Home & Design

One More (Delightful) Georgetown Mystery

WHEN JOHN and Michelle Korsmo first entered the Georgetown row house they now call home, the first thing they did was look up. And up.

Twelve-foot ceilings will do that to a homebuyer. “The door opened and we just looked up and said, yes!” the couple call out, almost in unison. And in the year or so they’ve been in the house, they still find that the ceilings, plus the sky-high windows front and back, are their favorite features of the house.

Of course, their three young daughters have another favorite feature: the dungeon!

Well, says one daughter, it can’t really be a dungeon because it doesn’t have any chains from which to hang people on the walls. But what it is is a mystery: a barrel-vaulted brick room underneath not the house but what is now the rear terrace. So, a 15-foot-long solid-brick  vaulted arch holding up . . . nothing.

There may have been a different building on the property before the Korsmos’ N Street house was built in the 1870s, and perhaps it stood over the vaulted room. But until plat maps are scanned or psychics consulted, the earlier life of this piece of Georgetown’s East Village will remain a mystery.

And it’s a mystery that will be shared with the hundreds of people who will tramp through  Georgetown on Saturday, April 28 for the 87th edition of the Georgetown House Tour, one of the oldest such tours in the country.
The Korsmos’ house is one of eight homes that will be on display for the tour.
No one else has a dungeon. Nonetheless, the other houses will live up to Michelle Korsmo’s sense of Georgetown as a kind of  Wonderland, with all of us being Alice: A passerby has no idea what lies behind the neighborhood’s stately doors and facades—a tiny-fronted house opens up into a broad rear sunroom and garden, another house processes from the front door, through the parlor, through the dining room . . . through the kitchen . . . through the old sleeping porch . . . and finally to the back yard, where there might be a gazebo or, more mundane but practical, a carport.
The Korsmos are following what I’ve come to think of as a fine old Georgetown tradition: house-hopping. They used to live in a smaller house, on P Street, but the siren call of real estate—and three daughters ages 10, 8 and 6—led them to this new address. And the homeowners who sold it to them? They’ve moved on to yet another Georgetown house, on nearby Q Street. And it’s also on the Tour!
In another Georgetown tradition, the Korsmo house is no mere showpiece. Yes, it has a handsome interior, which designer Colman Riddell helped pull together. But the house also is well used, every inch of it. Michelle is just back from work—she’s CEO of the American Land Title Association—and we’re chatting in the sitting room with the Tour’s media liaison, C.C. Christakos, and Kelly Stavish (and, for a moment or two, Kelly’s House Tour co-chair Hannah Isles—these women are busy!).
Meanwhile, John Korsmo, who is retired and has taken on full-time daughter-wrangling duties, is doling out dinner to the girls in the dramatic book-lined black-enameled dining room, which gets serious use several times a day. Out in the hallway, dangling over the staircase bannister, is a nylon bucket on a rope, the girls’ way of efficiently ferrying toys and such between the house’s three main levels. Even the “dungeon” gets used, once for guests for candle-lit cocktails before dinner and, coming this fall, a Harry Potter birthday party. So, yes, every nook and cranny of this stately old place is in full use.
The House Tour, which raises funds for the local ministries of St. John’s Church, Georgetown’s first Episcopal congregation, will include seven other houses, some big, some small, all interesting. After all, this is Wonderland.
—Nancy McKeon
Georgetown House Tour: Tickets are $50 and can be purchased in advance or on Tour day at St. John’s Church, 3240 O Street NW, Washington, DC 20007. Purchase price includes the Parish Tea, from 2 to 5pm.  


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