By Frank Leone
The impressive Second Empire style brick house with a mansard roof at 20th and G Streets is the former home of Presidential aid Major Archibald Butt and painter/architect Francis Millett – who died together on the Titanic – Alabama politician and Presidential candidate Oscar Underwood, and the Washington College of Law, the nation’s first co-educational law school founded and administered by women. The house became a registered national historic landmark in 1976.
In the post-Civil War period, the eastern part of Foggy Bottom attracted wealthy residents who built stylish single-family houses. The “Underwood House” was built in 1875 for Albert A. Wilson, a friend of President Grover Cleveland, who Cleveland appointed to serve as U.S. Marshall for D.C. in 1885-1886 and 1894-98.
The house was purchased by Major “Archie” Butt (1865-1912) and by 1910, he shared it with Frank Millet. They were well known in D.C. political and social circles and threw large parties at the house attended by Congress, Supreme Court Justices, and President Taft. It’s not certain, but letters and other evidence suggests the two men were romantically involved.
Butt was originally a journalist and worked at the American Embassy in Mexico. He joined the U.S. Army at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, serving in both the Philippines and Cuba, and becoming a presidential military aid to Theodore Roosevelt. He continued in that role and became close friends with President Taft.
Francis Davis “Frank” Millet (1848 -1912) was a celebrated American painter, sculptor, and journalist. He had served as a drummer boy and surgical assistant to his father in the Civil War, studied art at Harvard, then worked as an international reporter. Millet served as the decorations and functions director for the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, possibly inventing spray painting. He was a founding member and vice chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, serving from 1910 until his death.
In 1912, Butt was dismayed by the Presidential contest between Roosevelt and Taft. Millet arranged for him to take an official trip to Europe, including a visit with the Pope. Their return trip was on the Titanic and they went down with the ship on April 15, 1912. Believed to be the only officials of the United States who perished aboard the Titanic, Congress authorized the construction of a memorial in their honor. The Butt-Millet Memorial Fountain stands south of E Street, the first memorial built on the Ellipse. Sculpted by Daniel Chester French, it bears a relief of a military figure representing Major Butt and an artist representing Mr. Millet.
Oscar Underwood (1862-1929) lived in the house from 1914 to 1925. A lawyer, he served as a Congressman from Alabama from 1895-1923, and as Democratic Party leader in both the House and the Senate. He sought the Democratic Party nomination in 1912 and 1924, falling short both times In 1924, he attacked the Ku Klux Klan and his effort to denounce that organization by name in the Democratic platform was defeated (by a single vote). He retired to Woodlawn Plantation (in Fairfax County VA) in 1926 and died there in 1929.
In 1924, the building housed the Washington College of Law, the first coeducational law school established by women in the United States. Lawyers Ellen Spencer Mussey and Emma Gillett had founded the school in 1898. Gillett had graduated from Howard Law School, which was the only DC law school accepting women. The law school merged with American University in 1949 and remained at the Underwood House until 1952, when it transferred to the AU campus. Some of the school’s many early female graduates were active in the women’s suffrage movement and the School’s success encouraged other law schools to admit women (which GWU did in 1913).
GWU occupied the building at least from the early 1960s, where it housed the Art Department, a journalism center, and now the GWU Law School’s Jacob Burns Community Legal Clinic.
Sources: DC Preservation League, “Underwood House,” https://historicsites.dcpreservation.org/items/show/614; Gilliam Brockell, “Two prominent men died on the Titanic. Were they secretly a couple?,” Washington Post, August 7, 2022,https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2022/08/07/francis-millet-archibald-butt-titanic/; Annie Hollmuller, “A Sympathy of Mind Which Is Most Unusual: Two Men on the Titanic,” WETA Boundary Stones, Feb. 14, 1018, https://boundarystones.weta.org/2018/02/14/sympathy-mind-which-most-unusual-two-men-titanic; FBA History Project, https://www.foggybottomassociation.org/history-project.