In 1949, Joe Alsop bought a parcel of land in Georgetown and began to build a house in a style he christened “Garage Palladian.” The cinder-block exterior of 2720 Dumbarton Avenue was unprepossessing—its hideousness led to a revision of Georgetown’s building code—but behind the garage-like façade lay an epicure’s delight, rich with Louis Quinze furniture, curious folios, and jade and lacquer from Asia.

The rooms were spacious, their walls painted shades of vermilion and peacock green. Gilded birdcages were suspended from the ceiling, and ancestral faces glowered in their frames on a scene that reproduced—though on a smaller scale—something of the Palladian opulence of the Whig houses of 18th-century England, in the history of which Alsop was well versed.