In 1927, the National Board of The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America (NSCDA) approved that the Society should “acquire an old, historic Colonial house, in its domicile, Washington City, and maintain it as a museum, or educational center, for the collection, care and display of American arts of the Colonial Period; to be open to the public under suitable restrictions, so that it might worthily illustrate the character and objects of the Society.”
The NSCDA purchased Belle Vue (as Dumbarton House historically was named) in 1928. At the time of acquisition, much of the structure’s original Federal-style elegance was obscured by later Colonial Revival embellishments, and many years of deferred maintenance.
The Dames moved quickly to begin restoration of Dumbarton House and collecting fine and decorative arts to furnish the headquarters and museum. Finally, in 1932, after the structure was restored to its early 1800s splendor, Dumbarton House opened to the public as a museum of Federal period decorative arts.
Then, in 1942, the NSCDA supported the war effort by allowing the District of Columbia chapter of the Red Cross to occupy Dumbarton House. All furnishings were removed from the museum and the period rooms were used to establish a production unit for sewing and knitting garments for the armed services and to conduct classes in first aid, home nursing, and nutrition. Dumbarton House formally returned to the custody of the NSCDA in October of 1945 and the museum reopened to the public shortly thereafter.
Nearly sixty years after Dumbarton House originally opened to the public, the NSCDA completed a major expansion and renovation of the building. The 1991 expansion included the construction of a public meeting space, renovations to the offices, and the installation of an elevator. On the grounds, period-appropriate plantings replaced an earlier landscape design, and an overgrown vacant lot on the east end was landscaped into a park.
In 2006, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) conferred accredited status to Dumbarton House acknowledging the museum’s adherence to the highest standards of the profession and in 2021 Dumbarton House was again awarded AAM accreditation.
As we reflect on the past ninety-years of Dumbarton House’s public service, we also look towards the future. This spring, to ensure that our historic site serves our 21st century mission to use the latest research and methods to thoroughly understand and accurately represent our American past, we’ll begin restoration of the Best Chamber. Additional renovation to our Visitor Center and second floor education offices is an infrastructure-based investment in our national relevance and our ability to serve schoolchildren coast-to-coast.