Preserving the Past; Addressing the Future – May 2012

drawingMVHGMBy Sharon W Vaino, CDA President General
From The Social Register Observer: “One of the country’s most exclusive organizations, The Colonial Dames of America, held its annual luncheon meeting here yesterday …” wrote New York Times reporter Judy Klemesrud in the family/style section of that paper on May 1, 1976. The Colonial Dames of America (CDA) was celebrating the country’s Bicentennial year, an event much in character with the organization’s purpose.

Drawing: Watercolor of The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum by Christine Y Rother

When Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer said to her companions in April of 1890, “Let us found a patriotic society of women, descended from Colonial ancestry,” she sparked the founding of the CDA. (See The Colonial Dames of America, Irving Press, New York, 1911.) Mrs. Van Rensselaer and her companions then solicited women of known Colonial descent as members, and had them prepare genealogical charts. In May of 1890, at a preliminary meeting at the home of Mrs. Van Rensselaer, the name “The Colonial Dames of America” was narrowly approved for the organization in a 4-3 vote; and it was included in its constitution, adopted later that month.

​With others forming a similar organization, the name soon became a matter of controversy. On January 7, 1892, a bill to grant a federal charter to The Colonial Dames of America was introduced in Congress. On May 26, 1892, The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America likewise applied to Congress for a federal charter to be granted to it. The Committee on the Library, to which both applications were referred, concluded, “In this particular case the determination of the question of priority of rights would seem to belong to the Courts, and not to Congress.” Litigation ensued, and Justice Henry W. Bookstaver of the New York Supreme Court, City and County of New York, concluded, “If there is any advantage in the peculiarly suitable appellation ‘Colonial Dames’ let them all have that advantage.” Although the CDA complained of the “incalculable injury” done to it on this account, the 1976 New York Times article cited above quoted various members who believed the relationship between the two organizations had become a cordial one.

In the first eight years after its founding, the CDA Parent Chapter established in New York was followed by chapters in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC; and within the next four years, by chapters in Paris and San Francisco.

On the occasion of the Tercentennial of the founding of Jamestown in 1907, the CDA gave a pair of wrought-iron gates, with brick pillars and a wall, to the Society for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities as an entrance to the graveyard on Jamestown Island. The then President of the CDA said, “We that are gathered here to-day outnumber that intrepid little band who, on that 14th of May, 1607, here raised the British flag….Each age has its own especial problem to solve; each has to work out its own salvation with fear and trembling…. Their lot … seems to us of a later day, whose fortunes are more happily cast, too far off to call for the expression of any feeling so personal as gratitude, but when we forget, we drift.” A century later, the CDA supported the Jamestown Quadricentennial financially, including funding of a scale model of James Fort.

Although domestic in its initial focus, the CDA nevertheless looked beyond national borders. In 1909 the Chamberlain and Private Secretary to Her Majesty the Queen of the Netherlands wrote to convey “Her Majesty’s sincere thanks to ‘the Colonial Dames of America’ for the adress [sic] of congratulations on the birth of Her Royal Highness the Princess Juliana. My Gracious Sovereign is much gratified at the interest, the ‘Colonial Dames of America’ take in the land of their forefathers.”

The property purchased had been owned by Colonel William Stephens Smith and his wife, Abigail Adams Smith, daughter of John Adams, second president of the United States, and his wife, Abigail. The stone building on this property, now one of the eight oldest buildings in Manhattan, was built in 1799 as a carriage house and converted in 1826 into a day hotel. At a time when New York City ended at 14th Street, New Yorkers could escape the crowded city and travel by stagecoach or steamship to the Mount Vernon Hotel, where ladies could enjoy the ladies’ parlor, and gentlemen, the tavern. An adjacent course for trotting horses attracted additional patrons.

In 1911, the CDA Committee on Publication posed the following questions: “On our coming of age we naturally take an introspective view and ask—What were we?—What are we? —and What have we accomplished?” In responding to the last question, the committee concluded, “Perhaps the greatest work of all, inspiring the whole nation to reverential care for all that speaks of the wisdom and patriotism of our forefathers.”

The CDA first conducted its official business at the residence of the Secretary, 102 Lexington Avenue, and later at 40 East 29th Street, in Manhattan. In 1896, a room was rented at 156 Fifth Avenue, and in 1899 the CDA took space at 109 University Place. Offices were later moved to 18 East Eighth Street. In 1924 the organization took a significant step by purchasing property at 421 East 61st Street in Manhattan for $49,000, payable over 20 years, although it succeeded in retiring its mortgage in less than two years.

After serving as a day hotel, the building was used as a family residence and as a multiple dwelling, and during World War I as a soup kitchen run by the Salvation Army. Having been purchased in 1905 by the Standard Gas Light Company (now Con Edison), by 1919 the building was ringed by gas tanks. In that year Jane Teller rented the building, which she furnished in pre-Revolutionary style and used for classes in handcrafts.

Following extensive restoration in the 15 years after the building’s purchase by the CDA, it was opened to the public in 1939, timed to coincide with the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and continues today as a public exhibition space. The building was named the Abigail Adams Smith House, given her previous ownership of the property, although she had not resided there when it was used as a family home. In 1967 the New York City Preservation Commission designated the site a Historic Landmark, and in 1973 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The completion of the Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium at 417 East 61st Street in 1976 provided what today is an attractive, newly renovated venue for lectures, concerts, and entertaining for up to 200 guests.

​In order to present an authentic picture of actual use of the 1799 building, the CDA Board of Managers voted in 1988 to reinterpret it as the 1826-1833 Mount Vernon Hotel, and in 2000 the site was renamed The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden to emphasize the attractive garden. CDA members are welcome to join the Museum, but the Museum has its own membership open to anyone who chooses to pay its modest dues. Multitudes of New York City children in both public and private schools visit the Museum today to experience early American culture. A full roster of fascinating programs, as well as facilities available for rental, make the Museum a valuable Manhattan resource.

In the meantime, the CDA had expanded both nationally and internationally. In 1930 chapters were established in both Rome and London. The first meeting of the Rome chapter took place at the residence of Princess Poggia Suasa Ruspoli, who was elected honorary president. There was no chapter established in Boston, however. CDA file correspondence from November of 1930 states, “We have carefully looked into the New England situation. We have eight members living in Boston, none of whom are willing to start a Chapter because the crème de la crème of Boston and Massachussets [sic] belong to the National Society, and it would be foolish to start a rival Chapter that would, of necessity, be a weak one and second choice.” Today, however, the CDA indicates that it would welcome a chapter in the Boston area. Highlighting the sense of ongoing difficulty with the existence of The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in those earlier years, by-laws presented in 1940 for the St. Louis chapter contained the following provisions: “No person shall be eligible for membership in this Society who is a member of a Society having in its title the words ‘COLONIAL DAMES.’ If a member of this Society becomes a member of any Society having in its title the words, ‘COLONIAL DAMES,’ her membership in this Society shall thereupon cease and terminate” (Article III, Section IV).

In April of 1941, before the United States had entered World War II, the Rome chapter gave Pope Pius XII ten thousand lire to be used for war relief. In 2010, the CDA chapters in Rome and London celebrated their 80th anniversaries in Rome. Participants in the celebration were shown a keyhole through which one can view three States: the Order of Malta, the Italian Republic, and the Vatican, and received a private tour of the seat of the Order of Malta led by Count Alberto Moncada, who is descended from Robert E. Lee. Other highlights included a sumptuous dinner at a private home, and a tour of the Cimitero Acattolico (Protestant Cemetery) in Rome, where English poets John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley are buried. There are currently 33 CDA chapters besides the Parent Chapter in New York, with a 34th chapter in prospect, allowing members to connect with like-minded women in many parts of the United States and abroad.

The CDA seeks to collect and preserve material from the Colonial period in American history, to support American historical education and associated projects, and to promote camaraderie among its members. A current member of a CDA chapter can propose a candidate for membership to the chapter’s Membership Committee, with supporting letters as required by the chapter. If the candidacy is approved, the candidate needs to demonstrate legitimate descent from an ancestor who held public office or a military commission in the original thirteen colonies, or who otherwise served in an eligible capacity, during the period beginning May 13, 1607 (settlement of Jamestown) and ending April 18, 1775 (just before the Battle of Lexington). Once the descent has been verified and membership approved, membership begins upon payment of applicable fees.

A CDA member can become involved in a variety of projects and activities, depending on the priorities of her chapter. Early in its history, the CDA provided the Jenny A. Gerard gold medal to Barnard College to be awarded for proficiency in American Colonial history. A letter dated April 29, 1963, signed by then First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, thanked the CDA for gifts presented to the White House: “The silver tea caddy by Nathaniel Vernon will be one of our most cherished possessions. It is so graceful in shape and in its decorative design, that it is one of the prettiest I have ever seen.” The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden has for almost three decades offered summer fellowships funded by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation that enable recipients to conduct original historical research. The Rome chapter of the CDA has for years worked to document the 840 Americans buried in the Protestant Cemetery there during the last 250 years. A President’s Award for Excellence and Book Awards given annually recognize worthy chapter projects and books by outside authors. Social events also bring chapter members together.

Maintaining coherence within an organization that sits astride such a broad spectrum of geographical locations and time periods with their associated cultures requires a special grace. Nancy Shackelford Jones, the current President General of the CDA, had the following to say about assuming her role:

“When the phone call came asking me to be the next President General of The Colonial Dames of America, it felt like being struck by lightning…. Little did I know the pleasures, honors and challenges associated with being a national president of an organization that has international chapters. The pleasures are meeting outstanding, talented women on many levels and in various geographic locations. These women believe in historic preservation, education and scholarship. They translate their convictions into actions and projects created at the chapter level…. The honors include the esteem a President General receives when visiting chapters such as the one in Rome, Italy. There we were entertained in a private home as well as in an ancient private club. In Paris, France, there was a private, detailed tour of Versailles…. I remember the thrill in Houston, Texas, of walking across the dance floor only to hear the band strike up ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas.’ These memories and experiences will be etched in my mind forever. The challenges associated with leading a 120-year-old, not-for-profit organization include being relevant in the 21st Century, attracting young working mothers today, and finances…. There exists a huge patriotic pool of people located in the Manhattan area. The camaraderie shared with these patriotic societies is valuable and enjoyable. All organizations face difficult economic decisions in this economy. It is important to make sound fiscal decisions during the hard times facing all people and nations. The President General enjoys privileges and honors unlike any other office I have ever held. I am so grateful for the opportunity to serve this outstanding organization.”

Portrait of Charlotte Armstrong on display at the Harvard Club of New York City by Everett Raymond Kinstler

CDA Past President General Charlotte P. Armstrong, a member of the first Harvard Law School graduating class to admit women, provides an inspiring example to today’s professional women members. Mrs. Armstrong was one of 11 women out of 425 Harvard Law School graduates in 1953. She has served Harvard University and its Law School in many volunteer capacities, most notably as president of the Harvard Board of Overseers. When her portrait was hung in the Harvard Club of New York, Mrs. Armstrong was the only woman to have been so distinguished since Helen Keller. Mrs. Armstrong, a senior managing director at Brock Capital Group LLC, is also Chairman of the Board of the American Farm School in Greece, a trustee and secretary of the American Trust for the British Library, a director and treasurer of The Royal Oak Foundation, and a director and vice president of the National Institute of Social Sciences. In 2011 she received a Doctor of Law, honoris causa, degree from Marymount Manhattan College.

Mrs. Armstrong was honored at the September 2011 Autumn Splendor Benefit held at the Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium to support the educational programs of The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden. The Auditorium sparkled with individuals prominent in education, the arts, and the professions who congratulated Mrs. Armstrong on her distinguished career of legal and not-for-profit organization service, particularly for educational organizations. CDA Board of Managers members Beverley Sherrid, First Vice President, and Sharon Vaino, Recording Secretary, co-chaired the annual benefit, assisted by Board member Beverley Young (silent auction chair), and by 33 other Benefit Committee members. Guests were greeted by current CDA President General Nancy Shackelford Jones and heard a warm and sensitive verbal portrait of Mrs. Armstrong from CDA member and attorney Rebecca Madsen. CDA Past Presidents General Helen Evans and Audrey Svensson; CDA Museum Liaison Catherine Brawer; and CDA Board members Elizabeth Bramwell, Shirley Dixon-Miller, Caroline McLain, Sandra Pearl, and Julia Ryan lent their support to this special occasion.

Mary Anne Caton, Director of The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden, with her staff assisted in the many details which, when well-executed, make for a successful benefit. CDA Executive Director Allison Coliskey and her staff helped make the Auditorium a warm and hospitable environment for receiving CDA members as well as Charles Brock, Chairman and CEO of Brock Capital Group LLC; Judson Shaver, President of Marymount Manhattan College; and trustees of the American Farm School in Greece. Organizations represented included Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts (Tara Kelly), Historic House Trust (Frances Eberhart), The Royal Oak Foundation (Sean Sawyer), and The Saint Nicholas Society (Jill Spiller); along with Harvard Law School alumni and many others, making the event a constellation of those interested in education and historic preservation.

The continued vitality of the CDA depends on its ability to harness the talents of women who, though sharing common ancestral roots and patriotic values, participate in many different cultures and daily experiences. The ability of the organization to run successful educational programs and appeal to a contemporary audience depends on the creativity of members and staff and their well-placed initiatives. A long heritage assures continuity only to the extent that the best resources of the past are preserved and new ones captured. In its mission of education, historic preservation, and scholarship, the CDA should be well positioned to build on a record of successful accomplishment.

For more information on The Colonial Dames of America, please visit the CDA’s website at The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden’s website is at​

The Abigail Adams Smith Auditorium and the offices of The Colonial Dames of America are at 417 East 61st Street, New York, New York 10065, Tel.: (212) 838-5489. ​
The Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden ​
is at 421 East 61st Street, New York, NY 10065​
Tel.: (212) 838-6878.

The Social Register Observer