clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Girl Scouts model home that charmed the nation

This 1920s-built model middle-class house captivated the nation with the dream of homeownership

All photos via Library of Congress’s Harris & Ewing collection

During the 1920s, Washington, D.C., became a type of World’s Fair for new ideas. Among museums and monuments, tourists also enjoyed the exhibits put together by the nonprofits of the area. One exhibit created for the Better Homes Movement, which responded to the growing need for middle-class housing in the United States, saw a model middle-class home unveiled on the grounds of the White House in 1923.

Among the over 3,000 visitors to the house over the next nine months was Lou Henry Hoover, potentially one of the most interesting women in history and one of the founding mothers of the Girl Scouts. She intended to turn the house into an all-purpose Girl Scouts training area.

By the early 1920s, she had already traveled from San Francisco to Shanghai, witnessed the Boxer Rebellion with her husband and future President Herbert Hoover, learned Mandarin, mastered Latin, helped hide Belgian refugees during World War I, and received high honors from King Albert I of Belgium for her work. She then turned her full attention to the Girl Scouts.

“Lou Henry Hoover is the second most important Girl Scout after Juliette Gordon Low, our founder,” says Ann Robertson, historian for the Girl Scouts. She runs Girl Scout History, a website that follows the rise of Girl Scouts culture in the United States. Low had recruited Hoover in 1917. Afterwards, her recruit went on to mold the image of the Girl Scouts. “She established the administrative foundation of the Girl Scouts and brought in professionals with career backgrounds,” says Robertson.

“She wanted to turn [the house] into a laboratory of future homemaking,” says Robertson. Surreally, the design that now seems synonymous with the suburbs was once such seen as as a symbol of luxury and of the future.

The house was a meticulous copy of the Long Island home of playwright John Howard Payne, whose song “Home Sweet Home” had been charming audiences with the idea of homeownership since it was written 10 years prior. Seemingly, the model home, then called the Home Sweet Home Demonstration House, served as a type of retroactive proof of concept. The house that had inspired “Home Sweet Home” would become the future for the middle class. Three bedrooms, a kitchen, and a nursery completed the home.

When it came to acquiring the house for the Girl Scouts, according to Robertson, Hoover had two things going in her favor. First, the White House had been fielding letters from people who wanted the house removed.

“They had [originally] had a permit to keep it up for a week, and people wanted to get this house off the National Mall,” says Robertson. The second reason was Hoover’s husband was the secretary of commerce: “Government contracts were within his department. Hoover was in charge of permits.”

All Hoover would need to do was to pay to have it moved. The problem was the Girl Scouts organization couldn’t support her financially.

“The Girl Scouts had not planned on this happening,” Robertson says. “They had no money to move it or a place to put it.” Eventually, Hoover would convince them to accept it as a gift in 1924.

She oversaw the building elevated and put on rails. The house was then attached to hefty mules, which pulled it to its new location at 1750 Street NW across from the Octagon Building in Foggy Bottom. As quickly as it was placed, now under Girl Scouts management, the house became a political tool.

“The Girl Scouts were heavily involved in the relief effort following World War I,” says Robertson. Politicians were eager to interact with and have their photos taken with the Girl Scouts. Plus, it didn’t hurt that the Girl Scouts were such great cooks.

“Girl Scouts cooked Thanksgiving dinner for Calvin Coolidge and his family,” says Robertson. “Eleanor Roosevelt would pick up fresh dinner rolls.”

The house also became a hub for Girl Scouts troops that came through D.C. “Troops would go there and practice their housekeeping skills,” says Robertson.

Due to the success of the home, Hoover began envisioning houses like the one in Washington, D.C., helping troops across the continental U.S., and commissioned a dollhouse version of the house, which would tour the country.

Even though Hoover died in 1944, the house stayed open until the 1970s. By that time, it had been turned into offices for the National Girl Scouts. After so many years, the model building was showing signs of degradation, and one day, “it more or less fell down,” says Robertson. After the collapse of the house, most Girl Scouts offices were moved back to the headquarters in New York.

Nevertheless, the touring Doll House had already succeeded in its mission, and Girl Scouts houses were cropping up across the nation.

“Existing buildings were donated to the Girl Scouts,” says Robertson. Communities were happy to give give their local Girl Scouts troop a place to practice their skills.

While most of these houses have also been torn down, the occasional Girl Scouts house can be seen in Kansas and Pennsylvania. “By updating housing, they hoped to raise healthier kids,” says Robertson.

According to A New Neighbor to the White House, a pamphlet made and circulated shortly after the inauguration of the Home Sweet Home House in June 1923, “When President [Warren G.] Harding stood in a beautiful doorway of the Model House at Washington, he made his last address directed especially to the women of America.” Most of those in attendance were members of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, who had commissioned the house.

President Harding’s address inaugurating the Home Sweet Home Demonstration House began, “The home is at last not merely the center, but truly the aim, the object, and the purpose of all human organization,” as he welcomed tourists to enter the house and imagine the role homeowners would play in a large mission for the country. “We do not seek to improve society in order that from better homes we may bring forth better servants of the State, or efficient cannon fodder for its armed forces; rather we seek to make better homes in order that we may avoid the necessity for conflict and turmoil.”

The speech itself made its own nationwide tour as part of the Better Homes movement. In the July 1923 issue of the Southern Pacific Bulletin, Harding is quoted under a larger heading that reads, “He Profits Most Who Invests In A Home.”

President Warren G. Harding and his wife outside the Girl Scouts House.