Colorful fish on the tiles and 50 volumes of the Journal of Biological Chemistry to peruse (while otherwise occupied) in an upper floor bathroom, a winding grand entrance hall and staircase, elegant marble fireplaces (and a decorative half-round window) in some of the offices and meeting rooms, and beautiful gardens and grounds, gloriously in bloom with dogwood and azaleas … all this is a part of Beaumont House, the mansion and grounds that were the home of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology for over 50 years and that I visited on the last Saturday in April. In the following week, the moving vans rolled up to the front door, and the society decamped for more modern digs a few miles farther north on Rockville Pike, leaving the only permanent home it had ever known.
As Barbara Gordon, executive director and by far the member of the ASBMB staff with the most memories (she started with the society in 1972), took me on a poignant tour of some of the more obscure corners of the building, I was struck by the many meetings and activities of historical interest that had transpired there and the myriad scientists of renown who had been involved with them. During the society’s occupancy, biochemistry and later molecular biology experienced nearly exponential growth, becoming arguably the central sciences of biological research (1).
Beaumont House was also the home of the Journal of Biological Chemistry during all those years, and it enjoyed the same growth and expansion as the society. Indeed, it was, in the end, a need for more room that really necessitated the move to a space designed for modern office practices and needs. Nostalgia aside, the old house and outbuildings were built for residential purposes, and converting them to office space had produced some interesting compromises that sadly no longer suited the society’s needs. As we wandered down the narrow back staircase originally intended for use by servants or stuck our heads in various closets and crawl spaces, it was much easier to imagine it as a setting for some “dark and stormy night” thriller than the home of a learned society.
The Acquisition of the Hawley Estate by APS
The Hawley mansion was the centerpiece of a nearly 40-acre estate located on Rockville Pike less than a mile north of the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md. (Fig 1). It was designed by Irwin S. Porter and erected in 1929. The purchase of the Hawley estate and its conversion to a campus home for societies with biological and biomedical interests were mainly due to the efforts of Milton O. Lee, an individual prominent in the history of both the American Physiological Society and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (2).
Lee was hired by APS in 1947 as the managing editor of publications and as executive officer of that society. At the same time, APS and the federation moved their offices into space at the National Academy Building on Constitution Avenue at no cost, due largely to the generosity of Detlev Bronk, president of the academy and a member of APS. As a result, Lee also became executive secretary of FASEB.
However, the academy soon decided to collect rent ($12,000/year), and this concerned both organizations. Accordingly, the APS formed a Committee on Society Headquarters and began to look for a permanent home elsewhere. It apparently was the intention of the committee to locate the offices in central Washington (convenient to Union Station and eventually National – now Reagan – Airport), but it was largely stymied by limited options and high prices.