Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee bought the Federal-style
Laird-Dunlop house in 1983.
“Decorating should be appropriate,” says Sally Quinn, seated in the living room of her 18th-century home in Georgetown. “I never understand people who say, ‘I wanted my house to look like an English country house or I wanted it to look like a barn.’ For me, this is a Federal house, not a museum, and I don’t live in it like it’s a museum.”
Quinn, former Washington Post Style reporter and now the Post’s blogger on religion (“On Faith” with Jon Meacham), and her husband, Ben Bradlee, retired executive editor of The Washington Post, have lived in their eight-bedroom mansion for 25 years. They bought the Laird-Dunlop House when their only child, Quinn, was one; he’s now 26 and, with four roommates, occupies the attached five-bedroom home next door.
Although Sally Quinn resists the museum label, her home is a repository of history. Built in the late 1700s for John Laird, a Scottish merchant, it was inherited by his son-in-law, Judge Dunlop. From 1915 until his death in 1926, Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of President Abraham Lincoln, owned the home. When his daughter married, Robert Todd Lincoln built a five-bedroom house next door for her. It is now home to Quinn Bradlee and company.
“The house was in good shape when we bought it,” says Sally Quinn. “We renovated the kitchen and made one bedroom into a master bath and dressing room.” The Bradlees’ greatest challenge was merging the mansion’s past with their own heritage. Descended from the Crowninshields of Massachusetts, Ben Bradlee has deep roots in pre-Revolutionary New England; Sally Quinn, a self-professed “army brat,” was raised all over the world. Both Quinn and Bradlee have extensive collections of travel mementos and gifts from decades-long friendships. The Laird-Dunlop House displays the skeins of their entwined histories. Every side table holds a story; every wall has a painting or article with meaning.
Quinn chose, arranged and, in some cases, designed the objects in her home. “There’s a high and low of decorating,” she says. “Everything doesn’t have to be precious.” She culled a small vase in the living room from Grey Gardens, the 1897 East Hampton property formerly owned by Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (aka “Big Edie”) and her daughter, “Little Edie” Bouvier, that she and Bradlee bought and restored as a vacation home in 1979. In the living room, a long table, made from a tree Bradlee felled in the woods, is topped by family photos, a model of a World War II destroyer, wooden press type from The Washington Post and two lamps fashioned from bottles purchased at Pier One. Over the table is a huge, elaborately painted oyster shell.
“My family and I were living in Japan right after World War II,” recalls Quinn. “A priest came by on a donkey cart and said he was hungry and asked if could he get some food. He was almost dying. He stayed with us for several weeks and this [shell] was the only thing he had rescued from his temple. When he left, he gave it to us.” Gesturing around the room, Quinn points out an impressionist painting by a Whistler protégé over one of the living room’s two marble mantels, a bowl filled with decorative brass balls from a trip to Peru, Canton china (“We have barrels of it. It was used as ballast by shippers.”) from the Bradlee family, a box that contained a necklace that George Crowninshield gave to his lover Pauline Bonaparte, and everywhere quilts, pillows and fabric that Quinn has collected.
The enormous double living room, with its original moldings and large Palladian windows, is unified by an unusually deep shade of rose. “I mixed the wall color myself and it took me a week,” says Quinn. “I wanted the perfect color that makes everyone look beautiful at night. My painter calls it ‘Quinn Rose.’” She says that people drive by, see the color through the windows and drop a note through the mail slot requesting the name.
In the foyer are portraits of Bradlee’s ancestors, Josiah and Lucy Bradlee. The Gilbert Stuart originals are with relatives; these paintings were executed by an expert copyist from the National Gallery. Before moving on to the dining room, Quinn pauses at the staircase, “I don’t walk down those stairs without thinking of the people who lived here before.”
The dining room, east of the foyer, is papered in a fanciful pattern of birds in flight. Quinn found old pictures of the wallpaper from Bradlee’s mother’s New England home and had Gracie Studio in New York duplicate it. The dining room chairs are copies; the originals by Samuel McIntire were donated to the State Department. Adjacent to the dining room is the library, the heart of the home of two bibliophiles. The built-in bookcases were custom made by previous owners and Quinn and Bradlee have filled every shelf.
Quinn chose, arranged and, in some cases, designed the objects in her home; she even mixed the living room's deep rose-colored paint herself. "There's a high and low of decorating," she says. "Everything doesn't have to be precious." Their collections spill over into each of their studies. Bradlee’s workspace is crowded with memorabilia from his days at the Post; Quinn’s cozier space has four Andy Warhol collage portraits of her hanging above the sofa. The Pop artist also painted Quinn twice in oils; Bradlee and Quinn own all six versions. To the right of the fireplace is a small sampler that reads, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” a gift from their late friend Art Buchwald. “That’s the motto in this family,” says Quinn.
Typical of Georgetown, the front entrance of the Laird-Dunlop House is sited right on the street. But the rear of the house reveals a covered porch filled with wicker furniture and ferns, an English garden and beyond, a pool and tennis court. Although the Bradlee family spends every weekend at their riverfront country thome, Porto Bello, in St. Mary’s County, and the entire month of August at Grey Gardens in East Hampton, the porch and gardens are built for entertaining.
Sally Quinn says that comfort is her most important design consideration. “I want every room to be a living room.” She pauses and then explains, “There is nothing in any room where a guest couldn’t take off his shoes and curl up…Every room should be a living room.”
Frequent contributor Alice Leccese Powers is editor of six anthologies for Vintage/Random House including the recently released Spain in Mind. Photographer Lydia Cutter is based in McLean, Virginia.