A retired naval commander wanted his grand house in Washington, DC to include decorative motifs that would remind him of his time at sea. Along with the shells, tridents, and fish throughout the building, the architect included a ship’s cat sitting high above the street, on the third floor cornice.
Frederick Augustus Miller (1842-1909) served in the U.S. Navy for most of his life, and was promoted to commander in recognition of his service during the Civil War. After he retired, Commander Miller decided to settle with his family in Washington, DC, and — clearly having another source of funds in addition to his military pension — chose Paul J. Pelz to design a grand house on a prominent site on Massachusetts Avenue.
The Miller Mansion (also known as Argyle House)
Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Pelz, best known as an associate architect of the Library of Congress, concocted a mix of Queen Anne and Romanesque forms, with decorative interior and exterior details — including shells, fish, and tridents — that evoked the sea.
Detail of dining room mantel, showing fish, shell, and trident pattern
Source: Historic American Buildings Survey
The Miller Mansion’s most famous feature is its stone cat, perched atop a third-story cornice near the rear of the house. The vigilant pet is another reference to the Commodore’s seafaring career: ship’s crews have long valued cats because they kill rodents, offer companionship, and can even sense pressure changes that could indicate upcoming storms.
Source: “The Argyle House and Its Cat,” The DC Bike Blogger, July 26, 2016
After Miller died in 1909, the building changed hands several times before becoming a boarding house during the Great Depression. It remained an apartment building for the next fifty years.
A 1984 arson fire ravaged the building, leaving only the masonry shell, and the stone cat fell during the conflagration. The beloved sculpture was found undamaged in the rubble, however, and was reattached as part of the mansion’s restoration. The building now contains nine condominium units.
The Mouse House (former garage)
Photo by Nicolas Veron – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
In 1986, art collector Olga Hirshhorn converted the mansion’s tiny garage — one of the first automobile garages in the city — into a 500-square-foot pied-à-terre. She filled it with hundreds of small works of art, including paintings by de Kooning, Picasso, and O’Keeffe.
Space was so limited that Hirshhorn placed small pre-Columbian and Greek statues in her medicine cabinet and stored flat works in the (unused) oven and dishwasher; she called her diminutive apartment “the Mouse House” in honor of the stone cat overlooking it.
Artist: Sculptor unknown. Architect: Paul J. Pelz
Size: (dimensions unknown)
Location: 2201 Massachusetts Avenue, NW (at 22nd Street), Washington, DC
“The Argyle House and Its Cat,” The DC Bike Blogger, July 26, 2016.
Knight, Carleton, III, “The Argyle,” The Washington Post, May 18, 1986.
Lewis, Jo-Ann, “Home is Where the Art Is,” The Washington Post, July 8, 1995.
“The Mouse House – Art from the Collection of Olga Hirschhorn Set to Open at the Bruce Museum,” Art Daily, March 2008.
Rishing, Erin, Remembering Olga Hirshhorn, Unbound, Smithsonian Libraries, November 20, 2015.
More Information / Sources:
Pendana, Sharon, Secret Washington, D.C., Versailles: JohnGlez Publishing, 2015.