Larz and Isabel Anderson were both born into families with established wealth and strong ties to America’s founding generations. They met in Rome in 1896 when he was posted at the American embassy in Italy and she was on her grand tour. Eighteen months later, they were married at the Arlington Street Church in Isabel’s native Boston. Larz was ten years older than his bride. In addition to Anderson House in Washington, they owned homes in Brookline, Massachusetts, and the New Hampshire mountains. The couple never had any children, and devoted their lives to public service, philanthropy, travel, collecting, and entertaining.
Larz Anderson (1866-1937) was the son of Civil War general Nicholas Longworth Anderson and Cincinnati socialite Elizabeth Coles Kilgour. The Anderson family, one of the most prominent in Cincinnati, traced its fortune back to the post-Revolutionary War real estate ventures of Lt. Col. Richard Clough Anderson, Larz Anderson’s great grandfather and an original member of the Society of the Cincinnati.
Though his roots were in Ohio, Larz Anderson had considered himself a Washingtonian since the age of fifteen, when his parents moved with Larz and his younger sister, Elsie, into a home at the corner of 16th and K streets designed for them by Henry H. Richardson. Larz Anderson soon left for preparatory school at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He then graduated from Harvard University in 1888, the third member of the Anderson family to attend the school. After a year-and-a-half tour around the world—his first exposure as an adult to the cultures that inspired his life-long collecting and travels—Larz Anderson began his diplomatic career in 1891 as a second secretary of the American legation in London.
Larz Anderson once recalled that he was the first person in the American diplomatic corps to rise entirely through its ranks from the lowest post to the highest. After three years in London, he was sent to Rome as first secretary of the embassy and, for a short time, served as chargé d’affaires. His career culminated in posts as minister to Belgium (1911-1912) and ambassador to Japan (1912-1913). Larz Anderson’s diplomatic service resulted in being awarded the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazare (Italy), Order of the Crown (Italy), Order of the Rising Sun (Japan), and Order of the Crown (Belgium).
His family heritage of patriotic and military service also inspired Larz Anderson to volunteer for the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War in 1898. He was commissioned a captain and served as assistant adjutant general in the Second Division of the Second Army Corps. Around the same time, Larz Anderson became a member of the Society of the Cincinnati in the line of his great grandfather. Larz was also admitted to other patriotic societies, including the Sons of the American Revolution; Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States, as the son of Civil War general Nicholas Longworth Anderson; and Order of the Spanish-American War owing to his own military service. Larz Anderson’s varied interests also extended to World War I relief efforts, automobiles and airplanes, theater, and art collecting.
Isabel Anderson (1876-1948) was born Isabel Weld Perkins in Boston, the only child of Civil War naval officer George Hamilton Perkins and Boston heiress Anna Minot Weld. The Welds were one of New England’s oldest and most prominent families. Isabel Anderson had at least eight ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War. In the mid-nineteenth century, the shipping business of Isabel’s grandfather William Fletcher Weld began garnering the fortune she would later inherit. While newspapers reported that she inherited as much as $17 million, the true value of Isabel’s inheritance from her grandfather is unknown but probably less than $5 million.
Isabel grew up spending summers at Weld homes in Newport, winters at her parents’ house in Boston, and spring and fall on the Perkins estate in New Hampshire.She was educated at home by governesses before attending Miss Winsor’s School in Boston.In 1895, at nineteen, Isabel embarked on her first trip abroad—a yearlong grand European tour—with chaperone Maud Howe Elliott, an author and art historian who became a lifelong friend. Maud’s tutelage in art and collecting, religion, history, and European cultural life had a profound influence on Isabel—particularly her love of travel and appreciation for art and artists.
During World War I, Isabel Anderson joined other prominent American women in support of beleaguered western European countries. She was a leader of Washington’s Red Cross activities and Belgian relief work, then spent eight months in 1917 and 1918 caring for the war’s sick and wounded in France and Belgium. When Isabel returned to Washington, she found the city ravaged by the Spanish flu epidemic and volunteered to assist the afflicted around the city. Her dedication resulted in awards such as the American Red Cross Service Medal, Croix de Guerre (France), and Medal of Elisabeth of Belgium.
Isabel devoted the rest of her life to writing children’s books and travelogues and giving to churches, hospitals, universities, and museums. Her nearly forty books range from fantastical children’s stories to non-fiction travel accounts and memoirs. She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, serving as librarian general (1923-1926); National Society of The Colonial Dames of America; National League of American Pen Women; Boston Authors Club; and the Sulgrave Club, which she helped found. In recognition of her contributions both at home and abroad, she received honorary doctorates from George Washington University in 1918 and Boston University in 1930.
After their deaths, Larz and Isabel Anderson were interred in St. Mary’s Chapel at Washington National Cathedral, which they had supported with a $500,000 gift in the late 1920s and later donations of religious art and artifacts, including the David and Goliath tapestries that still grace the walls of St. Mary’s Chapel.