WASHINGTON, DC – “Memorial Continental Hall: 100 Years of History,” an exhibition examining the rich history of this National Historic Landmark Building, located just two blocks from the White House, is on display at the DAR Museum through February 4, 2006. The exhibit traces the extensive fundraising and planning history of the building’s creation, the beaux-arts architecture and exquisite interior décor, and the historical events that have taken place there.
Thousands of tourists and D.C. residents alike pass by Memorial Continental Hall daily on 17th Street as they walk by the White House or while going to the World War II Memorial, but few know of its multifunctional purpose or historical significance. It is often mistaken as part of the building it adjoins, the concert venue Constitution Hall, but Memorial Continental Hall was in fact built more than 20 years prior to the popular concert hall and serves its own distinct purpose.
“Like many official buildings in downtown Washington, the exterior of Memorial Continental Hall is a familiar part of the landscape, but its interior is a mystery to most who pass by,” says DAR Museum Director Diane Dunkley. “This exhibition invites visitors to learn the history of a beautiful building and the forward-thinking women who created it.”
Memorial Continental Hall was built in 1905 by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) to serve as the organization’s national headquarters and to hold their annual convention. Today, it is the epicenter of an active DAR, but it is also a unique D.C. destination open to the public. Memorial Continental Hall houses one of the world’s most important genealogical libraries, an extensive collection of antique home furnishings displayed in more than 30 period rooms and glamorous spaces available to the
public for an array of different occasions.
The Memorial Continental Hall exhibition is a retrospective on the history of the 100-year-old building presented in the DAR Museum gallery, and includes a walking tour of the building itself, which has retained many of its original design features. Historical photos, original furnishings, early documents and blueprints of the Hall are on display in the gallery. The walking tour includes “then-and-now” explanations of different significant areas around the building and points out portraits and architectural features of the Hall too large to include in the gallery.
Among the topics included in the exhibition is how Memorial Continental Hall played an important role in the history of the city of Washington. When the DAR leadership first began searching for a headquarters site at the turn of the 20th century, Washington, D.C. was still a developing city and many now-prime pieces of land were available and undeveloped.
Originally, the DAR leadership had many questions regarding building in a location that at the time was the unfashionable, semi-rural and marshy part of the city south of the White House, called “Foggy Bottom.” Their decision to build on 17th Street, one block from Constitution Avenue, proved to be a very wise choice. The exhibit includes correspondence between the DAR president and Senator James McMillan, whose committee’s plan for the National Mall guided the development of 20th century Washington, including Memorial Continental Hall.
The “White City” concept that the architects on the McMillan Commission referred to for the National Mall was the standard for the façade of Memorial Continental Hall. With that idea and the Colonial Revival movement in mind, Edward Pearce Casey, who had designed the interior of the Library of Congress, won a competition to be the architect of Memorial Continental Hall. His winning design was in the classical revival style of the beaux-arts.
The exhibition goes into detail examining the classical features of the façade, the intricate detail of the interior design and the elegant original furnishings and decorations of the building. Comparisons of the original functions of the rooms of the building to that of their current functions show how the Hall has changed over time. What was once the grand auditorium of Memorial Continental Hall now houses the DAR Genealogical Library. Offices that originally surrounded the auditorium now serve as museum period rooms decorated to accurately reflect a specific time, place and authentic interior décor.
Over the years, many important local and national events have taken place in Memorial Continental Hall, but none more important than the 1921 Conference on the Limitation of Armament. President Warren Harding opened the conference, which brought together major Allied naval powers from around the world to discuss a reduction in the size and armament of their navies and to ensure security in the Pacific.
When the conference ended on February 6, 1922, the delegates had signed three major treaties and several separate agreements. This historic event earned Memorial Continental Hall its National Historic Landmark status in 1972. Other significant historical uses of the building came during World War II when Memorial Continental Hall became the site of many Red Cross offices, including space for its Prisoners of War offices. The DAR also sponsored a War Service Center located in the Hall, which was open for WWII servicemen six days a week.
Today, members and the public alike come to Memorial Continental Hall to immerse themselves in genealogical research at the DAR Library or to take guided tours of the museum period rooms. The beautiful O’Byrne Gallery is one of the most elegant venues in Washington, D.C. regularly hosting special events such as receptions, meetings and weddings. Memorial Continental Hall’s resemblance to the White House also makes it a desirable location for shooting feature films and television. Movies such as Suspect, The Distinguished Gentleman, and National Treasure, as well as television programs, including The West Wing, have filmed at Memorial Continental Hall.
A short documentary film on the history of Memorial Continental Hall was made in conjunction with the exhibition and is available in the DAR Museum Shop. The 12-minute film mirrors the scope of the exhibition and tells the story of the 100-year old building using narration, video footage, historical photos and documents. Historical footage of the 1921 Armaments Conference held in Memorial Continental Hall appears in the film as well as contemporary footage of the building.