"Lafayette Square was society. Beyond the square, the country began." Thus wrote Henry Adams of the park in Washington, D.C., that he lived next to from 1877 to 1918. The square could, indeed, be viewed as a microcosm of America’s fledgling civilization, for it served, at points, as presidential garden, soldiers’ barracks, slave market, zoo, racetrack, and graveyard. But a more defiant interpretation of Adams’ statement would have landed, during the Gilded Age, like a tossed gauntlet on the Isfahan carpet of any New York drawing room, where ladies’ fans would have fluttered in agitation and mutton-chopped jaws clenched at the slightest challenge to the social supremacy of that city’s strictly restricted Four Hundred. If Washington was on rare occasions permitted to penetrate the usually impermeable membrane of polite New York, the latter did not, as a rule, soil its heels with the mud of the Potomac. Except, that is, at the invitation of Henry Adams.
But then, Adams was a rare bird. A historian, he was the scion of America’s first political dynasty: His paternal great-grandfather was the nation’s second president, John Adams; his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, its sixth. A Boston Brahmin whose maternal grandfather had supplied the family with sufficient wealth for leisure, he worked first as a private secretary and then as a journalist (not the happiest choice of careers for a young man of his station). Never a distinguished student, he proved to possess one of the most original and wide-ranging minds of his age. He longed for the kind of fame his antecedents had achieved, yet he never published publicly his most remarkable work, The Education of Henry Adams. He shunned the teas, receptions, and cotillions that were the social staples of Washington, yet his Romanesque mansion on H Street, across from Lafayette Square, served as the city’s undisputed intellectual center.
Though Adams seldom ventured out, the worlds of art, science, letters, commerce, and politics traipsed faithfully through his fabled salon—affairs over which he and his best friend and next-door neighbor, former secretary of state John Hay, presided. An invitation to Uncle Henry’s (as he was known to his "nieces," invariably Washington’s most dazzling young women) was more coveted than a summons to the White House, which could be plainly viewed from Adams’ front windows. Indeed, the novelist Henry James (a regular guest), in his short story "Pandora," modeled the character of a Washington host on Adams: Debating whom to invite to a dinner, the fictional host exclaims, "Let us be vulgar and have some fun—let us invite the President."
Of course, real presidents (both sitting and future) accepted, furnishing Uncle Henry with abundant sources of fun. Of William Howard Taft, Adams—a cynical spectator of democracy’s course—observed, "He looks bigger and more tumble-to-pieces than ever . . . but what struck me most was the deterioration of his mind and expression. . . . He shows mental enfeeblement all over, and I wanted to offer him a bet that he wouldn’t get through his term."
Taft’s predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, whose family had long been part of the Hay-Adams inner circle, did not fare much better. Adams regarded Roosevelt’s political ambitions with apprehension, calling them "silent and awful like the Chicago Express." Of the president’s somewhat aggressive dentition, he declared, "What is man that he should have tusks and grin!" But if Adams found Roosevelt to be "pure act," the ersatz frontiersman found Adams altogether too brainy and sybaritic. Roosevelt’s daughter, the redoubtable Alice Roosevelt Longworth ("the other Washington Monument"), for her part, considered Uncle Henry "a wisp of an angry, sour little man, of great intellect."
After the death of his wife, Clover, by her own hand in 1885, Adams applied that formidable intellect tirelessly to the problem of history (a family obsession)—so much of which Adams himself had lived through—before at last relocating, like so many other members of his salon, to Rock Creek Cemetery. The Hay and Adams homes were pulled down in the late 1920s, and on their adjoining sites rose the elegant Hay-Adams hotel (pictured), featured in this month’s fashion photo essay "Threads of State" (page 132). Society, however, has not abandoned Lafayette Square: Today the luminaries of art, science, letters, commerce, and politics pass through the hotel’s lobby and into its exclusive bar, Off the Record—still the favorite watering hole of the elite in "the drollest place in Christian lands." Uncle Henry is, no doubt, very much at home.