SENATOR'S MOTHER WRITES TO ALPHA CHAPTER

Frances Woolley Robb,
Whose Father Sold the House to Delta Phi Epsilon,
Sends Photographs and Letters
Detailing Her Life at 3401 Prospect Street

On April 27, 1997, National General Secretary Terrence J. Boyle, Al-'63, wrote a letter to Mrs. James Robb, mother of Virginia's senior U.S. Senator Charles Robb and daughter of the man who sold Alpha House to Delta Phi Epsilon in October 1940, enclosing some photographs of the Fraternity House as it is now and asking if she had any photographs from her years at 3401 Prospect to share with us. On April 29 Mrs. Robb responded:

"Dear Mr. Boyle:

What a lovely surprise to see that familiar return address on your very nice letter. Of course it was called Prospect Avenue when we lived there, as was Dumbarton Avenue. I'm curious to know why and when the changes were made.

And you're just as curious to know why my father put our house in my mother's name. I honestly never knew he had done so but he was a lawyer and back in 1925 while he was trying his hand at being an investment counselor on Wall Street he developed cancer of the throat (no, he was never a smoker). After three prolonged operations and a year out of his life, he was the fifth person to survive such an operation -- but with no guarantee he would ever talk above a whisper or that the malignancy would never return. So, I suppose he was looking ahead and figuring he would probably predecease my mother and thus would avoid probate for her. The irony of it all was that while helping me with my wedding plans she was taken ill and died of cancer of the liver three months before my wedding (and no, she never drank -- had no objection to those who did; it just wasn't her 'cup of tea').

Our research on the house led us to believe that the original part of the house was built about 1784. The dimensions were about 16' by 20' which was the norm for a small family dwelling. The Big Room was where the main entrance was and could have been on 34th Street. We used that as our main kitchen. The servant's quarters and garage plus the dining room and smaller kitchen on the floor above were built in 1924 and the larger portion of the house with the higher ceilings in the late Federal or pre-Civil War era, about 1854. Those 4s are firmly planted in my memory. Do you still have the dumbwaiter? The rope only broke once -- of course loaded with a huge dinner about to be served?

I have located three pictures which my son Wick, on whose farm I live, will take into the Crystal City maze where he can have them copied the way you suggested sometime next week. They are the only pictures ever taken of the interior that I'm aware of. Many thanks for the pictures. What happened to the twin crystal chandeliers? Maybe that's why we called it a drawing room.

More later. I'm out of paper and time. Many thanks.

Frances Woolley Robb"

Bro. Boyle promptly wrote her back, thanking her for the offer of the photocopies and asking how the House was used when her family lived there. On May 11 Mrs. Robb wrote:

"Dear Mr. Boyle,

My son had to go out of town this past week on business, so I took matters into my own hands and let my fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages and came up with a savvy gal at a local print shop in nearby Warrenton. She had the very latest Xerox color copier and recommended using it on "Black" since the original photographs were picking up a slightly yellow tinge. She was certainly right because the copies are now far superior to the originals.

I think the one with my sister Florence Woolley was probably the one used by the Post. [Click here to see photograph #1 of Mrs. Robb and her sister.] We have boxes and boxes of tear sheets from literally all over the world [from the time Charles Robb married Lynda Johnson] and many duplicates from Washington since we were living in Milwaukee at the time and old friends and relatives made sure we weren't overlooked. But if you think I'm going to go through them -- think again. The one of me alone under the Girandole mirror shows how high the windows are. [Click here to see photograph #2 of Mrs. Robb.] I was about 5' 5.5" and had on high heels at that time (I've shrunk a bit in my old age).

The third picture is of my husband's youngest sister and her husband, Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd R. Freeman. She thought our wedding was so beautiful in that setting that she asked my father if she could be married there too, whenever she found a husband. Loving parties as my father did, nothing could have made him happier. So she wore my dress and we both wore her older sister's veil (she having been married several months before I and her brother were). I'm sure no professional took the Freeman's picture. They are standing in front of the fireplace in Father's room [now called Ellis Island] at the front of the second floor and little attention was paid to their feet. [Click here to see photograph #3 of Mr. & Mrs. Freeman.]

We're not up with the rest of the world out here in the country, so we're not "online." But my daughter in Vermont is and I'll be visiting her soon and my son Charles says he even has a camera with his [computer]. So he'll attempt to make a copy [of the Delta Phi Epsilon web site's pages on the House] as soon as I send him a copy of your flyer and letter with further instructions. The last time he was in that house he was about two years old and a man with a pony came by asking to take pictures of any children. Charles was in his pj's and bedroom slippers getting ready for breakfast, but his joyful grandfather who had raised four girls grabbed his first grandson and out they flew. I think Charles has that picture. When he was three months old we brought him back to be christened in St. John's Episcopal Church there in Georgetown and Father threw a memorable Christening Party in that house too.

In answer to some of your questions, the one about the previous owners, I'm sorry, but if there was any discussion it wasn't in my presence or I probably didn't pay any attention. I was about fourteen at the time.

No, there was never a fireplace in the room that opened out to the porch. We used it as an upstairs sitting room, except in the hottest part of the summer, when my sisters and I would abandon the third floor and sleep on a sofa that was in there or on folding cots. The porch was screened and we had a good big fan, so it was quite comfortable. When my grandmother, who lived with us, in the other [i.e., the middle] bedroom on the second floor, fell and broke her hip, we bought a hospital bed and put it in the sitting room so she'd be on the same level with the bathroom. She didn't want to stay in the hospital, which at that time was all of one block away, at the corner of 35th and Prospect, so Father had the hospital carpenter come down to our house and build a contraption over the bed so she could have a trapeze to pull herself up with. You understand it wasn't his mother, but my mother's mother, but he loved her dearly. That also required nurses around the clock. She was 89 when she fell; but on her 90th birthday she walked down the stairs to hear Charlie McCarthy on the radio, then walked back up to her room with the comment "Is that what I made all this effort for?" -- and a wry little smile. She later died in that room, as had my mother several years before.

Yes, we used the garage and kept a big old Pierce Arrow in there. I learned to drive with it. Fortunately, traffic wasn't like it is today; but you haven't lived until you drive a monster like that on a rainy day over street car tracks--or snow!

I don't know anything about a waist high fireplace in the basement. Where is it located? There was a fireplace in the [basement] kitchen, but we had a stove sitting in that.

Now tell me something. Is our president Bill Clinton a member of your fraternity? If so, what room did he occupy if he lived there? My sister Florence had the big front room [now called Riverview] on the third floor and mine [now called Charter Room] was right behind with a door between. My oldest sister Marguerite had the small front room [now called Flag Room], but she was seldom home because of her business. My sister Lucy, otherwise known as "Ootie," used both back rooms [on the third floor, now called House Manager's Room and President's Chambers]. She slept in the first one and used the back room for a studio, since she was an artist. I have buried the two older ones, but Florence at 92 is in a nursing home in Tennessee under the care of a devoted stepson. But my children and grandchildren want to know if President Clinton "slept there" and where?

Once again out of space--sincerely,

Frances Robb"