1761 N Street: Home of the Middle East Institute

Mon, Jul 9th 2012, 12:13PM

In the late 19th century, the neighborhood around Dupont Circle (known as “Pacific Circle” until 1882) was a thriving haven of Washington, D.C.’s political and social elite. Senators, diplomats, financiers, and captains of industry lived within walking distance of the Circle, connected via the Connecticut Avenue thoroughfare to the White House and Capitol Hill. Alexander Graham Bell and his collaborator, Gardiner G. Hubbard, who later founded the National Geographic Society, were neighbors here.

It was October of 1885 when a permit was granted to begin construction on a small house designed by Fred G. Atkinson. Simple in design and featuring elegant ornamentations in the style of the Romanesque Revival, the house was typical of townhouses in its neighborhood. Its first confirmed occupant, James B. Eustis, moved in during the his second term of service as a senator from Louisiana. Eustis, a former judge advocate general in the army of Confederate General Joe Johnston, had a reputation as a brilliant orator and a staunch defender of his vision of Democratic principles. This reputation was fed by clashes with President Cleveland, whom the senator described as a “mugwump” – a characteristically Southern term analogous to today’s “waffler.” Intelligent, well-bred, and well-educated, the senator nevertheless refused to indulge in incivility, a quality that was evident in his home life. Under the stewardship of Eustis’ wife, Ellen, the house at 1761 N Street underwent several renovations and developed a reputation for an understated beauty and charm that mirrored Ellen’s own. The house was greatly enlarged by an 1886 addition on its west side, and a stable was built shortly after in the rear of the house to quarter the senator’s horses. The Boston Sunday Herald commented in 1893 on the house’s library, calling it “one of the most attractive rooms . . . [having] an abundance of light from large windows in the front and rear. The room is full of books and pictures, with a piano in the corner . . . .” That library is now the Middle East Institute’s Francis Boardman Room, and hosts foreign dignitaries, renowned scholars, and the Institute’s Board of Directors.

The original 1885 structure on N street.By virtue of his impeccable knowledge of the French language and customs, and the unlikely friendship he had developed with President Cleveland, Eustis was appointed ambassador to France from 1893 to 1897. During this time the house was intermittently occupied by his wife and perhaps by one or more of their six grown children. When Ellen died in 1895, the house passed to daughters Celestine and Marie Clairesse Eustis, who spent most of their lives in the South and may never have lived in the house on N Street themselves. They rented and may shortly have sold the house to Henry Ives Cobb, whose work as an architect had already brought him national fame.

Cobb, who did most of his work in Chicago in the 1880s and 90s, was an innovator in both style and technology. His buildings, which include the Newberry Library and the Old Post Office, are Henry Chicago landmarks, and Cobb himself was a pioneer of steel skeletal construction, the technique that made the skyscraper possible. He had moved to Washington, D.C., in 1897, apparently to escape the Chicago grime, which affronted his fastidious sensibilities, and designed buildings for the federal government and for several Chicago institutions, including the University of Chicago. In 1898, Cobb designed and built a large addition to the rear of the house, and filled every room with selections from his vast collection of etchings, rare books, and architectural photographs. The addition became Cobb’s drafting room, where he would shut himself up for hours at a time to work on several ambitious projects, among them a campus plan (ultimately abandoned) for American University and no fewer than twenty-three of its buildings. He lived for several years in the house before selling it to a mysterious young widow named Nannie Yulee Noble.

Noble’s late husband, William Belden Noble, had been a divinity student at Harvard, and had died suddenly in 1896, at the age of 36. He is perhaps best known as the namesake of the prestigious Noble Lectures series at Harvard’s Memorial Church, which since its endowment in 1898 has hosted some of America’s most renowned religious and political thinkers. Some years after her husband’s death, Nannie Noble moved from a stately Victorian Gothic mansion on Massachusetts Avenue (the house was later razed to make room for an apartment building which today, ironically, houses the National Trust for Historic Preservation) and into the townhouse on N Street.

It was in the less extravagant surroundings of the townhouse that the Nobles’ only child, Davide Yulee Noble, spent her teen years. In this affluent and socially active neighborhood, it was not long before Davide caught the eye of a neighbor, a recent West Point graduate named Sherman Miles. He lived just a few doors down at 1734 N Street, and was the scion of a prominent military family that included his namesake and great-uncle, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. They were married on November 24, 1909, four days before the bride’s 21st birthday. Given the political and military histories of the two families, their union might have been unlikely or even impossible only a few decades before – the bride was the great-granddaughter of Senator David W. Yulee of Florida, the first Jewish member of Congress, a friend of John C. Calhoun, and an ardent proponent of secession, while the groom was heir to the legacy of the South’s most bitter enemy. The hatchet, of course, was long buried by 1909, and there is no evidence of tension between the Northern and Southern wings of the Miles-Noble family.

From 1912-1935, Miles served as a military attaché in various embassies and consulates in Europe, notably the United Kingdom and the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire. During this time, the house was occupied by Nannie alone, apart from sporadic and apparently unexplained absences. The house, comfortably appointed and situated in an attractive neighborhood, rarely stood empty when Noble was gone. From 1915 to1916, it housed the Bulgarian Legation to the United States under Minister Stephan Panaretoff. It was from his office at 1761 N Street that Panaretoff made the announcement in April of 1915 that Bulgaria would not be involved in the war that was quickly inflaming all of Europe. (That policy, of course, was short-lived, as Bulgaria would throw its lot in with the Central Powers in October of that same year.) When Nannie Noble died in 1928 at the age of 72, the house passed to the ownership of the Miles family, who continued to rent it out for the remainder of their time in Europe.

The 1886 addition at 1761 N Street.Starting in 1940, the house that had stood at 1761 N Street was split into two addresses – the original 1885 structure was reassigned the number 1763, while the 1886 addition became 1761. The original occupant of the house’s newly-independent western half was Sherman’s and Davide’s daughter, Yulee Noble Miles (this somewhat confounding name was a portmanteau of the last names of her father, maternal grandfather, and maternal great-grandfather). She moved out after less than a year’s occupancy, and the house passed to Mrs. Priscilla de Mauduit, a wealthy hostess and art collector who would be the Miles’s neighbor for roughly a decade.

Sherman Miles was briefly—and undoubtedly awkwardly—thrown into the limelight in December of 1941, when he was chief of military intelligence. The general had written a memorandum in November that concluded that the Japanese had their hands full in China and were highly unlikely to attack the United States, thus implying that defensive preparations in the Pacific would not be necessary. When the unanticipated Japanese attack finally came a few weeks later, Miles’s career in military intelligence was quickly brought to a close. Despite this embarrassment, he continued to serve the United States Armed Forces throughout the war, and finally retired in 1946 at the rank of Major General.

Postwar records of the house are sparse, but the best conjecture seems to be that de Mauduit and the Miles family lived quiet and uneventful lives from 1940 to 1953, when Mrs. Miles died. Sherman promptly remarried and moved in with his second wife, while Davide’s estate was executed by the National Savings and Trust Company. NSTC put the house up for auction, and it was purchased by a man named George Camp Keiser.

Keiser, an architect by training with a profound interest in the Middle East, had established an Institute for the study of the region in 1946. Since its inception, the Middle East Institute had rapidly expanded – its membership had grown from a handful of like-minded colleagues to over 500 professionals from various fields, and its library had become a sizable collection. Its original home, a modest suite on Florida Avenue, was barely large enough even for the library, let alone for the Institute’s offices and gatherings. After briefly taking up residence at 19th and T streets (leaving its library behind on Florida Avenue), MEI set its sights on a pair of vacant townhouses near Dupont Circle. Keiser, whose considerable wealth was the lifeblood of the nascent Institute, purchased the houses at auction and promptly rented them to MEI at a modest rate. The original plan was to house the library and offices in the townhouse, and to convert the rear carriage house into a lecture hall and exhibition room.

The house—now the office—on N Street has been the home of the Middle East Institute for more than half a century. Since the mid-1980s, the Institute has owned the building, and significant remodeling has been undertaken to make an efficient place of business and learning out of a former residential space, and to preserve the historic townhouse for which MEI is now responsible. In order to meet the dual purposes of historical stewardship and an exigent need for efficiency, the Institute seeks to continue to improve and preserve the building—to add its layer to the palimpsest of lives, woven into the brick and mortar and reaching deep into the roots of Washington’s postbellum history, that is 1761 N Street.