Home & Design

Georgetown House Tour: I Spy!


IMAGINE YOU’RE a homeowner, in this case in the historic Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., and a neighborly couple ask if you would allow your house to be included on the annual house tour. Well, you probably know that the Georgetown House Tour, in its 85th year, is thought to be the oldest of its kind in the country—so you’re flattered. And, for heaven’s sake, the co-chairs are superstars: He’s a former astronaut and she’s an active volunteer in several local charities!

So you say yes. And then you look around your house and start noticing all the nicks and scratches and the little projects you were planning to get to but haven’t yet. And what on earth are you going to do about all that dog hair!?

Owners of the 10 or so houses on the annual Georgetown House Tour are a special breed. They’ll do the  buffing and polishing and landscaping (and even more extensive work) needed to let their houses glow under the scrutiny of some 1,000 to 1,200 visitors who tramp through the main-level rooms. Some will be old hands, in historical houses that are intrinsically interesting and have been on the tour a number of times over the years, while others will be first-timers, not used to the glare of publicity. And one couple showed their last residence on the 2013 tour and now, having moved, are allowing their new house to be shown.

Mind you, these owners won’t even get to see the crowds and hear their murmurs of approval as they shuffle through the living rooms and kitchens, feet swaddled in booties to protect historic old soft-pine floors. They’ll be off at the movies, or visiting friends who can give them a place to spend all of Saturday, April 23, from 11am to 5pm.

In my 30 years in Georgetown I always assumed that the House Tour, a creature of St. John’s Episcopal Church on O Street NW, had a kind of permanent committee, that they would select a chair—in this year’s case, a husband-and-wife co-chair team—and use them as glamorous figureheads. Turns out, not really.

Co-chair Jill Altman explains that she and her husband, Capt. Scott Altman, veteran of four NASA space flights, really did have to line up the houses. But they weren’t left on the own. They got a lot of help from architects and designers who of course welcomed the attention to their design work. Dale Overmyer, Douglas Rixey, Outerbridge Horsey and Christian Zapatka were architects they mentioned. And of course there was Frank Babb Randolph, Georgetown resident and godfather of the local design scene, giving guidance all the way.

The results of all this planning can be seen on Saturday.

There’s a lovely Victorian that suffered a terrible fire only to reemerge better than ever,  including a meditative garden designed Georgetown landscape architect Stephanie Bothwell. The only remnant of the owners’ book collection after the fire was a charred cover of a Penguin paperback of “Faust.” The book cover was framed and now hangs in the house.

One of the earlier houses reveals a very modern collection of art and furniture behind its clapboard facade. A late-19th-century “double house” belongs to a Georgetown University dean and sees more than 50 events a year. A large 1811 Federal row house has been lovingly restored by a couple who consider themselves “stewards” of the historic property.

There’s more to the houses than age (and in fact some are not all that old); tour-goers will see lots of updated kitchens and mud rooms and new pantries. And they’ll see houses that remain lively and vibrant and are real homes to their owners, dog hair and all.

—Nancy McKeon

The  Georgetown House Tour takes place Saturday, April 23, from 11am to 5 pm. Tickets are $55 on tour day and can be purchased  at the ticket tent at St. John’s Church, 3240 O Street NW, Washington, D.C. Ticket price includes afternoon tea and refreshments  at the St. John’s Parish Hall. You can also purchase tickets online through today, for $50, here. Tickets purchased online will have to be picked up at the ticket tent.

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