Washington is a town of rituals. Presidential inaugurations. Diplomatic credentialing ceremonies. State funerals. Political life obediently follows prescribed rites. So does social life. And for some of Washington’s oldest families, the first event in their social-liturgical calendar is an antiques show.
Specifically, the Washington Winter Show, which fills three floors of the Katzen Arts Center in Washington’s upper northwest neighborhood with furniture, silver, and rug dealers. Mind you, antique buying is not the order of the night. Nor could many of the guests at last Thursday’s exclusive preview party tell the difference between a Sheraton period and an American Empire sideboard.
“These people? Most of them don’t really know antiques,” one eminent dealer told me, while acknowledging that plenty of them could afford the $22,000 kidney-shaped mahogany Philadelphia buffet standing near him. “This is a party. They’re here to see each other.”
This is as strange as it sounds, to a lot of people who live here and probably more so to anyone who vaguely recalls an appalling couple named Salahi when he hears the words “Washington society.”
But the guests at the show have probably never heard of the notorious White House gate crashers, and they’ve certainly never shared a room with them. They are a subset of a subculture, as rare in the broader life of the city as a pair of pewter asparagus tongs in a food court.
The list of VIP guests was a core sample of Washington’s old-power bedrock—people who trace their lineage here several generations, not to the new tech money of the late ’90s that, credit where it’s due, helped to dramatically broaden the social scene of the city.
“This really is the old guard,” one of the ancient pillars explained after taking a bite of Waldorf salad.
“Who are the oldest families here,” I asked. “Besides yours?”
She paused. “I’d have to think about it. But they’re all here.”
Chief among the VIPs was Ellen Charles, the granddaughter of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, whose lush, sprawling Hillwood estate, is now one of Washington’s few and most beloved private museums.
Charles is a Winter Show fixture, an avid and self-described “undisciplined” acquirer of fine china, and the woman to whom I hitched my wagon because crowds tended to part before her as she moved among the stalls.
In this room, the most important antiques stood on two legs, not four. Old age wasn’t a prerequisite for admission. Members of this club have roots under them, not necessarily years, and I spotted a few young men tucked into smartly cut wool windowpane suits that were probably sewn by their fathers’ tailors. Or his son.
But the old guard rule.
The guest list was toplined by chiseled names you’ve almost certainly never heard of: Chris Camalier, a real-estate developer whose family has been in the Washington area for several generations and developed large office parks; and Cherrie Doggett, of Doggett Enterprises, which established the first parking company in the District, in 1926.
The partygoers belong to an establishment that’s mostly anonymous, at least outside their own circle, and they like to keep it that way.
“They won’t end up in The Washington Post’s ‘Reliable Source’ if they can help it,” Carol Joynt, an inimitable chronicler of Washington, told me. “It’s family money. The people who are here regardless of who’s in the White House, from one administration to another.”
There’s a term long-attached to this stolid strata of Washington, and I’ve never been able to decide if it’s one of affection or abuse: Cave Dwellers. The name is meant to imply, I suppose, longevity—they’ve been here since the beginning, as long as the hills—but also the Dwellers’ reputation for only emerging from their stone-fortified manses in Georgetown or on Foxhall Road to attend a handful of public gatherings, like the Winter Show.
“A really big splashy night out for our Cave Dwellers is the opening of the opera, dinner at the National Gallery of Art, or the State Department (but only in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms),” Joynt once wrote.
Cave Dwellers don’t so much run the city, at least not like before—decades before. It’s more that they… maintain. A presence. A set of habits. A ritual.
The show is also a charitable event, established in 1955 to raise money for at-risk children and families. I’m told that the serious buying happens in the days that follow the previews, after the Champagne and oysters are carted away.
The Winter Show is more like an emergence from social hibernation. It’s the first time many guests have seen each other since the holidays—well, formally anyway. They sipped wine or slurped beef stew and traded the latest gossip—about a bitter property dispute in Georgetown between venture capitalist Mark Ein and the real-estate developers and philanthropists Jane and Calvin Cafritz, or what decorations the new French ambassador has chosen for his residence, which he’ll reopen next month.
But they also traded war stories and reminisced, about happier times when children filled the house and husbands and wives bought antiques together, before one or the other shuffled off.
Like any calendar’s significant events, the show is a marker, both of a moment and its passing. It seems discordant to kick off a season of socializing surrounded by objects whose prior owners have mostly departed from the scene permanently. But then, for the Cave Dwellers, it makes perfect sense. They are, after all, defined by pedigree.
We all are, of course. And the social value of it has been steadily plummeting for years, particularly in Washington. Some younger social people I know are aware of the Winter Show but have never attended the event. It’s not alien to them, but it’s removed. Like an 1830s gondola chair. Pretty to look at it, but impractical for a dinner table.
But what a grand chair. Political winds shift, like taste, but at its roots Washington is a town of living history. Maybe it’s the antiquarian in me, but in the time I’ve been here—a mere 16 years—I’ve always taken comfort in the bedrock beneath my city, and its many layers.