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Charles J. Bell: Family Banker and National Geographic Founder

The thirty-three founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 125th anniversary this series takes a look at their stories.

By Mark Collins Jenkins

Though in no sense an ordinary man, for he was one of early 20th century Washington’s most
successful financiers and wealthiest citizens, Charles J. Bell (1858-1929) was nevertheless ordinary by the standards of his quite extraordinary clan. His first cousin was Alexander Graham Bell, and his uncle was Professor Melville Bell, on whom the playwright George Bernard Shaw modeled the character of Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, better known today through its musical version, My Fair Lady.

Charlie, as the family called him, grew up in a century-old house on Kildare Place, in the very heart of Georgian Dublin several blocks north of St. Stephen’s Green. But he had hardly finished his studies at Wesley College when in 1873 his parents pulled up stakes and emigrated to Canada.

Two years later, at Christmas dinner, Charles’ cousin, Alexander (or Alec, as he was known to the family) arrived with news of his betrothal to one of his students, Mabel Hubbard, who also happened to be the daughter of his chief financial backer. Around a dining room table groaning with turkey and goose and plum pudding, Alec passed around pictures of the Hubbard family. Charlie stared at the portrait of Roberta, Mabel’s spirited and mischievous younger sister, for a full five minutes. As Alec informed his fiancée the next day, Charlie then “remarked—in the most matter-of-fact way in the world—that he had often wished to see Boston—and that he thought he would ask a holiday from his Bank and run down to pay me a visit soon!”

However, nearly five years elapsed before Charles headed to Washington, where Alec and Mabel were now living during the winter months. The new Bell Telephone Company was taking off, and since the families’ fortunes were soaring with it, Charles served as Alec’s secretary until he could be slotted into the business. Alec found him to be “very clever,” and Mabel took an instant liking to the “good kind gentle boy” with the ready laugh. So did Roberta, who cocked her hat at the young man with the black hair and dark flashing eyes of the Bells.

But her father, it seems, did not take to him, at least not right away. Gardiner Greene Hubbard was a canny patent attorney who had spent most of his career chasing grandiose dreams and never quite catching up to them, until, that is, his prospective son-in-law invented the telephone. Now here was another charming but penniless Bell snooping around his daughter Roberta. Hubbard apparently reacted to the news that the two young people had fallen in love by ordering Charlie out of the house. As he got to know the young man, however, he saw in him everything that Alec was not. Where Alec hated business and would have let everything go had it not been for Hubbard’s efforts to file the patents and set up the companies, Charlie knew the value of a dollar. Where Alec was emotionally volatile, Charlie was eminently practical. He was a born banker.

He was also a hard worker. In 1880, after journeying to Paris with Alec and Mabel, where the older of the two cousins accepted the Volta Prize, established by Napoleon and only awarded twice, Charles remained in Europe to help Hubbard set up branches of the Bell Telephone Company. In 1881, after Hubbard finally admitted that this was one Bell who was a man after his own heart, Charles returned to Washington. He promptly established the banking house of Bell & Company and then married Roberta.  Unfortunately she died in childbirth in 1885; a couple of years later, Charles up and married his sister-in-law, Grace, who was Hubbard’s remaining unwed daughter.  The old Boston Brahmin lost three of his four girls to a Bell.

The Bell and Hubbard families were thus tightly knit together when on one January night in 1888 Charles made his way through a freezing drizzle to the Cosmos Club on Lafayette Square. There seems no particular reason why he would attend a meeting to discuss establishing a society of geography other than his father-in-law’s prominent role in organizing it. Though he had grown up in Ireland, lived in Canada, and traveled a bit on the Continent, Charles does not seem to have closely followed the work of the government’s scientific bureaus or been a devotee of travel and exploration literature.

But attend he did and was several weeks later elected treasurer of the new National Geographic Society, while Hubbard became its first president. The two men would remain in their respective posts for the next ten years, until Hubbard’s death in December 1897. Charles would remain a member of the Society’s board until his own death four decades later.

While Charles was busy with his business career, Alec had been persuaded to accept the presidency of the National Geographic Society upon Hubbard’s death. His five-year tenure may have been brief but it was pivotal.

This photo of Hubbard Memorial Hall, taken by the Leet Brothers, appeared in the April 1904 edition of the magazine.

One important outcome was his determination to provide the footloose Society, which had drifted from one set of rented quarters to another, with a permanent headquarters building. Much of that burden fell on Charles. It was Charles who secured the property at the corner of 16th and M Streets, Charles who probably contracted with the architectural firm of Hornblower and Marshall, (designer of many of Washington’s stateliest houses), and Charles who helped fund the cost of the building-—duly christened Hubbard Memorial Hall–in honor of his father-in-law.

Thanks to his behind-the-scenes efforts, the city acquired some of its most notable architecture. As president of American Security and Trust, he financed the construction of the National Cathedral, the Lincoln Memorial, and George Washington University’s relocation to Foggy Bottom in 1912. And the city’s leading developer, Harry Wardman, borrowed the necessary funds to build the storied, one-thousand-room Wardman Park on Connecticut Avenue.

The years rolled on with Bell growing thickset and silver replacing the black in his hair, but he was still Charlie in the family, still wore the muttonchop whiskers popular when he and Alec were young.  Charles J. Bell died on October 2nd, 1929, at the age of 71, three weeks before the stock market crashed, bringing on the Great Depression.