William Penn House History

A Brief History of William Penn House

In 1964 the Friends Meeting of Washington formed a committee to seek a property on Capitol Hill to provide lodging and seminars for Quaker activists working with Friends Committee on National Legislation. Working with Ed Snyder of FCNL and Bob and Sally Cory of the Quaker United Nations Office they found the appropriate property in 1966.

The property, located at 515 East Capitol Street SE was built in 1917 by Joseph Herbert as a residence and business. The family lived on the top three floors with the business occupying the first floor. The Herbert family owned and occupied the house until about 1963.  Located 5 blocks east of the Capitol and within a short walk to the FCNL offices, the property met the needs of the search committee.

At Friends Meeting of Washington, in its May 1966 Monthly Meeting, the meeting approved the purchase which met “the need for a Quaker House in Capitol Hill, which they are now asking the Meeting to sponsor.” Bob and Sally Cory, ready to leave the UN, were available to “host visitors and serve as coordinator of the Seminar Program.” The price was $65,000, the majority covered by a gift from an anonymous donor. The meeting named the property the William Penn House.

Bob and Sally Cory stayed as Directors until 1977 when Sally wanted to retire.   Until then they had lived at WPH with their family. In 1977, they moved to their own house in the 600 block of E. Capitol Street. Bob continued to work, 4/5 of his time on WPH programs and 1/5 at FCNL.

While she was there, Sally cooked, directed, worked, and oversaw a perpetually changing crew of helpers and a great variety of guests. Some had their own agendas; others needed Bob’s help in developing programs. The basement of the house was used for sleeping space and at times sleeping bags were spread on the conference room floor.

The Board (successor to the FMW Committee) tried to continue in the Cory tradition—a simulated family setting with food, hospitality, and meaningful activities.  The House continued to serve three meals a day to guests until 1986 or 87. Volunteers, students, and others, including some from the peace church service groups, did some of the housework.

During the years between 1983 and 1987 the numbers of people using the house for overnights and seminars increased steadily, PENN NOTES was developed as a newsletter. 

The DC government knocked on the door, responding to a complaint from a neighbor that William Penn House was an illegal “bed and breakfast.”  The DC Government authorities determined that WPH was a Rooming/Boarding House, requiring a Certificate of Occupancy and a business license. Furthermore, it was necessary to renovate the building to meet Rooming/Boarding House standards. The cost of the renovations was $85,000.

Problems were compounded by the necessity to close the House to guests for three months to accomplish the renovations, interrupting the schedule of seminars, sending regular guests elsewhere, and generating doubt about the future of WPH.

The list of groups participating in the seminar programs has expanded steadily since the 1988 closing. FCNL committees often use the house for meetings, as do other Quaker organizations, and other church groups, especially the traditional peace churches, their leaders, and their seminarians. A variety of peace and social justice groups such as Amnesty International, Mercy Corps International, the Botswana Dance Troup, and Veterans for Peace have been paying patrons in our spaces.

In 1993 the Board adopted new By-laws and Articles of Incorporation, then filed for and was granted independent incorporated status in the District of Columbia. The House received IRS status as a non-profit educational organization (501(c) (3)) and the Friends Meeting of Washington Trustees transferred the property to the WPH Corporation.

During the past decade, the deferred maintenance has been addressed with each room being painted warm and inviting colors, with new furniture, ceiling fans and refinished floors. In addition to the physical upgrades, the programs have expanded. In 2005William Penn Quaker Workcamps (Washington Quaker Workcamps) became a program of William Penn House. The internship program has grown and matured and the William Penn House has become a source of program innovation and energy.