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Elizabeth Arden Building

Rock Creek Park Trails

Architecture Commerce, Economy & Work Gender, Sexuality & Queerness

The front façade of the building where Elizabeth Arden's Washington DC Red Door Salon was located until 1990.

For 60 years, this six-story Georgian-revival building at 1147 Connecticut Ave. was the home of the Elizabeth Arden Red Door Salon—the place where Washington’s upper-class women would go for facials, massages and other beauty treatments. In fact, when the building was constructed in 1930, the first floor was custom-built to be a salon. This was a first for the company, which had always had to adjust to the spaces it moved into, including the converted residential building that existed on this site before Elizabeth Arden built this grander one. [1]

In 1916, Arden opened her first branch outside of New York City. She likely chose Washington, D.C.’s Connecticut Avenue because, at the time, the street was lined with businesses including tailors, interior decorators, manicurists and hairdressers that provided personal services to affluent patrons. [2] In that way, it resembled New York’s Fifth Avenue, where Arden’s first Red Door Salon opened in 1910.

 

Like the salon, in 1910 the name Elizabeth Arden was new creation, the assumed name of Florence Nightingale Graham. Graham moved to New York City in 1908 from Canada, where she grew up as the daughter of poor British immigrant tenant farmers. [3] She was 24 years old, and she quickly found a job working at the salon of Eleanor Adair, a fellow immigrant who began developing beauty cremes and opening salons at the turn of the 20th century. [4] She started as a receptionist but soon became one of the “treatment girls” that gave clients facials using Adair’s special Ganesh Strapping Muscle Treatment. [5] Advertisements for the treatment in magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar featured illustrations of women wearing a strap under their chin to hold the mouth closed because the treatment was said to invigorate “tired, droopy, depleted muscles and tissues.” [6] Graham would have rubbed clients’ complexions with “the famous Ganesh Eastern Muscle Oil,” which Adair claimed was “so akin to the natural oils of the skin that the tissues rapidly absorb it and are strengthened by it.” [7]

After a year working for and learning from Adair, Graham went into business with a cosmetologist named Elizabeth Hubbard, and they opened a salon together at 509 Fifth Ave. in 1910. The Elizabeth Hubbard Salon was a short-lived venture. By August of that year, the two were in court fighting over the dissolution of the business. [8] Graham eventually bought out Hubbard and changed the salon name to Elizabeth Arden, which—according to her 1966 obituary—was because her favorite poem at the time was Tennyson’s “Enoch Arden.” [9] (For the rest of her life, she responded to both Elizabeth Arden and Elizabeth Graham.)

It was during these years that the American beauty industry as we know it was born. Before the Civil War, wealthy women might have had a hairdresser or other attendants to care for their beauty, limiting the demand for professional beautifiers and negatively associating the work with the vulgar intimacy of personal service. But as women in the late-19th century increasingly began to work for wages to support themselves, many chose to be hairdressers, cosmetologists or cosmetics salespeople. It was through womens’ entrepreneurship that the beauty industry grew from small, local enterprises to large companies with national distribution and advertising that reached women from coast to coast. In Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture, historian Kathy Peiss describes how, "As beauty parlor owners, cosmetics entrepreneurs, and 'complexion specialists’” built their own channels for selling and popularizing products and services, "they diminished Americans' suspicion of cosmetics by promoting beauty care as a set of practices at once physical, individual, social, and commercial” and "transformed the personal cultivation of beauty—the original meaning of the expression 'beauty culture'—into a culture of shared meanings and rituals.” [10]

When the Elizabeth Arden Salon opened, the beauty industry was booming. Between 1890 and 1924, Peiss found that women trademarked 450 beauty preparations—many of which were also patented. [11] Arden’s salon rode this wave of popularity and was part of sustaining it; by 1915, Arden was successful enough that she moved her flagship salon into a larger space at 673 Fifth Ave. [12]

Clearly, it was time to expand. In 1916, Arden opened her first branch location in a converted residential building that used to stand on this site, and soon thereafter, she also opened a branch in Boston. By 1918, Arden had added product sales to her business, expanding her reach beyond her salons into women’s handbags and vanity drawers. The products were packaged in the same pink color as the Elizabeth Arden salons, advertised in the fanciest magazines and sold in glamorous department stores and boutiques, but were priced appropriately for the middle-class woman to take home an experience she might not be able to afford at the salon. [13]

Arden was far from the only woman establishing a beauty empire in the early 20th century. Two Black haircare pioneers, Annie Turnbo Malone and Madame C.J. Walker, grew business empires by training women in how to use their products—Poro and the Walker System, respectively—and then sending them into Black communities to give demonstrations and sell products. [14] Facing racial barriers that white women like Arden did not, Malone and Walker leveraged their trainees’ personal relationships to build distribution networks. Arden and her closest competitor, Helena Rubinstein, also struggled to break into retail, but magazines published their advertisements, and the stores that did give them valuable shelf space did not discriminate against their customers. These limitations forced beauty entrepreneurs to be creative, and in doing so, Peiss argues, "women entrepreneurs made formerly hidden and even unacceptable beauty practices public, pleasurable, and normal.” [15]

Arden was a canny businesswoman, and in 1929 she bought the building at 1147 Connecticut Ave., NW and commissioned an architect, Mott Schmidt, to build the six-story Georgian-revival building that stands to this day. Mott Schmidt had just finished renovating the facade of Elizabeth Arden’s brand-new Fifth Avenue salon and company headquarters at 691 Fifth Ave., and was well known for designing homes for New York City’s elite families. The building’s National Register of Historic Places nomination form records that "Schmidt's design for the 1147 Connecticut Ave. building was an unusual one. Although the building utilized Schmidt's signature Georgian Revival style, it was translated into what was an unusual medium for Schmidt—the tall office form. For inspiration, Schmidt appears to have looked back to Renaissance-era and 18th-century English precedent. The grouping of design elements, for instance, has the feel of a British church steeple.” [16]

What would it have been like to visit this salon back then? When she died in 1966, Arden’s obituary reported that “a basic day” within the spa’s iconic red doors included “exercise, steam cabinet and massage, shampoo, set and restyling, manicure, pedicure, makeup, facial and lunch,” for a cost of “about $50—without tips.”

The salon remained in this location until 1990.

  • [1] National Register of Historic Places, Elizabeth Arden Building, Washington, D.C., National Register #03000778, Section 8, Page 4. Hereafter NRHP.
  • [2] NRHP, Section 8 Page 4.
  • [3] Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 64–6.
  • [4] Victoria Sherrow, “Adair, Eleanor,” in For Appearance' Sake: The Historical Encyclopedia of Good Looks, Beauty, and Grooming (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001), 1; Jone Johnson Lewis, "Biography of Elizabeth Arden, Cosmetics and Beauty Executive,” ThoughtCo, July 14, 2019, https://www.thoughtco.com/elizabeth-arden-biography-3528897.
  • [5] Peiss, Hope in a Jar, 64–6.
  • [6] Advertisement, "Mrs. Adair Holds Precedent in the Scientific Care of the Complexion,” Harper’s Bazaar, December 1916, 148.
  • [7] Advertisement, "Mrs. Adair Ganesh Toilet Preparations,” Harper’s Bazaar, October 1916, 136.
  • [8] “Business Troubles,” The New York Times, August 16, 1910, 10.
  • [9] "Elizabeth Arden Is Dead at 81; Made Beauty a Global Business,” The New York Times, October 19, 1966, 1.
  • [10] Peiss, 61–2.
  • [11] Ibid., 63.
  • [12] "Elizabeth Arden Is Dead at 81"; Advertisement, “I Know Elizabeth Arden Can Help,” Harper’s Bazaar, January 1916, 90; NRHP, Section 8 Page 5.
  • [13] Peiss, 88.
  • [14] Ibid., 67–70, 89–96
  • [15] Ibid., 95.
  • [16] NRHP, Section 8 Page 8.
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