 1815 Empire
Denuelle Porcelaine de Paris centerpiece
in the Dining Room.
Photo by Derry Moore for Architectural Digest.
The red Living Room is also said to be evocative of the taste of Agnes Meyer.  It was still as decorated by Billy Baldwin when this writer worked at the house, and quite charming though slightly worn twenty five years later.  (The tied-back silk curtains in the west-facing bay window were tattered in the folds, but noticeable only when the Secret Service required them closed during a visit by President Regan).  The curtains were more-or-less reproduced in an early 1990s redecoration by Nancy Pierrepont who also introduced the striped upholstery fabric.
The Living Room as it appeared
photographed by Derry Moore
for Architectural Digest.
The Library also essentially kept the Billy Baldwin decoration, complimenting the paintings by Morris Louis and Diego Rivera.
The eastern half of the Library.
Photo by Derry Moore for Architectural Digest.
The western half of the Library.
Photo from HORST INTERIORS, 1973, via
Style Court
The Master Bedroom.
Photo by Derry Moore for Architectural Digest.
Mrs. Graham's bedroom was among the areas decorated in the mid-1980s by Albert Hadley assisted by Gary Hagar.  In addition to the Entrance Hall and some Guest Rooms, they also decorated Mrs. Graham's Study in anticipation for her retirement from the Washington Post Company and the writing of her memoirs.  (Her book PERSONAL HISTORY was published in 1997 and received rave reviews;  it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998).
Katharine Graham's Study.
Photo by Derry Moore for Architectural Digest.
My architectural contributions involved improvements to the Entrance Hall, Master Bedroom, Study, and a Packing Room (not shown) for which I designed built-in fittings to allow the steaming/pressing of clothes and packing/unpacking of luggage for Mrs. Graham's frequent travels.
A recent view of the house from the sidewalk.
Photo from Washington Social Diary.
Katharine Graham died in 2001 from the head trauma she suffered after falling on a sidewalk in Boise, Idaho.  She is buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery across the street from her former home.  Mark D. Ein, owner of Kastle security company and the tennis team The Washington Kastles, bought the house in 2002 for $8 million.  At last report, he never moved in and the house has been vacant more than ten years.


  1. Very interesting piece on a remarkable lady.

    1. Thanks for commenting, GSL. She was a model client, quick to make a decision and move ahead in a linear fashion with no back-tracking or second guessing.

  2. What a shame to see a home with so much history empty for 10 years. The way things are these days I would not be surprised to hear someone tore it down to build condominiums!

    I would have given anything to have been allowed to go through her study. The people she knew and the times she lived, particularly the Kennedy years, were probably the most glamorous in Washington history. You are right, the Capote party brought her to the limelight, at least as far as society was concerned.

    1. J., although it is a prime corner lot, Georgetown is particularly strict on such matters. But stranger things have happened. Capote was a character wasn't he?

  3. I lived and worked in Washington during the Katherine Graham's tenure. She was an amazing lady and extremely powerful. How sad that this glorious home has become derelict and lonely after witnessing history being made at so many levels.
    Thanks for this wonderful post--favorite element is that Edo screen.

    1. M, I like the screen, too. Most of the Asian antiques had been collected by her mother. Thanks for commenting.

  4. In the Library is the Diego Rivera above the chimneypiece?

    1. Although not sure of the specifics, I am guessing the abstract painting is from the period when he studied and travelled in Europe in the 'teens. Thanks for your question, C.

  5. What a marvelous post!
    Mrs Graham has always struck me as a person of genuine integrity, someone with
    character and grit. Interesting to see the house, with its contributions by various
    designers. I find myself partial to the Albert Hadley rooms, but all of them are worthy
    of attention.

    1. Thanks for your comments, TW. Mrs Graham was secure in her status and ability, but not at all over-impressed with herself; I think 'secure' is the key word that is missing in others who feel the need to strike terror to get action. As for the décor, the hostess does indeed add a factor when visiting in person that is missing from magazine photos.

  6. I pass the house frequently as I live and work nearby - and it doesn't seem unoccupied. I frequently see people coming and going. Not sure if they're caretakers or what......but it's not sitting there falling to the ground at least. What a great project for you!

    1. SH, I am glad the house is being kept up, at least and appreciate the update. I love working in DC, and have a fantastic project that I'd like to show but I will have to figure out how - maybe just some details. Thanks for commenting.

  7. John, I once lived at 29th and Q -near Dumbarton Oaks...loved it!

  8. Wow! You are so very lucky to have been able to work with such an influential woman in history. Katharine Graham was good friends with the Kennedys and lived through such an interesting period of history. You have been so privileged to work with her.


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