First Posted: July 25, 2012
Jan 20, 2020

Cosmos Club/Townsend House

Image: CopyrightDupontCircleReflections.us  Image: CopyrightDupontCircleReflections.us
Cosmos Club/July 25, 2012

The Cosmos Club is a private social club in Washington, DC, founded by John Wesley Powell in 1878. In addition to Powell, original members included Clarence Edward Dutton, Henry Smith Pritchett, William Harkness, and John Shaw Billings. Among its stated goals is "The advancement of its members in science, literature, and art". Cosmos Club members have included many recipients of the Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, and Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Since 1952 the Club's headquarters have been in the Mary Scott (Mrs Richard T.) Townsend house, at 2121 Massachusetts Avenue, NW in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. The free-standing house, set in almost an acre of garden, was designed in the Beaux Arts French style by architects Carrère and Hastings in 1898 and essentially completed in 1901. Mr. Townsend died shortly thereafter, in 1902. Following the death of Mrs. Townsend in 1931, their daughter Matilde, who was by then Mrs B. Sumner Welles, moved into the house, living there until World War II. It was purchased from Mrs Welles' estate by the Cosmos Club in 1950 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. It is a contributing property to the Dupont Circle Historic District and Massachusetts Avenue Historic District.

Image: Public Domain
Cosmos Club, ca. 1921, before its move to the Townsend house. {The five-story Cosmos Club, constructed between the Madison and Tayloe houses, dates from 1910 and is based upon designs of local architect and club member Thomas J.D.Fuller. Built to provide a connection between the two historic houses, it serves as a restrained institutional counterpoint to the abutting Federal style buildings.}


The Club originally met in the Corcoran Building on the corner of 15th and F Streets, NW, but moved to Lafayette Square in 1882. Eventually, the Club occupied the Tayloe and Dolley Madison Houses on the eastern side of the Square, and razed two rowhouses between them for additional space. Prompted to relocate by the federal government, the Club moved to the Townsend House in 1952.

Since 1887, the regular meeting place of the Philosophical Society of Washington has been the assembly hall of the Cosmos Club, now called the John Wesley Powell auditorium. The National Geographic Society was founded in the Cosmos Club in 1888, and The Wilderness Society was founded there in 1935.

For its first 110 years, the Cosmos Club did not permit women members, and forbade female guests to enter by the front door or to enter rooms reserved for members. In 1988, the Washington, DC, Human Rights Office ruled that there was probable cause to believe that the club's men-only policy violated the city's anti-discrimination law. The Office was ready to order public hearings on the case, which could have resulted in the loss of all city licenses and permits if the all-male policy had continued.

In 1990, the Cosmos Club began publication of Cosmos: A Journal of Emerging Issues as an annual publication of original essays by its members.

    The Cosmos Club offers two major awards:

  1. The Cosmos Club Award has been presented annually since 1964 to persons of national or international standing in a field of science, literature, the fine arts, the learned professions, or the public service. Notable recipients have included Edwin Land, Paul Volcker, C. Everett Koop, James Van Allen, Arthur Kornberg, Sandra Day O'Connor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Elie Wiesel.
  2. The John P. McGovern Award which supports an annual series of lectures in science, literature, arts, and humanities (given by the award recipients). Notable recipients have included: J. Craig Venter, Mstislav Rostropovich, Stephen J. Gould, Edward O. Wilson, Saul Bellow, Derek Jacobi and Leonard Slatkin.

Election to membership in the Cosmos Club honors persons deemed to have "done meritorious original work in science, literature, or the arts, or... recognized as distinguished in a learned profession or in public service".

For More Information:

Cosmos Club
Cosmos Club endures as an institution for the upper crust
Cosmos Club Award Recipients

Index: Historical Buildings