THE PRIVATE MUSEUMS - The Phillips Collection


Among dozens of spectacular national museums and galleries in Washington, DC  there are a number of exquisite private museums not to miss, each with a unique back story.


Major Duncan Phillips, “a window glass millionaire” and Civil War veteran, moved with his wife, the former Eliza Laughlin, whose father was a banker and co-founder of the Jones and Laughlin steelworks, and their two sons, James and Duncan, from Pittsburg into a red brick Georgian Revival mansion in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC, built in 1897 by architects Hornblower & Marshall.  James and Duncan inherited their father’s love of art and added purchases to their family’s growing collection.  They received an annual “collecting allowance” of $10,000. from their father with which they bought the modern works they both fancied.


Major Phillips sudden death in 1917 followed by James succumbing to influenza in 1918 devastated both Mrs. Phillips and Duncan.  Searching for a way to memorialize them, Duncan, by now a published art critic, decided to display the family’s art collection and establish The Phillips Memorial Art Museum in their home.  With the help of his wife, the artist Marjorie Acker, he opened the Museum in 1921 as “a memorial, a beneficent force in the community where I live, a joy-giving, life-enhancing influence, assisting people to see beautifully as true artists see”.


Duncan Phillips became the Museum’s director and, with his wife, continued to develop the collection of what was the first museum in the United States dedicated solely to modern and contemporary art.  Equal focus is given to European and American artists whose works hang in intimate fashion on the walls of the vast home.  The venue makes works by the “greats” such as Vincent van Gogh, Honore Daumier, Georgia O’Keeffe, Milton Avery, Paul Cezanne, Willem de Kooning and Pierre-Auguste Renoir more accessible.  The Mark Rothko room is stunning.


Phillips was director of the museum until his death in 1966.  The years following his demise were not kind to the museum.  Despite having enlarged the mansion by additions over the years and grown its collection, with no one at the helm the museum became dilapidated and in great need of restoration.


Rescue came from the Phillips’ son, Laughlin Phillips, formerly with the CIA and co-founder of the Washingtonian magazine.  Under his directorship the museum was given a new lease on life with the buildings renovated and re-named The Phillips Collection.  The Library and archives were expanded and additions to the collection included works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Pierre Bonnard, Morris Louis, and Jackson Pollock. 


The Phillips Collection today has some 2500 items, a Center for the Study of Modern Art, a “Conversations with Artists” series, lectures, and concerts in the music room. 


Tues– Sat: 10:00AM- 5:00PM/ Thurs: 5:00PM – 8:30PM   Sun: 11:00AM – 6:00PM

1600 21st Street NW, Washington, DC   Tel: (202) 387- 2151



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